A celebration of oceans, lakes, and rivers, in which the invariably submerged David Handelman explains his lifelong passion for getting wet.(PLUS) River trips, hotel pools, and waterfalls.

1 Happiness for me has always been measured by proximity to water. This despite the fact that my earliest, strongest memory involves a water trauma. As a tubby pre-swimmer, floating in a neighbor's backyard pool on a lounge chair with Styrofoam arms, I leaned over too far, plummeted into the depths, and was retrieved by my mother.

Ever since, I've apparently been trying to re-create that primal plunge. The first broaching of the water's surface—an initiating cannonball off the Kamp Kohut pier into the frigid stillness of Maine's pine-lined Lake Thompson, a full-bore run into the turbulent Jersey surf at the crack of Memorial Day weekend—signals the opening of the season. I'm not the kind to lie on the sand and jump in just to cool off: I soak first, and dive until I'm wrinkled, winded, or nearly hypothermic.

So many find the sheer vista of oceans, lakes, and rivers to be balm for their souls. But for my true nirvana, I require immersion—total immersion, not a casual ankle wade. In the water, you shed the encumbrances of the world. You flirt with the Zen of the isolation tanks William Hurt sampled in Altered States. This is no unhappy drenching by a November rain; you're wet by choice. It's like an endless shower in which you don't have to scrub or shave (or flinch when someone flushes a nearby toilet).

My dowsing gene was inherited—I'm the child of poolaholics. My parents, after successfully lobbying my hometown of Scarsdale, New York, for a municipal pool complex, experienced such severe post-Labor Day withdrawal that they built themselves an indoor lap pool (which cost more than our house). They still map entire vacations around chlorine. Expanding the quest of John Cheever's swimmer, they pool-hop not just their suburb but the world, even sneaking into foreign hotels wearing bathing suits under street clothes. When they chose where to stay for my brother's wedding in Portland, Oregon, they eschewed the landmark but pool-less Heathman Hotel in favor of a Best Western with a bathtub-sized pool surrounded by grim cinder block; they did their hundreds of three-stroke laps each morning, and were in heaven.

Though I've enjoyed many hotel pools—lollygagging with my toddler daughter as she found her sea legs in the shallow end that thins to nothingness at Miami Beach's Delano, or enjoying the floral surroundings while submerged in the bracingcentral pool of the Emerald Iguana Cottages in Ojai, California—my paradise is unchlorinated. Pools leave a slightly medicinal aftertaste. Salt is better, but no salt is the best.

Perhaps I'm making up for lost time: Scarsdale may be only a few miles from both the Long Island Sound and the Hudson River, but except for four summers in Maine I spent much of my childhood in that municipal pool, as landlocked as anyone in Kansas.

Now, in my adulthood, no body of water is too cold, too grungy, too dinky, or too off-limits for me to attempt a conquering dip. I've swum with mucky Hudson reeds lapping at my legs, dodged garbage in the surf at Coney Island, and dog-paddled in a lungi alongside turbaned "lifeguards" in the Bay of Bengal. After hiking to crystal-clear, glacier-fed Lake Awosting, near New Paltz, New York, I was damned if I was going to stick to the small roped-off public swimming area. How could venturing beyond it be trespassing when it's the same water?

I woke up to the possibilities of chemical-free swimming at my grandmother's cottage on Lake Buel, near Great Barrington, Massachusetts (she sold it before I was old enough to stop her). Once I realized you could swim in a sweeping expanse of water as clear and pure as a freshly drawn bath, I didn't understand why anyone would prefer an aquamarine box. My love affair with the ocean began soon after, when I was diving off a houseboat during a trip to the Virgin Islands. (My brother, however, jumped inand resurfaced sputtering, "You didn't tell me it was going to be salty!")

When Halley's Comet was making its once-every-76-years visit in 1986, some friends and I camped out on a beach in Baja California, alone there except for some fishermen hauling in gigantic oysters and shrimp. Though my friends were excited about seeing the comet, for me that event was just an annoying disruption to a good night's sleep. What I loved were the days spent swimming with no one around, the sense that we owned the surf as far as we could see.

