It’s 8 a.m., black as lava rock outside and the snow is falling in white fluffy waves. In one of two hot pots— what Icelanders call hot tubs— at Laugardalslaug, a sprawling swimming complex and spa on the western side of Reykjavik, 10 men sit stoically in 110-degree, geothermally heated water up to their necks. Steam rises off the pot’s surface, creating ghostly silhouettes in the halogen-lit morning.
Ivar, we’ll call him, a leathery-skinned man of about 65, with gray-brown hair and a tuft of chest hair floating at the water’s surface, speaks rapidly in his native tongue. A man we’ll call Gunnar sits to his left on a ledge in the hot pot. He’s like Ivar’s Ed McMahon. Every time Ivar completes a sentence, Gunnar utters a low, guttural “Jˆ,” pronounced “Yow,” the Icelandic word for yes. After a particularly long declaration from Ivar, Gunnar drags out a long “Yowwwww,” and the other men in the hot pot all nod and give quick yows of agreement.
What these men are talking about, I cannot tell you. It could be politics, or the weather (a popular Icelandic topic). Or Ivar could be talking about some particularly good herring he ate for breakfast. One thing is for sure: Similar scenes are playing out at public pool complexes all around the country. Thirty-degree weather? Snow? So what if the sun won’t rise for another three hours. This is Iceland; the people must soak.
In France there is the cafŽ. In England, it’s the pub. In Iceland, the pool is the community gathering place where people come to talk, to socialize, “to solve the country’s problems,” a fellow swimmer tells me.
Business people have regularly scheduled “office” hours at the pool, conducting meetings with clients or colleagues. Even members of Parliament relax between sessions at various Reykjavik pools and speak with constituents over the balmy waters. Swimming is taught along with reading and arithmetic in elementary schools. Speedo sells more swimsuits per capita here than anywhere else in the world.
It might seem odd to travel to Iceland in winter to go swimming. And well, it is. It’s not unlike touring the steam rooms of Florida during summer. But I wanted to see if you could still have a good time in Iceland when the airfares were cheapest and the tourists scarce. “You did the right thing coming here during December,” a new friend tells me as we sip $10 beers at a trendy cafe in downtown Reykjavik. “Winter is the best time to visit Iceland. There are too many people in summer.”
And contrary to popular perception, due to the fact that Iceland sits nestled in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, it doesn’t get that much colder here than in Baltimore.
But there is that lack of daylight thing. When I visited in early December, the sun didn’t rise until 11 a.m. It sat in the sky at about 30 degrees before plopping behind the mountains by 4. (If you visit in March or April, you’re guaranteed at least seven hours or so of daylight.)
But winter is the best time to see the Northern Lights, to go snowmobiling or skiing. And, of course, it’s the only time you’ll be able to soak in gloriously hot waters and catch snow flakes on your tongue at the same time.
There are more than 125 public swimming pools in Iceland. Reykjavik has seven within the city. Like its legendary nightclubs, each pool has a different personality and attracts a different clientele— families, yuppies and seniors (folks over 67 swim at any of them for free).
Arbaejarlaug, located on the eastern outskirts of town, is the “Disneyland of Reykjavik swimming pools,” frequented by children and “intimidatingly attractive people interested in making children,” I learn from the Web site of the city’s English-language newspaper, The Grapevine. Typical quote: “I’m sorry, did my handsome child bump against your well-formed abdominal muscles? His father and I are not living together so sometimes he acts unruly.” Vesturbaejarlaug, near the University of Iceland, is visited by “open-minded working-class people, with a reputation among some as a gay pool.”
I find myself returning to Laugardalslaug; it’s convenient to the city center, has an Olympic-sized lap pool, a water slide and two steamy hot pots. There’s also a luxe spa complex next door and one of the nicest gyms I’ve ever seen. Instead of using a pass card to gain access, machines scan visitors’ retinas. (Icelanders, like their Scandinavian cousins, are extremely high-tech.)
It also, understandably, attracts more tourists than others. Common quote: “How do you like Iceland?”
