Just 40 minutes from Reykjavik city centre, in the gorgeous landscape of Hvalfjörður, lies Iceland’s latest thermal baths experience. A peaceful cove and home of former WOW Air CEO Skúli Mogensen and his partner, interior designer Gríma Björg Thorarensen, Hvammsvík now offers a new and unique experience to Icelanders and tourists alike.
The water levels and temperatures at Hvammsvík Hot Springs fluctuate with the tides that wash in and out of the quiet fjord from the North Atlantic ocean. What also sets this thermal bath experience apart is its location far from the madding crowd; you really have to take a special, albeit short, journey to get there.
Fjord lost in time
On my trip to Hvammsvík, the August weather was exceptionally beautiful with clear blue skies and quiet seas. Hvalfjörður means “whale fjord” and Iceland’s only whaling station is still located there. During World War II it was also the site of a naval base used by the British and American navies. The area is dotted by the ruins of that time.
The road skirting Hvalfjörður was much-travelled until the late 90s,when a tunnel opened running under the mouth of the fjord, shortening the trip considerably. The rest ofHvalfjörður almost stood still in time, cut away from traffic, remote, quiet, framed by mountains, green pastures and indigo waves.
This air of tranquillity and remoteness carries visitors all the way to Hvammsvík and the unassuming stretch of road marked “private” where you park your car and walk down towards the main building, built in WWII barack style and actually constructed on top of naval base ruins. Beyond it are eight different pools and a steambath right by the black sandy beach, a nod to Icelandic bathing culture fused with modern design and artwork. Arriving at Hvammsvík on this picture-perfect Sunday morning I was struck by its serenity, a feeling that stayed with me throughout my visit.
Design in harmony with the surrounding nature
Sustainable modern solutions merge with ancient bathing methods at Hvammsvík. Reykjavík Energy used to own the land and drilled for geothermally heated water at the time. “The old pool called Gamla Laugin has existed here for over 30 years and many people remember sneaking into it for a dip,” Gríma explains. “We used it a lot whatever the weather. It’s so incredible being in a hot pool on the beachfront and how different the experience can be, the differing tides, sunshine or a crazy storm, or starry skies and northern lights.”
The more time she and Skúli spent at the beach, the more convinced they became of developing the area and the geothermal waters further while still taking care to keep any development in harmony with the surrounding nature.
“Skúli has been very ardent in sketching up all kinds of ideas throughout the years and he’s been immersing himself in the design of the pools themselves and their surroundings while my role was to design the interiors and every detail,” Gríma tells me. “But the whole thing merged into one because we’ve spent countless hours together on this project, particularly for the last two years and of course, we’ve had amazing architects and contractors to help us realise our dream.”
She further explains that the hot water from the geothermal borehole is mixed with two-thirds seawater, so guests are literally bathing in warm seawater. “There’s constant flow-through and at night we increase the flow of seawater, which means they [are cleaned] naturally without any detergents used.”
Float in warm seawater with a seal looking on
Their aim in opening Hvammsvík, Gríma says, was to create a unique experience in nature, keeping things small and in harmony with the surroundings and maintaining a personal service.
“There’s so much wildlife in Hvammsvík, which we respect greatly. It’s incredible to float in a warm pool on the beach and see curious seals swimming towards you. There are also plenty of eider ducks and a wide variety of other birds.
“One of our pools is a tidal pool and it disappears when the tide comes in. It’s amazing to relax in a 38-degree hot pool and then feel the cold salty ocean flow over the edge and slowly cool it down. It’s this ever-changing aspect of the baths that never ceases to surprise our guests and we’ve tried to attribute this also to the interior design. We’ve also created our own special scent, our own ceramics, the artwork and Storm Bistro and Bar which we’ve just opened.”
Adding to the interiors are some truly special pieces of art. Skúli is one of Iceland’s most avid collectors and the interiors at Hvammsvík are adorned with the works of Ólafur Elíasson, Birgir Andrésson, Shoplifter, and more.
“The biggest compliment I get from people is that it seems that the building and the baths have always been here,” Gríma says, proudly. “The colour palette of the interiors is as raw and rustic as the surrounding nature and I used materials sourced from the close surroundings, such as using sand, seashells and stones from the beach for the flooring.”
To complete the Hvammsvík experience, the baths offer weekly Wim Hof sessions, free paddle boarding and a simple but rather wonderful menu to indulge in following your swim at the small restaurant and bar spearheaded by top chef Hinrik Carl Ellertsson. The menu includes algae shots, a seafood soup, and dried fish with dulse, as well as a variety of open-faced sourdough sandwiches and vegan options of course. Then there’s the swim-in bar and an excellent wine selection.
Further attention to detail includes a heavenly grassy seawater signature Hvammsvík scent, which is infused in the change areas’ soaps and shampoos. Those who just can’t bear to leave can stay longer in one of the cabins on site, each stylishly appointed by Gríma in keeping with the rest of the Hvammsvík experience.
My experience at Hvammsvík was of utter timelessness. I spent the whole day immersing myself in the different pools, floating in the buoyant seawater, observing the clouds and an occasional bird streaking across the sky, absorbing the mountainscape and the ebb and flow of the tide. I braved the cold ocean for brisk dips between soaking in the warm baths and let the sunlight on my face and the soft seawater do its magic whilst occasionally sipping on algae-fused fruit juice.
When I finally emerged, mostly due to hunger, it was almost six o’clock. I’d spent six hours in the ocean without even noticing the passage of time. My skin was soft, my body tingled, my mind was an oasis of calm and I felt like an ocean goddess. I can’t wait to return.
For bookings visit www.hvammsvik.com
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!