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Drangsnes

Drangsnes

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Mývatn Nature Baths. These blue hot pools are like the Blue Lagoon only so much better because the water isn’t salty.  Everyone goes to the Blue Lagoon because it’s the done thing, and all that, but if you had to choose only one, these are better.  The pool is huge and there are multiple areas with different temperatures and room to lounge in the dreamy steam for hours, especially in the dark.  One of the best pools in Iceland.  However, this place gets a total fail on the changerooms.  A surprise, since it’s all tarted up with art and spa facilities with a price tag to match, but the women’s changeroom was tiny, wet, had tepid showers, and was absolutely filthy when I was there.  No more than 6-8 women at a time could use it comfortably at once; it was smaller than some of the smallest town sundlaugs, and I was very happy it wasn’t crowded when I was there.

Hot pots off to the left

Gvenarlaug-Hot pots off to the left

Second Hottest:
Gvenarlaug. Next to the friendly Hótel Laugarhóll and the turf roofed Sorcerer’s Cottage (connected to the Hólmavík witchcraft museum) lies a beautiful rock-lined and very hot outdoor pool.  It’s even holy water.  When you get too hot you can lay in the small cooler river flowing next to it.  Ahhhh, so hot.  Often in Iceland because it was so cold in the fall we were disappointed when the hot pools weren’t, quite, hot enough.

Krossneslaug

Krossneslaug

Hottest:
After hunting for Hellalaug in the night and not finding it, we were delighted to locate the pool near Reykjafjörður.  At first it wasn’t promising- the rectangular pool full of cool water, but following a watery ditch uphill we found the real hot pool, one of the loveliest outdoor pools in Iceland.  The water here was almost too hot at first, and there are tiered pots to get farther from the hot source.

Reykjafjörður

Reykjafjörður

Best view:
For the best view from a hot pot there’s Hellalaug, an unmarked right turn less than a mile to the right getting off the ferry from Stykkisholmur.  The rock pool looks out over the fjord, but it wasn’t hot enough to be exciting in the wintertime.  Krossneslaug, two km north of Norðurfjörður at the end of the world has an incredible view, but not from in the hot pot- that’s walled off for wind.  On the way at Drangsnes there are three cute square jacuzzi tubs on the side of the road overlooking the beach, and there are even fancy change rooms across the road.  It makes for a cold dash across, and the water wasn’t quite hot enough for the wintertime.

Drangsnes

Drangsnes

Public pools:
We became connoisseurs of the public pools, sundlaugar, especially the waterslides.  Stykkisholmur, Akureyri, and Höfn have big beautiful sundlaugar, the best slides are in Reykjavík, and Siglufjörður has a short waterslide but the fastest- it made me dizzy.  Dalvík has a beautiful fancy pool but the waterslide didn’t have enough oomph to spit us out, although it was funny to squeak to a total halt on the last turn and then scoot the rest of the way out.  Patreksfjörður has a lovely serene pool in the sunshine with a view.

Hrísey island has a treasure of a sundlaug, with the cheapest admission and the best showers, also jets in the outdoor hot pool.  Djupivogur is like being in the pool inside of a greenhouse, with a solid wall of windows.

Novelty:
At Djupidalur on the Westfjords we were hot pool hunting and surprised to find a pool on a farm in the middle of nowhere (also a guesthouse).  The small lap lane pool was totally indoors in a building of it’s own, with a hot tub outside in the back (pay at the farm).  It was so windy that even with the barrier walls around us, the water was lifting out of the pool in little sheets, and it was extremely painful to get out to run back inside.  The incongruous pool inside(!) was lovely, though.

Grettislaug

Grettislaug

Grettislaug, north of Sauðárkrókur, is supposedly the same water that Grettir of the Saga bathed in after swimming across from Drangey.  His pool isn’t that warm though. Jarlslaug (right next to it) is much better.  These are kind of odd rock hot pools, rather on an exposed beach, with a few buildings around.

