Turns out this lagoon stuff is addictive – whether staring out at its surreal otherness from the terrace of your super-cool hotel room wrapped in a cosy blanket; gazing through the vast windows of the lobby at it as it constantly releases steamy vapours; or getting right in it and feeling its goodness penetrate every pore of your skin.
So what is the Blue Lagoon? Yes, it’s Iceland’s most famous attraction – some would say what first put this geologically fascinating, wild island on the tourism map – but its story is a more fascinating one than just that. Inquisitive locals first discovered the water’s unique beneficial powers in the early 1980s when they started to bathe in the warm blue reservoir that was forming next to the Svartsengi Resource Park.
The engineers at this geo-thermal power plant had thought the seawater would just seep back through the lava down into the earth’s aquifers – but something else was at play. There was so much silica in the water that it didn’t drain properly, leaving behind a body of water – and pretty soon, people started to appreciate that due to its incredible minerality, that water had healing properties for skin issues, particularly psoriasis and eczema. Others just came out of curiosity to soak up the water’s general health benefits.
But no matter the reason they enter, everyone leaves the lagoon with a sense of wonder. And for guests staying at The Retreat – a new high-end hotel at the lagoon – they have an even more wondrous experience, as they can go lagooning whenever they blooming well feel like it because they have a readily accessible section of the lagoon all to themselves.
Numbers of people allowed in the main Blue Lagoon have recently also been reduced, though, so it’s overall a much more pleasant experience there too. What’s more, those in a handful of the ground floor suites at The Retreat can just step out from their deck directly into their very own patch of lagoon – let’s call that “ultra-lagooning”.
Blue Lagoon Limited was formed in 1992 and as well as being responsible for one of the most unique tourist attractions in the world, the company focus is on research into the primary elements of the water – silica, algae and minerals – and their uses.
All are used in a revered (yet expensive) skin care range and another bonus of being a hotel guest is that the bathroom amenities are the Blue Lagoon brand too, so hold onto those masks, gels and potions like your life depends on it.
The original spa facility launched in 1999 and there is another property on-site, Silica Hotel – clinically focused on guests with skincare ailments, specifically psoriasis – but The Retreat is the icing on the cake of the whole project. It took many years to decide exactly how they wanted to do it, contemplating what a luxury hotel would look like within the scope of the area, and founder Grimur Samundsen – a doctor, entrepreneur and founder of Blue Lagoon Iceland – was very involved in its conception.
Architects Basalt were guided by the principle that building and geology should become one, with plans sometimes changing as the team discovered particular areas of lava that were so captivating they wanted to incorporate them into the design.
The result is a 62-room hotel opened in April 2018 with an incredible subterranean spa and Michelin-quality restaurant embedded in the heart of an 800-year-old lava field, with the lagoon running around it.
Inside the hotel, Basalt and Milan-based Design Group Italia are responsible for the interiors and have given the whole place a minimalist sophistication, but also a comfort and soothing tactility, with all-natural hues throughout and only the very finest materials used. As the design team says – “when you enter the Retreat, you do not exit nature, rather you go deeper into nature”.
In the room, my bed was cloud-like comfortable, and the seating area in natural shades and tactile fabrics was a magnetic spot to sit and contemplate life or the next lagooning episode.
Above on the ceiling is a novel lighting system, a “luminaire” that somehow seeps into the ceiling like a glowing sun rather than being a harsh overhead light fixture. Conceived by Liska/Verkis, the idea is to bring “human-centric” lighting into the hotel that feels as far from artificial as possible and is relaxing and complementary to the natural light from outside.
The open bathroom may not suit those sharing as friends, or who seek more privacy from each other, but it’s brilliant nonetheless, with a walk-in shower you could spend hours in – enjoying all those amazing products and the powerful showerhead by Axor Hansgrohe. The other option is the freestanding bathtub with a view, of course, out to the lava fields.
Much of the furniture in the hotel has been expertly sourced from world-leading B&B Italia along with custom-made pieces and re-editions of some styles and pieces considered Icelandic classics. The Retreat also turned to legendary Icelandic artist Ragna Robertsdottir to create several pieces – a lava-based wall installation for the Moss restaurant and salt-based “mindscapes” for the five large suites.
