“Warning! Hot Spring Area” cautions a sign on the outskirts of Hveragerði, Iceland. Bilious clouds of steam rise up from the ground. I take the message as a sign that I’ve found what I was looking for in Iceland – hot springs in their most raw and natural form, without a manmade pool in sight. The goal: bathe in a babbling thermal river.
The town of Hveragerði, just 45 minutes outside Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik, was built over a volcanic magma chamber, capitalising on the abundance of steam and hot water rising from the ground. Here, superheated groundwater can reach temperatures of 392°F.
Resourcefully, Hveragerði residents have put their thermal endowments to use in a number of creative ways.
Strolling the unassuming streets of Hveragerði, I spotted more greenhouses than retail stores. They were foggy with the thermal-powered warmth trapped inside. These greenhouses have been a big part of the town’s formation, and the cultivation of cut flowers, garden plants and vegetables is now a year-round activity thanks to thermal energy. The first greenhouse was built in 1930, kickstarting what is known as the Commercial Greenhouse Era. Nine years later, Hveragerði became home to the Icelandic Horticulture College, which has been incorporated into the Agricultural University of Iceland.
To get an idea of the greenery grown, visitors can peek inside a handful of the town’s flower shops, where houseplants and garden wares are for sale, sometimes next to toys, gifts and Icelandic decor. The biggest shop is Blomaborg, which means Flower City.
Healthy Soaking and Spa Treatment
Icelanders take their thermal pools very seriously. Both in Reykjavik and outside it, the local culture values quality time with friends and family while steeping in hot water. The town of Hveragerði, with a population of less than 3,000 people, is unsurprisingly home to Sundlaugin Laugaskarði, a 50-metre outdoor swimming pool fringed by two “hot pots” (thermal hot tubs) and a steam bath. It’s open year round and, of course, thermally heated.
For even deeper spa treatment, visitors can head to the NLFI Health Clinic and Spa. In addition to more thermal pools and hot pots, this acclaimed health centre offers treatments like geothermal mud baths, massage and acupuncture. The clinic also provides a healthy menu of vegetables and herbs straight from nearby greenhouses, not to mention locally sourced dairy and fresh fish.
Hiking the Nearby Hills
After strolling the streets and perusing the pools of Hveragerði, I headed to the town’s outskirts for a hike. One trail leads to Reykjadalur, or “steamy valley,” along the Varma River. I crossed a bridge and followed the signs to the “hot river” three kilometres outside of town. Along the way I passed more billowing steam and then spotted a waterfall. Climbing the mossy hillside to the top of the falls, I found a gorgeous lookout point that takes in the town. Then I tested the river and its tributary streams for warmth and soakability. Warning: one small bubbling spring really was hot enough to burn!
Frost and Fire
For all its steamy thermal appeal, Hveragerði still comes across as genuine and lived-in. It is visited by a small but steady flow of travellers, and is less trodden than must-sees like the famous Blue Lagoon. A handful of hotels and guesthouses nevertheless promise a comfortable stay.
I chose to lodge at Frost and Fire, which sold me on its two private hot pots overlooking the river. My fellow travellers and I soaked until the wee hours of the morning, staring hopefully at a night sky too cloudy and full-moon bright to see the northern lights. Sometimes, though, conditions here are perfect.
Easily reachable by bus from Reykjavik, Hveragerði is as pleasant and warm as it is unpronounceable. It’s very worthy of the tourism love bubbling out of the ground, giving residents one more way to reap the benefits of their generous thermal resources.