In the past few years, a particularly entrepreneurial spirit has swept the country, inspiring millionaires of all stripes in the throes of religious epiphanies to begin monetizing Iceland’s geothermal springs into dark castles devoted to the worship of cosiness. Where locals and tourists alike can slip out of their peasant garments and into terry cloth robes to laze around in carefully-constructed recreations of Icelandic nature. But with the spa label being tacked onto everything from swanky lagoons of the Blue, Sky and Forest varieties, to the hot tub in some guy’s backyard — how do we know what to choose?
What type of spa are you looking for? A posh spa? A sporty spa? A ginger sp…this Spice Girls analogy doesn’t really work does it?
Here’s the Grapevine’s guide to a wet and wild ride through the best hot water money can buy.
From splashy community centres to luxury retreats
Every Icelandic town with more than a 1000 people has a municipal swimming pool, complete with jacuzzis and plastic beach loungers.
Unlike many European countries, the Icelandic swimming pool is not rooted in hydrotherapy as much as it is a place to stage mandatory swimming lessons (smart, as we’re an island) and a warm puddle for elderly gents to wax polemic about “those damn clowns in Alþingi.” The pools were never the sort of Budapestian havens where an 18th century Austrian poet would go to recover from heartache and light scurvy. No, these were and always should be farty-water community centres.
The international conception of spa culture invaded Iceland’s shores when the Blue Lagoon got upgraded from a thinly-disguised industrial run-off site into a tourist mecca. Of course there were some early adopters, like the spa in the hotel formerly known as Loftleiðir (now, Reykjavík Natura) but, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s the rise of the Blue Lagoon that helped cement the Icelandic geothermal spa as one of the first things visitors associate with our little homeland.
THE BEST KEPT SECRET
360° Boutique Hotel & Spa
This charming luxury lodge is at the end of a dirt road and not visible from any major tourist route. If that isn’t exclusive enough, the spa does not take walk-ins and visitors will need to book a stay at their luxury lodge. Thankfully, it’s a welcoming romantic getaway, with each room offering a clear view of the bright-orange skies on a freezing afternoon in southern Iceland. Add to that a skilled chef and a pair of adorable Icelandic sheepdogs, and it feels like a warm hug on a winter morning. Spa-wise, you have a choice between an indoor pool shrouded in steam, a provincial infinity pool extending into a koi pond, or a pair of hot tubs sitting atop a hill with a 360 degree view of the rolling countryside. The geothermal spring is naturally high in mineral salts, which excludes the need for chlorine, and run-off water is channelled back into the surrounding nature. While it may be slightly less polished than some of the others, it more than makes up for it in good food, stunning views and that aforementioned doggy duo.
HOT TIPS: Don’t miss the hot tub on the hill, as you can lose sight of it on a winter night. Do take advantage of the little floaty mats, you deserve weightlessness.
Honourable Mention: Natura Spa
One of the first on the spa scene, but often forgotten. This lovely blue-lit lounge spa is located in the basement of Reykjavík Natura hotel, making it an easy-to-access treat even for 101 rats.
TO TAKE IN THE NATURE
In a highly-contested category, the newly-opened Hvammsvík Hot Springs inched ahead as the front-runner. Hvammsvík offers gorgeous views that blend seamlessly into the waters of Hvalfjörður and the jagged peaks encircling it. Key features include a hot tub on the pebbled beach, which is nearly swallowed by the sea at high-tide, along with a range of other hot tubs at varying temperatures and depths, which are littered across the beach. If you get tired of the great outdoors, you can head inside for a bowl of seafood soup or tuck yourself away in the loaf-shaped steambath to hum to yourself and feel the acoustics vibrate your skull to samadhi. This is the place to go after munching those edibles you forgot were in your beige weekender.
HOT TIPS: Don’t be nervous about the jellyfish if you decide to take a dip in the sea — they don’t sting. Do be careful on the wooden steps connecting the pools — they get moderately-to-insanely slippery.
Honourable Mention: Forest Lagoon
Another newbie on the spa circuit, the Forest Lagoon on the outskirts of Akureyri forgoes the dark lava design that’s become so popular in Iceland by weaving their hot springs into a man-made forest clearing with views over Eyjafjörður.
THE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK
There is no such thing as a cheap spa and, if you’re just looking for a cosy hot tub, you’re better off with any of the pools. But if you’re looking to kick it up a smidge without breaking the bank, then GeoSea leads the pack. While it may not offer an exhaustive range of spa activities, the Húsavík staple does offer an infinity pool filled with heated seawater, which guides your eye to ludicrously gorgeous views over Skjálfandafjörður. So sit back and take it all in with a long sigh and a glass of bubbly.
HOT TIPS: Remember to pay the bar tab on your plastic bracelet. You may find that the wine has eaten into the Blue Lagoon savings.
Honourable Mention: Laugar Spa
Located in the bowels of the World Class Laugar gym, you don’t go to this spa for the views. Look out for 2-for-1s and discounts and you can enjoy a range of steam baths surrounded by oddly sex-fixated decor choices. If you need fresh air, take a brisk jaunt over to Laugardalslaug, which is included in the entry price.
THE ULTRA FANCY SPA
The Retreat at Blue Lagoon
Oh, shit is that Beyoncé!? No? Oh, well, it’s still pretty nice. The Blue Lagoon Retreat seems to have been built to meet the affluent and famous contingent’s need for uninterrupted selfies and boy does it deliver. Far from the madding crowds of the regular lagoon, here you will get your very own changing suite with private facilities. After threading your way through a maze of saunas and relaxation rooms, you can choose between lounging in the whisper-quiet café, grabbing a bubbly in the private lagoon area, or descending to the lower level for an upscale version of the silica skincare regime found in the commoners’ lagoon. While the price tag is dizzying, there is a lot to be said for avoiding the foot traffic and embracing serenity to its fullest.
HOT TIPS: You will get lost making your way to the changing room, be careful not to stub your toes on the steps in the opaque lagoon water, and take advantage of the surprisingly generous portions at the café.
Honourable Mention: Deplar Farm
This lodge in a remote part of North Iceland has a similar price-based barrier to entry as the Retreat at the Blue Lagoon but, in addition to the usual spa facilities, it offers a swim-up bar, flotation tanks and two helipads (for all your helicoptering needs).
What the heck is a spa?
This may seem like a simple enough question, but it gets particularly thorny in a country with a widespread bathing culture. The only way forward is to wade into these murky waters and bash together a definition. Here are the definitive characteristics of a spa, as far as the Grapevine is concerned:
1. The first one is easy. An Icelandic spa must offer pools of geothermal mineral water for people to relax in. This is non-negotiable. Think of it as a waterpark for relaxing adults. That said, there shouldn’t be a full-blown lap pool. A spa is not the place to get your cardio in.
2. It should not have much geared towards children. It’s a place for mommy to get away from her hellspawn.
3. Robes. Robes are nice. Give in to the robe.
4. Booze. While not an essential part of the experience for some, easy access to sparkling wine does help enforce the message of relaxation and celebration. Just don’t start getting all shouty or think we don’t know when you are getting handsy in the water.
5. Higher service level. If you’re lucky, a trip to a traditional Icelandic pool includes an old woman shouting at you to clean your buttcrack. A spa should be a notch above that.
6. Treatments for your aching bones and saggy skin. Massage, facials, mani, pedi, etc. If the nice spa person tells you it is a good idea to get wrapped up in seaweed and thrown into hot lava, then you shut up and do it. You want that glow.
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