As with so many visitors, the Blue Lagoon is my first stop. The location’s proximity to the airport (just 20 minutes, versus 45 minutes to Reykjavik) and its position at the top of so many people’s bucket list means tour buses and private transfers are lined up, ready to whisk tourists away to soak in the waters for a few hours before continuing on to their city hotels.
Outside my taxi, miles roll on with nothing but the starkness of lava fields, a black backdrop green with moss from recent rains, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Rounding a corner, I catch a flash of the ethereal blue water – the spillover from the nearby geothermal plant where the Blue Lagoon had its genesis in the 1970s.
Ordinarily, runoff water from Icelandic power stations sinks through the porous lava, but the high silica content in the water at this location gradually formed a layer of white deposits that created permanent pools rich in silica, algae and minerals and with an amazing milky blue colour.
That something so beautiful could be formed quite by accident seems further proof of this country’s magical character.
Initially, this spillover pool was a nuisance to the geothermal plant, but by the 1980s, locals began soaking in the waters and feeling fantastic. A doctor from Reykjavik came to explore the health benefits of the rich mineral water, and in 1992, the Blue Lagoon opened as a tourist destination – a pool holding 6 million litres of water and covering an area of 8,700sq m (94,000sq ft) with a turnover rate of 40 hours.
The lagoon formed in the 1970s, but first opened as a wellness operation in 1992 / photo: Retreat at Blue Lagoon
Soon the 35-room Silica Hotel was added, then a restaurant, an R&D centre, a skincare line and an expansion of the main lagoon.
In 2018, The Retreat at Blue Lagoon – a luxury offering including a five-star hotel, restaurant and the lagoon’s first spa – was opened. By 2019, the company’s annual revenue was estimated at €125m (US$141m, £107m), with €22m (US$25m, £19m) in profit, and close to a million visitors each year.
I’ve seen photos of the Blue Lagoon, and it’s been on my own bucket list for years. I know it’s been named by National Geographic as one of the 25 Wonders of the World, and yet – something about the pureness of the blue waters, the contrast with the black lava fields and the sheer otherworldly beauty of the place takes my breath away.
The pools look as though they’ve been lined with a layer of white ceramic, but it’s just the silica deposits that also give the water many of its special qualities: it has deep-cleansing and purifying properties, strengthens and protects the skin, and helps it retain moisture. For those suffering from psoriasis or eczema, the water is extremely beneficial and an on-site clinic welcomes people from around the world to treat these chronic conditions. But perhaps most importantly, by a simple trick of light reflection, it’s the silica that gives the Blue Lagoon its amazing milky blue hue, as when light strikes a molecule of silica, blue is the only colour that’s reflected back.
Whatever the science behind it, the colour is incredibly inviting. From the Retreat Hotel’s lobby, floor-to-ceiling glass provides a soothing view of tranquil, steaming pools set against the mossy lava fields. The hotel has been designed to feel as though it’s part of the landscape, and inside, the minimalist decor is all wood, black stone, and chunky, earthy textures in natural materials such as wool and leather; even the heating vents have been designed to mimic the texture of lava. After a breakfast of smoked fish and avocado toast, the travel-weariness from my early-morning flight hits me, and I can’t wait to slip into the steamy water.
The Retreat offers a more private bathing experience, away from the main lagoon / photo: retreat at blue lagoon
While I have access to the Retreat’s more private lagoons, I head for the original pool first, which is all that most day guests see. The main lagoon is 70 per cent thermal water and 30 per cent fresh, and 1.2 meters deep on average (approximately 4ft), making it the perfect depth for socialising. Day passes (ISK 5,990, US$47, €41, £35) include entrance to the main lagoon, a self-applied mud mask, and a drink from the swim-up bar (beer, wine or juices, with alcoholic drinks limited to three per wristband).
Even on a windy, drizzly morning, the lagoon is a delight; one of the first things I notice as I make my way around the pool is the sheer number of smiling faces – and not just for the obligatory selfies.
Everyone seems to be enjoying
the tactile sensations of the
mud and the way the masks
and steam transform them into
something not quite themselves
American tourists are by far in the majority, but the age range runs the gamut from 20-somethings to families to the silver-haired – and everyone looks happy. At the mask bar, dollops of silica or algae masks are handed out, and guests paint each other’s faces white or green and take photos in the steamy water.
