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Exploring the hot springs and natural waters of England and Iceland.

It’s a cool spring afternoon in Iceland, but I don’t feel the chill—at least, not anymore. After spending my first day on this near-Arctic island exploring the outdoors, I’m submerged in Krosslaug, one of its numerous natural hot springs, with only my head and one hand—attached to a glass of white wine—exposed to the open air. At just 1.5 metres in circumference and surrounded by no more than rocks and open terrain, Krosslaug is roughing it on the spa scale. But it seems an apt place to start my week-long exploration of hot springs in Iceland and England, from Roman and Viking times through to more modern iterations.

The History of Soaking Away

Throughout history, people have credited natural hot springs with medical and even mystical properties. The Romans believed they were the work of the gods:  In about 50 CE, they built a temple next to the 46-degree waters flowing in Bath—the only natural hot springs in the United Kingdom—and dedicated it to the life-giving goddess Sulis Minerva. From the 17th century onward, Bath was a popular destination for the English upper classes, often to “take the waters,” a treatment protocol that involved both soaking in and drinking the mineral waters. It was said to cure everything from the realistic (skin conditions)
to the fantastical (the vexing problem of giving birth to only girls).

 While balneotherapy —the treatment of disease via bathing and related spa treatments—is very difficult to study, nowadays it’s touted for multiple positive effects, including improved skin and immune system  function and decreased muscle and joint pain. Perhaps more important in our fast-paced world, hot springs are the perfect place to unwind, leave the smartphone in a locker and connect with friends, loved ones and yourself.

Icelandic Escape

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The beautiful Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s top tourist attraction—and for good reason. Close enough to the airport that you can drop in for an afternoon en route to your next destination, it still manages to feel worlds away from just about everything.

On my visit, I change into my bathing suit in a private change room before donning a robe and slippers and heading into the Exclusive Lounge and its tiny private pool—it’s connected via a discreet door to the main lagoon—to scrub my face with the private-label nourishing algae mask, rich in essential minerals and silica mud.

A quick rinse and I slip out into the lagoon and make my way to the bar for a green smoothie (no need to leave the water, and I just charge the drink to my account) before wandering deeper into the soothing milky blue waters, taking time to stop at one of the ubiquitous poolside tubs to apply the white silica mud mask to my face and décolletage. Like all Blue Lagoon skin-care products, it’s based around silica, minerals and algae and both are hypoallergenic and free of parabens, designed for people with dry and sensitive skin and even conditions such as eczema and psoriasis while also containing anti-aging properties.

English Heritage

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A few days later, I check in for an anti-aging facial at Thermae Bath Spa in the English town of Bath, the descendant of the Roman town of Aquae Sulis, named after the thermal waters for which it was created. Said to have been visited by the ancient Celts long before the Romans reached these shores, the natural hot springs are now just one of the many attractions in this picturesque town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its abundance of Georgian-era architecture built out of honey-coloured Bath stone.

I change and shower and make my way past one of the soaking pools to reach the spa area for my 50-minute treatment, a facial using products from French line Pavania that are targeted at my skin’s needs. The treatment is relaxing and enjoyable, making use of massage and following the spa’s philosophy of a natural approach to beauty and skin care.

Afterward, my head in the clouds, I wander upstairs past the steam rooms to the rooftop soaking pool, whose glass balcony overlooks the golden rooftops of the historic city. Half listening to other people’s conversations, I gaze toward the setting sun and ponder the effects of these thermal waters that have drawn visitors for millennia. The truth is, I’m not concerned with the specific health effects the mineral-rich pools might have. But if stress is bad for your skin, then I can only be going home looking younger.

If You Go

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Icelandair (icelandair.com) flies to London and other European destinations via Reykjavik year-round from Toronto and Edmonton and seasonally from Vancouver and Halifax, with free stopovers in Iceland for up to seven days. Travel packages include a wintertime Blue Lagoon & Northern Lights experience starting at $985  per person.

Entry to Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon (bluelagoon.com) starts at 35 Euros (roughly $50) for basic admission. Splurge on the luxury package, which includes a bathrobe, towel and slippers; a beverage at the poolside bar; a meal in the on-site restaurant; an algae mask scrub and eight-item spa product package; and access to the Exclusive Lounge, with snacks, personal changing rooms and private lagoon entry (advance booking recommended, from 172 Euros). Skincare products are available on site and in branded stores in Reykjavik and at the airport.

Staff at the relaxed-chic country getaway Hotel Buđir (hotelbudir.is) in West Iceland will help you arrange a natural hot springs excursion to whet your appetite for their fine locavore cuisine, or simply ask for a room where the clawfoot bathtub offers views of the spectacular surrounding countryside, which may include a tidal inlet, glacier or historic wooden church.

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Down the street from the millenia-old pools and plumbing of the Roman Baths Museum (romanbaths.co.uk), the modern Thermae Bath Spa (thermaebathspa.com, entry from £27/$48) offers mineral-rich soaking pools, aromatherapy steam rooms, an on-site restaurant that welcomes diners clad in robes and a full menu of spa treatments. The Thermae Bath Spa Shop across the road sells branded souvenirs, as well as Pevonia products used in the spa.

The thoroughly English Bath Priory Hotel (thebathpriory.co.uk) is just a short stroll or drive from the city centre, yet it  feels like a country getaway. Request a room overlooking the gardens before partaking in on-site amenities such as a meal at the Michelin-starred restaurant (and worthy accompanying wine cellar) or a spa treatment at the Garden Spa, which uses products by Elemis.