Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Getting Soaked In Iceland

Icelanders love to soak. And it’s no wonder given how well they do it. (Not to mention how many worries they need to wash away in the current economic climes in Iceland.) So inspired am I by their daily baptism, I feel compelled to make an announcement. *clear throat*

I have become a Bath Person.

Soaking it up at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland
It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, as an ex-pat Australian with a healthy guilt complex about water wastage, I have up until recently been strictly from the three-minute shower camp. I even go so far as to turn the tap off while I lather, only turning it back on to rinse. Depressing, I know. Baths were something with which to treat yourself on your birthday or after a break-up. They belong to the Sunday evenings of my childhood, right before The Wonderful World of Disney, when Gaia wasn’t threatening to dry up like a nun.

But Iceland is a country that has never feared such a fate. It is a land with a never-ending supply of geothermal water populated by a people who have elevated the divine bathing ritual to a national pursuit. Here baths are a necessity and bathing a right, not a privilege. Baths are simply part of daily life. So I have decided to cast aside my water guilt, dip my toe into a new cultural experience, and happily soak up to my neck in it.

Iceland: Lots of ways to soak it upIceland’s geothermal water and energy supply comes thanks to its situation on the divide between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. What this means for locals is warm apartments, low power bills, and heated sidewalks. For visitors (and the newly unemployed), it means lots and lots of ways to enjoy soaking in the tub. The pools on offer cater to all tastes, from the polished and pricey extravagance of the Blue Lagoon, right down to hidden watering holes amongst the mossy crags and lunar plains of the country side.
There are also heitur-pottur (hot pots) attached to gymnasiums, where Icelanders go to work out, unwind, and gossip. And there is any number of other charmingly anomalous facilities peppering the countryside where locals have found ways to harness this natural volcanic gift. The following hot spots are some of my favourites:
Iceland Soak #1: The Blue Lagoon

For those serious about their soaking, the Blue Lagoon is perhaps the best place to start. Prior to my visit there, I’d heard the hype and hyperbole, and prepared myself for disappointment but I’m happy to report that my cynicism was misplaced. It is stunningly beautiful and worth every cent of the 20 Euro entrance fee. Located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, it is a 20-minute drive from Keflavík Airport or 40 minutes from Reykjavik. There are a number of tours that offer a Blue Lagoon stop-off service, making a visit the perfect way to unwind before or after a flight.
The resort itself is built with conservation in mind and perfectly balances the natural beauty of the surrounding lava fields with all the requisite creature comforts of a trip to a day spa. Upon arrival, visitors are kitted out with a handy electronic bracelet, eliminating the need for wallets; a simple swipe allows you to secure your belongings in the locker rooms, fill up on snacks and drinks at the café, or even pay for an in-water massage.
Tourists often find navigating the change room facilities a little difficult, but Icelanders are fastidious about their hot tub hygiene, so it’s important to understand and obey the bathing rules (which, I must say, could be better signposted at this facility given the high quantity of tourist traffic). In a nutshell, the idea is to strip off completely, scrub down thoroughly, don your swimsuit, and then join the fray.
No need to be shy either; Icelanders have been getting their gear off in communal bathing facilities their whole lives. Personally speaking, after a lifetime of body-consciousness that started in awkward Australian school locker-rooms, it’s refreshing to be among a people who cheerfully cast off their modestly regardless of age, size, lumps, or bumps.
The transition from the indoor warmth of the changing facilities to the lagoon itself is magical. You exit via a semi-submerged doorway and float through a cave-like dome, to emerge in the lagoon proper, a veritable winter wonderland. I advise bypassing the noisier tourists who cluster near this entrance and drift out to the lagoon’s further reaches where silence, volcanic rocks, and extra warm pockets of water await you. Grab a handful of the white silica mud provided in tubs on the lagoon edge as you pass. The unique properties of this naturally occurring substance, combined with the minerals and algae in the water, will leave your skin exfoliated, softened, and revitalised. The Icelandic Ministry of Health even recognises the Blue Lagoon as an official option of the treatment of psoriasis.
Iceland Soak #2: LaugarvatnIf you want to experience an Icelandic hot spring in a natural context, minus the entrance fee, you could take a drive to Laugarvatn, a village located midway between Þingvellir (pronounced ‘Thingvellir’), Gullfoss and Geysir, about100 km from Reykjavík. Situated alongside the geothermally heated Lake Laugarvatn (where water temperatures stay at a balmy 36C /97F degrees!), and surrounded by dramatic mountains, you will find a modest facility frequented by locals and hot tub connoisseurs alike. For a few hundred kronur you can park yourself in a tiny wooden hut positioned directly over a gash in the earth housing a scaldingly hot spring. Et voila! Instant natural steam bath.

This is no sanitized experience however. The searing, unregulated heat, straight from Mother Earth’s irritable bowels was almost too hot to handle. And the sulphuric nature of the air and water stung my eyes and nasal cavities. I lasted about 60 seconds in there. But locals (and those with less sensitive skin) install themselves and shoot the breeze for much longer than that.
Similarly, the hot tub is rustic and the bathing facilities basic. But the romance of the setting and the authenticity of the experience is undeniable. Once you’re fully poached, don’t forget to take part in another time honoured tradition on your way out of town – the enthusiastic ingestion of a roadside hotdog. Whether the tiny towns you pass are big enough for a horse or not, the service station mystery-meat treats are invariably fresh, the mustard sweet, and the onions crunchy.
Iceland Soak #3: SeljavellirOnce you’ve blown the last of your mighty kronur on a faceful of hot dogs it’s time to seek out one of those free hot pools you’ve heard whispers about. They don’t come better than the hidden swimming pool at Seljavellir. Situated in a narrow valley near the foot of the Eyjafjoll Mountains in South Iceland, it takes a bit of finding. When I was taken there, by a local, we had to stop and ask for directions more than once. But it is worth the effort.
A 15-minute walk from the gravel carpark brings you to a charmingly tumbledown pool framed by a sheer mountainside on one side (the source of the trickling natural hot water) and views of a valley stream on the other. The day I went, in the chill of late summer, sheep grazed on distant hillside pastures and the sky was a perfect patch of blue. A Disney moment of a different variety.
If fluffy bathrobes and heated tiles are an essential part of the bathing experience for you, then the bare concrete change room left open to the elements, and the mossy gloom of the water might not be your cup of tea. For those of you who are happy to rough it in favour of natural serenity, do make the effort to seek it out.
Iceland Soak #4: ReykjavikBack in Reykjavik, one can experience the happiest of mediums in the abundance of local heated pools and hot tubs on offer. My local pool of choice is at the Seltjarnarnes Sports and Recreation Center. The number 11 bus will get you there from downtown in about 15 minutes (purchase a book of eleven tickets for 2500 kronur from the Hlemmur bus station and you’re away).
A 10-pass pool card is the best option for short term visitors, giving you access to a variety of steam rooms, saunas, hot tubs and a heated pool. At 2200 kronur, it’s a bargain. There’s something deeply satisfying about relaxing the way the locals relax without paying tourist trap prices and as long as you adhere to the hygiene rules I mentioned earlier, they are more than happy to share.
As the famously drawn-out Icelandic sunset stretches across the bay, you will feel very much a part of the fabric of daily life, bobbing about in a stew of young mothers and their flaxen toddlers, business men chatting about their devalued stock options, teenagers flirting, the elderly warming their bones. The poolside LED display might tell you it’s -2C (28F) and the wind chill will give you an ice-cream headache, but you’ll be warmed from the inside out knowing that you are doing it like the Vikings did. Because there’s nothing better than a long hot soak after a day of pillaging.

-Maggie Rays

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