At Sundhšllin, an older downtown facility, with two outdoor hot pots and an indoor lap pool, I strike up a conversation with a middle- aged businessman named ñle. He tells me that along with their fish-heavy diets, it’s the pools that help Icelanders live so long— the average life expectancy for both men and women is among the highest in the world. Men live more than 76 years, and women, nearly to 81. The country also boasts extremely low rates of arthritis and heart disease. “We could be smoking and drinking in pubs like the British,” says ñle, who takes to the waters five days a week, “but instead we swim laps and soak in the hot pots.” But, he says, due to increasingly long work hours and an influx of fast-food restaurants, Icelanders— particularly married men and children— are getting heavier. To illustrate his point, he tells me a popular Icelandic joke. (Icelanders are natural storytellers; one in 10 publish a book in their lives.) “A single man comes home late from work and doesn’t see anything he likes in his refrigerator so he goes to bed with his girlfriend. But a married man comes home late and doesn’t see anything he likes in his bed, so he goes to his refrigerator.”
For most Americans, an Icelandic swimming pool locker room will bring back horrible memories of middle school gym class. The experience is not for the modest or the meek. And there are rules— and proper etiquette— you must follow.
First, you must remove your shoes before entering. And it’s good etiquette to towel off completely after swimming; water is a no-no on locker room floors. (You’re wearing socks, remember?) Most important, you must heed the ubiquitous warnings posted in five languages inside individual lockers and on signs throughout the room: “ACHTUNG! ATTENTION! OBSERVE! EVERY GUEST IS REQUIRED TO WASH THOROUGHLY WITHOUT A SWIMSUIT BEFORE ENTERING THE POOLS.”
This may seem like hygienic hyperbole, but it’s a necessity be- cause Icelandic pools and hot pots contain very little chlorine to kill germs. (They pump in oxygen and the water is exchanged several times an hour.) On each sign, posted by the National Center for Hygiene, Food Control and Environmental Health, is an illustrated diagram of a person with little red clouds above problem areas— feet, crotch, armpits, hair— where swimmers should pay utmost attention. A full-time “shower monitor” (a job that simply can’t pay well enough) sits on a stool just beyond the showers or in the shower room itself, ensuring that guests adhere to this rule. Icelanders don’t have a hang-up with this procedure at all; usually, it’s just the uptight (and unclean) Americans, I’m told.
At each pool I visit the routine is pretty much the same:
– Pay 250 kronurs (about four bucks) and get locker token from stern-looking cashier. – Strip down and carry towel and swimsuit into shower area.
– Turn on shower and wait for rottenegg- smelling water to shoot out.
– Make small talk— and proper eye contact— with naked men soaping up nearby.
– Wash “problem areas” thoroughly.
– Remember to put on bathing suit.
Before leaving the locker room, a final sign depicts a foot with another one of those red clouds— an alert to the dangers of athlete’s foot. You then pass through a set of doors and find yourself standing outside in 30 degree weather with 90 percent of your delicate skin exposed. The walk from shower to pool is something like a polar bear plunge— but in reverse. You feel the cold first in the feet. It’s a sensation not unlike a thousand freezing needles being poked into your skin. Walk far enough and those prickly pins start working up your legs, your hands, your arms. You start to shake.
But then you reach the water. The ohso- wonderfully warm water. Take a step in, the pins vanish. The water envelops you, steam surrounds you. It’s like slipping back into the womb.
Sitting in the ovenlike waters at Laugardalslaug, steam pouring off my shoulders, I realize the primary difference between swimming in the United States and swimming in Iceland: In America, peo- ple swim to cool off. In Iceland, people swim to warm up.
Icelanders don’t just bathe in their waters, of course. They pump it beneath city streets to keep their roads clear of snow and ice. They use it to inexpensively heat 90 percent of their homes. In a country that hardly has any trees or vegetable gardens, geothermal water is used to warm massive greenhouses harboring tomatoes, cucumbers— even bananas.
One of the first sights visitors see when arriving in Reykjavik from Keflavik Airport is a futuristic domed structure high on a hill to the city’s south. Several enormous gray cylindrical containers hold thousands of gallons of water, naturally heated to 175 degrees. This facility supplies all of Reykjavik with heat and hot water for its pools. The building also houses a wildly overpriced revolving restaurant, but the panoramic views from its fourth floor are free. From here you can see the entire city of 113,000, from its busy fishing harbor framed by snow-covered mountains to the church Hallgrimskirkja and its 240-foottall concrete steeple rising above the city. Steam pours out of vents in various areas throughout town— the reason why early settlers named the place Reykjavik or “smoky bay.”
