Strange Sensations in Iceland
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

In an isolated country where everything seems alien, unusual feelings and encounters are a regular occurrence.

Olga gives me instructions in a language I can't hope to understand, but I've got the drift of it. Lie down, don't touch the sides of the tub, put your head on the pillow. All easy enough to comprehend, but not easy to initiate. The bathtub is filled with hot, slippery brown mud and I'm completely naked. She places a firm hand on my chest, pushing me down lower, then scoops out the hottest mud from the bottom of the tub and piles it on top my chest and legs. It's hard to relax and not laugh when I notice that the only things poking up above the surface of the mud are my flaccid member and two big toes. A triangulation of extremities. "Better than a gut," I muse to myself, before lying back and willing my mind and muscles to relax.

iceland spa sign

It's a strange sensation, but in Iceland you learn to get used to strange feelings, bodily and otherwise. Each day's oddities that challenge existing assumptions. Like the landscape itself, Iceland defies mental shortcuts.

The mud baths here are not part of some pampering spa treatment where afterwards we'll retire to a sleek relaxation room with soft lighting and new age music. They're part of a national health institute complex where all the baths and massages are meant to cure what ails you, not provide pleasure. Lunch is nut loaf and herbal tea, not a drop of alcohol or coffee anywhere on site. The veggies are certainly fresh enough though: we walk through greenhouses on the grounds filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce.

Later that day the group I'm with walks through another greenhouse and does a double-take. There's a row of banana trees, another of coffee plants, plus oranges and fig trees. Aren't we right by the Arctic Circle?

Yes, but the people on this hunk-of-rock island are an enterprising bunch. They build greenhouses to capture the heat and light from the sun, then take things up a notch. The island's volcanic activity heats up much of the water under the ground, which is then piped into the greenhouses to make the air even warmer. The result? Plants normally found near the Equator can survive and thrive. I peel a banana and eat it. It tastes just like it should. If I close my eyes I'm in Costa Rica. Never mind the coat and wooly hat I'm still wearing from braving the elements outside.

Iceland greenhouse

Boiling Earth Below, Erratic Air Above
Outside the greenhouse, it is obvious that nature isn't always content to be tamed. The town is reeling from an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale that hit a few months earlier. Areas are roped off where hot mud or steam has made its way to the surface. Formerly green hillsides are now brown, the plants killed off by boiling hot streams and bubbling mud.

I put my hand on the ground beneath my feet and it's warm to the touch. We ignore the signs warning us to keep away, duck under the ropes, and step gingerly over the parched surface, following a local who knows where she is going.

The air is cold and the wind is strong, but the forces under my feet are part of an entirely different system, one that doesn't seem to know it's at a latitude equivalent to Alaska and Siberia. The patterns of the Gulf Stream in the sea have an effect as well. The weather here is the wackiest I've experienced in all my travels. Out on a hike we get rained on, the fog rolls in and out, we get pelted with sleet, the wind whips up and blows my hood off, then the sun comes out and it's warm enough to shed my coat. This is not what happens in a day; the whole cycle occurs in the space of 20 minutes.

In the city I notice that nobody is carrying an umbrella, but most everyone wears a waterproof coat with a hood. The rain can come at any time. When I call home I find out the day's high in Iceland is warmer than the day's high in the southern United States where I live. In the late autumn, the only ice in Iceland seems to be up on the glaciers.

Taking the Waters in Winter
For the residents of Reykjavik, this is all normal. After all, this is a country where the capital has 17 public swimming pools that are open all year long. They are outdoor pools, open to the elements. Surely they are heated, right?

"They are not heated," explains our resident guide Ari. "They are cooled." Ah yes, the naturally heated water again. It comes out hot to start with, then is mixed with cold water to make it ready for the swimming pool. When hot water is practically free, why stop swimming in the winter?

The most famous bathing spot though is the Blue Lagoon, one of the world's strangest tourist traps. I try to make it from bathrobe to bath in two seconds flat to avoid the cold wind whistling past my goosebump-covered body. I glide into the bluish-white water and immediately feel like I'm bathing in a lake filled with warm Milk of Magnesia. It all feels even more alien when I get a massage, on top a thin floating raft, a warm wet blanket draped over my body. After you reach a certain age in life, it's hard to be surprised by any new pleasure. As a pair of hands works my muscles from underneath though and I bob on the milky water seeing the steam blow past, I realize I have never felt anything quite like this before.

blue lagoon iceland

This whole place is a display of man using nature's power to create something entirely new. The Blue Lagoon sits next to a power plant, one that generates energy by pumping seawater into the ground, using the steam to turn the turbines, then sending that resulting electricity out to the islanders. The only waste is hot water, which is what ends up in the lagoon. With a high silica content and beneficial minerals, it's supposedly great for the skin and an unusual place to soak, the steam swirling around the lava rocks. The whole process makes "clean coal" and "clean nuclear energy" look even more like the oxymorons they are. If you can charge money for people to bathe in the waste coming out of your power plant and make high-end beauty products out of it, now that's clean energy!

