Iceland

A short blog about swimming…and nakedness…in Iceland

We’ve just returned from our third trip to Iceland.  Tourism in Iceland, as everyone knows, has been booming ever since the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 with spectacular effect & people all over the world realised there was an unspoilt land of fire & ice that they could visit relatively easily.

volcano
Now that’s what I call an ash cloud – photo credit Martin Reitze

In 2016, American tourists exceeded the Icelandic population of 340,000 people for the first time & 2 million tourists per annum are forecast to visit by 2020.

Just about everyone is interested when you mention that you’ve visited Iceland but, as a swimmer, one of the most frequent topics I am quizzed on is – “What’s the story around using public swimming pools in Reykjavik?  I hear you have to take a naked shower in public?…” and this seems to be putting a lot of people off.

This blog is an attempt to reassure those shy and nervous swimmers.

My pool of choice in Reykjavik is Laugardalslaug.  There are a number to choose from including Vesturbaejarlaug which can be reached on foot from all the city centre hotels.  I love Laugardalslaug because it has a giant 50m outdoor pool where the water is geothermally heated – and that means you can swim outside even if it’s snowing or blowing a gale.

Laugardalslaug

The 50m pool in the foreground & children’s freeform pool behind

I swam there during a snowstorm in January 2016 and it’s been one of my enduring memories ever since – I often find myself thinking about it.  Also – if like me you’re used to swimming in a 20 or 25 metre long indoor or basement pool, it’s hard to imagine how different a 50m outdoor pool will feel.  But different it is.

The other point to mention is that as well as being comfortably and naturally warm, the water is far purer than we pool swimmers are used to and is only lightly chlorinated.  This is possible because the water is carefully and frequently monitored for bacteria but also because care is taken to make sure that everyone is properly clean before they get into the pool.

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Helpful diagram showing you where to wash!

So – don’t turn up with your costume on under your clothes because you have to strip off in the changing rooms & get showered with soap before putting your swimming costume off.  This process is supervised – not intrusively – but it’s someone’s job to watch from the background to make sure the rules are followed.

Briefly – these are the rules.  You turn up & pay your entrance fee.  We travel light so we also rent towels from the front desk. You’re given a rubber wristband that allows you through the entrance gate & also locks & unlocks the locker you select in the changing room.  There are completely separate male & female changing rooms.  Take your shoes or boots off outside the changing rooms in the corridor – there are racks or lockers to leave them on.  Inside the changing rooms, choose a locker, strip off & dump your stuff, grab your costume, head for the showers and give yourself a wash.  The showers have a rack outside for you to leave your towel or costume.  Put your costume on and run to the pool – literally if it’s snowing outside!

laugard-steamy

Steam rising from the tubs

Everyone in Iceland has been doing this since they were tiny tots so the displays of nakedness are very matter of fact.  In the changing room you will see every shape & size of (in my case) woman and every age from toddlers to elderly women.  I noticed this week that they’ve cracked under tourist pressure & put in a few private shower cubicles – so if you’re very self conscious, use one of those.  Whichever you do, I promise no-one will give you a second glance.

Back to Laugardalslaug – as well as the 50m pool there’s a huge indoor pool (25m lanes), a big outdoor freeform pool with a slide for children, a range of cold & hot tubs (a cold seawater tub at 8ºC & then a series of more traditional hot tubs at varying temperatures going from 28ºC up to either 44ºC or 46ºC) and a couple of steam rooms (one appears to be for naked people only but I didn’t dare look in there). laugardalslaug-aerial We spent well over 2 hours there last week and it was very relaxing.  We took the No 14 public bus from the harbour & it costs 440kr (about £3) per person per journey.  The entrance cost for 2 adults including towel rental was about £20.

The Blue Lagoon is worth going to once in your life just to see it if you’ve never been.  It’ll cost you about £50 per person for entry and you must book well in advance as they’ve started doing timed entries to prevent overcrowding.bl  The water really is blue.  We went January 2016.  It’s a good thing to do on your way home if you have a late flight – the bus company will break your journey to the airport so that you can visit.  It isn’t suitable for swimming and is a bit of a mish mash of loved up couples in face masks standing about having cocktails and gangs of teenagers squealing and taking group selfies.  I found it busy, overcrowded and I felt as if we’d been well & truly processed.  If you’re a foodie, a London chef friend of mine says he had one of the best meals of his life in Lava restaurant at the Blue Lagoon.

