In Reykjavik, Don't Sweat It -- Unless You Want to

At the Laugar Spa and World Class Gym in Reykjavik, get your cardio fix on any of the machines that overlook the city's largest thermal pool.
At the Laugar Spa and World Class Gym in Reykjavik, get your cardio fix on any of the machines that overlook the city's largest thermal pool. (Kristjan Maack)
Sunday, February 19, 2006

WHAT: Laugar Spa and World Class Gym

WHERE: Reykjavik, Iceland

WHY GO: Because even in a country full of spas, this one is hot stuff.

On the whole, Icelanders are a healthy bunch. They enjoy one of the longest life expectancies in the world (about 82 years for women, 78 for men); the country's percentage of smokers is smaller than that of many other European countries; and, for an ice-boxed population that doesn't have a long tradition of eating their veggies, Icelanders look surprisingly well proportioned. When I visited Reykjavik a few months ago, I met just two people whom I would consider overweight. Both of them turned out to be Americans from Upstate New York.

Maybe Icelanders keep their bodies in shape because they're always in their bathing suits. Like the volcanic island they call home, they tend to find themselves surrounded by water. They enjoy swimming in their municipal pools, sweating in their municipal saunas, chitchatting in their municipal hot tubs, called "hot pots" (all of them heated by the island's abundance of geothermal energy).

So I wasn't too surprised hearing a lot of locals talk about the spectacular -- and slightly strange -- swimsuit wonderland of Laugar Spa. Laugar opened in 2004 on the lower level of World Class Gym -- the most fashionable workout center in Reykjavik, about 25 minutes east of the city's touristy center.

The first thing that sets Laugar apart from other high-end fitness centers is the retinal scan that allows entrance. After I charged my $55 day pass, I placed my face up against the machine, stared one eye into the red beam and heard the score to "Mission: Impossible" somewhere in my head.

My pass included access to World Class Gym, where from the second-floor balcony I saw enormous rows of stationary bikes and treadmills, nearly all filled at one point, each machine facing the outdoor grounds of Laugardalslaug, Reykjavik's largest thermal pool. In a very Nordic sort of way, the people often seemed to be running and cycling in unison. To me, they were defining a national reputation while I was defining my abs.

After 30 minutes of crunches, I headed for the locker rooms. I could have gotten a massage or a facial at the five-star salon, but I was really looking forward to the saunas, which a friend had described as "absolutely hilarious." I took a shower, grabbed a complimentary bathrobe that was way too big for me and entered the dark, marble-clad labyrinth of the spa area.

There are seven different saunas at Laugar, each featuring a different temperature, level of humidity and theme. (The spa is coed, so everyone must wear a bathing suit.) One extra-balmy dry sauna had jungle noises; another had a mountain cabin decor. Another featured art-deco stalactites. Or were they stalagmites?

My favorite wet sauna shifted its constellation of stars on the ceiling every few seconds, which gave me the sensation of traveling through the galaxies in my Speedo. That was when a starry-eyed young couple came in, though I really couldn't see their eyes and they couldn't see me at all behind the steamy nebula. Somewhere across the universe, they sat down close to each other. Too close. Like a disapproving grandmother, I coughed to make my presence known.

Included in the Laugar experience are a granite waterfall, a hot tub filled with special bathing salts, ankle-high sinks for soaking tired feet and a dark room filled with brown leather recliners encircling a large fireplace.

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