Famed as the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’, a trip to Iceland is to experience nature in its rawest, purest form. Its landscape, once – not so long ago – described as barren, desolate and uninhabitable is now revered for its beauty, diversity and unparalleled atmosphere. (No wonder it has become one of the favoured filming locations for the little-known television series Game of Thrones, which, incidentally (or not), is an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Fire and Ice.) Fire and ice by definition are the opposite extremes of nature’s miraculous powers; both are intrinsic to our survival yet both have the capability of unmitigated destruction. Perhaps this is why the island is such a magnet for travellers from all degrees of the intrepid scale: beauty and danger on a knife-edge are always going to get hearts racing. But combine the country’s two intrinsic elements – the heat and power of fire with the virtues of the clear and fresh Icelandic water – and you have the recipe for the most abundant, truly organic and (in my opinion) thoroughly enjoyable aspect of all Iceland has to offer: the exquisite geothermal pools and springs.
With the grand Blue Lagoon arguably the biggest Instagram hotspot (pun intended) in the ‘Most Instagrammable Place on Earth’ (according to Cosmopolitan) (I’m not going to disagree), one would be forgiven for thinking that said lagoon was the pinnacle of all hot pools that Iceland has to offer. No doubt it is the best attended, with hordes of tourists visiting the destination whether they are exploring the island for four indulgent weeks or four hurried stopover hours. The Blue Lagoon certainly has the wow factor and facilities (and price tag) to attract attention (and a plethora of plastic-wrapped selfie sticks). But there is so much more to Iceland’s breadth of geothermal bathing than simply its flagship store. From dipping into a blissfully deserted mountain spring to delving into a blissfully decadent seawater bath (with mountain views inclusive throughout), during our two-week foray in and around the magical island we indulged in more geothermal experiences than we would care to admit, and relished each and every moment like it might be our last.
Commencing our anti-clockwise circular trip from the country’s south western capital, we – somewhat predictably – began our geothermal exploration at the aforementioned choice check-in; the turquoise hors d’oeuvre set to whet our silica-craving appetites ‘fore our multi-course extravaganza of, what felt like, all the warm waters that Iceland possibly had to offer. We also figured – somewhat ingeniously – to cross off all of the tourist-heavy spots (namely the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle) at the start of our trip, so that by the time we were truly at one with nature (and Icelandic waterfall aficionados) we did not have to withstand the infuriating crowds of, let’s face it, infuriating (and mainly American) accents and photograph requests. I am intolerant and impatient at the best of times so this was definitely a wise tactic. As anticipated, perhaps even more so, the Blue Lagoon was seething with visitors – and selfie sticks – and miraculously the problematic lagoon-like nature of the attraction did not seem to deter many a guest from bringing their latest iPhone with them right into the water. The fact that they had to purchase a waterproof phone jacket (for, I’m sure, vast amounts of króna), and keep their right arm at a permanently acute angle so as not to let the tech slip into the pool seemingly did not put them off; if anything added to their sense of hardship as a nomadic social media influencer.
The complimentary silica mud mask and alcoholic drink (prosecco for me, darling) were welcome additions; the near death chocking experience at the in-pool water fountain was not. (Should’ve gone for a second prosecco.) But even worse was the moment when I discovered that the shores were lined with seaweed, feeling the silky smooth, nourishing strands gracefully floating between my toes. Seaweed! How amazing! I lifted my foot above the water to closer inspect the algae, and realised that what had been caressing my toes was in fact strands of hair from all of the many guests who had frequented the lagoon up until that point. It was not green or marine-derived; it was long and black and from the heads of annoying Americans!!! My toes curled (as soon as I untangled them from the clumps of hair) and I suddenly needed to get out of the pool, like, NOW. The boyfriend was very understanding and supportive and escorted me immediately to safety, but later admitted that he had in fact predicted that the seaweed I had discovered was something more sinister, but hadn’t wanted to dampen my mood.