Ambiguous:

Seljavallalaug.  This was a really cool pool built in the 40’s, I think, with an incredible Lord of the Rings-esque view of a dark green valley with walls looming over you.  Even more amazing than that this pool is out there in the middle of nowhere is that we found it, based on this solitary sentence in the Lonely Planet: “Built into a hillside at Seljavellir…Park by the farm and follow the path upwards”. The ambiguity is not only “the farm” (there are several candidates on a road that makes a loop), but also that the path hardly goes “upwards” in elevation, like I assumed, rather continues from where a spur road off the loop ends.  We carried straight on into the valley, following the water flowing out and an occasionally visible path through the gravel and on the side of the hill at times, and that worked.   The problem is how darn cold the pool was.  We huddled tightly in the corner of the pool that had the warm inlet, hugging the pipe and trying to stay as motionless as possible, but still the water leeched our body heat more than it warmed us, so eventually we cut our losses and fled, colder than we’d arrived.  Would be a “worst” candidate, but the cool water temp could be pleasant in high summer, say for a vigorous swim, and the surroundings are gorgeous.  Just don’t expect be be warmed.

Worst:

By Lýsuhóll on Snæfellsnes there’s an “outdoor pool” next to the sundlaug (didn’t try either) that is just -whoa.  It’s a square tub buried to grade level in an open field of spongy mud by the road, with not very hot water piped in and then overflowing all over the area.  The whole tub and surroundings are encrusted with orange mineral buildup.  If the wind, exposure, and muddy approach doesn’t put you off, the dirty water and slimy algae beards might.  I got the impression no one goes in the outdoor pool anymore.

Finding hot pools can be no mean feat.

If you can find (and afford), this book, then you’re done.  It has it all.

Enjoy Iceland is the best map resource online.  Some of the directions, though…super vague.  Good luck.

This site has a different opinion, but a lovely picture of Seljavallalaug, and a couple pools we haven’t been in. Grjótagjá is actually too hot to get into unless you grew up getting into it or you’re outside the normal range of pain and pleasure tolerance.  It’s super-cool and a Mývatn must-see (walk further away from town and there’s another cave too), but don’t be disappointed that you can’t get in.  It’s a critical few degrees above tolerable.

Actually I disagree with most of the lists I’ve seen, that usually lead with the Blue Lagoon, and carry on to describe the most tepid, windswept, crowded, and most accessible, or most expensive.  Hmmmm.  There’s a reason why Nauthhólsvík, and Landmannalaugar isn’t on my list.  I have not sampled Fontana or Laugarvallalaug (next time!)

Krossneslaug

Krossneslaug

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Woke up to a windy, rainy day.  We packed the tents wet and got out of there to warm up in a morning bakarí.  I left Derek there handling some technology and went to the local pool – an excellent choice.  It was a small pool with a very hot steam bath.  The morning pool crowd was talkative and huddled into the hottest hot tub, as usual.

DSCF6100We drove out for the south edge of the Reykjanes peninsula but got stopped by the most unique art park ever.  There were IMGP6319these bizarre, colourful, creative installations, just set around in the grass, walking distance to each other.  A bristling group of birdhouses on tall skinny poles, hard bumps in primary colours, a rippled wall of steel with cogs and gears “settled” to the bottom.  It was a very surprising discovery.

Taking the 42 towards Grindavík, we knew there was a lot to take in on this small peninsula.  At Seltún there were sulphurous, boiling mud hot pots like Hverir, but on a hill, with boardwalk winding among the hot spots, red and blue swathes of colour on the ground everywhere.  These hot places in the crust are so alien.

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A little farther up the road there’s Kleifarvatn, a moody, brooding lake surrounded by grey sand and black lava formations scooped and scoured by the wind.  Big chunks of strataed lava were marooned in the sand, everything around them eroded away.   That was an amazing place, even in the stormy weather.

DSCF6157Today the wind and rain dominated the story everywhere.  At Kleifarvatn we got to witness a trip of people struggle with a doomed attempt to use the wind.  They had a two line kite, but every time they lifted it, the wind either put it into a manic drilling corkscrew or just whipped it straight up and smashed it directly back down on the beach.  We were filming their antics from a distance when  the kite just broke off and got whipped into the bank.  I think it was too windy for kiting.

And people trying to fly kites wasn’t the most shocking spectacle we encountered on that road.  Milli Vanilli came on the radio (Bylgjan) – perhaps it was some kind of joke?, and even that was topped when we suddenly overtook a runner, all in black, jogging on the side of this packed gravel road in the middle of nowhere.  That was a surprise.  Someone out there at all, but in this weather?