For Reykjavik I have a couple of other recommendations.  We stayed four nights in the Icelandair Marina Hotel, up on the 4th floor with a balcony overlooking the working harbour and with views across the bay.  Comfortable and quirky with a friendly and helpful team and something for everyone in the hot & cold choices on the breakfast buffet.  We had a very tasty dinner one night in a small, not fancy, family owned place in the harbour called Sjavarbarinn.  Main courses of the freshest possible fish with soup, an unlimited salad bar and a beer came to £70 for two in a town where a burger will cost you the guts of £30.

If you’re thinking about visiting Iceland in the summer you might like my blog about our summer road trip experience here.

Back to public nakedness, my worst ever experience of this was in 1986 in a hotel in Chengdu in southern China. Hot water for a shower was available in a communal bathing room from 6-7pm only.  I opened the door and was faced with 10 bathtubs crammed up against each other in a small room – each one with a shower overhead.  All but one were already occupied so there was nothing for it but to strip off & get into the shower.  The 9 other girls all silently stared straight at me for the briefest period of time that I was in there.  Now that was embarrassing.

I hope you try the pools when you’re in Iceland.  As my friend Ann Kempster remarked on Twitter last night – it’s only a very tiny spell of nakedness for a lot of reward.

Top 10 Tips for your Iceland Roadtrip

Snow covered mountains near Stykkisholmur

Snow covered mountains near Stykkisholmur

Just back from an amazing 2,000 km 5 day roadtrip around Iceland & thought I would share my top tips.  Also – if like me you’ve been meaning to go to Iceland for the past 25 years but just haven’t got round to it yet my best advice is just go.  Easyjet flies there now (even from Belfast!) so there’s no excuse.  It’s really unusual & well worth it.

Icebergs at Jokulsarlon

Icebergs at Jokulsarlon

A quick caveat – on this trip we didn’t go to Reykjavik or the Blue Lagoon & we didn’t see the Northern Lights (as it’s June, it doesn’t get dark at all).  We’re saving all that for a short winter break instead.  We flew into Keflavik airport & spent the first night at Flokalundur in the West Fjords, second night in Svalbardseyn on the fjord just north of Akureyri, third night in Skalafell near Hofn and the final night in the shadow of that troublesome volcano that no-one can pronounce the name of, Eyjafjallajokull.  Here are my tips.

1 It’s all about the outdoors.  3 of the 4 hotels we stayed in didn’t even have a tv in the room although all had decent wifi.  Everything you’re there to see is outside.  Apart from in the main cities & towns, most restaurants & bars are located in hotels that are open from June to September.  Dinner service finishes at 9pm pretty much universally.  Don’t go if you need to be entertained.

2 Don’t judge distances by the distance, judge it by the state of the roads and pay attention to your maps.

Big Country!

Big Country!

We classified our 2,000 km of roads into Levels 1 to 5 with 1 being the best (tarmac or good surface, single lane going in each direction) and 5 being roads that are under repair or construction.  The 120 mile evening round trip from our hotel in Flokalundur to the bird cliffs at Latrabjarg took us 5 hours & we completely missed dinner.  However, it was so worth it because getting to Latrabjarg & back felt like a real adventure – it’s remote even by Icelandic standards.  The birds there are so unused to humans that you can get very close to them as they have no fear.  Also – when we got back to the hotel at 10.30pm, the girls took pity on us & rustled up a few sandwiches.  There’s always a way!  Consider hiring a jeep or a 4WD if you’re heading off the beaten track.  We had a Hyundai i20 & in truth we treated it quite unfairly.

3 It’s empty.  Iceland’s population is only 330,000 people in a country slightly smaller than England, and most live in the capital.  You can easily drive for 50 miles without seeing a house and there are no hotels or shops or bars or even petrol stations outside of the villages.  Bridges over rivers are built as single lanes because traffic is so light – you just wait your turn if someone’s coming towards you.

