At the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most beloved touristic lure, the water looks like nature’s great hand took a paint brush to mix the clouds with the sea, then added a touch of the stars. The glimmering, milky-blue pools, edged by centuries-old volcanic rock, emit ethereal threads of steam that dance in the air, adding moodiness to the already otherworldly landscape. In this island nation where raging seas, vexed
volcanoes, explosive geysers, waterfalls, glaciers, lava fields, omnipresent rainbows, and Northern Lights are the norm, the limpid pools seem almost tranquil. And, that’s the point.
Besotted with the concept of these healing waters, which are considered a wonder of the world by many (labeled so by National Geographic), I can’t wait to avail myself of their silica and mineral-brimming offerings. Pulled by drilling more than a mile
beneath the lava, via the same process that brings Iceland so much of its hot, reservoir-driven, geo-thermal power, the lagoons were discovered only in recent decades. Filtered through the porous lava rock, then brought to surface as residue, the briny water remained above ground as mineral-intense pools, aglow in blue tones, scattered across the Reykjanes Peninsula’s vast lava expanses. Locals came
first—unable to resist. Muscles were soothed, skin hydrated, and souls renewed.
Nobody knew why it worked—until researchers discovered the water’s bounty: high levels of curative silica (plus other minerals) and a unique algae, only known to these waters. Further studies indicated that the water could alleviate psoriasis (and other skin ailments), as well as rebuild collagen, lost by aging and sun damage.
The Retreat, a blend of canny Nordic modernism and sleek Italian chic, is a reparative place—a spa in the true definition of the word’s origin . . .
I submerge into an aquamarine swimming hole, flanked by lava cliffs. The water snakes through a series of portals, defined by various rock walls, opening to myriad, watery nooks and crannies.This isn’t the famous Blue Lagoon itself, which, filled with bathers, lies just adjacent to where I swim in relative privacy. Rather, I’ve checked into the year-old Retreat at the Blue Lagoon, the long awaited, 62-room, upscale, sister concept to the Blue Lagoon—both brainchildren of Grimur Saemundsen, a medical doctor. Set on the lagoon’s south shore, The Retreat reigns as a haven of clean architecture, hewed into the lava fields. It feels seamless to nature, an apt interpretation of the surrounding outdoors. I think of some words I love by American Modernist poet Wallace Stevens, “Human nature is like water; it takes the shape of its container.” Letting the lava lead, in homage to the silica-rich water, The Retreat, also, has taken the shape of its metaphorical “container.”
But that’s not all. The Retreat, a blend of canny Nordic modernism and sleek Italian chic, is much more than the sum of its design-centric floor-to-ceiling windows, bedazzling light fixtures, stellar cuisine, and affable staff. This is a reparative place, a spa in the true definition of the word’s origin—that is, the Latin phrase salus per aquae (SPA), or “health through water.” The Retreat (like Blue Lagoon proper) is all about its H2O’s proffered gifts. Here, replenishment happens effortlessly, inevitably. Like many tourists, I arrive to The Retreat after a long flight, early in the morning. Just twenty minutes from the airport, the Blue Lagoon complex sits amid an unearthly terrain which unfolds in folkloric textures. I’ve barely had time to be awed by the vistas, before I arrive. Given immediate physical sustenance by my
designated host (a kind of personal butler who will organize my stay), I partake of strong coffee, creamy skyr, bilberries, and beetroot juice.
Afterwards, I’m ushered to the subterranean spa complex to pass the time while I wait for my room to be ready. As it turns out, I enjoy myself so much, I secretly hope my room won’t be prepared until nightfall. I never want to leave the coddling ambiance of this soporific spa hideaway.
My typical day puttering around The Retreat follows an indulgent, carefree pattern that I wish I could bottle up and take home. (In fact, one can continue the Blue Lagoon benefits at home, thanks to their dedicated brand of products—but more on that later.) I begin the day with yoga in what may be the most evocative yoga room on earth. Lined with mirrors on one side, which reflect the spongy moss, brooding lava fields, dots of random thermal pools, mountain peaks, and endless, violet skies seen through panoramic windows, the meditative space feels like it floats above the terrain. Afterward, I consume a healthy breakfast (more of that skyr, of course), then
drift to the waters. After a certain amount of soaking, and sauna, I mosey to the spa’s heart, where three cave-like rooms serve as the location for The Retreat’s signature “Ritual,” a step-by-step, self-applied, all-body treatment, which uses products gleaned from the waters.
First off, I scrub inky-hued lava mineral salt all over my body, then rinse beneath a waterfall shower. In the next chamber I find pots of gooey, white silica mud. I slather this, as instructed, all over, then sit comfortably on a rocky ledge, waiting twenty minutes for the layers to dry. At last, after washing off the silica, I move to the algae compartment. As with the silica mud, I cover myself with the green algae concoction from head toe toe, again waiting ruminatively in semi-darkness for it to dry, before washing. Finally, I splash my face with cold water and apply a Blue Lagoon hair mask. I leave the spa euphoric, with visibly glowing skin. But the day doesn’t end until I join the complimentary guided, daily hike up a nearby mountain, soak in the waters again, and visit the hotel’s impressive wine cellar for happy hour. I cap the adventure with dinner at Moss, The Retreat’s Michelin-listed epicurean spectacle, an adventure in contemporary interpretations of regional fare.
Biologist Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue Mind, a treatise on how being near water can improve the human condition, wrote “I wondered whether water is a mirror for our darker emotions as much as it is an engine for our happiness. Water quiets all the noise, all the distractions, and connects you to your own thoughts.” His book a scientific and philosophical study of how water makes humans (perhaps all animals) happier and healthier underlines clearly why a place like The Retreat can reset our mind, body, and spirit even with a short stay. “I wish you water,” he writes. Indeed, The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon bestows water like nature’s benediction.
A Word on the Products
I met with Ása Brynjólfsdóttir. Director of the Blue Lagoon’s Research & Development Center, where the Blue Lagoon skincare products are conceived, manufactured, and monitored. With a range of products that include various focused categories (cleanse, boost, nourish, and treat) the skincare line utilizes active ingredients of geothermal seawater. In this manner, Blue Lagoon guests can take the “eco system” home. Made naturally, with no waste, the products adhere to the highest level of eco-friendly sustainability. The lagoon’s signature algae, minerals, and silica are key ingredients. I recommend the four mask set, which includes the lava scrub, the Silica Mud Mask, the Mineral Mask, and the Algae Mask—so you can experience “The Ritual” at home.
The Treatment To Get
While The Retreat’s spa showcases its curative water, they do offer conventional treatments, such as facials, using the aforementioned Blue Lagoon products. However, don’t miss the in-water massage—120 in-water, out-of-body moments that combines Watsu with exfoliation, massage, and wrapping—resulting in utter bliss.
Becca Hensley is Editor at Large for Insider's Guide to Spas. Based in Austin, she writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.