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Just after having a quick look at the ruins of the Krýsuvík church, we pulled in to park at the Krýsuvíkurberg bird cliffs.  DSCF6186The wind was kind of crazy now, here at the water.  The sea was crashing on the rocks in the water with big plumes of surf and mist was being blasted sideways.   Exploring any kind of cliffs was out of the question in the wind.  Could get bumped off in more ways than one doing something like that.

We meandered north to the Blue Lagoon and took pictures of the very photogenic blue water on jet black rock, and the power plant that created the Blue Lagoon spa destination.  We had a very indecisive debate about whether or not to go into the pools now, decided we would, and then, approaching the door, quailed at the 28€ fee, and beat a retreat.

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IMGP6423Back to Grindavík.  Hoping for some wifi, we pulled into Lucky Luke’s hoping we’d get lucky with wifi, but no.  Got a big pizza and a cheeseburger, though, and played darts while we were waiting for our meal.

In Grindavík near the community center there was this interesting structure.  Very elaborate stonework, it must have taken forever – there were passages and a circular walkway.  None of it made sense and it was very small.  The tunnels would be comfortable only for a small child.  It was mystifying, but impressive.  Great stone working skills.

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We carried on west, to the tip of the peninsula.  At Gunnuhver, another hot spot feature, the wind was ripping sideways, strong and steady, rolling away the steam from the hot spots.  We ran along the wet boardwalks, frozen by the knifing wind.  I could lean into the wind, literally, putting my center of balance backwards so far I could lift my toes, and as long as it didn’t gust, it would hold me.  I could do a few seconds at a time.  The wind was so loud we were yelling at each other and the mist and rain was soaking us, so we didn’t stay long.

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This former viewpoint deck, totally swallowed by the changing hot crust was sobering.  It prompted Derek to remark “Hunh, extreme tourism.”

DSCF6203At Valahnúkur the weather was elemental, and the sun was going down.  Derek didn’t even get out of the car.  I walked out and could hardly keep my feet on the slick basalt rocks, flat and slippery.  I had to at least get a picture of the Great Auk memorial, a bronze bird standing motionless, sad and proud.  DSCF6200This place is disputed to be where the last Great Auk was had for lunch, a tragic reminder of the unique life being squandered and destroyed all over the planet.  The rocks here are beautiful, glistening black out of the grey foaming ocean, but it was just too wild.  I could barely risk peeking over the edge, the wind was flapping me around so much, so I scurried back to the car.

DSCF6216Miðlína, the “Bridge Between Two Continents”  (wooo, so exciting in capital letters), is totally gimmicky.  It’s not even a useful bridge, just a wooden bridge you can walk out on and say you’re standing between the North American and European plates.  One can stand between the plates all over in Iceland – the split goes through the whole country.  We were not impressed.  However, in the sandy floor of the ravine, lots of people had written messages with rocks and stones, like organic graffiti.  That was cool.

Now it was dark we went for Keflavík.  We went straight into the crowded town and slid straight into a parking place, like magic.  The hard part over, we walked to the park on the water, following the overall movement of people on foot.  It was Keflavík’s Ljósnótt, Night of Lights, a party with a big band stage and fireworks display.  Everywhere there were families, strollers, kids running around, grownups all with a beer in hand.

IMGP6468We walked through the outdoor tents jampacked with people jostling around the tables of artisans selling jewellery and crafts.  Icelanders have a bold, unique style in everything they make, and lots of these artisans have their work in stores around Reykjavík.  I’d seen it.

We wandered over to the water, as Derek wanted to get set up for the fireworks.  Children had swarmed the statues in the park, clustered all over the only vantage points.  On the rocks by the water, kids of all ages hopped around on the big rocks, and we chose our perch for the fireworks by a boy around ten who struck up conversation in stunningly perfect English.  He admired our tripod and excited, he told us the reason for the festival was that “Icelanders know how to PAR – TAY!”, in a sudden holler.IMGP6497

The fireworks were typical Iceland too, like in Reykjavík.  No slow intro, crescendos, pauses, or building finales.  It just came on in a fiery barrage, with the slightest hint of intensity (finale), just before the sudden, and complete end.  I don’t know why this approach to fireworks amuses me so much.  Just, full on.  The effects were cool – they had some water fireworks, and everything was reflected in the water between us.

