Flúðir is a sleepy village of around 400 people, just over an hour’s drive from Reykjavík. After turning off the well-beaten path of the southbound Route 1 at the town of Selfoss, it’s a 45km inland drive through some some surprisingly verdant farmland, with bales of hay lying bagged for collection and tractors chugging through the fields. The road runs alongside broad, gleaming rivers and lakes, and occasional tiny hamlets, with the high peak of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier looming majestically in the background.
The village first becomes visible by the plumes of steam rising from its multitudinous geothermal hotspots, then from the yellow glow of the greenhouses that can produce vegetables year-round due to this advantageous heat source. It’s a low-key, quiet, spread-out kind of place, with plenty of space between the industrial-looking plots and peaceful residential streets, a gas station, a modern Icelandair hotel, and an unexpected Ethiopian food joint, all surrounded by distant, picturesque, craggy mountains.
Tucked away down a humble dirt track by the river Mjóitangi, which flows through the town centre, lies a relatively new and increasingly famous attraction. Known to locals as Gamla Laugin (“The Old Pool”), it was rebranded as “The Secret Lagoon” two summers ago by a local called Björn “Bjössi” Kjartansson, who renovated the antique swimming place and reopened it for business in 2014.
Bjössi is a burly and practical man of few words, who now spends his time maintaining the pool and its facilities, along with greeting guests all year-round. “I’m from around here,” he says, sitting in the lagoon’s lobby area. “My parents live just 200 metres from the pool. I bought this land in 2006, and had the idea to open the old pool again.”
Bjössi had been away for a while, working as a mechanic in Greenland, before he embarked on this new venture. “I’d been saving up money,” he says. “My uncle owned the land, then. It was very lucky—I just had the money right when he was selling. This building we’re in now was a greenhouse back then—I renovated it into these changing rooms and lobby.”
After bathers change and descend the metal stairs from the deck into the pool, the ground beneath their feet is unpaved and pebble-strewn as the hot water closes around their shoulders. There are various boulders lurking just under the surface that can be used to lounge around on. The walls of the pool are built from rough stone, and a crumbling shed sits abandoned on one shore, its two empty doorways gaping like sad eyes. Despite the renovation, it still feels slightly wild, particularly as we visit before the doors have opened for the day.
This rugged charm gives the Secret Lagoon a similar feel to some of Iceland’s unmarked natural hotpots, while offering visitor-friendly boons like easy access and changing facilities. And there’s some history there, too. “It was first used in 1891,” explains Bjössi, “right until 1937. But then nobody used it for 67 years. It was unused, but always full of warm water, for all those years.”
The water trickles in from a hot spring, which can be viewed by walking around a new path. There’s a small geyser that erupts every ten minutes, and some bubbling cauldrons of hot water. Steam rises over the river all over this area of Flúðir. I wonder if the lagoon, which has become a popular must-see fixture on many visitors’ itineraries, has brought some fresh air to this small, tucked away village.
“It’s been building up,” says Bjössi. “It was not so busy the first summer, but there were many more people this summer.” And was there a tipping point, where he knew it was going well? “Last autumn, after the summer, I thought: ‘This is going to be big,’” he replies. “It’s been my main job running the place since we opened. I’ve met people from all around the world. Mostly people from Europe—Germany, France, The Netherlands—and the US and Canada. But we’ve had people from Africa, and Asian people—a lot of Chinese and Japanese visitors.”
Onwards and upwards
Bjössi has another employee who helps him to run the pool—a Polish worker named Aga. “It’s just two of us working here,” Aga says. “It gets very, very busy. And there’s so much to be done—we need bigger changing rooms. We don’t sell souvenirs or anything like that, and we’re proud of that. We only charge for entry for the pool—we want to keep it as uncommercial as possible, just about the swimming.”
They’ve also found partners in other new travel businesses. Breathe Iceland is a young company running day-long excursions in which people do yoga classes in the Icelandic nature, including Gamla Laugin, and there have also been groups who arrive with swimwear kits that allow them to float freely in the water. “That’s a funny thing to see,” says Bjössi. “All these people just floating around. Those groups are regular now—they listen to Sigur Rós music, make boiled eggs in the hot spring, and watch for the northern lights.”
Bjössi’s take on Iceland’s tourist influx is, understandably, a positive one. “I think Icelanders are happy with it,” he says. “It’s good for the economy.” He pauses for a long time, suddenly red in the face and looking like he’d rather be doing anything else other that being interviewed. “I don’t really have much to say!” he smiles. “I don’t talk much.”
With his Secret Lagoon project still growing rapidly in popularity, something tells me this reticent but resourceful Icelander will be just fine.
For more info on the Secret Lagoon, see www.secretlagoon.is.
How to get there: Take Route 1 south, turning onto Route 35 at Selfoss.