While wading through the steam-covered waters of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, I thought, Now, this is how to bide your time between flights. Since opening here on the edge of the Arctic Circle 10 years ago, this geothermal hot spring centre has become one of the nation’s top attractions — 400,000 people took a bath here last year. This mystical pond sums up the Icelandic spirit: it’s cool, it’s hot, it’s healthy and totally out of this world.
“There’s basically an airplane of people in the pool right now,” says parka-wearing lifeguard Gudmunder Bergmann on a late-winter Sunday afternoon. Passengers with long layovers at Keflavik International Airport can board a 10-minute shuttle and be back in time for their connecting flights, feeling blissed from an alfresco nourishing algae wrap or a floating massage.
I spot a confab in the centre of the 5,000-square-metre black lava-lined pool and breaststroke my way over. Men and women, mostly young and healthy-looking blonds, are smearing their faces with porridge-like silica — a naturally occurring mineral in these primordial waters — before drifting back into the misty vapours to revel in the sybaritic pleasure of it all.
In a land that is shaken and stirred by volcanoes, earthquakes, thundering waterfalls, cracking glaciers and a pounding party scene in Reykjavik, swimming outdoors in a treeless lunar landscape in water fired by the earth’s core is not so out of the ordinary. There are a dozen outdoor, year-round thermal pools in the capital, including Nauthólsvik Thermal Beach, a whimsical summertime ritual where geothermal water gets pumped into the frigid Atlantic Ocean for locals. But to dip into Iceland’s aquatic diversions and miss therest is like visiting the seaside and getting only your toes wet.
An overland Jeep safari stops at geysers and hot springs that belch rotten-egg sulphur fumes into the otherwise pristine arctic air. Riding the range on a diminutive Icelandic horse is another way to see the country up close. So protected is this unusual breed descended from the Viking era that no other type of horse is allowed into Iceland, and if they leave, they can never return. Over the centuries, the horse has developed its own unique gait called tölt to navigate the rocky terrain with a sturdy sure-footedness that buffers a rider’s passage.
The Reykjavik area is home to about 200,000 people who seem to embody a hip, urban Nordic lifestyle and flaunt it through their sense of fashion and design. They certainly know how to party. Whether it’s under a dramatic display of winter’s northern lights or summer’s midnight sun, the club scene starts late and goes until morning. A vibrant indie music scene attracts international acts and fans from both sides of the Atlantic, who also come for the eerie, plaintive sounds of homegrown bands such as Björk and Sigur Rós. Listening to them (Icelandair has an audio channel with all Björk, all the time) triggers insight into the Icelandic psyche and how it’s possible to believe in things such as elves. Most Icelanders do. They see these little people as protectors of the Icelandic spirit.
Back at the Blue Lagoon, dusk descends and bathers head for the poolside Lava Restaurant & Bar, a stunning perch chiselled from black volcanic rock. One of the surprises of this country is a cuisine of seafood, lamb and greenhouse-grown produce (even bananas) that shine with flavours as fresh as Icelandic air and water. It’s another appetizing tease to see more of this unique place on the edge of Europe in the middle of nowhere.