Elsewhere, in the lobby, Icelandic ceramics of the last 90 years are celebrated, with pieces displayed on rotation from a 1,600-piece collection at the Icelandic Museum of Design & Applied Art, which was purchased via a grant from Blue Lagoon.
The lobby is the place to come for breakfast, dining on delicious graflax, smoothies and of course Skyr – a kind of Icelandic yoghurt that locals swear by. This is consumed as you settle into low-slung seating facing the ever-awesome sight of the lagoon and lava through enormous glass walls. It’s an unusual decision, as it can mean you are dining on low seating and tables as the buzz of the hotel – arrivals / departures – goes on around you.
Sitting there for the “afternoon coffee” tradition feels more relaxed as you devour delicious baked treats and enjoy an Icelandic ritual, maybe before or after a hike out into the hills and lava fields with your “host”. A member of the team is assigned to each guest for the duration of their stay and will offer a daily guided walk, with options ranging from one to three hours. And if you’re worried about the weather, don’t be, as the hotel provides incredible coats to bundle up in.
Of course you may just prefer to hang out in the spa, a place designed to feel as if you are venturing deeper into the earth via a lava concourse.
Along the way, there’s dry heat, steam heat, fire pits, a blissful relaxation lounge with swinging egg chairs, and of course access to the lagoon. At one part of it, you can even stop off at a little bar hatch, press a button for service and within minutes you have a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc with which to enjoy your lagooning at night under the stars.
Another highlight is the guided spa experience, the Blue Lagoon Ritual, where, in lava chambers, you apply the silica, algae and minerals in different stages and sit and natter while the potions do their thing. Silica is said to strengthen the skin’s barrier function; algae increases collagen production; minerals stimulate circulation and have revitalising effects on mind and body.
All of that is included for guests of The Retreat (outside visitors can also purchase day passes) but there are also chargeable treatments in the inner spa rooms (I felt my skin was genuinely glowing after a facial) or the magical “in-water” massages that deliver a womb-like level of comforting relaxation and take lagooning to the next level. It was February when I visited, so it required a degree of bravery to head outside in swimwear, but the therapist was waiting on the edge of the warm lagoon to guide me in and onto what I can best describe as a foam lilo.
Once lying on the lilo, I was cocooned in a giant towel and the massage began – using the delicately fragranced Blue Lagoon oil. The therapist somehow massaged my whole body while I was floating around and once done, with an hour having drifted quietly by, she sent me off into the lagoon; as I gradually came to, I realised I was one of just a couple of people left in there.
Another key selling point of the Retreat is its excellent restaurant Moss, whose name is a fitting one, given this spongy substance covers the lava fields outside, but what’s inside is also incredible. One of its highlights is the 10-seater Chef’s Table made of lava rock quarried onsite, meanwhile the Wine Cellar was built into a cavern of multi-hued lava that erupted in 1226.
Moss takes you on an unforgettable culinary journey (via a five- or seven-course tasting menu) of the country’s seas, mountains, rivers and farms – whether that be hand-dived scallops, local langoustine, arctic char or reindeer, not to mention the liquorice-inspired desserts, while a vegan tasting menu is also an option.
Not only is the hotel an incredible installation in the lava fields with healing waters at your disposal, it also sits within the wider Reykjanes peninsula, granted status as a Unesco Global Geopark in 2015.
From high up on a helicopter tour, I could look down on part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, literally the point where the North American and Eurasian plates converge. A Rekjavik Helicopters’ pilot called Thor picked us up from the hotel’s car park and had to cope with five girls (we christened ourselves PickNMix, the less conventional girlband choice) crammed into his chopper as we headed over mossy lava fields and craggy hills to the country’s most southwesterly spot: next stop, Greenland.
Also on the agenda was hurtling around the lunar terrain in ATVs with 4x4 Adventures Iceland. Suited up in not one, but two – how muddy could it be out there? – boilersuits, helmet and thick gloves, we got into the vehicles and hurtled off to bump around this incredible countryside.
There are few places that can make you feel as deeply connected to our planet, I mean really plugged into it, but Iceland is that place, its weird and wonderful geography, bathing in water bubbling up from 2,000 metres within the earth, one pockmarked with giant lumps of aggressive looking lava.
And giving access to it all is The Retreat, more than just a hotel – a true experience.
How to book it
• Rooms start from £927 per night, including breakfast, retreat.bluelagoon.com