Take a spin around Iceland – by hot tub

Economic woes inspired tourism chiefs to look at new ways to attract visitors. Rhiannon Batten took the plunge

It was disorientating to leave Britain in summer and touch down just a couple of hours later in the midst of winter.

Or so it seemed when I landed in Iceland in July. It wasn't really winter but you wouldn't have known that from the waves of sea fog billowing in over black, barnacled rock, and a population swaddled in puffa jackets. But then no one goes to Iceland for a beach holiday. What the country does offer is some of the best nature tourism in Europe, and I was looking forward to experiencing a new nature-based initiative, Vatnavinir.

Loosely translated as "friends of the water", Vatnavinir is the result of a brainstorming session by the island's thinkers, tourism experts and architects, sparked by the country's economic collapse. Looking for ways to restart Iceland's tourism industry, they decided to make more of the resources they had – namely geothermal energy, dramatic landscapes and creative people – and offer tourists a unique and authentic water-based experience in some of the country's more neglected regions.

Over a bowl of salty meat soup and rye bread in Reykjavik, Anna Sverrisdottir, one of the driving forces behind the project – and a founder of the country's Blue Lagoon attraction – summed it up. "We have so much warm water in Iceland and we want to encourage more use of it, in a sustainable way. We also want to focus on what is special about different parts of the country rather than trying to create six new Blue Lagoons."

Though Vatnavinir is a long-term project, a pilot scheme has already started in the country's Westfjords region. After lunch, I drove 300km north to see some of the 12 sites there. My hosts in the Westfjords were Arnlin Oladottir and Magnus Rafnsson from Theme Travel. Long-term residents of the region, they have between them an encyclopaedic knowledge of the surrounding ecology and folklore and try to connect tourists with local people.

One of which, in my case, was Adalbjorg Oskarsdottir who lives in the small fishing village of Drangsnes. As Vatnavinir's local contact, she is involved in the management of the village's "hot pot", a series of open-access hot tubs right on the shore, filled with naturally hot spring water. "It's so nice to sit here and watch the water," she said. "If you watch for a while you'll see eider ducks, and a kind of duck kindergarten they operate, but one night we even saw a whale."

Though all are based around geothermal water, each Vatnavinir site is unique. Ranging from simple roadside hot pots to large swimming pools, from small family-friendly pools to seaweed-based spas, most are in existence already, but what Vatnavinir has done is give them suggestions for development. In consultation with the local communities, some will be spruced up with more natural landscaping while others are set for more extreme makeovers.

From Dragsnes, Arnlin, Magnus and I hiked over a mountain to the second Vatnavinir site, Gvendarlaug. A naturally warm outdoor swimming pool by the side of Hotel Laugarholl, like many of the other pools in the area it was originally built in the 1940s as a way of making sure the local, fishing-based population could swim.

Though perfectly magical as it is, surrounded by wild, open terrain, the plan here is to hide its concrete shell with more natural-looking stones. Another Vatnavinir suggestion has led to the development of two small hot pots lined atmospherically with rock and surrounded by turf. After a long journey and a strenuous hike, it was bliss to plunge in and wallow in hot water looking out at the brooding Westfjords scenery. "The landscape looks so grey and brown from a distance but up close it's not," mused Arnlin as we gazed out at a patchwork of greens, pinks, yellows and purples.

After a comfortable night's sleep, we hiked up behind the hotel, past thunderous waterfalls to a high plateau and down the other side into a steep, green valley. "September is a great time to come here," explained Magnus. "In the summer all the sheep are sent out on to the hillsides to roam free, and then the farmers go out together, in teams, to round them up again at the end of September. When they're all back in the valley the sheep are herded into pens and divided up among their owners but the process is an ancient, communal one and fit tourists are welcome to muck in too."

That evening we headed further into the Westfjords along a dirt road for a simple supper at Hotel Djupavik. It is a quirky place, built from the remains of a 1930s herring factory, and its period architecture and characterful owners have attracted the likes of Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros. For us, though, it was just a staging post en route to the next Vatnavinir site, Krossnes.

Our aim was to swim there in the midnight sun. As we drove, Magnus kept us awake with tales of ancient black market traders, of Basques inter-marrying with Icelanders and of magicians appearing out of the sea and disappearing into the mountains. By the time we arrived at Krossnes, it didn't matter that the sun had slipped behind an angry, slate-coloured cloud.

The next day we would visit a huge outdoor pool in Reykjanes, a hot pot in the idyllic, buttercup-filled valley of Heydalur and try a seaweed bath in Reykholar. But it's Krossnes that sticks in the memory most. Swimming in the hot pool there, looking out in the gloaming at wild waves crashing on to a driftwood-littered shore, it didn't feel that we were experiencing nature so much as being part of it.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Rhiannon Batten travelled to Iceland with Icelandair (084 4811 1190; icelandair.co.uk), which flies to Reykjavik from Glasgow, Manchester, and London from £216 return. Similar trips with Theme Travel (00 354 451 3384; theme-travel.is) cost from £270 per person for three days (based on a group of four), including guiding and full-board accommodation, but not transport from Reykjavik to the Westfjords; bus tickets from Reykjavik to the Westfjords cost about £30 each way.

Further information

See visiticeland.com

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat