The heat is on, and so is the relaxation, at geothermal baths outside Reykjavik
On the 50-minute drive from Iceland's Keflavik International Airport to downtown Reykjavik, the landscape switched from long, flat stretches of dirt to patches of grass studded with rocks.
It was early August, and it was cold—40 degrees is chilly for a native Angeleno—and as I looked around, I couldn't quite figure out why this place was at the top of my friends' travel wish lists.
One thing is clear: Iceland is trending. The number of people traveling here has more than doubled in the last six years, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board, and that number continues to increase by more than 20 percent a year.
For this we can probably thank, in part, Wow Airlines, the ultra-low-cost Icelandic carrier that tempts with the occasional sub-$100 one-way fare. And I'd also credit social media, which brim with selfies taken at and in the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's best-known hot spring.
But Iceland wasn't really on my list. A story on low-cost airlines (I flew Wow) landed me in the capital city, which I could use as a base to explore the hot springs. Not my idea of paradise, but it helped when my sister Jessica, who was in need of a vacation, volunteered to explore with me.
The plan was to stay in Reykjavik, then drive to as many hot springs as we could without having to join a tour group or get on a bus.
Of course, plans are made for changing, which is what happened when the car rental company failed to produce the four-wheel-drive I had reserved and paid for.
That meant we had to skip some of the springs on our list that were off the main roads.
But our tiny red Toyota Yaris did make it to the Blue Lagoon and three other memorable geothermal spots, all within driving distance of Reykjavik.
The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa about the size of two football fields, sits amid an 800-year-old lava field on the Reykjanes Peninsula, a 50-minute drive southwest of Reykjavik.
It is popular, so reservations are required because space is limited, ensuring enough sparkling water for everyone (the lagoon can hold hundreds of people).
The water, a combination of fresh and seawater from the nearby geothermal plant, is about 98 degrees, slightly cooler than your average hot tub.
Ticket packages range from about $48 to $200. The premium package, around $85, is all you'll need to feel like a king or queen. It includes mud and algae masks, towel, drink of your choice, bathrobe, slippers, and a reservation and complimentary glass of sparkling wine at Lava, a restaurant at the Blue Lagoon.
Silica, the Blue Lagoon's 35-room hotel, is a 10-minute walk. It is closing in April and will reopen later this year as a 60-room luxury hotel with a new restaurant.
Jessica and I spent hours walking on the lagoon's smooth rock floor. We eventually relaxed, though we had to dodge other tourists who splashed through the water in search of the perfect selfie backdrop.
One of the lagoon's best features is its swim-up bar, where you can buy smoothies, wine, beer and water. We also tried the in-water massage (about $80 for 30 minutes, but you can skip it unless you like the sensation of sinking), had lunch at Lava (some of the best food in Iceland) and returned to the lagoon for several more hours.
The warm water is addictive, so we were glad to have allotted an entire day for the visit.
Info: Blue Lagoon, 011-354-420-8800, bluelagoon.com
A 42-minute drive north of Reykjavik took us through lush green valleys, across bridges over rocky streams and down a pothole-riddled dirt road to one of the most magical spots I have ever visited.
We were sure we were in the wrong place, so we parked our car to avoid blocking the road, then made our way down a dirt path.
When we reached the pebble-lined shore of the Hvalfjordur fjord, we turned left and walked about eight minutes (our hotel concierge had provided us with instructions) until we came to a tiny man-made pool surrounded by rocks. The hot water is piped in from a nearby spring.
The fjord's deep blue water and green mountains are the backdrop for the small hot tub, which fits two people comfortably. Birdsong and the sound of water lapping lazily at the shoreline provided the soundtrack for the afternoon.
As we sat alone in the warm pool, we felt as though we had dropped into someone's “Wish you were here” postcard. We alone enjoyed the solitude; we hadn't seen another human being in miles.
But isolation isn't guaranteed. If someone happens to be in the pool when you arrive, you'll have to wait your turn.
Info: Go to lat.ms/hvalfjardarlaug for directions, then write them down before you start the drive. Google Maps does not work once you leave Reykjavik, and there is no Internet connection. Free.
The name might stem from the difficulty in finding this place. After our map app failed us, we had to stop at a gas station for directions.
The Secret Lagoon, created in 1891, is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland. It's in the small town of Fludir, a little more than an hour's drive east of Reykjavik.
It's a popular stop on the 186-mile Golden Circle tour, which also includes the Geysir geyser, the Gullfoss waterfall and the Kerid Crater Lake.
We arrived in the morning, which was smart because access is limited to control crowding (the website lists designated times for tour groups, so plan to arrive before or after them).
The lagoon is behind a small building, where you check in and pay about $25 to enter.
The Secret Lagoon is about the size of a large backyard swimming pool and is surrounded by dense forest in one direction and rolling green hills in the other.
Steam rose from the ground, creating a dense fog over the water. A walking path allowed us to explore the spurting, bubbling hot springs without getting too close. We spent a couple of hours in the lagoon, which was ample time to relax and work up an appetite for lunch.
Info: 845 Hvammsvegur, Fludir; 011-354 853-3033, secretlagoon.is
Laugarvatn Fontana looks more like a heated public swimming pool than a hot spring, with shallow geothermal baths with tile walls and floors.
Not only is geothermal heat used to warm the baths, but it's also used to bake bread underground. The rye created in its geothermal bakery is delicious. You might want to stop for lunch rather than a soak in the pool.
Info: 1 Hverabraut, Laugarbraut, 840 Laugarvatn; 011-354-486-1400, fontana.is