Zen In The Trees

Zen In The Trees

Photo by
Art Bicnick

 Iceland doesn’t have a lot of forest, but there’s a hidden gem in at least one of them

Akureyri is being swept by a snowstorm. 

For a few hours on a night in late February, it feels like Iceland’s second-largest town has turned into a tiny snow globe. The wooden houses in the central area, usually bright and colourful, are now blanketed in white, with an occasional candle flickering in every other window serving as a reminder of life inside. Parked cars, including one belonging to Lögreglan, are buried under the snow’s weight. Kids are throwing snowballs, making me nostalgic for my childhood. How weird would it be if I joined them in a snow fight?

Things feel cold and heavy, but just a five minute ride away lies an oasis nestled in the trees. Long overdue, Art Bicnick and I are here to visit Forest Lagoon.

A very hot discovery

Forest Lagoon, or Skógarböð, opened its doors in May 2022 and has since welcomed more than 200,000 visitors. Natural baths aren’t a new concept in Iceland, in fact, there’s one in almost every corner of the country. But, until Sigríður María Hammer and her husband Finnur Aðalbjörnsson turned their land into a thriving business, providing a haven for both locals and tourists to relax in the region, there wasn’t one in this part of the North. “Once we were walking around here, and saw this land for sale — 250 acres that go all the way up to the mountain and then down to the ocean. We decided to buy it, because it’s just magnificent land. Iceland has approximately 3% forest, so this is quite a lot of forest in that matter,” says Sigríður, as we sit in the Lagoon’s cosy bistro.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Initially, Sigríður and Finnur didn’t have plans to use the land for a nature baths project, but when hot water was discovered during the construction of Vaðlaheiðargöng, the tunnel that allows for a shorter travel time between Akureyri and Húsavík, the idea started to materialise. “When they were drilling the tunnel, they found hot water within the mountain that wasn’t supposed to be there. It was quite a surprise,” Sigríður explains. 

The discovery of the hot water caused considerable delay for the construction work of the tunnel. “The construction workers were actually working just in speedos, because it was 50 degrees inside,” says Sigríður. “Ever since the tunnel was finished, this water has basically been going into the ocean. Nobody was doing anything with it. What a waste.”

“Iceland has approximately 3% forest, so this is quite a lot of forest.”

The 50-degree water, rich with oxygen and minerals, wasn’t suitable for heating houses. Finnur, who’s a contractor and has worked on many infrastructure projects in the area, first thought of the idea of building a nature bath. However, the problem was that the hot water vein lay approximately three kilometres from what is now the Forest Lagoon. The project sounded ambitious but very costly.

“For many years Akureyri has been a town where people stayed one night and then just travelled further on to Lake Mývatn,” says Sigríður, telling me how she and her husband embarked on a mission to change this. “After many negotiations, we got everyone on board and they [local municipalities], decided to help us with putting all the water into pipelines to restrain and to take it here.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Diving into comfort

I change into my swimsuit in the shower area, which is equipped with both open public showers and individual shower cabins for those who aren’t used to the Icelandic bathing customs of showering naked. A good shower is essential, highlights Sigríður — the water in Forest Lagoon is free from any chemicals, including chlorine. The only thing Forest Lagoon adds to the water is cold water, exchanging it a few times a day to stay free from bacteria.

In the shower, I discover that Sóley Organics shampoos and shower gel products are being used here — a small detail but a pleasant surprise for me personally, as these are the exact products I use at home. I later find out that the Lagoon is already working on its own bathing products with a local producer from the North.

I’m happy to discover that you can walk into the lagoon through a passageway directly next to the changing area, without the need to expose yourself to the cold. There’s a separate inclined passageway for those using wheelchairs, With private changing rooms, inclusivity and accessibility is taken seriously at every step of the experience.

Ready for a “pine” soak

Designed by Basalt Architects, the firm behind the Blue Lagoon and GeoSea nature baths, Forest Lagoon boasts a sleek wooden exterior that harmonises seamlessly with the surrounding forest backdrop. The inclusion of individual trees planted inside the pool adds to the feeling of being immersed in the forest ambience.

Forest Lagoon consists of two pools — one around 38 degrees Celsius, and the other slightly warmer at 41-42 degrees Celsius. For those who love extreme contrasts, there’s also a cold tub that I decide to skip, despite Art’s many attempts to convince me to check it out. The in-pool bars offer a variety of drinks to match every taste — from smoothies and slushies to an assortment of local beers and cocktails. The safety of the visitors when it comes to drinking inside the bath is taken seriously — you’re only allowed to purchase four alcoholic drinks and will be denied access if you reach your limit. 

Photo by Art Bicnick

I opt for a piña colada from one of the pool bars and think to myself, “Where else could I enjoy a cocktail while being immersed in a warm bath?” Iceland’s other lagoons come to mind, but what sets Forest Lagoon apart from them, besides being surrounded by an actual forest, is the presence of benches and tables made of rock throughout the pool area. It doesn’t clutter the bathing experience. Instead, it allows you to pause for a moment, set down your drink and take in the view — the Eyjafjörður fjord stretching below and the Hlíðarfjall ski resort lighting up at dusk.

According to Sigríður, the proximity to Vaðlaskógur forest not only distinguishes Forest Lagoon from a myriad of other hot spring pools in Iceland, but serves a practical purpose — sheltering the pool from wind gusts. “Other lagoons sometimes have to regulate the water because it cools down if the wind is blowing too much,” she explains. “Sometimes they even have to close. We’ve never even had to regulate water more than 1-2 degrees.”

A freestanding Finnish sauna with a large panoramic view over the pool, allows bathers to truly soak in the experience — admire the surroundings, or simply close their eyes, meditate and indulge in the relaxing experience. As I step inside, the sound of a conversation in Finnish greets me — a Finn in the sauna is a genuine mark of quality.

Planning ahead

Off-season, Forest Lagoon takes pride in hosting events tailored more to the local community, including inviting local bands and musicians for pool concerts. On one occasion, a band even performed from the rooftop of the sauna, creating an uproar among visitors who swayed in the pool, some of them as wrinkled as prunes.

Photo by Art Bicnick

“We believe in this area,” says Sigríður, her eyes sparking with motivation. “It’s beautiful and there’s so much potential there.”

“For our next project, we are building a hotel — right here, 90 metres south from the lagoon.”

As tourism in Iceland is experiencing a second record-breaking year in a row, the problem of insufficient infrastructure becomes more and more visible, especially in the North. Together with her husband and business partner, Sigríður already has another project in the works. “For our next project, we are building a hotel — right here, 90 metres south from the lagoon,” she shares. The 120-room hotel is set to open by 2027 and connect to Forest Lagoon through an infinity pool.  

Open daily from 10:00 to midnight, Forest Lagoon allows you to unwind while savouring the scenery all-year-round — overlooking the greenery of a rare Icelandic forest and observing its diverse bird life in the summer or watching snowflakes melt in the water in the winter, just like I did. A frosty sunrise or a pink sunset? You name it.

And just imagine watching the northern lights here.

Forest Lagoon can be accessed by car or a free shuttle from Akureyri. For details, visit forestlagoon.is 

Experience provided by: forestlagoon.is 

Accommodation provided by: hotel-akureyri.com

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!