It’s lunchtime on my thirtieth birthday and I am scurrying down wet slippery wooden steps in a cloud of sulphur, barefoot and shivering. Today I’m spending the afternoon in the Mývatn Nature Baths.
The Nature Baths are the smaller, less famous cousin of the Blue Lagoon in the south west of Iceland, situated an hour and a half from the nearest town of any consequence. Despite that, they’re surprisingly busy. Milky-blue opaque hot water pulled straight from a nearby borehole is a big draw in this country. And when I say hot, I mean there are places in the pool where the water is so hot it makes me wince.
That’s because the Nature Baths are literally sitting on the side of an active volcano. Views from three sides are of red-streaked mountain and the fourth side is a view over the lake, the mountains on the horizon and the plains. It’s an incredible place to put an outdoor pool. Alright, it’s an outdoor pool that smells very slightly of sulphur when you first walk in but within seconds you’ve forgotten that. Less than a kilometre away, on the other side of that red-streaked mountain, is Námafjall, a high-temperature area where grey-blue mud bubbles at boiling point, where natural kettles have been steaming for millennia and where the ground is blistered from the heat. On the other side of the road is the Krafla Power Plant, where the underground heat is used to generate electricity and just behind there is Krafla herself, still steaming in places from a series of eruptions in the late 70s and early 80s. If you’re a volcano fan, this is the best place on Earth.
The Nature Baths are not quite as space-age as the Blue Lagoon. The lockers are operated by old-fashioned keys rather than digital bracelets but there are showers with curtains for people not quite ready to brave the Obligatory Naked Shower in front of other people. There are two steam rooms, the steam being directly provided by the volcanic activity going on underneath it. There’s a trough-like hot tub, which is a wonderful thing when you’re scurrying down those wet steps towards the lagoon and you’re too cold to make the last five steps without pausing to warm up. I don’t stay long in the hot tub because it’s too hot for my liking but it’s good for recharging long enough to get into the lagoon.
The lagoon is bliss. I don’t know whether I like the hot water or the view more. I drift aimlessly around, searching for a comfortable place to sit where the temperature is perfect. There are underwater benches, in-water booths, artificial “beaches” – no sand, but gently sloping shallows where you can wallow. There’s no in-water bar here but if you’re wearing a blue wristband – and I have no idea how you get one of those wristbands – the staff will bring you drinks.
There are two lagoons, really, separated by a low wall with a gap in the middle. The further one is much quieter but then it doesn’t have as many seats in it. You have to cross a very hot patch to get to it but then I think it’s a little cooler in places, it’s definitely quieter than the first lagoon and it’s where you get the views over Mývatn. There’s a third lagoon only visible if you stand up at the far edge of the second lagoon – whether this is a cooling lagoon or where the water goes when it drains out of the swimming area or whether it’s an extension just waiting to be used, I don’t know.
If you’re a fan of drifting aimlessly in hot water – and I am – then this is amazing. There’s nothing quite like drifting aimlessly in hot water under a grey July sky while surrounded by volcanic activity and I can drift aimlessly, daydreaming and taking photos, for hours. Take a waterproof camera, by the way. I saw so many people taking photos with unprotected iPhones 6 and it makes me shudder. I would get the phone splashed, I would touch is with wet hands and I can’t guarantee it wouldn’t get knocked out of my hand. I have a waterproof case for my camera and I assure you, the pictures really don’t do justice to the brilliance of the view.