To get a better idea of what the rest of the country looks like, I book a bus tour with Reykjavik Excursions, Iceland’s primary tour company. Our guide is Leifur Bjšrnsson, an easygoing fortysomething, sporting a baseball cap and a very dry sense of humor. He tells us that Iceland’s geothermic activity is due to the country’s location at the intersection of the North American and European continental plates, a spot we pass along our ride. “Welcome to Europe,” Leifur says as we drive by a marker leaving the North American plate. We also pass the world’s first hydrogen fueling station (Iceland wants to eliminate fossil fuel dependence by 2030; its public buses already run on the stuff), then visit a water-filled volcanic crater in which Bjork, Iceland’s best-known rocker, performed for thousands of fans from a floating stage. We pass several hydroelectric plants, the occasional sheep or horse farm, but otherwise, the landscape is an otherworldly monotony of mountains, glaciers and frozen lakes. With the sky white from snow, the entire landscape is a stunning black and white monochrome. And there are no trees— just scrub brush and black pumice. “How do you find your way out of any Icelandic forest?” Leifur asks over his microphone. We already know the punch line: “Just stand up.”
One of our last stops is Geysir— which Leifur pronounces “gaysus”— the blow hole from which all other geysers were named. It doesn’t erupt with regularity so much anymore, but nearby, Strokkur geyser blows a burst of hot water and steam 100 feet in the air every few minutes. “Stay away from the gaysus,” Leifur warns as we approach the site. “We don’t want boiled tourist. We want happy tourist.”
On my final day in Iceland, I visit the country’s most popular swimming hole, the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon itself is only a recent phenomenon, formed 20 years ago by the operations of a nearby geothermal power plant. People with skin conditions like psoriasis noticed marked improvement after bathing in the silica-and blue-green algae-rich waters. Others noticed it generally improved skin conditions, and, voila, a tourist attraction— and full-service spa— was born. (In 1999, the lagoon was relocated to a modern spa-like facility, out of sight of the plant.)
The lagoon lies about a 45-minute bus ride from Reykjavik among lunar-like black lava fields. It’s a playground of wooden walkways connecting different pools of water pumped from a mile below the surface, and cooled to a comfortable 110 degrees. There are steam baths and saunas, waterfalls and a fine restaurant with spa cuisine. The lagoon receives more than 350,000 visitors a year and I can’t imagine visiting on a warm, summer day with the crowds. I much prefer the cold air and the steamy waters; the few people there cake silica on their faces and arms, and splash around in the water like white-faced ghosts. I’ve signed up for one of the Blue Lagoon’s unique spa treatments: a water massage. In a sectioned-off area of the lagoon, I meet my masseuse, Elsa, a sturdy Icelandic woman in a bathing suit.
Elsa pulls out a floating rubber mat and instructs me to climb on and lie on my back. (A task not so easily accomplished.) Half of my body lies submerged in the hot water, the other half bobs in the cold air. So Elsa takes a blanket, submerses it in the water and covers me with it. It’s an odd feeling, not unlike bathing with your clothes on. She then proceeds to massage my back between the rubber mat and the blanket with an orange-smelling bluegreen algae oil. I float on the surface, looking up at the blue sky through the steam, as my body slowly starts to prune. She continues like this for a half-hour, dunking me gently to re-wet the blanket in the hot water. It’s definitely one of the more unusual spa treatments I’ve received. “Well, did you like the massage?” Elsa asks.
Eyes half-closed, and warm beneath my wet blanket, I purr like a contented cat. “Yowwww.”
Iceland Tourism Board, 212-885-9700, http://www.icetourist.is Getting there: It’s a five-and-a-half-hour flight from BWI direct to Reykjavik on Icelandair. Off-season fares start at $338 round trip. http://www.icelandair.com Stay: Hotel Borg was Reykjavik’s first hotel, opened in the 1930s. Its 50 rooms retain period furnishings and art deco style. http://www.hotelborg.is. Rates start at $200 per night.
Nordica, the largest hotel in Iceland, is near the spa and swimming pools at Laugardalslaug, but it also has an excellent spa— and restaurant— of its own. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat removed from downtown. http://www.icehotel.is. Rates start at $135.
Hotel Fron is centrally located along the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, and is a good choice for families or the budget conscious— many of its rooms have efficiency kitchens. http://www.hotelfron.is. Rates start at $112. Play: For information on Reykjavik’s pools, visit http://www.spacity.is.
Reykjavik Excursions runs daily tours to all major sites in Iceland, including the Blue Lagoon, Geysir, Gullfoss Falls and also gives Reykjavik city tours. http://www.re.is. The Blue Lagoon is open year-round. Spa treatments, ranging from water massage to salt rubs, require advance reservations. http://www.bluelagoon.is.