I swam into darkness, sensing the outlines of shadowy figures lurking on the ledge above. It was 8:30 a.m. and I was at Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, a 20-minute bus ride from Keflavik Airport, where I had landed hours earlier.

I’d taken a cheap flight from BWI to Iceland on a reporting trip for The Baltimore Banner. My mission: to find out what fun stuff you can do, see — and, of course, eat — in the Land of Fire and Ice. One of the top attractions are the country’s geothermal spas, powered by nature, and none more famous than the Blue Lagoon, which sees more than 700,000 visitors per year.

Play Airlines will get you from BWI to Iceland for $135. It’s (mostly) better than you think.

I got there when it opened — about two hours before the sun rises in Iceland in January — and more or less had the place to myself. Solitude allowed for moments of wonder, too — at one point I felt a rumble that seemed like it came from deep within the earth; I’d thought it was my stomach, but it turned out to be the heater. As cold rain fell on my head, I drifted deeper into the water, searching for the hottest spots. This is the secret to loving life in Iceland: enjoying the warmth of the spa amid the cold outside.

Take a quick trip from BWI to Iceland.
Take a quick trip from BWI to Iceland. (Rebecca Bradley for The Baltimore Banner)

As the sky brightened, those shadowy figures turned out to be lifeguards in snowsuits. The light revealed the milky blueness of the thermal waters and the volcanic hills surrounding it, but also a gaggle of selfie-snatching tourists, clutching iPhones in one hand and cocktails in the other. Every photo, everywhere, all at once.

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“Actually, iPhones are waterproof,” I heard one woman tell her companion. I rolled my eyes and headed for the locker room.

Sure, the Blue Lagoon is convenient; a bus will take you straight from the airport. But even with an online reservation system, it’s also so packed with people it can be hard to relax. To beat the crowds, you can just arrive super early, or better yet, skip it. After a few days in Iceland, I learned that there are plenty of spa options available that don’t involve sharing a bath with thousands of other people.

Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths: I stopped here during a tour of the Golden Circle — just to glimpse, not to bathe. Just over an hour away from Reykjavik by car, it overlooks a beautiful lake and felt uncrowded and peaceful. Because there is no corner of the planet untouched by a recent travel docuseries, it was also featured in a Netflix show called “Down to Earth with Zac Efron,” which highlighted geothermal baking techniques. (You can apparently boil eggs, or even bake rye bread, in a neighboring hot spring.)

Iceland's Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths offer great views and relaxation, minus the hordes of people. (Christina Tkacik)

Sky Lagoon: Someone told me Sky Lagoon was like the Blue Lagoon, but less crowded. Consider me sold. Looking at the website, I was charmed by the architecture, which is inspired by traditional Icelandic turf houses. The bath is carved out from rocks and features an in-the-water bar. Another perk: it’s just a 13-minute drive from downtown Reykjavik. Hunker down for a seven-step bathing ritual, which includes a plunge in cold water; it’s believed to activate the immune system.

Reykjavik’s public pools: When it comes to a hot soak, the most affordable option for travelers is one favored by locals: a trip to one of Reykjavik’s many public pools. Afterward, indulge in Icelanders’ preferred post-spa ritual — a treat from a nearby ice cream shop or hot dog stand. Top choices for the pools include new arrival Dalslaug, on the edge of the city and ensconced in wilderness, and Vesturbæjarlaug — where, according to the local Reykjavík Grapevine, you might see the country’s prime minister or a member of Sigur Rós on the same day.

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