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Travels December 2006

In Hot Water

Midwinter pool hopping in Iceland

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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.

The next morning I met with Sigmar Hauksson, the Iceland-based vice president of the European Spas Association, at a café inside Reykjavík’s city hall, a modern building perched over a frozen pond. “Fifty years ago spas were not so much for pleasure, but for sick people,” he told me. In recent years, however, many insurance companies stopped reimbursing for such treatments, and spas throughout Europe have had to reinvent themselves as something other than convalescent centers. (Although not entirely. “Sometimes there’s the smell of whiskey on Sunday mornings,” Hauksson reported. “The pools are supposed to be very good for hangovers.”) So Iceland’s pools have been largely updated as community centers. “People go to relax, meet friends, play with their kids,” Hauksson said. “If you want to meet Irishmen, you go to the pub; for Frenchmen, you go to the café. To meet Icelanders, you go to the thermal baths.”

Hauksson left, and I chatted with the café’s owner while we watched some geese fight for possession of a small patch of open water. He pointed to a pale, low sun, which looked like a well-hit golf ball about to land on a distant fairway. “It’s January,” he said. “We’re starting to come awake, like bears.”

The following day I was again in mind of bears and hibernation. I was in the “relaxation room” of the Laugar Spa, which opened in 2004 and is part of a complex that includes the public pools at Laugardalslaug. The room is a dark, cave-like affair with black granite walls and spooky, Enya-like music. Several vinyl-upholstered recliners were arrayed feetfirst in a circle around an open fireplace. I was fully reclined with my eyes closed, although my efforts at relaxation were hindered by the sudden snarffles and snorts of audibly large men in Speedos snoozing nearby.

Laugardalslaug—or “Washing Valley Pool—is on the site of the city’s ancient washing pools, at the end of the main shopping street. A new addition to the complex includes an indoor Olympic- sized pool and, next to that, a curving, warehouse-sized fitness room with Torquemadaean quantities of treadmills, weight machines, and elliptical trainers. Outside are another large pool and five hot pots, one of which was crowded with elderly men all scowling down at the surface, as if the water of today were somehow inferior to that of their youth.

The Laugar Spa is distinctly Icelandic in its blend of the high-tech and the primeval. To enter the relaxation cave, I first needed to submit to a retina scan at the front desk. Downstairs I stared into a blue orb, and the door to the spa snapped open. The spa consists of an intricate series of dim chambers with saunas, whirlpools, soaking baths, and steam rooms. The walls and floors are, somewhat alarmingly, adorned here and there with the carved shapes of breasts and sperm squiggles. I spent many entertaining minutes playing with a motion-sensor waterfall; there’s also an alcove where you can dump a bucket of ice water on yourself.

One advantage of the midwinter darkness is the ample opportunity it (in theory) provides for gazing at the colorful northern lights. Our intent was to sign up for a tour in which visitors are bused to the countryside to view the atmospheric phenomenon. These tours depart at nine each night from the central bus station, weather permitting. But when I inquired about them, the clerk at Reykjavík Excursions adopted a mournful look and said that, unfortunately, it was too cloudy that day. How long had that been the case, I asked? Pretty much the whole winter, she said, adding that certainly it would be the case for the whole of the next week as well. So Louise and I occupied our time by exploring another Icelandic phenomenon, locally called “Black Death—a caraway-flavored spirit that does not encourage one to go gently into that dark night.

The last day, on our way to the airport, we visited the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor swimming area some thirty miles from the city. A sleek locker room and restaurant facility look out onto a jarring tableau: a chalky, turquoise-blue pond feathered with wispy white steam and sitting amid slag heaps of lava. The lagoon, which is man-made and filled with geothermal seawater, is associated with an industrial complex that produces electricity. In the background smokestacks point skyward, giving the whole scene a sort of “Dr.-Seuss-discovers- the-Ashcan-School” sensibility.

Because of its location—convenient to the airport, but far from town—the Blue Lagoon is more popular with tourists than with locals, and it affords a wholly different social experience. (It seemed especially popular with Brits, who evidently flock to Iceland in winter to compensate for the inadequate supplies of hot water in their own flats.) Whereas the native bathers in the city pools are as unself-conscious as if sitting in their own kitchens, here everyone wore a “Hey-I’m-swimming-outside-in-winter!” face. There was more mirth and jollity here than in town, fueled in part by the bright-blue cocktails served lagoonside.

And there was mud. Vats of the stuff—white silica, to be exact—are available for spreading liberally on one’s person; this, the Blue Lagoon materials say, will “cleanse, exfoliate and revitalize the skin, leaving it silky smooth.” We joined in and were soon floating around wearing our “Martin-Sheen-in-Apocalypse-Now” faces. After we felt sufficiently revitalized, we breaststroked our way to a pounding artificial waterfall, which stripped off the mud (along with a layer or two of skin).

After ninety minutes of hot-water lounging, we headed toward the lockers and showered, then collected our luggage and waited for the bus to the airport. Standing at perfect ease in the wintry air, Louise and I agreed that Iceland was the very antithesis of the Caribbean, where we usually migrate for a week or so in winter: brown lava flows versus white beaches, moonlight versus sunshine, Black Death versus colorful rum drinks. But we departed with the same salubrious effect. New England’s winter chill was gone from our bones, and we flew home relaxed, buoyant in spirit, and notably pinkish in skin tone.

Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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