Iceland and the rituals of swimming

I’ve talked before about swimming in Iceland. It’s a great thing to do, especially if the wind is so strong it’s trying to blow you off your feet and the cold is trying to take your ears off.

It’s not without its rituals. As a foreigner, I am inevitably greeted at an Icelandic pool with “Have you ever been here before?” Well, no, not this particular pool, but yes, I have been swimming before in Iceland. The trick is to recite the golden rules before they can tell you.

Golden Rule Number 1: take your shoes off. No shoes in the changing rooms. There are always shoe racks outside changing rooms and you leave your shoes there. No one will steal them but if it makes you more comfortable, leave the designer heels at home when you go swimming. Not that anyone seems to wear shoes in Iceland. I sat opposite a shoe rack and counted shoes while tying my own laces and noticed that boots outnumber shoes five to one. You can usually take them in if you put them in your locker in a plastic bag but you have to carry them in, not wear them.

Golden Rule Number 2: you have to take a naked shower. Icelanders and mainland Europeans don’t even blink at this. On the other hand, the Brits and the Americans manage to not see the signs or they manage to not understand them. Showers, if taken at all, are in full swimming attire and generally don’t even get the hair wet. Brits and Americans don’t do public nudity.

You see, Iceland’s pools are filled with natural hot water, straight out of the ground. There’s no chlorine in it, no added chemicals, nothing but tasty tasty sulphur. Actually, that’s probably not true. I suspect pool water is good clean spring water heated using the sulphury geothermal water.

Emphasis on clean. So in order to keep the pools clean, you’re not allowed in until you’re clean. Is there gel or hairspray or something in your hair? They don’t want that in the pool. Wash it out before you get in. Are you wearing antistink? They don’t want that in the pool. Wash it off before you get in. Have you been wearing closed shoes? Then your feet are probably sweaty. They don’t want that in the pool. Wash them. Have you been wearing open shoes? Then your feet are probably splattered with filth. They don’t want that in the pool. Wash them. And so on all over. They want their nice clean water kept nice and clean so you have to wash properly before you get in. Really, it’s a practice that should be adopted more widely.

So those are the Golden Rules. There are always other rules but they’re fairly petty in comparison with those two.

And what do you get for following those rules?

Well, a swimming pool and a minimum of two hot pools and a steam room, as far as I can see.

I visited three public swimming pools in Reykjavik last time I was in Iceland. I also went to Laugavatn Fontana spa and the Blue Lagoon but they’re touristy – well deserved but they’ve been talked about before. On the other hand, Laugardalslaug, Sundhöllin and Vesturbæjarlaug don’t tend to get talked about much, at least, not in English.

Laugardalslaug is the biggest pool complex in Reykjavik, if not the entire country. It features an outdoor fifty metre pool – which doesn’t look much bigger than my local twenty-five metre but feels it and also I timed a length and can confirm it’s definitely double the size. It feeds into a play area – deep enough and big enough to swim in but intended for water games. It has an indoor fifty metre pool with a movable pontoon in the middle to split it into two twenty-five metre pools. It has a shallow dish-shaped kids pool, a little hot pool – more pool than hot pot but hot enough. It has four hot pots ranging from, I think, 36 to 42 degrees and a “seawater spa” – an additional hot pot but tiled in little blue tiles and filled with geothermal saltwater rather than spring water. And finally, there’s a steam room, a massage room and a slide. This local pool is better equipped than most waterparks in the UK. It has some fir trees and they bend alarmingly in high wind but it’s pretty sheltered in the hot tubs – just find your favourite temperature and stay put until the wind drops or the snowstorm passes. Go to Laugardalslaug if you want the biggest, best and most varied water fun in the country.

The next one I tried was Sundhöllin. Now, Sundhöllin is the oldest pool in Iceland, in a purpose-built Art Deco building opened in 1937 and while I’m sure the locals love it, I found it very municipal in comparison to everywhere else I’d swum. In fact, I’d go one further and call it institutional. The changing rooms are downstairs in the basement, with wooden doors on each section and wooden lockers. The pool, in a high but quite dark hall, is freezing cold, although the local kids don’t seem to mind – far too cold for me to swim more than one length. It’s redeemed somewhat, though, by its rooftop hot pots. Well, they’re not strictly on the roof but they are out on a balcony. You can peer under the frosted glass screens and peek at central Reykjavik right beneath you. I didn’t investigate the steam bath, which is also on the balcony. It was a cold day and the pool was too cold so I wallowed in the hot pots. Go to Sundhöllin if you want the authentic Icelandic swimming experience and also rooftop hot pots.

Finally, I went to Vesturbæjarlaug, which I found hardest to get to. I suppose it’s not so far from the town centre but by bus, you have to go round the end of the domestic airport runway and then the bus does a huge loop and you get off right at the end of the loop, just when the bus is literally one hundred yards from going back onto the straight bit of its loop. It’s another nice pool – twenty-five metres outside pool (although the deep end is a terrifying four or five metres deep), play area attached to the pool, two hot pots and a hot tub, a steam room and sauna and a peculiar mini pool that comprises three hot tubs all attached together. Vesturbæjarlaug is a bit quieter and a bit smaller than Laugardalslaug but give or take an Olympic-size pool, I think I prefer Vesturbæjarlaug. Go to Vesturbæjarlaug for pleasant out-of-the-town-centre family fun.