Everyone has heard of the Blue Lagoon, but geothermal baths are a way of life in Iceland. Almost every town has a basic naturally heated pool, but some public baths are full-service spas and even architectural works of art.
My second favorite experience in Iceland was Geosea, in the whale-watching capital of Husavik. Flanked by an offbeat yellow lighthouse, 104-degree seawater is pumped into a broad infinity pool with a sprawling view of mountains and the Greenland Sea. Lounging midday in a swimsuit with a local blonde ale from the swim-up bar? It wasn't the first thing that had come to mind when I'd thought of the subarctic.
Nor did I anticipate the colossal stone sundial known as the Arctic Henge, which stands as a new monument to Iceland's pagan history on a particularly barren stretch of the Arctic Coast Way. Nearby, we also hiked to the northernmost point of the Icelandic mainland, where a stoic mid-century lighthouse keeps a lonely watch over the actual Arctic Circle, half a mile offshore.
I decided to get my money's worth by taking the SUV on Road 917, a "shortcut" from north to east Iceland that climbs sharply 2,000 feet from sea level to the summit of Hellisheidi Eystri (or as I pronounced it, "Hell is Heidi"). The steepest mountain pass in all of Iceland with countless switchbacks, it made for a white-knuckle experience. Our reward for surviving it was a soak in the Vok Baths, a remarkable geothermal spot in east Iceland where two hot pools seem to float upon a cool freshwater lake.
We doubled back to hit up the Diamond Circle, and two of Iceland's massive, mind-bending waterfalls. Cutting a deep trench through a lunar landscape, Dettifoss is the largest falls in Iceland and arguably the most powerful in Europe, with 6,800 cubic feet per second descending 144 feet. It's worth seeing for that statistic alone — and for the dirty, raging mess of water and sediment that's more vulgar than beautiful.
Far more aesthetically pleasing is Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods), some 60 miles away. Here the river tumbles over a broad semicircular cliff, providing an immersive, intimate view from many angles. The story that a powerful 10th-century pagan priest renounced his Norse idols and threw them into these falls may be apocryphal.
Occasionally we came across where modern Icelanders holiday. We had stopped for a margherita pizza at a sidewalk cafe at the quaint marina of Siglufjordur when an army of short, blond women in sharp yacht-rock outfits came marching out of an alley and directly toward us. Trailed by their men, they held aloft an amp that blared the theme from "Xanadu." The parade then morphed into a tabletop dance party, chasing us from the premises.
Iceland's biggest music icon, Bjork, is not as ubiquitous here as you might expect, but her caterwauling ballad "Birthday" (by her '80s band the Sugarcubes) did play at breakfast at our farm B&B near Myvatn. In a bit of Bjork magic, it was my birthday.
We planned for our trip to climax at Myvatn, a volcanic lake that anchors another eclectic geothermal region. The island- and crater-speckled lake itself looks like an illustration in a fantasy novel, or a prog-rock album cover. Unfortunately, this inland area is also home to the dreaded midges — tiny black flies that swarm the air on calm summer days. We were initially alarmed, but realized the flies were harmless, and wearing a head net for the day was a small price to pay.
There's a walking tour with bizarre lava formations called Dimmuborgir, and the colorful, odoriferous geyser area of Hverir. Although I refuse to actively engage in "Game of Thrones" tourism in the HBO show's many filming locations in Iceland, it was hard not to nerd out in the Cave, which features a clear blue geothermal pool where the wildling Ygritte deflowered Jon Snow. At 109 degrees, entry to the pool is barred to the lowborn.
So we joined an afternoon tour with Safari Horse Rental and trotted along the lake's southern shore on Icelandic horses, a beautiful smallish breed recognizable for the long hair in their eyes like an emo boy band. Our steeds, Throttur ("Strength") and Punktr ("Dot"), stepped adroitly on the steep lakeside trail past gaping lava caves. Once we hit gravel, they sped up into their unique four-beat gait known as a tölt.
We closed out a perfect day — of course — at Myvatn Nature Baths, one of the most authentic and natural of Iceland's big manmade lagoons. I stepped into the spacious sandy-bottomed pool, surrounded by piles of black volcanic rock, and plunged into broad, mineral-rich waters that appeared a cloudy blue-white. A faint smell of sulfur cleared my sinuses, as it had back at the volcano.
The late dusk approached, and a fog descended over the lagoon, chasing the hazy sunset. I sat back in the bath, inhaled deeply and watched the far-off view of the lake fade in the mist.