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Drangsnes

Drangsnes

Best:

Special:
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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Days: 60

Meals out: 16

Hot pools:  36

Ice creams:  Selka 29, H.W. 26

Nights paid for: 26

Nights indoors: 23

Nights outdoors: 37

Km on bicycle:  Selka 910, HW 1124

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Arctic Henge

1 Dinner at Hotel Norðurljos and the Arctic Henge

Because we had time, we went up the northeast corner of Iceland hardly any travellers check out,  cutting off the corner from Mývatn to Egilsstaðir on the Ring road.  There’s a great outdoor sundlaug north of Vopnafjörður, Langanes peninsula, and the northernmost tip of mainland Iceland, but still, it sees far fewer tourists.  In Raufarhöfn, there’s a project to change that- the Heimskautsgerði, or Arctic Henge, is partially constructed.  We arrived at dusk and found the giant columns of stone in the twilight much larger and impressive than I expected.  Just like Stonehenge, I was wondering how they built the center piece, with massive rocks leaning together and dependent on the last keystone at the top.  Hungry, we then wandered into the recommended Hotel Norðurljos for dinner.  The only customers there, our host Erlingur made us a truly exceptional meal (no menu, just a couple of verbal choices), talked with us at length, and then turned out to be one of the main incentives behind the Arctic Henge.  Hotel Norðurljos DessertHe brought out a scale model of the full project, talked about how they had done what they had so far, the other minds and skills at work on the project, the meaning and philosophy of the design, and the full vision of the completed ideal.  It is layered and deep and rooted in Icelandic mythology and poetry, and it will certainly be an un-missable attraction, one of Iceland’s great sights, when completed.  We studied the plan and talked about it for some time, and he explained how they had built the four legged central spire.   I could not have been more enchanted with the idea.  I hope work continues and it sees completion.

Arctic Henge Model

Arctic Henge Model

2 Secret hot pool at Mývatn.

No I’m not going to explain where it is.  Apparently the instructions of how to get there are on the internet already, and other tourists find it.  We had a friendly local tell us about this hot pool that the locals  keep to themselves, as they must- Mývatn area is inundated with flocks of loaded tour buses in the summer.  After saying that it’s closed to tourists, especially since one tourist broke a leg there, he then gave us exact (if arcane) instructions, saying you could find directions on the internet anyways, and if we could find it, we were entitled to be there, and besides if we encountered anyone, tell them he told us about it.  We followed his insider instructions in full night darkness (instructions like “walk along the fence until you see a rock on the other side…the fence curves a little and there’s a bit of a shrub…walk along the edge and look down into it until you see a board”), and we found it.  I memorized his words as he spoke, and I was going to find it.  The best part was the “it’s all straightforward from there”, referring to the technical scramble down the wet and icy crevasse down to the water.  I can sure believe someone broke a leg there, what I can’t believe is that he was extracted from the spot with a broken leg (“Icelanders do it blind drunk all the time, I don’t know how”).  The water was an ideal temperature- clear and clean and deep.  Crystal clear is a term often applied to water, but this water was so clear we could watch H.W. dive to his limit, about 50 feet, without finding the bottom, and I could still see his tattoos by headlamp, while stars from the Milky Way shone dimly overhead.   We even survived the climb out, and that night was possibly our best in Iceland.  In gratitude we tidied the place up and packed out a bag of garbage.

Herring Factory

3 Herring factory at Djúpavík.

The road north of Hólmavík on the east side of the Westfjords from Drangsnes terminating at Krossnes (both places with notable hot pool action), snakes along a minimally populated fjörded coast and through Djúpavík, a ghost town relic of the herring industry.  The three water tanks standing outside the factory have old heating coils in them, and are majestic, echoing concrete cylinders, astounding that they were formed with wood and poured by hand in the 1930’s.  H.W. especially was fascinated by the huge factory building, and naturally, with that much dedication, he found a way to slide into the inside.  I’m not going to describe that, either.  The place is deadly dangerous and there are tours of the factory in the summer, but be assured our entry point didn’t involve any doors, damage, or force.  There just happens to be a way in that really doesn’t look like a way in, so it has probably been overlooked.  Or else they don’t care too much, if you’re that determined to get inside.  The inside is a catacomb of multiple layers, floors full of ancient, rusted equipment, storage, and parts of it have been turned into museum and art exhibit space.  We tiptoed around for a long time, mesmerized by the abandoned infrastructure that became useless so suddenly when the herring schools failed to return.