After the clear but abrupt conclusion, the band started up and everyone gravitated to the field in front of the stage.  After a while, we quietly left, and drove out looking for a place to camp for the night.IMGP6562

Headed vaguely for Grindavík, where we’d seen a nice campground earlier, we drove on the quiet road crossing the peninsula.  I was drawn to turn up a random dirt road, which had these small signs posted that were very hard to read.  Finally, leaning out of the window and peering in the beam of a flashlight, we read “warning : Military firing range area…. any unexploded shells…” and had instructions for what to do and who to notify if you found undischarged ammo.  Okay then.  That sealed it for Derek, and he demanded to go to the campground.

IMGP6337I had a funny experience, though, as we drove away.  The compulsion that I should stay and not drive away burst up in me, and the feeling grew stronger and stronger the farther we got from the place.  By the time we reached the campground, I was nearly frantic with the certainty that I needed to go back to that road.

It was a pretty ridiculous desire though, devoid of logic, so I even set up my tent before I couldn’t stand it any longer.  Knowing I’d just lie awake if I didn’t go back, I finally brought it up to Derek, practically hopping with anxiety.  “So, how would you feel if I went back to that road we were at and came back in the morning for you?”

Derek let me know in no uncertain terms that he was now sure I’d completely lost my mind, saying “Well, that defies all logic,”, and “I can’t think of a worse place to spend the night.”  Finally he conceded “If you must”, and got all he needed out of the car for the night, shaking his head at me.  I almost left rubber in the parking lot.

I probably could have the road without headlights, the pull it was exerting on me was so strong.  It was a very short drive back to it, and I parked by the first warning sign.  The relief at being back was immense.  Grabbing my sleeping bag and mat, I started walking up the road, which seemed to head up a hill, but the feeling turned me around.  I felt like I a dowsing Goldilocks, walking back and forth in the total dark, looking for the place that felt just right.  It turned out to be a pile of cindery gravel on the shoulder of the road, right in front of the car’s bumper.  I threw my mat and sleeping bag out on the “ground” – it was pretty much a pile of big sharp lava rocks meeting a pile of gravel, and curled up in it with a sense of total perfection.

DSCF6137I can’t explain the “why” of any of this, but the feelings were clear and strong.  I had one of the best sleeps of my life that night.  I remember what it felt like and will always compare nights of incredible restfulness to that night.  In the morning I realized I hadn’t moved my body at all all night, and took a picture of the absurd place I’d lain, my body all bent around the rocks under me, head higher than my feet.  It makes no sense why I felt so strongly (very, very strongly) I had to sleep right there, and that I was so comfortable twisted up like that.  Record setting comfort.

Our days in Iceland were running out now, and we were both hoping that something would erupt, soon, so that we’d be grounded and forced to stay.

Alas, that happened only in my dreams.  That same night I had a vision in my sleep, the kind that you know has happened or will, with a different quality entirely from usual dreaming.  There was a mountain to the northeast of me, erupting in bright red lava.  I was just watching it, and there were no indications of time or era – past or future.  In the morning I immediately looked for the mountain I’d seen at night.  It’s not there.

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More pictures from Reykjanes.  My conclusion – seems less traveled, although so close to Reyk and Kef, and crowded with worthwhile attractions.

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In the morning there was this persistent tapping sound, with a sort of crinkly tone.  It seeped into my dreams and got really annoying until I had to wake all the way up to address this sound.

DSCF6763It turned out to be a seagull a few feet from me.  It was pecking at a plastic shopping bag!  I hissed at it and it squawked back at me.  It left, and I fell back to sleep, then it returned.  Peck (crinkle).  Peck(crinkle).  Peck(crinkle).  I threw a shoe at it.

Awake now, I got up and packed, and I really did have some room in my suitcase.   I did some writing and internetting and then walked down to the 10.11 looking for some things to use that space for.  A half dozen skyr and a pile of chocolate.  It was a good place to shop for candy (right near the traveller’s  hostel – bet that’s no coincidence) and the guy there was very proud of Icelandic chocolate.