The silica mask is said to bring strength and radiance to the skin, the algae is for reducing fine lines and wrinkles, and a mineral mask is left on to hydrate overnight – but really everyone just seems to be enjoying the tactile sensations of the mud on their hands and faces, and the way the masks and the steam transform them into something not quite themselves.
I’m struck by the jovial nature of the whole thing, and what an active kind of relaxation it is; rather than simply soaking, there are drinks to be had, masks to be applied – even a short history lecture to be listened to. This part of the lagoon is best experienced in a group, and is more fun than tranquil, though the warmth leaves you feeling relaxed and the high mineral content softens your skin and relaxes your muscles. But after a while, the number of people live vlogging got to be a bit too much for this middle-aged solo traveller, so I decided to try out the more private lagoons of the Retreat Hotel.
The Retreat’s sauna has a picture window over the striking Icelandic landscape / photo: Retreat at Blue Lagoon
Privacy and tranquility
Guests of the Retreat Hotel or those booking a spa treatment have access to these smaller, newer lagoons, and the atmosphere there is decidedly different. For a start, mobile phones are prohibited in order to maintain privacy and tranquility (although staff members will head outside in fur-hooded parkas and take a photo for you, ensuring they do so out of the way of other guests).
The series of smaller, terraced pools are carved into the 800-year-old lava flow, with bridges and winding corridors making you feel pleasantly lost in the landscape. Because access is limited, I often had a pool to myself, and could float at leisure without fear of bumping into others.
A swim-up bar serves champagne from a window in the restaurant, but guests here tend to be in quiet couples rather than groups. For 79,000 ISK (US$608, €525, £450), day guests can access the Retreat Spa and pools, which includes a plush changing room with shower, a drink and access to the pools and the Blue Lagoon Ritual; at these prices, the tranquility and solitude of the pools is ensured.
For the ultimate in privacy, the Lava Cove (starting at ISK 240,000, US$1,850, €1,600, £1,370) offers a self-contained spa within the spa, including its own lagoon, fireplace and butler.
The healing waters are especially beneficial for skin conditions like eczema / photo: Retreat at Blue Lagoon
The pools are flanked on one side by the new 43,000sq ft (3,995sq m) spa, which includes treatment rooms for massages and facials, as well as a relaxation area where you can gaze out at the lagoons from suspended, gently swinging nest chairs. A glass-fronted sauna looks over the pools, while a steamroom set in a lava cave is warmed by natural geothermal heat and an outdoor cold well offers a brisk plunge for contrast bathing.
Within the subterranean spa is an area set aside for the new Blue Lagoon Ritual, a self-guided seven-step ritual that expands on the powerful properties of silica and algae, and is available to all spa and Retreat Hotel guests at no extra charge. Here, a desk with spa concierge serves as the starting point for the signature journey, and guests move through a series of interconnected chambers over the course of 45 minutes, where they apply a series of scrubs, masks and oils to their bodies.
In essence, the ritual is not particularly complicated, but the dimly-lit setting, and again, the sense of active participation, make for an enjoyable activity. After a mineral salt exfoliation, couples and friends slather thick white silica clay or cool green algae mud on each other, and as they wait for each to dry, they lounge in the caves and speak in hushed voices before rinsing off in geothermal water from rainfall showers. The entire process is a journey – literally, from one room to the next – but applying the layers of scrubs and masks also does the double-duty of washing away any sense of the outside world. The ritual has the effect of slowing down time while allowing guests to still be doing something, and I noticed how happy people were to be following instructions when given them – eager to move on to the next step and satisfied at the sense of accomplishment at the end.
The polar opposite of the Instagrammable story, the Ritual is instead simple spa storytelling – a chance to bring the mineral benefits front and centre.
Those who study learning modalities will tell you that engaging the senses is the best way to get people to remember anything and the dimly lit, cave-like atmosphere – heightened by the sense of sound, smell and especially touch – put people in the here and now of experience.
Highlight: The colour of the water; you’ve seen it, you know what it looks like, but nothing can quite prepare you for what it feels to be engulfed in that milky-blue water.