Returning from a hiking trip in Europe, my mother and I recently took advantage of a two-day stopover in Iceland. While two nights wasn’t nearly long enough to get an adequate look at everything Iceland has to offer, it was all the time I had before I needed to return to the US for work – so we decided to go for it, even if it was only for a short time!
Since we only had two nights in the country, we knew we wanted to stay within a reasonable drive of the airport. There are a number of tour operators in Reykjavik who run day tours to destinations all over the western half of the country, but my mother and I were more interested in seeing the countryside than in the city itself (we’ll have to save that for another trip). We were also in agreement that we didn’t want to do any marathon driving sessions – we’d rather spend our time at one location and really get to see it thoroughly, than spend all our time in a car moving from place to place. We rented a Peugot, and set out for the town of Hveragerdi, located about an hour’s drive from Keflavik airport.
The first thing we noticed about Hveragerdi is that it was the first place we’d come across where there were trees. (The only other ones we’d seen on the drive over were shrubby, stunted ones that looked like they’d been planted in people’s gardens). The town of Hveragerdi is a geothermal hot spot, meaning the heated water and soil make the area a micro-climate that’s a little more hospitable to plants. In addition to the free-range trees, the town is justifiably proud of its large number of geothermal greenhouses and the flowers, fruits, and vegetables they produce. I saw grapes and bananas, both growing to impressive sizes with the combination of warm air, geothermally-warmed soils and near-constant Arctic daylight. The local geothermal park encourages visitors to try their hand at boiling eggs in the steaming waters, though the day we visited the water temperatures weren’t quite warm enough for cooking. A local restaurant called Kjöt og Kúnst specializes in cooking breads and local dishes using a geothermally-heated oven, which (according to them) is a cooking technique unique to their restaurant. I sampled some of their banana bread, which was lovely – tasty and moist.
The real highlight of our visit to Hveragerdi was the hot springs of Reykjadalur (Icelandic for Steam Valley) located just outside the town. There is no shortage of hot tubs and geothermally heated pools inside the town itself (includiog one at the B&B we stayed at, and another at the community swimming pool down the road), but the idea of a hike ending with the soak at a natural hot spring was too tempting to pass up. The trail was steep, climbing steadily uphill past steaming fumeroles and fissures full of gurgling mud. There were signs everywhere warning hikers of the dangers of going off-trail – which did not stop certain hikers from walking quite close to the edge of the fissures to take pictures. With the recent death of an off-trail hiker in a Yellowstone hot spring fresh in our minds, my mother and I stayed on the trail.
As we came closer to the springs themselves, the trail skirted close enough to the geothermal features that getting off-trail to get better photographs was actually fairly unnecessary. At one point, the trail was reduced to a narrow bridge between a steaming fumerole on one side and a gurgling pit of mud on the other. The wind was continually blowing the clouds of steam across the trail, meaning that at times you could only see perhaps a dozen feet ahead, the landscape illuminated in brief glimpses as the wind momentarily broke through the clouds of steam. It was eerie, a sort of landscape that didn’t quite look like it belonged on Earth.
When we reached the hot springs themselves, there were a number of people already taking the waters, despite the fact that it was still fairly early in the day. The spring, which s really more of a small stream or creek, had a boardwalk built along one side, and a few lean-to sort of shelters to provide the illusion of privacy for changing clothes. We quickly changed into our swim suits, and slipped into the water. It was perfect bathtub temperature, and we sat and enjoyed the warmth, breathing in the damp, humid air. Considering we’d spent the previous two weeks hiking, an extended soak felt extremely welcoming.
Eventually, we climbed out of the creek, shivering as we toweled off and bundled up, tucking my thoroughly damp hair under a wooly hat. On our way back to the trailhead, we passed a group of riders, all mounted on a string of ponies obligingly clip-clopping their way up the trail. I was glad we’d arrived at the hot springs as early as we did, as the stream was obviously going to become much more crowded once the pony train arrived. We stopped for a cup of coffee and a pastry at a small eatery at the trailhead, and returned to town.
I’m certain there are certainly many worthwhile ways to spend a short stopover in Iceland (the next time I end up in Europe, I’ll be tempted to book another layover), I would highly recommend the town of Hveragerdi and its hot springs as a way to break up a flight to or from Europe.