Swimming in Iceland – the land of the lido
My wife Ann has always wanted to see the Northern Lights and especially so after watching the TV series: Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights. When an email arrived advertising a Northern Lights weekend in Iceland, we decided to book it, take a risk and hope to see the Aurora Borealis for ourselves. What we discovered in Iceland took us quite by surprise and as you will discover we were far from disappointed.
The Icelandic people are friendly, enthusiastic and informal. Our tour was very well arranged, and in fact everything panned out seamlessly. Iceland is a surprising country, despite being 25% bigger than Ireland it’s the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with just 320,000 inhabitants similar in fact to the population of my home city of Leicester. Looking back at recent history Leicester boasted a good number of Lidos, though sadly now all eight have closed. The country as a whole still has a 100 or so Lidos to choose from but cold water, poor facilities, dismal weather and too few swimmers, put their future in constant jeopardy. Iceland on the other hand has one lido for every 2,600 of the population! If the UK were to copy the Icelandic model we would have 243,000 lidos in the country!
How is it that Iceland has 123 Lidos up and running and we here in the United Kingdom are struggling to keep the few we have left open? One thing’s for sure, it’s not that they have better weather. Freezing conditions are common with a short summer season and long dark nights in the winter. As Ann and I made our way to the Laugardalslaug Outdoor Pool in Reykjavik we picked our way along icy and snow clad pavements to a pool that had been open since 8.00 that morning. It didn’t get light until 10.00 but the steaming water of this spectacular Lido is a regular haunt of locals. Four hot tubs and a geothermal sea water pool are the Icelandic equivalent of the British pub. Relaxation combined with a discussion of local and world events give the pools a real buzz and bubble. The 86 meter water slide is great for children but, hold on a minute, there’s no lifeguard at the top and none at the bottom for heaven’s sake! This means that children use the slides traffic lights to moderate their excitement. Even so children went down in pairs and as the time interval was quite short some six children would be on the slide at a time. This of cause would never be allowed in England but it means that children don’t get cold in the queue as they are soon plunging back into the cosy waters of the play pool.
There are many differences between the British and the Icelandic experience, but one I am sure is more noteworthy than most. The water is never over chlorinated in fact I could not detect a hint of chlorine in the atmosphere around the pool, why is that? British history saw the birth of the swimming pool as a place to bathe, a place to wash away the weeks grime. In Iceland a different heritage has generated a healthier experience. After paying your dues, £3.30 for adults and 70p for children you are issued with a wristwatch like arm band containing a chip that gives you access to the pool and a locker. You take off your shoes, leave them outside the warm dry changing room and walk in with socked feet. After selecting your locker you change into your swimwear taking your towel with you and place it in one of the many towel tubes provided. Then you are expected to shower in the buff following the directions of the poster on the wall so that no areas harboring bacterial infection are missed. ‘Shower police’ are on hand to make sure you do a proper job and even if you escape their attention, keeping your costume on will result in a good ticking off from any Icelander that sees you misbehaving. After your swim you are expected to shower again and dry off by the showers, keeping the separate changing area dry and inviting. It’s not at all British but it is cleaner and the swimming pool water smells sweeter as a result. I must say that getting changed on a dry floor is far more appealing than one awash with bath water which is most often the case back home.
In England it can be hard to get properly dry before dressing as the atmosphere in the changing rooms is often cold and very damp. Another advantage of the clean body – clean bathing water ideal, is that children can use the hot tubs without ill effect. I stayed last year at the Swallow Belstead Brook Hotel in Ipswich and noticed that children were not allowed into the hot tub. I discovered that just a few weeks earlier a young guest had been sitting on the edge of the tub with her legs in the water for a few minutes. The strong chemicals turned her legs bright red with irritation. My daughter got out of the pool when she heard this, only to discover that the chemicals had striped her skin of her holiday tan in just a few moments. If Icelanders want to enjoy clean bathing water in their pools and hot tubs, who are we to argue. Surely bathing in strong disinfectant can’t be good for us, well we know it’s not, but British culture and tradition stand in the way of cleanliness. Children are very prominent in Iceland which has one of the highest birth rates in Europe; a large box of water-wings is on hand to give youngsters confidence in the water and the pool water is so hot that they can play in the pool for hours, just getting out now and then to cool down. Dressing tables with mirrors, hair dryers and comfortable seats abound, ensuring that no one need leave the pool without putting themselves together.
We are so health and safety conscious, so litigation obsessed here in the UK, that in an effort to be secure much of the fun has been taken out of swimming. One Icelandic lifeguard spoke of his recent visit to Cornwall and his interest in the pride of Penzance, the Jubilee Pool. Having taken a look over the fence he decided against venturing in. The British Lido experience may be safe, but in his opinion it is now somewhat sad.
Soon a 300 room hotel is to be built nearby The Blue Lagoon, the most visited tourist destination in the country. Entrance here is some £30.00 more than to a swimming pool, yet the unique experience is well worth it. The Blue Lagoon was accidentally formed in 1976 during operation at the nearby geothermal power plant. In the years that followed, people began bathe in the water and apply its silica mud to their skin. Those with psoriasis noticed an incredible improvement in their condition. Bathing in this pool would be outlawed in the UK as the milky water makes it impossible to see submerged swimmers, and the swirling steam obscures the lifeguards view completely for much of the time. Additionally we would say that the water is too hot at 40C. The nearest pool we have to this in England would be the Thermae Bath Spar. My visit to Bath was somewhat spoiled last year as the waters which start out at 45C were cooled down to 34C (the optimum bathing temperature) and I felt somewhat chilly in the frosty night air. Not so at the Blue Lagoon, the waters are roasting hot. Icelanders don’t seem to need dozens of lifeguards either. Instead staff are on hand to serve drinks, ice-creams and generally make sure that everyone has a good time and of course shower properly.
Top Tip: If you ever decide to visit Iceland you can buy a Reykjavík Welcome Card which gives you free access to a great selection of museums and galleries and all swimming pools in Reykjavík. Free and unlimited travel by bus within the Reykjavik Capital Area is also included. In addition, the card gives you a free ferry trip to Viðey Island and discounts on various tours, in shops and on services, £21.50 for 48 hours.
When it comes to the Northern Lights what can I say? They are truly beautiful, breathtaking and free to all who gaze skyward on a clear night when the suns activity sparks the display. I would definitely give Iceland the thumbs up as a swimming destination at any time of year. Expensive yes, but you do get what you pay for.