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.
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.
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.
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!
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). 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. 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.