Hot spring bathing is a cultural phenomenon throughout communities in Iceland where it is a legal requirement to learn how to swim. I took a dip in Iceland’s surprisingly warm waters and discovered the perfect travel tonic.
I did not expect to spend as much time in the water on my recent trip to Iceland. As a rule I tend to avoid communal bathing as much as possible on holidays, preferring to bathe in solitude beside golden sandy beaches so when a friend advised me to bring a swimsuit to the volcanic island, I scoffed, but obliged. That piece of advice turned out to be vital.
Every year my sister and I take a trip together. It can’t be anywhere we have visited before and we always look for a place that offers a smorgasbord of outdoor activities, culture and shopping. Upon further research, Iceland seemed to be the perfect canvas for us to create our own bespoke adventure on.
The best way to get around Iceland is the excellent coach service aimed at transporting tourists from one landmark to another. We discovered this after an embarrassing encounter with a taxi driver at Keflavik airport who informed us it would cost the equivalent of £60 to take us the 25-minute journey to the Silica Hotel. After navigating around the hordes of other tourists in the arrivals terminal we purchased two bus tickets for half the price of a taxi and dashed to catch the coach headed for the Blue Lagoon.
We had booked a night at the Silica hotel after seeing photos of the beautiful 35-room hotel, carved into the lava landscape besides the white water of its own private thermal spring. The fact it was a convenient 10-minute walk from the iconic Blue Lagoon sealed the deal.
“I have tried all sorts of remedies to reverse flying fatigue and I can say for certain that an hour or two in an Icelandic hot spring is the ultimate cure.”
As soon as we arrived we changed quickly into our swimsuits and plunged into the warm waters of the naturally heated spring. We lolled for hours in the milky water, smearing the white clay, which is extracted from the lining of the pools, over our faces. I have tried all sorts of remedies to reverse flying fatigue and I can say for certain that an hour or two in an Icelandic hot spring is the ultimate cure.
Feeling reborn, we spent the rest of the evening in the communal relaxation area where bathrobes are allowed until dinner is served. The interior of the Silica hotel makes you feel like you have walked into a Scandinavian interior design book and has lots of lovely spots to sit and read a book, write in your diary, or just gaze out of the glass walls onto the porous black rock which stretches across the horizon. If you can bring yourself out of the spa-induced coma, the Lava restaurant, which looks out onto the Blue Lagoon, is well worth the ten-minute walk but only if you are prepared to pay high Icelandic prices.
The next morning we woke up early and gorged ourselves on the five star breakfast buffet of smoked salmon, freshly made waffles and an abundance of cheeses and fruit. The Blue Lagoon is busy all year round, but going early will give you a bit more space in the changing rooms if nothing else.
You can easily spend a whole morning or afternoon at the lagoon so make sure to plan enough time into your schedule to luxuriate in the uniqueness of the place. Our tickets were included in our stay at the hotel as was a glass of prosecco for my sister and a more virtuous Skyr smoothie for me. On a clear day, the water evaporates in enormous swirls into the sky making it easy to lose people in the mineral rich steam.
Our newly found and trusty coach service, which leaves from the lagoon every hour, took us into Reykjavik in the afternoon. Another way of getting around the gasp-inducing prices of the city is staying away from tourist trap hotels. We booked a lovely Airbnb for three nights, which was conveniently located and gave us the flexibility to make our own meals.
“Coffee is not indigenous to Iceland but locals rely on it to get them out of bed on winter days when the sun does not rise until 11am and sets at 3pm.”
Reykjavik is a charming city, which reflects its impoverished history as well as its more vibrant present. Iceland’s population is 330,000, so as you can imagine, the capital city is equally small making walking around easy. We started by the docks and worked our way through downtown stopping for a cup of coffee at one of Reykjavik’s many coffee shops. Coffee is not indigenous to Iceland but locals rely on it to get them out of bed on winter days when the sun does not rise until 11am and sets at 3pm. Our favourite place was the Reykjavik Roasters, a convenient 30-second walk from Braud & Co, which does the best, and biggest, cinnamon rolls in town.
On the theme of food, Café Paris is a perfect central spot for lunch and is beloved by locals. We scoffed enormous burgers next to a regal looking Icelandic grandmother in a floor length fur coat and red lipstick. For dinner, the dockyard has an array of excellent restaurants. Arrive early for happy hour, choose one of the many fish options and you can’t go wrong.
When you are not eating, the best way to start or end a day in Reykjavik is to have a dip in one of the public pools scattered across the city. Locals frequent these spots before or after work to unwind as the thermal water is considered an excellent tonic for stress. If you venture into rural Iceland you will notice that this practice is repeated throughout the country. Every grammar school has a pool and children are legally required to learn to swim. Even in snow storms families and friends flock to the warm water making it the perfect year-round activity.
“If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes” or guide Hildir told us when we met him on the morning of our tour. I was particularly worried about what kind of clothing to bring on the trip, but layers and comfortable walking shoes are best, especially if you decide to take one of the Golden Circle tours to see the mighty waterfalls, glaciers and national parks. Other activities for the more adventurous include quad biking, climbing frozen waterfalls and even scuba diving between the two tectonic plates that once joined North America and Europe. A highlight for us was just driving through the sublime landscape on the almost empty roads.
On our final morning, we walked along the seafront past Harpa, the mirrored concert hall, to Hofdi, the house where President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev met to end the Cold War. The house looks out across the icy water and over to the snow-capped mountains on the other side making it the perfect calming point between East and West.
At the airport, I was delighted to discover a shop selling the silica mud and algae facemasks sourced from the Blue Lagoon itself. Now I can replicate the unique Icelandic bathing experience at home. All of this without facing my own, slightly less appealing, local leisure centre.
Fly directly from London to Reykjavik with Icelandair. We stayed at the Silica Hotel for two nights.