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8. Kvika: The Bathless Taken

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Distance to complete relaxation: 2.5/5 spigots

Through our previous couchsurfing adventures we’d come to be in possession of a hand-drawn map of a mystical out-of-the-way hot pot just outside the small town of geothermally active Hveragerði. In true fashion we found  a willing travel companion on Couchsurfing’s Reykjavik discussion, and planned to meet them for coffee on this winter morning. It was then that we encountered our first obstacle, the locks to our car were frozen. An hour of bringing down boiling water in thermoses, and a bic-fired key set us on our way: some daylight, but not much passion lost.

icehorseOur surfcoucher was late arriving to our rendez-vous, but again we were put at ease by the third-wave-birch atmosphere of Reykjavik Roasters. Another hour, and half the sunlight gone, we motored through the desert of snow to volcano-land, popping the ambient sounds of Jóhan Jóhannsson into the compact disc player. We were enjoying the route, even stopping off for a few Icelandic horses.

 

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Unbathable. Try as I might.

We didn’t even rush our hour hike up the mountain, and did a stop-and-chat when our hike-surfer companion ran into a hostel homie.

And all of this would have been fine, if it wasn’t two days after the winter solstice at 66° North. This particular spacetime meant that the sun was setting, and legions of other hikers were descending the mountain with advice like “you’re 45 minutes away.” Still we maintained good spirits right up until an icy precipice that didn’t seem like it was going to be any easier to navigate in the dark. Adi fretted “my mom would be really disappointed with me if I fell off this cliff and died.” It seemed like the right moment to make the smart move, snap some nature porn, and GTF off the mountain.

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Still we had to salvage what we could, so we made another poor – but not life threatening – decision to go to the smallest hotpot in Iceland.

Kvika footbath is a souvenir key-chain of a hotpot. It’s targeted towards people who want the upper and lower halves of their bodies to be different temperatures – and have a nice view of the expansive Atlantic while they’re at it. Yet our visit was a nigh unbearable tale of wind, extreme cold, heat, and complete darkness. The joke wore thin 5 minutes in, so we returned to the warmth of an Aktu-Taktu chip-merchant. You might like it a lot more if you could see anything at all and have non-adverse weather conditions.

meh

meh

The day was charcterised by false starts of all sorts, and Kvika in some ways was one of them. The promise of this bonsai-bath is alluring no doubt, but there’s more laughing than earnest relxation to be had here.

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7. Blue Lagoon: Land of Alizé and Soymilk

Distance to complete relaxation: 4.5 of 5 spigots.

Distance to complete relaxation: 4.5/5 spigots

Yggdrasil

Yggdrasil- an immense mythical tree that connects the nine worlds in Norse cosmology.

Are you dead or are you alive? Squint out at the colossal mountains in the background and you are forgiven for believing your arcane transport to the ethereal Yggdrasil cosmos. Here you are subsumed by the creamy bath, an elixir resembling Alizé and soy milk. Lay your head back, feel the volcanic heat on your skin, and the snowflakes on your tongue at 65° North. Thick steam rises in the air, opaque against the shy sun showing for just a moment on the winter solstice. You have slipped into the foggy underworld known as the Blue Lagoon.

Bláa Lónið (Blue Lagoon) is a natural hotspring which retains almost all of it’s supernatural charm despite being built for a flown-in for the weekend global audience. Without knowing what it looked like before the construction diggers came, the design remains a soft carving of nature. The wade-able landscape is subtlety divided into enough activity areas that serve as entertaining circuit training as well as relaxing unplugging. Social psychology and architecture will lead you do laps of: mud facemasks, off-shoot benches, sparkling wine, hot waterfalls, and saunas. The lagoon remains a strange and well-crafted wonder despite the shepherding.

Tips:

Tips:
· take breaks in the resting lounge
· take food even though they tell you not to. ·take a towel or two or you’ll pay for them.
· don’t worry about getting your hair wet, because it invariably will. It will also becomes straw-y, but will return to normal after a good deep condition.
· if you want to want to take pics, buy a waterproof phone/camera bag for €10 before it costs you €25 at the bar.