Unfortunately I've missed the most audacious conquering of nature. That happens each summer, when Reykjavik residents go swimming in the ocean. No, they're not all aspiring to be in some kind of sick Polar Bear Club. The seawater really is warm enough to swim in at Nauthólsvík Beach. The city pumps redirected runoff from a thermal energy plant directly into the bay, creating a Caribbean experience in "the world's northernmost capital," just a bit south of the Arctic Circle.

Tales of the Hidden People
Perhaps the fantastic and the strange seem ordinary in a land where people still believe in "hidden people," the little fairies and elves that reside in the countryside, just out of sight. Locals are fond of saying that if you open your mind and suspend your disbelief, you may feel the hidden people around you when you go for a walk.

At the Glymur Hotel next to Hvalfjordur (the Whale Fjord), Hansina the owner says her business was struggling for a while after she started the hotel there, just as the businesses on that plot of land had failed over and over before she came. A neighbor insisted that she needed to make things right with the hidden people and explain what she was doing there. Without their cooperation, the hotel would continue to be plagued by strange noises in the night and a guest register that was never filled.

So Hansina began to hike the surrounding hills each day, babbling into the wind to anyone who may be listening. To the casual observer she would appear to be talking to herself, but she was sharing her plans with those that could not be seen. After a couple months of this, things started to turn around. The nocturnal noises stopped. More guests came and they told others. Within a couple of years, Glymur built a reputation as one of the best hotels in the country.

She still walks the hills regularly, talking to the hidden people about the new villas she is building. A pragmatic businessperson she may be, but like most residents of Iceland, she is willing to believe what the ancestors held as a given. In this unusual landscape of glacial fjords, geysers, and boiling mud, who's to say they were wrong?

The Sensation of a Tanking Currency
Perhaps the strangest sensation of all I'm feeling in the capital, what's really messing with my head, is that the prices I'm encountering in Iceland are almost—what's the word—reasonable. I had never even dreamed of coming here, figuring my middle-class American earnings would leave me feeling like a pauper. I don't exactly cry in my $7 beer in sympathy as I listen to locals whining about the fall in the value of their currency, but that same beer had been more than $10 just a month earlier. In the space of a couple weeks, the Icelandic kroner has dropped like a submerging whale. I can now buy lunch for New York City prices instead of Copenhagen prices—a huge difference.

iceland spa sign

After I leave, the country's finances go from bad to horrible and I find myself writing articles in the travel press about Iceland become something unfathomable: a bargain. Hotels in the capital that used to cost $300 a night are going for $120. A vacation package from the Northeast to Iceland has become cheaper than one to California. Without changing a single price tag, the upscale 66 North outdoor gear clothing line is having a half-price sale at all its stores.

The country seems to be suffering the blowback from an extreme case of overreaching. Despite the island's tiny size, Icelanders reportedly own as many cars per capita as Americans. I keep snapping photos of the cute houses in the capital, but these are out of favor with the nouveau riche: they want bloated suburban compounds built on space blasted out of the lava. The country's banks spent the past few years reaching even further, loaning money to the world and signing up John Cleese to do TV ads. ("For that money they could have called up everyone in Iceland," the Financial Times noted when explaining the meltdown.)

"I guess we'll go back to fishing," said one investment banker from Reykjavik in another financial news story. They may not have much choice: imports have ground to a halt, so forget the ostrich carpaccio and French fois gras with Champagne for a while. It may be time to return to fish and "Black Death" Brennivín schnapps.

For those who went from cod catchers to cod futures brokers in the space of only two generations, this scaling back may be a strange sensation as well. But in a land of fairies, free energy, and Arctic swimming beaches, something tells me they'll find a way to adapt and overcome.

Editor Tim Leffel is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations. He also runs the Cheapest Destinations Blog and the Practical Travel Gear Blog.

Related articles:

Where is the Where? Hiking to the Horizon in Iceland by Lea Aschkenas
Western Canada Through the Eyes of a Child by Tim Leffel
Fear on the Menu by Tim Leffel
Notes Towards a True Historie of the Vikings by Edward Readicker-Henderson

Other European travel stories from the archives

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