4 Pool with kids at Höfn.

Swimming pools in Iceland are social spots, especially for children.  There are piles of bicycles outside, and the kids seem to all come to the pool after school, leaving just as suddenly before suppertime.  They play wildly, a dozen children with only a few adults around, splashing and running and leaping and shrieking with exuberance never seen or permitted in North American pools.  It works, because there are distinct kid areas and adult areas, so the kids play wildly without rules or restriction in their area, and behave in the hot pools, where the adults soak and chat.  Icelandic philosophy of ‘full freedom as long as it doesn’t impact others’ in full effect.   Amazingly, no one ever gets hurt.  We were minding our own business in the hot pool, but apparently the pair of foreigners aroused the kid’s curiousity.  As if on a signal, every child suddenly got up out of the kids side and filed deliberately into the hot pot we were sitting in, completely filling it.  There were about 18 kids, approx ages 8-13.  They rambunctiously hollered between themselves until one boy, who’d clearly been prearranged, possibly dared, to do it, turned to us and said “good morning”.  That brought a cascade of scorn down on him, which I could understand, of course.  They teased him for having said good morning, when it was nearly dark, and he defended that’s what Anglos say!  Then one astute little girl who’d noticed I’d responded to him in Icelandic, quietly and shyly asked if I spoke Icelandic.  I told her some, yes, I’ve been learning, and that was it.  All the heads swivelled and stared raptly at us, and question after question was shot at us in Icelandic and English.  “Can you understand what we’re talking about?” (in horror).  Yes, some.  Where are you from?  All the usual questions, and then, asking me to say word after word in Icelandic, their names, names of towns and places, pointing at things for me to name them in Icelandic, asking about my husband’s tattoos that announced he was Amerískur while I was Canadian, questions about movies and TV shows, laughing uproariously at my pronunciation and correcting it patiently, answering my questions of how to say stuff in Íslensk.  It was like a media scrum.  One of the boys routinely held his arms out and pushed back on his friends, “back it up, back it up”, doing crowd control, because they were literally pushing on us, crowding in with their little faces and rapid fire questions, all shouting at once.  “No, niður”.  It was kind of scary to have that much questioning attention turned on us,  my Icelandic was being severely tested, and it was adorable, too.  For some reason I found their voices vastly easier to understand, and it was easy and fun to talk with them.  I learned a lot, very quickly.  They were so shy to speak to us and bold with each other.  Eventually our novelty wore off, and they said goodbye and filed as one back out of the pool to resume chicken fighting in the big pool and dancing on the pool deck to Lady Gaga blasting from the loudspeaker.

Ísafjorður Theater

5 Watching Looper and Skyfall in Ísafjorður.

Ísafjorður has a wonderful old movie theatre.  The kind with a double pair of big wood entrance doors, and between the inner and the outer doors, there’s a ticket window on the side.  Pay your fare for lower or upper balcony (and get a seat assignment), then go through the inner doors and you’re looking at the screen and the back of the seats.  There’s a little kiosk on the left back corner selling popcorn and candy, but not fresh stuff- pre-made, in bags, which by the way tastes like Smartfood and is amazing.  The bathrooms are in the same big theatre room, and stairs go up to the balcony.  I love the institution of intermission.  No matter what is happening on screen (Intermission in Skyfall caught Javier Bardem with his mouth open mid-sentence in a very intense part), someone pushes pause, the screen freezes, and everyone rouses to reality momentarily to go pee, buy more popcorn, and stand, stretch, mill about, and chat.  It’s a great opportunity to talk about what’s happened so far and share your speculations about what happens next.  Intermission rocks, and this beautiful theatre is wonderful.  It doesn’t even play shows every night.  Possibly, the schedule may have influenced our decision to spend another night.

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