I always marvel at people who become jaded or indifferent to the ocean's allure. As a reporter, I once tagged along on a fashion shoot to a private resort called Ocean View Club on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, set on a glorious beach. Getting there involved two planes, a boat, and a taxi, and the only ones present were the photographer, his staff, the model, and her husband. Every day they posed and shot, using the beach as a backdrop, and not a single person went in the water. It struck me as the height of decadence.

Last year, my work brought me to Los Angeles, which East Coasters (myself included) often decry as a wasteland of strip malls and freeways. But on my first weekend I hightailed it to the Pacific, and have since found myself there more often than not—from Venice's whacked-out carnival to the privacy of El Matador State Beach to the tide pools of Leo Carillo State Park in Malibu. Recently, on the windiest of mornings, I brought my daughters, ages eight and five, to Santa Monica. We were the only ones on the beach and the sand was blowing everywhere, but we ran straight into the water and didn't look back. ¼

Down by the River

"A great thirst," desert rat Edward Abbey wrote, "is a great joy when quenched in time." Four ways to quench that thirst:

2 Guadalupe Canoe Livery (830/885-4671; www.guadalupecanoe.com; from $10 per person) offers four-mile floats along Texas's Guadalupe River—75 miles southwest ofAustin—beneath limestone cliffs and cypress trees, and past the occasional deer and turkey.

3 Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (River Point Outfitting Co.; 800/456-5580; www.elyoutfitters.com; four-day trips from $256 a person) covers 1,200 miles of canoeing trails leading to centuries-old cliff paintings and lakes where loon calls echo.

4 The American Queen (Delta Queen Steamboat Co.; 800/543-1949; www.deltaqueen.com; seven nights from $2,000 a person)—the largest steamboat ever built—rambles along the Mississippi from New Orleans into the heartland, dropping in on Baton Rouge, Memphis, and other spots along the way.

5 Idaho's Salmon River rises into 100-plus roller-coaster rapids as it bisects the Lower 48's largest wilderness area. A six-day, 80-mile package from Salmon River Outfitters (800/346-6204; www.salmonriveroutfitters.com; $1,495 a person) includes meals of poached salmon and wine tastings.
—David Howard

Lap It Up: Hotel Pools

6 Raffles L'Ermitage, Beverly Hills
THE POOL 23 by 32 feet. Ninth floor. THE LOOK Retro cool: olive trees, teak furniture, and three cabanas set the scene. THE VIEW 360 degrees of L.A., Bel Air, and the Hollywood Hills. THE PERKS Treatments from the Amrita Spa. Friday is sunset, champagne, and canapés night.
9291 BURTON WAY; 800/800-2113; www.lermitagehotel.com

7 Le Parker Meridien, New York
THE POOL 20 by 40 feet. 42nd floor. THE LOOK Metro chic: teak walls and chaise longues plus a glass skylight prove that heaven is in the details at this penthouse pool. THE VIEW Central Park and the midtown Manhattan skyline at eye level. THE PERKS Room service delivers snacks and cocktails poolside—a homemade ice cream sandwich and Cosmo, anyone?Work off the calories using free fitness toys (kickboards, buoyancy belts, waterproof dumbbells).
118 W. 57TH ST.; 800/543-4300; www.parkermeridien.com

8 Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel
THE POOL 24 by 60 feet. 12th floor. THE LOOK Capital heights: there are green plastic lounge chairs, lush tropical plants, and white-umbrella-shaded tables, in a courtyard near the top of the hotel. THE VIEW Depends on whose curtains are open. THE PERKS There's plenty to see from the pool's edge: the chef plucking seasonings from his herb garden; guests sipping tropical drinks at Flamingos, the tiki bar.
480 L'ENFANT PLAZA, WASHINGTON, D.C.; 800/235-6397; www.loewshotels.com

9 The Hotel
THE POOL 12 by 35 feet. Fourth floor. THE LOOK In the navy: the Todd Oldham-designed tricolored deck and tie-dyed cabanas take their cues from a ship at sea. THE VIEW The Atlantic Ocean and Ocean Drive from above. THE PERKS Pool bar lunch menu from Wish, the hotel's restaurant; workout area.
801 COLLINS AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 877/843-4683; www.thehotelofsouthbeach.com