Waterfalls like this one are too small to even both including them in the guide books

Waterfalls like this one are too small to even bother including them in the guide books

Petrol stations are all unmanned.  You prepay with a credit card & have to guess the value of the fuel you need.  If you get it wrong & pay too much – tough!  This caught us out the first time we tried it as we weren’t really sure of the exchange rate or the size of the hire car tank.  Even hotels can be people-less.  The hotel we stayed in the last night had no reception – just a lockbox with keys & a pin number to give you access to the lockbox.  The Borrowers came in overnight & laid out breakfast in the kitchen.  I found that to be a bit impersonal and am unlikely to try it again – but it was a novelty.  So – keep an eye on your fuel gauge and when the sign says no petrol station for 200km take it seriously.

4 Dress appropriately.  Daytime temperatures this week fluctuated between 3 & 12 degrees C, probably a bit colder in the snowfields north of Lake Myvatn on the way up to Krafla or up around the glaciers when the wind’s blowing.

Tiny pink flowers beside a glacier

Tiny pink flowers beside a glacier

Ok – admittedly I’m not known for being very outdoorsy but even I made some concessions – I took hiking boots (children’s department sale in Lillywhites – £11.99 – more than adequate), hiking socks, a few warm layers and a men’s pac-a-mac from Primark (£4.99).  Don’t let my parsimony stop you though.  You can spend as much as you like keeping yourself warm & dry – the other tourists were all head to toe in waterproof designer gear.

5 Prepare yourself for the expense.  We weren’t on a tight budget but we didn’t consume any alcohol when we were there & we only managed to get to a restaurant once.  The rest of the time we either weren’t near anywhere or we got there after 9pm so it was too late, and as a result we lived off picnic fodder.  The one evening meal we had out was soup to start followed by local fish & veg/potatoes accompanied by coffee/coke & it cost about £60 in a very basic restaurant – nothing fancy.

Pet lambs at a farm we stayed in - aaahhh!

Pet lambs at a farm we stayed in – aaahhh!

I think our trip all in (flights, 4 nights hotel for 2, car hire, petrol, food) will probably come in close to £1,500 with the hotels accounting for half of that.  On the upside, the national parks, waterfalls, geysers, etc are all free to visit and the hotel price always includes a decent-ish buffet breakfast.

Steam rising from the ground everywhere at Namaskard

Steam rising from the ground everywhere at Namaskard

6 Take binoculars.  Even if you aren’t a birder there are so many birds to see that you’ll want to be able to see them properly.  I regret not having an Iceland bird book or app with me as I was unable to identify half the birds we saw and am about to start trawling through retrospectively.

Puffin outside burrow at Latrabjarg

Puffin outside burrow at Latrabjarg

At this time of year the seabirds are all present (including the puffins of course) and there’s an especially diverse mix of waterbirds & ducks on the rivers and lakes.  Great for spotting Harlequin ducks surfing on the river at Laxa and Red Necked Phalaropes everywhere around Lake Myvatn.  A real treat.  There’s an odd lack of other animals.  Didn’t see a single rabbit or hare, there are hardly any cows or chickens and most livestock is sheep or ponies – the ponies in every combination of colour & hairstyle.

7 If like me you love your tea, take a travel kettle and tea bags.  Only 1 of our 4 hotels provided a kettle.

Stand back as she blows! - Geysir

Stand back as she blows! – Geysir

8 Don’t put your fingers into the boiling water rivers coming from the Geysir.  There are signs everywhere telling you the water is 80-100 deg C.  My husband still had to test that for himself however…

9 Be prepared to be amazed – you’ll see sights you’ve never seen elsewhere.  Bright blue icebergs floating in a river surrounded by seals where a glacier meets the sea (Jokulsarlon), spouting geysers, boiling bubbling mud, heat rising up out of the ground, weird man made piles of stones, waterfalls everywhere you look, cliffs made of lava that looks as though it set yesterday, a land that still seems to be forming in front of your eyes.

10 Do go out in the middle of the night – just to make sure it’s still light.  I did – and it was.