The Icelandic Swimming Experience
Maybe it’s the always chilly arctic temperatures that make swimming in a warm, naturally heated pool so irresistible. And perhaps it’s the stunning views and pure, unpolluted northern air that’s prompted so many Icelanders to build those pools outside. I use the term “build” in a loose sense, as many Icelandic pools are nothing but naturally occurring bodies of warm, shallow water with showers and facilities nearby. In any case, swimming in one of the pools is a wonderful and distinctly Icelandic experience, and it shouldn’t be missed by anyone who sets foot in the country.
It seems that almost every town in Iceland has a pool of some sort, and the pools are as varied as the landscape itself. Many are pools in the classic sense, their main claim to fame being that they are heated geothermally. But a few pools are really special. Take the one in Mývatn, northern Iceland. It’s completely natural – a large body of hot water sitting outdoors in stubborn defiance of the cold climate. Facilities have been added and lights have been installed (most of Iceland’s winter is spent in darkness), but there’s definitely a cool factor in knowing that the water would be there with or without the people. Adding to the ambiance is the steam that rises constantly as the warm water’s surface meets the cold air, while the sulfur smell reminds you just how raw and natural the water really is. Wading into the pool is an experience as you navigate invisible submerged rocks, mud, and various pockets of too-cold and scaldingly hot water.
Then there’s the pool in Höfn, slightly northwest of Mývatn and also in northern Iceland. On paper, it’s an incredibly average pool – entirely man made, the pool isn’t all that big, the jacuzzi is small and it has minimal facilities to go along with it. But this pool is in Iceland, a place where hardly anything is average, and Höfn’s pool is fittingly amazing. Situated outdoors high on a cliff, the pool sits mightily above it all. Patrons are treated to stunning views of the sea and sky on a clear day. Swimming in this pool’s warm water, breathing Iceland’s chilly air while overlooking the gorgeous Greenland Sea is utterly refreshing in a way that very few experiences are.
Most of Iceland’s pools are beautifully remote, and as deeply refreshing as they are stunning to look at. Then there’s the Blue Lagoon. As much as anything can be in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is firmly on the beaten tourist path. It’s crowded, it’s expensive, and all the commercialization sadly robs the pool of much of the raw, natural purity you’ll find elsewhere in the country. It’s just difficult to sit back and let your mind drift away when you’re bumping elbows with tourists on three hour flight connections, downing mixed drinks as they hurriedly take their obligatory “yeah I’ve been there” photos. That being said, if you do have a three hour connection in Keflavik I strongly urge you to visit the nearby Blue Lagoon, down your mixed drinks, and take your obligatory tourist photos. You’ll experience a small slice of what Iceland’s all about, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to come back and see more of the country’s true beauty. Otherwise I’d suggest a take it or leave it approach. If you need just one more dip in an Icelandic pool before your long flight home it may be worthwhile, but don’t be surprised that it’s twice the price and half as relaxing some of Iceland’s other pools (which is still pretty damn relaxing). If you go, don’t forget to rub that Blue Lagoon mud on your face; supposedly it has medicinal qualities.
How to swim in an Icelandic pool
Iceland’s pools have an admittance fee, typically no more than 2500 Icelandic Krona ($20 USD), but double that more for the Blue Lagoon. Upon arrival to the pool you’ll pay the fee and head for the locker room. Lockers are coin operated and you’ll have to keep your key with you as you’re swimming. The key usually has an elastic wrist band which makes carrying it easy. Pools in some of the smaller towns don’t have lockers at all, and if that’s the case you’ll leave your things in a small basket which is provided. It takes a leap of faith for those of us used to big city crime and petty theft to leave our things in a basket for all to access. But remember, this is Iceland and any hesitation you and I might have about it sadly says more about us than it does them.
Iceland’s pools aren’t so much for bathing as they are for swimming and relaxing. The bathing part is done beforehand by way of showering in the locker room. Best to leave at home whatever reservations you might have about being naked in front of other people. Soap is provided, and once you’ve showered and put your swimsuit on it’s time to head out to the pool.
Most pools have two sections – one hot and one mildly cool enough for lap swimming. It can be a cold walk from the shower to the pool and you’ll probably want to warm up first. If you’re in a natural pool you’ll want to take care getting in – the rocks can be slippery and certain areas of the pool might be uncomfortably hot. Swimming in the daytime is nice enough, but for a really interesting experience try going to at least one outdoor pool at night. The underwater lights pierce the darkness, giving the whole thing a dream like quality as the warm glow illuminates the rising steam evaporating into the night sky.
When you’re done swimming you’ll head back into the locker room and do everything in reverse: suit off, shower again, change, gather your things, and leave the locker key. You’ll feel incredibly rejuvenated and relaxed – nothing beats swimming in Iceland.
Have you swam in Iceland? What are some other places you’ve enjoyed swimming?