8 relaxing, scenic, and unique thermal sites to enjoy
Who can resist the soothing waters of a natural mineral spring? Just when you think this amazing planet has nothing new to offer, you stumble upon a sizzling, bubbling, magical pool of calming water, straight from the earth’s core. But not all springs are created equal, and while most will be a welcome tonic for your muscles, some sites are so breathtakingly beautiful, serene, or mystical that you may never want to leave. If you’re a fan of the spa, get back to basics with a soak in one of these world-renowned natural hot (or cool) spots.
Blue Lagoon, Iceland
A sprawling spring in the middle of a lava field attracts a huge number of visitors to southwestern Iceland, partly because of its reputed healing powers for skin conditions (likely owing to the high levels of silica and exfoliating minerals), but also for the incredibly beautiful surroundings. The name of this hot sport refers to the color of the water: the silicate minerals lend a milky-blue hue, which is particularly ethereal in the evening, when the water matches the sky. The lagoon is man-made, but still fed by the natural geothermal forces under the ground; the volcanic rock and mossy hills rising up around the banks add another level of prehistoric mystery.
Blue Hole, Jamaica
Quite literally a deep hole in the ground, Jamaica’s Blue Hole Mineral Spring is small, but exciting. There is an admission fee to jump down 25 feet into the refreshing pool, but if you can summon the courage, you are free to jump in as many times as you like. The staff are notoriously cheery and helpful, and even offer a skin scrub made from the natural limestone lining the cave walls (a great way to ease your sunburn). With another wading pool, bar, and activities like horseback riding, you could easily pass an afternoon at this well-kept secret south of Negril.
Banff Springs, Canada
Alberta’s Banff National Park features a series of hot springs nestled into the Rockies, considered sacred for centuries by the region’s native population. Canadian settlers have known the site since the early 20th century, and the first bathhouse (the Banff Upper Hot Springs bathhouse) was built in the mid-1930s, and still stands today. The waters here are the hottest in the Rocky Mountain range, with a consistent temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. In true Banff fashion, the soaking spot is pristine and luxurious: you can enjoy the magnesium and calcium-rich elixir in a large pool with a panoramic alpine view just south of the town center (the spring source is in a protected areas of the park).
Ma’ln Hot Springs, Jordan
This desert spring is adjacent to the Dead Sea, which may help to explain its legendary healing powers and legacy of royal visitors from the region: King Herod himself would visit the spring for medical treatment. The landscape of these springs is particularly interesting, since the water tumbles down from the highland plains and is heated by underground lava fissures before it streams over a waterfall. You can wade in the public Roman baths or duck under the warm waterfall for a gravity-assisted deep-tissue massage.
Szechenyi Bath, Hungary
There are enough natural thermal springs underneath Budapest to support more than 50 baths, spas and drinking fountains around the city, including the astounding Szechenyi Bath that dates back to 1913. It’s the largest medicinal bath in Europe, catering to people with joint conditions and other internal inflammation for over a century, and the structure is as impressive as its healing powers. Built in neo-baroque style, this bathhouse is more like a palace, with pillared hallways and impressive stone landscaping around its three outdoor pools, 15 indoor pools, and collection of saunas and steam rooms.
Arenal Hot Springs, Costa Rica
The Arenal Hot Springs sits in a pocket at the base of the (still active) Arenal Volcano in the northwest of the country, fed by streams carrying minerals from the volcano itself. Although there are plenty of springs around the area, the Tabacón Thermal Resort is the main draw, where the spring is filled with rain water that has sunk to the earth’s core and resurfaced with a collection of invigorating minerals (but luckily, very little sulfur). The jungle atmosphere is serene, fragrant, and thoroughly relaxing. You can either stay at the resort, or buy a day pass to use the selection of mineral pools, thermal waterfalls, and swim-up bar.
With a long and storied past, the Kusatsu hot spring resort offers a glimpse into Japanese history, as well as the traditional bath culture. There are over 100 springs and baths in the area, all fed by the surrounding volcanoes, and the remarkably hot mineral water is thought to heal everything from bruises and burns to muscle sprains and indigestion. Some of the local communal baths are free, while other sites request a small entrance fee; whichever spring you choose, you’ll be treated to a stunning landscape of rocky wilderness and charming architecture alongside a reverent community of happy and welcoming bathers.
One of the most idyllic natural spring sites on the continent, the secluded town of Yambajan in Tibet is famous for its variety of hot baths and monumental landscape. Glaciers, snow-capped mountains, towering forests, and serene meadows provide the backdrop for a dip in one of the eight fantastic springs. The water is too hot for bathing when it comes out of the earth (one of the springs is actually called Fish-Cooking River), so it needs to be cooled in cisterns before it reaches the bathing pools. Try to get there early in the morning, when plumes of steam float up into the cold air, and you might even catch a glimpse of the boiling water spurting into the sky from the mouth of a spring.
The hot spring culture is popular, and some bathhouses are notoriously overcrowded, but a visit to a local spring is a great way to interact with the community. Unlike urban hang-outs and marketplaces, springs are sites for relaxation and reflection, which means no cell phones or computers to get in the way of honest, friendly conversation. If you’re looking for a more private experience, try to avoid weekends and consider visiting a private bathhouse, if it’s in your budget.