“All this-“, he said, pointing out the huge rack of Nizza and Pipp and Lakkris, “made in Iceland,”  then showing me the small selection of foreign candy – Bounty, Mars, Snickers.  I hadn’t known that so much was made in Iceland.  I wonder where the plant(s) is/are.  I just assumed it was made in Europe, the way North America imports so much processed food.  He said “Our [Icelandic] chocolate is so different, so good.  Very good chocolate.”  I’d have to agree.  “I think every day I eat some chocolate,” he says.  I admitted I was addicted, gesturing to my mound of about-to-be purchases.  “You are addicted to [gesturing to same]…like you are addicted to Iceland!” he said.

On my walk back to the tent a kid with a basketball feinted to toss me the ball, then spun it on his finger and carried on.  That was unexpected too.DSCF6796

When I called to book our bus ticket to the airport, I found out that one way to get to the airport is via the Blue Lagoon.  For a modest increase in price (nothing compared to their entry fees at the door), the bus will stop at the Blue Lagoon for a few hours on the way to Keflavík, and you can jam the Blue Lagoon experience into the last hours of your time in Iceland.  I couldn’t say no to that, so I didn’t.

DSCF6801On the bus there were a couple of obnoxious British loudmouths going on and on and on about football and footballers.  They drove me up the wall, but Derek was probably interested in the stats they were talking about.  At the Blue Lagoon, we left our stuff on the bus (2012 note: now you have to unload your stuff and store it in the building and reload onto a different bus – the bus doesn’t wait for you – too efficient now) and went in to the pool.  It was very high tech, with bracelets that you brush against a sensor to lock and unlock your locker in the changerooms.  that was cool.  Fancy.

The thing I wasn’t ready for that totally shocked me was that the Blue Lagoon is salt water!  Nothing I’d read mentioned that.  Nor the tripping / toe stubbing hazard, because you can’t see more than six inches below the surface of the water.  The water is white and cloudy, with that seawater slipperiness.  Very interesting.

There are pots of salt clay around the pool with long handled spoons to dip out clods of it and smear it on your face and skin for the “healing properties”.  The pool is very large, with differing temperatures in various areas and nooks, and there are features- the cave, the shower, the bar that serves drinks to bathers in the water.  Just wave your wristband to pay with your credit card when you leave.

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The shower is the best- a powerful waterfall that hammers down on your shoulder when you stand over it.  There’s a risk for any women with swim suits that fasten at the neck; the pounding water was determined to unfasten the top of my suit.  There were some old men hanging around the waterfall.  They knew what was up.

The salt water made my hair so unhappy.  It was squeaky and brittle, hanging in ropes.  I could hear it crying.  Back in the change room I took a forever shower and dumped conditioner on my hair.  It seemed like we had all kinds of time in the Lagoon before we had to be back on the bus, but the time ran out.  We rushed back to the bus, getting only a couple pictures on the way out.

DSCF6868All in all I liked the Blue Lagoon, but I was sure glad I didn’t pay 28€ for the experience.

At the airport we got our VAT receipts stamped, checked our luggage, and ate a skyr.  Derek had one can of Guiness left over and drank it in the lobby, knowing he couldn’t bring it on board.  Slammed it, actually.  We had a laugh about that, not sure how chugging a beer would treat him on the airplane.  At security the skyr I was carrying on was denied, so I walked back a bit and wolfed it down, then went through security again.  After the stress of security there was vast shopping options that we sort of darted into.  Running through passport control, then the gate, finally slowing down on the ramp, we realized we had definitely caught the plane.

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On the plane the attendants weren’t wearing their wool hats like they had on our arriving flight.  The whole experience was a bit of a disaster.  Derek and I couldn’t sit together, although we both had windows.  The child behind me was vigorously and continuously kicking the back of my seat, and his mother couldn’t make him stop it, even after I finally had to comment about the situation (politely).  I spent the first half of the flight sitting up straight and perched forward without touching the seatback.  When the beastly child fell asleep, so did I, with the channel playing Icelandic folk tales in my ears.  Their folk tales are a bit gory.

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I was feeling wistful, anxious, and a bit wound up.  Having the last Hraun, the last appelsinu (orange) chocolate, looking at the last chance to buy Blue Lagoon mud from the “Saga shop” (Icelandair shopping), it was all sinking in that we were gone.

Ever since, I’ve been desperate to go back.

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