A leading inspiration for our trip to Iceland was David’s wanting, as celebration of his 65th birthday, to soak in hot pools in cold air under northern skies. Go figure! We’d long seen alluring images of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon. And we discovered a newer rival called Sky Lagoon even closer to Reykjavik.

Oh, and by the way, there were northern lights too!

First, into the water…

The history of Icelanders’ taking advantage of abundant geothermal waters goes back at least to the 12th century. Hot pools provided comfortable bathing, relaxed social settings, and simply getting warm, especially during the long dark winter nights. In the early 20th century, an unrealized dream of an Iceland gold rush didn’t yield much gold, but it did leave behind many drilled holes in the hills; geothermally-heated water poured forth to fill many new swimming pools. Today there are more than 200 public pools in Iceland, probably more than in any other country per capita.  

During our various tours out into the country side, we passed long pipelines outside of Reykjavik. Hot water at around 100 deg C / 212 deg F flows to the city, providing heating. Even after having heated homes and businesses, the water is still hot. People channel it into fields of pipes beneath streets and driveways. As our guide said, “My sons and I can play basketball in my driveway all year long because the snow never sticks there.”

We visited Sky Lagoon first. It’s a very recently completed “geothermal wellness destination” in suburban Reykjavik. Not quite a natural hot springs, but accessible and attractive. 

The approach makes it clear just how constructed the Sky Lagoon is. But the architecture is attractive, exuding intentions of emerging from the earth and landscape. 

Pleasant staff checked us in. We changed into our swim suits in a upscale locker room. We showered off the outside world. And then eased into the warm water through a faux-rock cavern opening.

Comfy hot water. Clear blue sky. Fresh cool air – about 5 deg C / 41 deg F.

And a bit of a vista past a 75 m / 250 ft long infinity edge. Just a bit of a vista because you look across a broad inlet toward a low-lying strip of scrub land. But on a sunny day, not bad at all!

Things got even better once we discovered the cave bar!

In addition to the setting, drinks, warm water and open sky, Sky Lagoon proposes their spa Ritual. There are seven steps: 1 Slow Down / Lagoon; 2 Cool Down / Cold Plunge; 3 Relax with a View / Sauna; 4 Refresh Your Senses / Cold Mist; 5 Renew Yourself / Body Scrub; 6 Hydrate Every Pore / Steam; and 7 Relax / Shower & Lagoon.

Step 2 is the Cold Plunge. Before our trip, we had chatted with some friends who had already visited Sky Lagoon. They insisted that we mustn’t skip the dip in the cold water, though we were tempted to go from warm to warm. They said a secret was to get in the water quickly and then don’t move; immediately a layer of water warmed by your own body would envelop you, cutting the chill. We couldn’t return and tell our friends that we wimped out. Happily, their method worked. Well, it worked for about a minute. That’s enough of that! Let’s move on to the sauna.

Nearby, a staff member stood surveilling the lagoon and the little cold pool. As we launched ourselves out of the cold water, we laughed with him that we’d done it! At least briefly. He smiled and said that we had done better than most visitors; they tend to skip right by the cold pool, not making eye contact with anyone on their way past.

The rest of the Ritual was pleasant. Very hot sauna. Chilly refreshing mist cascade. Salt and herb rub, which melted away in a super steamy steam room.

The layout and situation of the enormous pool are splendid. The rock and landscape forms evoke Iceland’s striking natural environment. But, it’s also obvious that every centimeter has been artfully constructed. This is a seductive grown-up theme park. Well done, to be sure, but also as designed as Vegas or Disney.

Nonetheless, left the Sky Lagoon warm, happy, relaxed and in very good moods!

A couple days later, we visited the famous Blue Lagoon.

The site of the Blue Lagoon is about a 45-minute drive outside of Reykjavik, right in the middle of a vast field of black lava rocks that are covered with bright green moss. The rocks here are the real thing, but they have been piled and arranged for the benefit of visitors like us.

We had thought that the Blue Lagoon was a naturally occurring geothermal spring and pool. Well, not exactly. The Blue Lagoon is an inspired consequence of a geothermal power plant. The Svartsengi Power Station started operations in 1976. At the beginning, the intention was to extract subsurface hot water, transfer the heat to separate circuits of pure water, and then release the cooled subsurface water back in the ground through the surrounding lava fields. But this particular water contains dissolved silica (silicon dioxide). The silica collected and created a seal on the normally porous lava rock. The water wouldn’t drain away. It formed pools of milky blue water. The blue tint comes from the fact that the silica reflects only blue light back from sunlight. 