Given the flocks of holiday-makers here, the compartmentalization of the lagoon is a plus because it means that you contend only with a subset of crowd at any time. Still, take some time to crawl to the most sparsely populated outer regions where you can lie down and pretend you understand the creation story of a world born of ice and fire. There’ll be enough time to see a world of bragging Skype calls and distant offices on the iPhones of patrons who haven’t left the bar.

The specialness of the location and the water’s X-factor is real, if hard to appreciate fully. Open your eyes too wide you will see a modern capitalist tourist trap which competes uneasily with the otherworldly nature. Our Airbnb host (and here’s the contradiction again), told us what it was like to go to Grindavík 40 years ago. It was a time when she could enjoy her own country’s offerings without paying €40 to a private company. That’s an unavoidable moral blemish part and parcel of this wonder of the bathing universe.

6. Breitenbush: The Simple Wellworn Rocking Horse Heirloom

 Distance to Complete Relaxation: 4 out of 5 spigots

Distance to complete relaxation: 4/5 spigots

When you’re on an heirloom rocking horse the craftsmanship is undeniable, stands alone, and is as much of a Gesamtkunstwerk as any mobile operating system might aspire to be. When you want to replace your mobile addiction with rustic simplicity, it couldn’t hurt to have a subtle logic conducting the unplugging. Breitenbush accounts for all the details through what is clearly decades of commune homesteading. They know its not just about the baths. That’s why once you’ve paid your entry fee, despite all a full agenda of meals, yoga and piano performances, there is no one to pay, and no commerce in which to be engaged. Unburdened from consumer choice, you become aware of the water in which you were a fish.

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Food

“What should we get for lunch?” is not a question you have to concern yourself with (or breakfast and dinner for that matter). At Breitenbush they serve a nutritious buffet a few notches above co-op slop. It’s not foodie-good, but simple and vegetarian and vegan. You’d have to be pretty picky not be delighted with every visit to the dining hall, and because of that Breitenbush has engineered another decision out of your day.

Family Friendly

Breitenbush is child-positive without being Disneyland. The beauty of the balance they strike is that it’s not pandering to children, nor are they unwelcome bathing pariahs. For instance in front of the main hall there is a grassy field with hula-hoops laying about. In the library there are children’s books and games. But if Breitenbush were to only have monkey bars and Dr. Seuss available in corners, they wouldn’t have achieved what they did. It is the very fact that they eschew the default boundary between child/adult things that makes Breitenbush feel more than child-accommodating, but family-friendly.

Library and Activities

During a bathing excursion, the fact is that sometimes you can’t always be in the water. Breitenbush recognizes this and has you covered in a choice of group or individual “activities”. Our favourite amenity was the dedicated library room. Harbin too had this (RIP) but the shelves and chairs had more pretense imbued in their interior design. The medium-sized collection was good enough to produce a current Economist, a few nat-geos, and some paperbacks, which perfectly fit unwinding the mind after dinner. Exiting the library you can find a sign-board which will alert you to the organized going-ons. When we were there this included a yoga class in the evening, and a stargazing session. But more over, our most enjoyable time came when a cheerful staff member sat down at the upright piano in the hallway. Appreciating live piano on an impromptu spur was a resetting mindshift as enjoyable as the wet ones on offer.

The Baths
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But what about the actual baths? There are many, and each designed to be a backdrop more than a centerpiece. They baths are separated into two areas, upper and lower. The upper baths are a sophisticated smooth rock each for about 10 people, and overlook the river. They feel as if they were crafted by someone who also throws ceramic pots. And you’ll probably find a potter of the sort in there. The lower and older set are tiled and arranged in ascending heat order topping out at about 44⁰C. The vibe here is more a utilitarian, pore-cleansing hot-cold dip-cycling. The sauna is a steamy wooden cabin of precise woodworking, which is everything a sauna needs to be and nothing more. By paring down options in baths and bath extravagance, Breitenbush reduces your cognitive load in yet another dimension.

