There are not too many places where you’d need a knit cap and fur-trimmed coat for a lifeguard post—but Iceland is unlike most places, and that’s much of its charm.
Surrounded by volcanic landscapes that are primordial and beautiful, the juxtaposition of rugged extremes and restful relaxation at spas like the Blue Lagoon is the essence of a getaway. Sure, there is plenty of adventure to be had, including ice cave treks or traversing the rocky countryside terrain aboard an all-terrain vehicle, but sometimes the thrills come from the chill of having half your body submerged in a steamy bath and laughing as others race from subzero temperatures to dunk their own trunk into a blissfully steaming pool. Add in a drink or two from the Blue Lagoon’s swim-up bar, a spa treatment and lunch at Lava—its restaurant overlooking the hijinks of the bathing area—and you could easily spend your whole day there. And you’ll eventually be able to spend all night as well with its soon-to-open adjoining Retreat resort, which will be Iceland’s first five-star hotel.
ICE, ICE BABY: Chill out in Iceland at one of its many spas.
New capacity limits at the Blue Lagoon mean you should reserve your spot in advance, but also that there’s less of a spring break vibe and more of an emphasis on pristine hot springs than ever. But if you get shut out of one of the biggest tourist draws in the country, it’s a good reason to discover spas like the newly renovated Fontana, whose series of interconnected lakeside baths and steam rooms offer a “course” of mini spa experiences featuring hot and cold dips. For courses and dips of another kind, the dining here, with a smorgasbord of fresh vegetables, fruits and locally caught fish, is superb. Don’t miss out on the rye bread, which is cooked in hot black sand in the “geothermal bakery.”
Fontana’s daytime tours include the chance to see the loaves being plucked from the ground as part of a Golden Circle adventure that also includes the iconic Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir Park (Strokkur Geyser erupts every few minutes, so get your camera ready). Or, if you’re looking to view the stars, Reykjavik Excursions’ Warm Baths and Cool Lights tour showcases Fontana at twilight before a late-night hunt of the elusive northern lights. While there’s no guarantee you’ll see the natural phenomenon, admiring the pony-dotted countryside while you’re enraptured by your local guide’s commentary makes for an unforgettable experience.
Any late evening during a vacation should afford an opportunity to sleep in, and Natura hotel is a sublime spot to do so. The property is about a 20-minute walk from Reykjavik’s center, but what it lacks in proximity it makes up for in pampering with an on-site spa worth spending a few hours at. There’s also an elaborate morning spread included in standard room rates, which can save quite a few dollars in an island country with food costs that seem astronomical to an American.
Fill up before heading out for a day’s adventures in the capital—but perhaps not too much if you want to enjoy Iceland’s national snack: the hot dog made with mostly Icelandic lamb and a bit of beef and pork, with a delightful casing that snaps when bitten. Add on two kinds of onions—raw and crispy—and you’re not exactly talking date food at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, but you’ve sure saved a lot of money at just about $3 a pop. Patties, too, are locally sourced and Hamburger Factory and Hamburger Joint both offer affordable and tasty options. Elsewhere, health nuts can enjoy a smoothie and clean their clothes at the same time at Laundromat Cafe; or if you want a more upscale option, try a bit of everything with an Icelandic tasting menu at Tapas Barinn, featuring Icelandic arctic char, minke whale, smoked puffin and lamb with beer-butterscotch sauce.
Hit up happy hour to grab locally made brews, with crafts like Reykjavik-made Borg half-off at many places until about 6 pm. Or sip Einstök’s Icelandic White Ale, a coriander-tinged white wheat beer brewed just a bit north in Akureyri. You can even take a quick puddle-jumper north to visit Iceland’s second-largest city for yourself. But don’t worry if you don’t—by the end of just a few short days in Iceland, you’ll already be planning a return adventure. ◆
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, bbp.is; Blue Lagoon, bluelagoon.com; Laugarvatn Fontana, fontana.is; Laundromat Café, thelaundromatcafe.com; Natura, icelandairhotels.com; Tapas Barinn, tapas.is
– The Reykjavik City Card is a bargain: The one-, two- or three-day pass includes access to public pools, the national gallery and museum, restaurant discounts and more.
– Most Icelandair hotel and flight packages include spa entry to avoid resort fees at accommodations like Natura.