Some clever people realized that the silica-rich runoff water helped relieve symptoms of psoriasis and other skin conditions. Clinical studies, product development and marketing began. And then bathing facilities and services. So when we see the plumes of steam rising from around the Blue Lagoon, we feel the origins of our spa experience.

The magic of this place is the surreal blue water, the surrounding ring of black and green lava, plumes of steam in the distance, and the glorious open sky.

The water at the Blue Lagoon is a bit hotter than what we experienced at Sky Lagoon. But there were plenty of different “shorelines,” nooks and ledges to enjoy. We could regulate our body temperature by adjusting just how much of us was in the cool air and in the hot water. Oh yeah, there were drinks here too. (As well as a lovely restaurant; more about that at the end of the post.)

While there are Sky Lagoon Ritual-like facilities here too, we instead enjoyed playing through a three-step face mask process. Semi-submerged, we approached the Mask pavilion. 

Then, one after the other, the black Lava Scrub Mask to exfoliate, the white Silica Mud Mask to deep-cleanse, and the green Algae Mask to nourish!

This was another relaxing, fun, rejuvenating day at the outdoor spa. We thoroughly enjoyed both the Sky Lagoon and the Blue Lagoon, and would love to visit them again sooner rather than later. Even though both venues have been almost completely constructed, we slightly preferred the Blue Lagoon. It just felt more naturally part of the Icelandic landscape.

And now up into the sky…

Our first thoughts about visiting Iceland focused on seeing glaciers, waterfalls, mountains and vistas, and soaking in outdoor hot springs. But of course this is northern lights season — since Iceland just touches the Arctic circle and, in early March, there is still plenty of night. 

A travel company in Reykjavik had arranged our various first-timer activities for our vacation week, including an after-dinner pursuit of the aurora. A van picked us up at a stop near our hotel, and deposited us at a tour-bus depot elsewhere in Reykjavik where we would find our van for the aurora search. Waiting for our van, we stood just outside the little terminal. The sky was clear but also obscured by bright street and bus-lot lights. Nonetheless, people started looking up and pointing. There, amid the glare, curtains of northern lights fluttered. We tourists gawked and exclaimed. The Icelanders were: Oh yeah, the aurora, just another nighttime here.

A jovial tour-guide / driver corralled us into the large van. He took us a ways out of the city, and parked along the side of the road. The sky was clear, but there was also a big bright moon. Thanks to the moonlight, we could see a snow-covered mountain range in the distance. 

Our guide was very determined that we see some aurora. He referred a few times to having access to metrics about local magnetic field fluctuations. He reported that the solar wind was strong, so we should be able to see the lights – as long as the Earth’s magnetic field let the particles in. 

At first, there were wisps and trails of lights, very dim. The camera could pick them up (10 second exposure) better than our eyes. The faint aurora appeared and disappeared every second or so. Then, alas, they stopped. Just a lightly starry night thanks to the bright moon. And cool, and colder air. 

After about two hours of waiting, we climbed back into the bus to warm up. Our guide repeated a few times that he expected a resurgence soon; at least that’s what the magnetic metrics pointed to. But then again, you just never know. 

We were resigned to there being no more to see tonight. That was OK, really, even if a little bit disappointing. It was getting noticeably colder, and late – it was approaching 1 am by now (and we’d not gotten much sleep the night before since we didn’t get from the airport to our hotel until about 3 am). 

Our guide finally said, “Well, you never know about the aurora. I hate to have to call it night since the indicators are good, and we have a nice clear sky. But it’s time to go back.” We settled back into our seats, waiting for the van to start and head back onto the road. But our guide didn’t start up the bus. “Wait,” he exclaimed. “We’ve got some action! Everyone out, quick!” Up we jumped. But the four women in front of us bumbled and fussed, taking their time to extricate themselves. At last, we leapt out of the bus. Indeed, right in front of us, waves of muted green light flowed and morphed. Smartphones in the air, everyone was trying their best to capture at last a bit of Iceland’s auroras. Nice denouement!

By the way, we’ve been amazed how well the iPhone captured these images of the lights. We selected Night Mode, and the longest possible hand-held exposure: 10 seconds. Mike had bought a Bluetooth remote shutter controller, as part of a compact tripod / selfie stick. This was perfect. David held the phone up for the picture, gloves still on. Mike remotely clicked the shutter, and David held still as best as he could for 10 seconds. The phone’s hardware and software managed to focus on the northern lights as well as the stars. Impressive!

At the Blue Lagoon, we chose to enjoy a nice lunch in their Lava Restaurant before our exploration of the hot waters. It turned out to be a very attractive modern restaurant with surprisingly good food.

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