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A swimsuit might not be at the top of your packing list when travelling to a country called Iceland, but the local, naturally heated swimming pools are the centre of the Icelandic social scene, where gossip and news is exchanged while bodies are warmed and relaxed.

Thanks to the country’s geothermal energy, virtually every town in Iceland has a naturally heated pool. As you drive through the country, you are likely to notice steam leaking from crevices or spewing ahead on the horizon -- evidence of geothermal vents and hot springs. Piping hot water is siphoned off to public pools, where the water is minimally treated to keep it as pure as possible.

Despite the abundance of hot springs, most of Iceland’s pools are typical cement swimming pools and hot tubs, not naturally occurring lagoon-like ponds. Iceland’s largest facility, the Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik, is a massive complex consisting of a 50m pool, half a dozen hot tubs, kids’ pools and even a waterslide. The Hverageroi pool, situated 45km from the capital city, takes advantage of the region’s particularly dense geothermal activity with similar facilities: hot tubs, a lap pool, a sauna and a fitness centre. Even the famously stunning Blue Lagoon, just outside of Reykjavik, is a manmade pool originally built to hold wastewater from the adjacent geothermal electricity plant.

Do not let the lack of spa-like ambience turn you off, though: the clean, warm and unchlorinated waters are soothing and invigorating, and soaking in them is more about the experience than the surroundings. If you are looking for more natural surroundings however, consider the recently-discovered hot springs at Lake Kleifarvatn, which has underwater springs popular with cave divers, or Hveravellir, where multi-coloured ponds beckon the soaker and swimmer. 

All pools will have at least one, if not several “hot pots” – hot tubs filled with water heated to varying temperatures. These small pools are where genial social exchanges happen – between seniors, children, business professionals and everyone else in between – and even if you do not speak Icelandic, people will likely try to include you in the conversations.

Most pools are very affordable, towel and swimsuit rentals are available, and the larger pools will have locker rooms with free locks as well as shampoo and soap in the showers.

The best way to enjoy the pools is to alternate between the cooler lap pool and the hot pots or saunas. Note that despite Iceland’s notorious winters, most pools are outside and it can be a frigid run from pool to pool.

Swimming pool etiquette
Before you cannonball into the pool, be aware of some important conventions when visiting Iceland’s pools and pots:

  • Shower. Because Iceland’s pools have very few chemicals, it is important that bathers are clean when they enter them. And a quick duck under the stream of water while in your swimsuit does not count: you need to get naked and lather up. If you do not, you will be called out on it by the shower monitor (yes, it is a real job), which is definitely more embarrassing than getting naked in the locker room.
  • Remove your shoes. This happens before the shower; you take them off before you enter the locker rooms, which are notoriously clean.
  • Towel off. When you are coming back in from the pools and subsequent shower, you should dry off thoroughly. Remember, those locker rooms are super clean, with nary a drop of water on the floor.
  • Relax. To get the most out of your experience, sample different pools. Swim a few laps, then soak in a hot pot or sit in a sauna. And make sure you chat to the locals.
© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Soaking in Iceland’s social scene’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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