Standing in a heated, pine-panelled room, putting off changing into my swimsuit to bathe in the Húsafell outdoor hotpot Giljaböð, I began to question all decisions that brought me to this exact point in life. The temperature outside was -6° Celsius. My coat hung on a hook fashioned from an old horseshoe, and my bag rested on a bench topped with a goat hide. Outside the changing room, a series of rugged cliffs carved out a canyon, covered in fresh snow and bisected by a shallow river.
Half an hour ago, my wife, Harpa, and I sat in a clean, well-lighted cafe in Húsafell, chatting with our guide, Olga, as we waited for the maintenance staff to clear the snowy path to the rustic facilities. The storm last night had blocked the way. “He doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but I think it’s fine,” Olga shrugged. I suspected he was probably just grumpy about having to clear the way for two overeager lovebirds. Honestly, I couldn’t blame him.
A long-awaited journey
In order to make the hike over to the cliffs’ edge and down a slippery set of stairs, Harpa and I donned slip-resistant shoe-covers. The weather had caused our journey to be postponed more than once, and our faces were pummeled with falling snow as we made the trek; we wondered if perhaps we should have stayed home. But we were determined, as we had something to celebrate: the third anniversary of our engagement.
Bearing this in mind, I took a deep breath, pulled on my swim trunks, braced myself and confidently approached the door. The counterweight that kept the door shut lowered as I opened it, and the whipping wind and snow greeted me eagerly, stinging every bit of exposed flesh. I sprinted to the pool where my wife, clearly the braver half of our partnership, was already waiting.
We were alone in the canyon and as soon as I joined her in the warm waters of Giljaböð, all doubts, worries, and regrets melted along with the chill in my bones as we popped open the champagne.
Three baths, three adventures
There are three baths to choose from in the Húsafell canyon. Urð (Earth) is the warmest, at roughly 41° Celsius, while Hringur (ring), modelled after Snorri Sturluson’s own secret hot tub in Reykholt, is 10º cooler. Down a flagstone path is a nameless bath, which is the coldest of the three and, on a day like my wife and I experienced, is clearly reserved for those who wish to assert their dominance and prove their insanity.
All three were constructed using methods dating back to the 10th century, and the entire site was made from locally sourced, natural materials. Stone from the canyon floor was used to construct the pools. The changing rooms were built using salvaged timber from old telephone poles. Even the hooks on the walls and the goatskins on the benches in the changing rooms were sourced from local farms. The entire setup was put together with the goal of preserving the integrity of the canyon while also allowing discerning adventurers to take in a magnificent view.
Soaking it in
We opted to take in the view from the warmest bath. Sheer cliff faces stood on all sides, almost completely blocking out any wind. Tumbling down these cliff faces were a series of waterfalls that had frozen over. The surrounding cold air was soon forgotten as we soaked in the hot water.
With cup holders built in the waterside snow, we sat quietly, the whistling wind our only soundtrack, enjoying the space between us that our silence occupied, appreciating the moment. You can’t find this in any public swimming pool in Iceland. No, this type of tucked away experience is only available for those adventurous sorts who enjoy minimalistic outdoor experiences. Here, there is no gift shop and the exit is through the same way you came. You’ll find no bar. If you want drinks, bring them yourself. But the tradeoff is a splendid opportunity to bathe in a hot spring in the same way as the Vikings and medieval chieftains did a thousand years ago. You may not get an overpriced souvenir for it, but the memories will stay with you forever.
Harpa and I clinked our glasses and I stole a kiss. We both knew one thing: this spot, right here, right now was the best in the world.
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