Travels December 2006

In Hot Water

Midwinter pool hopping in Iceland

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The Travel Advisory
What to see and do in Iceland. By Wayne Curtis

When I told friends that my wife, Louise, and I were planning a January vacation in Reykjavík, I got looks that conveyed neither horror nor curiosity—simply an inability to fully process the information. Iceland, I could see them thinking: lively, hip, Björk. But January: cold, bitter, dark. I recognized their expressions as the look of a computer about to crash.

I learned I could reboot them merely by adding, “For the outdoor thermal pools and the northern lights.” Then you could hear the hard drive start humming again, and they’d say, “Nice!” By the time we left for our overnight flight from Boston, on a frigid and blustery afternoon, I thought I could even detect hints of envy.

We arrived at Keflavik airport early the next morning and caught a shuttle bus into Reykjavík. Through the window we saw a lot of darkness and, where sodium-orange streetlights illuminated the landscape outside of town, a lot of barren lava fields. Iceland sits atop a geological rift between the new world and the old, and the lava that flows from the island’s volcanoes is, in a very literal sense, still building the nation. So Iceland has the look of a construction site on which the work was never completed. For instance, almost no landscaping has been installed. Occasionally one sees a few shrubs, which Icelanders call “forests.” A tourism brochure I picked up enthused that the country was a “sanctuary for hay fever sufferers.”

The volcanic activity also produces hot water, lots of it. Iceland’s geothermal water is rainwater that has seeped into the ground, hit magmatic vapors, and then returned to the surface in a state of great thermal agitation. Around Reykjavík, this superheated water (nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit) is first used to power steam turbines to make electricity. It’s then piped throughout the city to heat virtually every home and business, keeping many of the sidewalks and streets free of snow in the process. Even after all this, there’s enough left over to supply seven public pool complexes.

Vesturbaejarlaug, one of the smallest, was first on our itinerary. It was not even four in the afternoon when we set off in search of it, yet the streets were already growing dark, though they were not swaddled in the pitch-blackness we’d anticipated; during the long twilights of late morning and midafternoon, the city takes on a pleasingly attenuated blue glow, as if lit by a large television just over the southern horizon. Reykjavík is an austere city, with gray and sand-colored buildings lining narrow streets. The bare trees dusted with snow made it seem Bergmanesque, and the occasional splash of color—a leftover string of Christmas lights, bright red lipstick on an elderly woman hunching into the wind—struck us as positively garish. Mostly, though, we noticed that almost every house had a window cracked open to let out the excess heat.

The pools we visited during our stay were uniformly modern—they had none of the hand-hewn wooden rusticity of a Finnish sauna. Vesturbaejarlaug, with its highly polished floors and smell of unfamiliar cleaning products, brought to mind an elementary school that has won awards for administrative excellence. Icelanders prefer chlorine at a bare minimum, so to keep the pools free of unwanted life forms, those in charge enforce a spirited regimen of personal hygiene: everyone must shower before entering the water. In the men’s locker room, only a wall of glass separated the showers from the attendant’s station, to ensure that no shortcuts were taken.

Walking wet from the shower to the outdoor pool through the wintry air requires a special talent, namely that of being able to move rapidly with high, prancing steps across frigid concrete, like a Lipizzaner stallion wearing a very small bathing suit. (Curious fact: more Speedos are sold per capita in Iceland than in any other country.) But stepping into thermal waters is like stepping into Oz: life changes from the black-and-white of imminent hypothermia to a lustrous, multidimensional world of color and warmth.

We paddled about languidly for a time in the lap pool and the free-form pool, which were warm but not hot. (The city pools are about 84 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.) Then we moved over to the nautilus-shaped hot pots—every pool complex has three to five hot pots of varied temperatures, some large enough to accommodate a family reunion. After a brief plunge in the deepest, hottest pool, I made my way to the shallowest, coolest one, where I spent a blissfully uncertain amount of time watching clouds scud across the late-afternoon moon.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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