10 Hyatt Regency, San Antonio
THE POOL 18 by 24 feet. 11th floor. THE LOOK Texas-sized comfort: a six-person Jacuzzi, multicolored tiles, and beige plastic-webbed beach chairs create a laid-back retreat for hotel guests. THE VIEW A new perspective on the city's beloved Riverwalk, the Alamo, and the San Antonio River. THE PERKS At night, you can float on your back and watch the glittering stars and skyline with a frozen daiquiri or ice cream soda in hand (in a plastic cup, of course).
123 LOSOYA ST.; 800/233-1234; www.hyatt.com

A Matter of Degrees

Want your ocean bathwater-hot?Or your lake as cool as the other side of the pillow?Here are 10 swimming spots—from a beach in Florida to a bay in Wisconsin—that satisfy every water-temperature need.

Miami Beach, Fla.
Average Water Temperatures in July: 87°
Air temperature Highs in July: 92°

Puerto Rico's West Coast
Average Water Temperatures in July: 83°
Air temperature Highs in July: 94°

Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Average Water Temperatures in July: 80°
Air temperature Highs in July: 95°

Lake Powell, Utah & Arizona
Average Water Temperatures in July: 78°
Air temperature Highs in July: 105°

Hawaii's Kona Coast
Average Water Temperatures in July: 79°
Air temperature Highs in July: 87°

South Padre Island, Tex.
Average Water Temperatures in July: 79°
Air temperature Highs in July: 89°

Chicago, Ill.
Average Water Temperatures in July: 64°
Air temperature Highs in July: 95°

Thousand Islands, N.Y.
Average Water Temperatures in July: 67°
Air temperature Highs in July: 90°

Catalia Island, Calif.
Average Water Temperatures in July: 65°
Air temperature Highs in July: 82°

Nicolet Beach, Peninsula State Park, Wis.
Average Water Temperatures in July: 65°
Air temperature Highs in July: 76°

11 NOT SLIPPERY WHEN WET Reversible teeny-weeny bikini by J. Crew, $68; Hawaiian-style swim trunks by Vilebrequin, $115; CanonU.S.A. PowerShot A70 digital camera, $449, with waterproof case, $240; kitten-heel flip-flops by Sigerson Morrison, $85; Ralph Lauren marrow-stitched cotton beach towel, $69; waterproof bracelet watch by Emporio Armani, $125.

Natural Wonders: Waterfalls

Nothing beats wading in a natural pool under a cascade of water—especially after a long morning trek. Here are a few of our favorite places:

12 Beyond the palm-studded banks of Kauai's Wailua River, Uluwehi ("Secret") Falls has kayakers abandoning their oars—after nearly two hours of paddling and hiking—and taking a plunge in the freshwater pool at the bottom of an 88-foot veil. Get outfitted by Kayak Kauai (800/437-3507; www.kayakkauai.com; unguided trips for two $50; guided trips from $60 per person, reservations required).

13 Venture past the vortex trails and luxury resorts of Sedona, Arizona, and you'll stumble upon Slide Rock State Park (928/282-3034; www.pr.state.az.us). The 70-foot-long chute can be reached only by hiking along the gin-clear Oak Creek, clambering over half-dressed sunbathers, and crossing a rickety footbridge. Let the water toss you (gently) through boulder passages into a glistening pool, or stop at miniature waterfalls for a natural shoulder massage.

14 Cruise along North Carolina's Blue Ridge Parkway to find Looking Glass Falls (Pisgah National Forest; 828/877-3265; www.visitwaterfalls.com). This 65-foot waterfall gushes over a craggy granite ledge, attracting more visitors than any other in the area. Take a dip in the basin at the end of the path, or—to escape the crowds—choose Hooker Falls in nearby DuPont State Forest (828/877-6527; www.dupontforest.com), where an 11-foot waterfall lightly crashes from Little River into Cascade Lake.
—Jennifer V. Cole and Heidi Sherman Mitchell