Hot times vis­it­ing geo­ther­mal sights

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL -

Ice­land, formed long ago by vol­ca­noes, is known for its oth­er­worldly land­scape, with steam­ing fields and per­co­lat­ing mud. The vol­canic ac­tiv­ity pro­duces nat­u­rally heated wa­ter, which Ice­landers have clev­erly har­nessed for ther­mal baths and pools. Geo­ther­mal ex­pe­ri­ences — vis­ual and phys­i­cal — are worth seek­ing out on a visit here.

Wan­der­ing through the color­ful ter­rain is a clas­sic Ice­landic treat. The most vis­ited geo­ther­mal sight is Geysir, home to the world’s first-known geyser, on Ice­land’s most fa­mous tourist route, the Golden Cir­cle. The orig­i­nal Geysir is now mostly dor­mant, but the field around it still steams and bub­bles non­stop, pe­ri­od­i­cally punc­tu­ated by a dra­matic erup­tion of scald­ing wa­ter from the one pre­dictably ac­tive geyser, Strokkur. Strokkur erupts about ev­ery five min­utes, shoot­ing about 50 feet into the air.

Though it lacks a spout­ing geyser, a more im­pres­sive ther­mal area is at Na­maf­jall, in North Ice­land along the Ring Road that en­cir­cles most of the is­land na­tion. It’s sur­rounded by moun­tains and far less crowded than Geysir. Na­maf­jall’s pun­gent sul­furous fumes are worth plug­ging your nose for to ex­plore the fu­maroles (lit­tle stacke­drock vents spit­ting steam), bub­bling pools and a ter­rain brushed in vivid hues.

Closer to the cap­i­tal city Reyk­javik, the Sel­tun area on the Reyk­janes Penin­sula is also strik­ing. This steam­ing and smelly land­scape hints at the geo­ther­mal power just un­der­foot. A board­walk and marked paths out­line a 15-minute cir­cuit through the field over boil­ing hot wa­ter and steam. Part­way through the loop, a hill­top view­point over­looks the en­tire area, with Klei­far­vatn lake just be­yond. The en­vi­ron­ment here is af­fected by botched at­tempts to ex­ploit the geo­ther­mal field for en­ergy — first in the 1750s, and most re­cently in the 1940s. In 1999, one of the bore holes from the last at­tempt got plugged up and ex­ploded vi­o­lently, cre­at­ing a 30-foot crater now filled with wa­ter.

Along with mar­veling at the nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena, I en­joy learn­ing how the coun­try har­nesses the sub­stan­tial power of its ther­mal wa­ters. Just off the Golden Cir­cle loop, the ex­hi­bi­tion at Hel­lisheioi Power Plant (Hel­lisheioarv­irkjun) gave me a good look at tur­bine ma­chin­ery at work. The hot wa­ter from the ground (which is piped to homes for heat­ing) drives the tur­bines that gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity.

For many, the best way to ex­pe­ri­ence Ice­land’s geo­ther­mal de­lights is lit­er­ally plung­ing into one of Ice­land’s nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring ther­mal baths. The most fa­mous (and most ex­pen­sive) is the spa-like Blue La­goon, with milky blue wa­ter fill­ing a vol­canic reser­voir on the Reyk­janes Penin­sula, near Ke­flavik Air­port. Nes­tled in a lu­narlike land­scape, this steamy oa­sis is a sprawl­ing hot­wa­ter play­ground for grown-ups. I like to splish and splash around, ex­plor­ing the hid­den nooks and cran­nies of the in­ter­con­nected pools, and head to the hot, thun­der­ing waterfalls to give my shoul­ders a pound­ing. The nat­u­rally heated wa­ter is thor­oughly re­lax­ing. Also re­lax­ing is the swim-up bar, where each bather gets a drink in­cluded with ad­mis­sion.

Other pre­mium but less up­scale pools are Fon­tana (on the Golden Cir­cle route); My­vatn Na­ture Baths (part­way around the Ring Road, in North Ice­land); and Krauma (in West Ice­land).

While those baths have big mar­ket­ing bud­gets and at­tract lots of in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors, they’re rarely fre­quented by Ice­landers — who know that you can bathe in equally lux­u­ri­ant wa­ter for a frac­tion of the price, al­beit in sim­pler sur­round­ings, at one of the coun­try’s many ther­mal swim­ming pools. Ev­ery com­mu­nity of even a few hun­dred peo­ple seems to have a well-main­tained pool com­plex, of­ten with a warm lap pool and smaller hot pools (called “hot pots”); many also have saunas, steam rooms and wa­ter­slides. These pools pro­vide a pleas­antly authen­tic Ice­landic ex­pe­ri­ence, and an op­por­tu­nity to rub el­bows with lo­cals. (You’ll find list­ings at www.swim­minginice­land.is and www.hot­po­tice­land.com).

Those who love the out­doors can find free op­por­tu­ni­ties for an al fresco soak in ther­mal springs through­out the coun­try­side. Some are easy to reach by car, while oth­ers re­quire a bit of a hike — but your re­ward is a long soak in toasty wa­ter sur­rounded by an in­cred­i­ble land­scape. Above the town of Hver­ageroi, near the end of the Golden Cir­cle route, is the ther­mal river of Reyk­jadalur (lit­er­ally “Steamy Val­ley”). Step­ping out of your car at the end-of-theroad park­ing lot, you’re sur­rounded by steam­ing hill­sides. Af­ter about an hour­long hike up the val­ley, you reach the stream. The wa­ter is shal­low — you need to lie down to be sub­merged — but won­der­fully warm and sooth­ing. Reyk­jadalur is far from undis­cov­ered, so there’s usu­ally plenty of com­pany to en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore the hike back to your car.

Af­ter nearly 1,200 years of tam­ing their vo­latile is­land, Ice­landers have har­nessed geo­ther­mal en­ergy in ways both prac­ti­cal and he­do­nis­tic. From gaz­ing upon chro­matic, steam­ing lakes to soak­ing in a ther­mal bath, Ice­landic vis­its are af­fected by the coun­try’s pow­er­ful nat­u­ral forces.

Rick Steves (www.rick­steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected]­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

CAMERON HEWITT/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE PHO­TOS

Na­maf­jall, along Ring Road, is one of Ice­land’s most ac­ces­si­ble and im­pres­sive geo­ther­mal ar­eas.

The nat­u­rally heated My­vatn Na­ture Baths offer a great view of north Ice­land’s vol­canic coun­try­side.

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