Around 75 km east of Reykjavik was the so-called Secret Lagoon (supposedly the oldest swimming pool in Iceland), but, judging by the number of Asian’s with whom we shared the lake, awareness of the lagoon had stretched a little further than the confines of Fluðir’s native population. Much less grand and polished than it’s Blue counterpart, the Secret Lagoon felt more authentic and au naturel, with the invasion of foot hygiene this time provided by a jagged, rocky flooring, and the near death experience experienced this time by my companion, during his scantily-clad dash in bitterly cold Icelandic winds to save my left barbie-pink flip flop who was rather taken with the Nordic gale. (Both survived virtually unscathed.)
Circa 800 km later on the renowned Route 1, on the opposite side of the country, lay Mývatn Nature Baths, a perfect balance between luxury and unpretentiousness; by all accounts the ideal geothermic encounter. Due to its proximity to the ‘sulphuric martian landscape’ Námaskarð (i.e. a great moon-like expanse of rotten-egg-scented hell), however, I was unable to fully relax in its surrounds because of the lingering, inharmonious, almighty hum. (My concerned partner kept asking if I was ok, in reaction to my persistent pained expression, but I was fine – really – just trying to achieve respiration through a facial orifice which would not also ingest the rotten ruddy aroma.)
On the opposite extreme entirely to these relatively orchestrated geothermal experiences was the largely untouched and totally at-one-with-natured Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. Being in the vicinity of the Golden Circle we were aware (as ever) of the potential for what was intended to be a morning of serene seclusion to be overrun by another heard of selfie-stick-sporting sightseers. So we set our alarm for 5 am sharp and made sure we got there before anyone else. An hour-or-so hike took us to the crystal clear waters; this hour-or-so spent playing overtaker and overtakee of a group of three fellow early birds with whom we were quite shamelessly racing to beat to the stream. Thanks to a number of outer clothing readjustments (on my part) and a number of unmissable photo opportunities (on their part) it was touch and go for most of the hike. But down to sheer determination (on our part) we beat them to it, disrobing quicker than we thought possible (if it hadn’t have been for the adrenaline I’m not sure we would have got down to our swimwear in the ice-cold air) to position ourselves safely in the stream for their delayed arrival. Oh we enjoyed the supremacy.
The stream, barely a couple of feet in depth, was deliciously warm and comforting and like a big molten marshmallow embrace. The air above was cold and crisp (and deep and even?), and the reason behind my swimsuit and bobble hat ensemble. (Quite a look, I’m sure you’d agree.) When our fingers began to wrinkle we emerged; saintlier, softer and slightly soggier versions of our former selves.
But if we were going to go down the authentic path then we simply could not omit a visit (or five) to ‘the local’ public swimming baths; institutions which could be found – without exception – in every town across the country, no matter the lack of inhabitants in the area. Attending these baths afforded us (even more) (much-needed) relaxation time; an insight into local life; and washing facilities included in the entrance fee, which often cost less than a five-minute speed shower at the campsite would. Here one really got a feel for the locals – why you were sharing tiny hot tubs and nudity-enforced showers with them, dear! – and in particular developed an understanding of the comfort they felt within their own skin, and the absolute absence of concern about their own, or their neighbours, naked bodies. It was very refreshing. Everyone was natural and normal: there was big, small, lumpy and bumpy, saggy, pert, and everything in-between. No one looked but more staggeringly no one cared. This was just totally normal for them, going about their business with absolutely no clothes on and no sense of urgency to grab a towel. Young and old and all sorts of ability – everyone was the same. But different. And that was simply accepted.
Last of all, and my personal favourite, was the newly-opened (and not yet completed) GeoSea, found on the outskirts of the north coast’s whale-watching town of Húsavík. As the name suggests, these baths are filled with naturally warmed seawater, which – thankfully – had none of the repulsive nasal interruptions as was the case at Mývatn. Housed within a hobbit-like grass-roofed mound, albeit its slightly unfinished state it was classy and clean and understated and just cool. Once you’d done your thing in the changing room (naked, of course) you came out to the sea-facing baths; infinity pools which led to mountainous backdrops, and were backed up themselves by a swim-to bar. We were in there for over three hours, enjoying the minerals, the views and, of course, the multiple glasses of wine.
Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River