Bathing outside in naturally heated water is part of Icelandic life. Icelanders are expert at capturing hot water, either in hillside hot pots (little pools sunk into the ground, made from anything – stones, concrete, repurposed agricultural tubs) or in outdoor pool complexes with water slides.
My holiday mission is simple: to travel around the country hunting down volcanically heated water, for me, my husband Tim and our two water-loving boys – Jack (3) and Eddie (2) to immerse ourselves in.
The materials for our expedition are considered and gathered as though we are going on a mountaineering trip: base layers, dry bags, thermal jackets and Gortex, as well as swimming nappies and float vests.
The trip begins at the hot spring area at Hveragerdi in Iceland’s milder, easier south, 40km from Reykjavik. It’s a land of thundering waterfalls and steaming hills, where water spurts as well as forming pools. The hills are patchy with grass and bare, iron-red earth. A pony drinks from a hot stream and Tim has his first dip.
Two of the south’s best pools are also among the country’s oldest. At the Secret Lagoon in Flúdir, built in 1891, the changing rooms are swish modern Scandi, but the pool edges are raw and grassy. A small geyser nearby blows with regularity, and pots of bubbling mud are partly obscured by steam.
Seljavallalaug, which dates from 1923, is more basic. Set in a valley and backed by a cliff, with a snow-capped glacier beyond, it occupies one of the most stunning swimming-pool positions on Earth. The water, at a family-friendly 36˚C, is a deeper green than any water I have been in. The afternoon’s swimming starts with the parental instruction that there will be no jumping – I didn’t like the idea of that green water going up the boys’ noses. There follows two full hours of jumping. We emerge with wrinkly fingers, while a more recent arrival performs somersaults to assembled applause.
Hot pots and cherry trees
It is a regular feature of our trip that places that on first sight seem daunting become precious havens. En route to Heydalur, in Westfjords, a peninsula in the northwest that is geothermally rich but remote, we feel out of our depth. We are on a gravel track and have been driving for a long time. Crossing a mountain pass, we feel vulnerable in our little hire car, with just a bag of snacks to sustain us. For two long hours no one on the back seat says “I want to get out”.
Eventually the hotel Heydalur appears, a hillside of random outbuildings. Our family room is wall-to-wall single beds and mattresses, but over the next few days, thanks to its talking parrot and orphaned arctic fox, warm welcome and fantastic home-cooked food, we come to really like the place.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are still rare enough here that on the flight from London an Icelandic woman told me where I could buy them on our travels, but at Heydalur they are plentiful with our meals. The boys appreciate the lasagne and burgers served every day, which makes for an easy life – children are always welcome in Iceland, but when it comes to food they are not always catered for.
Heydalur has various hot pots, a swimming pool surrounded by cherry trees and roses, and saddles hanging inside a big shed, but at 6.30am I get out of bed for a more solitary experience at a nearby hillside hot pot. To reach it, I have to cross a river before it becomes too high to ford (more snowmelt comes downstream during the day, even with the midnight sun). It is a one-person pot surrounded by round stones and dripping moss and it is perfect: with the voo-voo-voo calls of unseen ground-nesting birds, snow-capped mountains on one side, a fjord on the other, and bubbles of gas coming up through clear water.
Some rocky beaches
Across Iceland, outdoor pools are often signposted – for swimming pools it’s a man’s head above three rippling lines; for hot pots a thermometer is added. Up here in Westfjords, many hot pots are more private, and the protocol is to ask at the neighbouring farm before you jump in. There are hosepipes pumping hot and cold water, allowing bathers to vary the temperature to their liking, and all come with some kind of shed (the wind can be bone-chilling).
We stop at fjord-side pots in Strandir, on rocky beaches strewn with giant pieces of driftwood from Siberian trees bleached by the elements. At Mjoifjordur, the stripes of seaweed follow the contours of the shoreline in bright colours – lilac, red and gold. At Drangsnes, the wind blows strong and wild.
Then we leave the peninsula and continue our journey through northern Iceland, back to civilisation, where houses are actually next to each other, and service stations serving hot dogs. We drive through horse country, passing wild ponies, and in shops boxes of horse shoes are lined up at the cash till next to Durex and chewing gum.
We have booked all our accommodation, whether hotel or guesthouse, through Icelandic Farm Holidays, thinking that the combination of space and occasional animals will make accommodation child-friendly. Broadly it works – at Draflastadir, a stunning new lodge, the boys are even given rides on a tractor.
For our last three days, we do a northern triangle of hot spots – whale watching at Húsavik, swimming at Hofsós infinity pool and the volcanoes of Myvatn.
Swimming in a volcanic crater
Húsavik comes as a relief: it’s a pretty clapboard port with humpback whales and dolphins out in the bay, pizzas and cappuccino in town. We spend an afternoon in a converted cheese tub on a cliff, surrounded by lupins, surveying the sea for the tail of the humpback whale.
At Hofsós, while the boys play on a mini slide next to a hot tub full of older people, I swim just a few lengths. It’s too hot for more: one of the surprises about swimming around Iceland is that it’s often too hot for much actual swimming.
At Myvatn, we have one last experience to tick off: to swim in a volcanic crater, where the water is an alluring turquoise. But swimming at this Viti crater (there are two, it transpires) is prohibited, and at the other one the temperature can often be too hot, so we go for the nearest volcanic swim we could find, Myvatn Nature Baths, north Iceland’s equivalent to the famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik. The boys run down to the water’s edge in their float vests and plunge in, keener than on the day we started.
With his chin skimming the surface, Eddie sets off. “This one’s a bit eggy, mummy,” he says, independence and contentment on his face, and with that he swims on. Iceland, I feel, has been swum. – © Guardian News & Media 2015