Unburdened.

The essence of Breitenbush is that it is complete and minimal without being spartan. Enjoy choicelessness and live off the simple offerings. Eat but don’t fuss over eating, smile and twirl a hula-hoop with those around you, read what’s on the shelf. Let the baths get out the way, so the reasons that you’re there can be focused on: to warm your muscles, to be outside and quiet, to metabolise your life-events with a close friend, or to meet a new one.

2. Harbin: Baths for Witches and the Techno Riche

Distance to complete relaxation: 3.5/5 Spigots

Distance to complete relaxation: 3.5/5 spigots

Harbin’s entrance, with its tiles and vines and handpainted signs prepares you to enter one size fits all Hippie Chic. Like a YMCA owned by Deadheads appealing to Silicon Valley middle management. Whether you want to glamp with a bathroom, rent a room in the Norcal Disneyland hotel, or just let your Miata shine in the sun for a few hours, Harbin keeps you in striking distance of the baths.

Protip: Definitely bring a flashlight, fsho. The walk from the camp area to the baths is a minor but dark walk for which you’ll need light.
Attribution: http://califias.blogspot.com/2014/12/harbin-hot-springs-and-heart.html

There are six pools, from very hot to very cold along with a sauna and steam room. The heart-shaped pool fails on it’s promise of being a either a quiet special love-zone or a communal watering hole. The sauna and steam are standard. The warm pool is the largest of the silent pools, and is decorated in a witch-serves-a-nice-country-breakfast sort of way. But the real standout is the candlelit hot pool, a few steps away, with gnarled cast iron handrails that takes it all the way to coven-in-a-new-moon-mikvah. The overhead handrail allows you to hang half-in-half-out of the pool, providing maximum erector spinae release. There’s only room for about 10 people in the hot pool, but its very high temperature ensures there’s someone exiting to let you in.

It’s not that the entire compound is naked, in fact the only place that’s naked is the bath areas. The changing rooms can get full and are co-ed. Dick-wagglers exist, but are a silent (non-voting) minority. Only one erection was spotted and no one approached us. In fact it is quite coupley, but not to the degree that it would be unenjoyable as a platonic group of friends. It is the happiest place on pangea, after all. This interpretation of the Magic Kingdom has learned the lesson to keep your patrons fully entertained. Yoga lessons, a Restaurant, a movie room, and library. The food is mediocre but healthy, compromising on flavourfulness and fanciness, but not on quality. The library room, oh the libray room. It’s a great little refuge, for when your ereader is more appealing than being naked outside. It’s wooden and handcrafted. It’s not hobbled together and it’s free.

Our dedication to economizing our purse backfired on us during our trip. Unfortunately before leaving we didn’t fully rinse a can of garbanzo beans before recycling it, which very much angered the wind Gods. They knew our human-weakness, these wind Gods, that we required some non-zero amount of sleep, and therefore exacted revenge on us through the audio of tent-flappiness. It was really extraordinarily flappy. Not like a hummingdbird, or an even a scarf in a Miata. This was more like being in the cargo hold of an old propeller plane, except its sputtering engine was on the inside. We tried very hard to ignore this cacophonous plastic on plastic sound while cuddling necessarily for warmth. We contemplated abandoning the idea of trying to sleep, and eventually did at around 5 am, an hour before day break to seek refuge in the hot pool. Our deprived brains still acknowledged the heat of waters, and even registered the sweet sunrise dancing on the bare winter branches – but perhaps with not as much mirth as it could have. Upon return to our spent tent, some camping neighbours approached us. “How was your night?”  We responded distraughtly “very flappy tent.” And they said “yeah,” and we knew that they just knew precisely what we meant.

As it was now time to go, we augmented our scattered 15 minutes of sleep with two espressos at the on-site cafe, much like the YMCA smoothie bar – if only the Grateful Dead owned it.