Rest and relaxation in the land of fire and ice

Tempus heads to the Blue Lagoon for a lesson in Nordic wellness for the mind and body

Icelanders are tough; they have to be to survive here. ‘Home’ is a remote island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, one with winter temperatures well below freezing and continuously pounded by snowstorms.  Iceland also lies on the boundary between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, throwing in the added possibility of earthquakes and erupting volcanoes. But, while surviving in Iceland may be difficult, the harsh landscape is also incredibly generous in providing the key ingredients for a relaxing holiday. The icy waters mean the local fish dishes are plentiful and delicious, while the proximity to the Arctic Circle also creates the possibility of seeing Northern Lights. And, just as importantly, the shifting tectonic plates also mean an abundance of natural hot springs and geothermal spas to relax in. One of these is Blue Lagoon, just a twenty-minute drive from the airport and the location of my stay. 

Most hotels try to create a memorable first impression, normally with comically grand driveways or extravagantly large reception halls. The Retreat Hotel at Blue Lagoon does the exact opposite, camouflaging into the environment and allowing the surreal landscapes to create an unforgettable first impression. As far as the eye can see the vista is a lava field, covered in stark volcanic rock and blanketed by Icelandic moss in a multitude of green hues. The only clue the destination is nearing comes from the rising steam, beckoning travellers forward like an oasis in the desert. Approaching closer, the buildings tentatively creep into view; the low design and plentiful use of dark rock and stone keeping the hotel well blended into the horizon. The design is intentionally humble so as not to compete with the main attraction: the lagoon. All it takes is one glance to see how Blue Lagoon got its name, as the steaming waters (an impossibly bright blue when contrasted against the white silica) welcome the traveller into its warm and rejuvenating pools of relaxation.  

Set within the Reykjanes Peninsula, a UNESCO Global Geopark, Blue Lagoon has been welcoming visitors for thirty years now, most attracted by the healing properties of the mineral rich water. The water is 240 degrees Celsius when it begins its journey from two kilometres underground, but it’s a more soothing 39 degrees by the time it reaches the lagoon. As well as the minerals in the water, bathers also benefit from two by-products found only here: silica (a form of white mud which is formed from oxygen being heated up by magma as it filters up towards the earth’s surface) and blue-green microalgae, which somehow grows and thrives in these hot waters.

The lagoon is man-made rather than a natural hot spring, as it’s formed from water pumped up to be used in the nearby geothermal power plant, which uses the steam to generate electricity (including all of the electricity, hot water and heating for the hotel, making it a fully renewable and sustainable operation). The geothermal plant doesn’t make the lagoon any less beautiful, or less healthy. Bathers have long noticed the waters healing effects and the researchers at the geothermal plant have now scientifically verified these health benefits, such as building collagen in the skin which helps cure ailments including eczema and psoriasis. Various health, skincare and hair products are produced onsite, and the good news is many of them are included as amenities for guests at The Retreat Hotel. The new BL+ Skincare range is particularly popular for optimizing skin health, particularly the BL+ Signature The Serum and BL+ Eye Serum, which contains a double-dose of antioxidants, hyaluronic acid, and BL+ COMPLEX. 

The focus of a stay at The Retreat Hotel is wellness and relaxation. The 62 suites all have views over the baby blue waters, some with their own private lagoon to float in, and the rooms are large, comfortable and modern. All boast enormous feather beds to curl up into, gorgeous floor to ceiling windows to accentuate the view, a shower and large tub to soak in, and a (complimentary!) minibar.  There are also a few unexpected extras, such as optional wake up calls if the Northern Lights are dancing in the night sky, or the often unnoticed gently pulsating sun-or moon-like light feature that glows from the ceiling. Also unnoticed until after my stay was the lack of a television, a distraction I was very content to bypass. 

Leaving these comforts behind to step outside into the natural elements isn’t easy. But no matter how dark, icy or snowy it is, the warm private Retreat lagoon is only a few steps away. The hotel has its own labyrinth of lagoons, joined by peaceful corridors of water twisting around corners and leading to more secluded sections of the lagoon. The swim-up bar service is a popular option at any time, and a large part of the day can be spent idly relaxing in the soothing waters. Hotel guests have unlimited access to the lagoons, and the benefit of the extended opening hours (8am to 10pm) is that the pools can also be enjoyed with a post-dinner romantic moonlight soak.

Celeb spotting is a distinct possibility in these famed waters, but your friends back home will just have to take your word for it as phones are banned in the lagoon area (but if you’re desperate for a selfie, one of the roaming concierges will oblige and email it to you). Guests do also have access to the public lagoon, but with between 2,000 to 3,000 visitors daily (the proximity to the airport makes it a popular option to fill a final day) it feels a bit more crowded. 

If you can pry yourself out of the water, it will probably be for another very tempting attraction: the Retreat Spa. Although slightly busier than the lagoon (possibly due to being available to day-visitors) it still has enough different spaces and activities to feel calm and relaxing. The subterranean setting, seemingly carved out lava from a volcanic eruption, offers a variety of massage and wellness treatments. ‘The Ritual’ is the main event, in which guests cover themselves in the three natural elements from Blue Lagoon: silica, algae and minerals. The silica is applied first due to its cleansing properties, then the algae for its moisturising and renewing effects, and finally the salt and minerals to energize and exfoliate the skin.

The relaxing isn’t over yet though, as the steam room, hot rock sauna and the cold plunge pool all still beckon. A recent addition is the float therapy and in-water massages. Both involve being wrapped in flotation devices and drifting through a private section of the lagoon, where the warm waters and the touch of your in-water therapist render you largely oblivious to time and space. Making use of gently massage and delicate stretches, the therapists help release spinal tension and soothe the body and mind. The relaxing treatments help reduce all sorts of stress, from muscle and skeletal aches all the way to mental and emotional stress. It’s a unique experience, and I was amazed at how quickly the time passed. Sessions last for 45 minutes, and can be done as individuals, couples or small groups.

For those who need a rest from having a rest, there are more relaxation rooms available such as the lava spring (enjoy the sight and sound of gently dripping water), the nest (suspended nest chairs with views over the lagoon) and the fire room (perfect for some quiet contemplation). This wide array of attractions generally keeps guests occupied for their entire stay. However, there are also gym facilities and a daily yoga class available, as well as a cosy library complete with couches, fireplace, board games and an honesty bar. For those looking to venture further afield there is a nearby hiking trail, or the hotel can book an ATV (quad bike) tour to explore the nearby lava fields and lunar-like landscapes. I don’t often make use of a hotel’s gym, yoga class or library, but this time I managed to enjoy all three (which is probably an indication of the zen-like relaxation levels reached).  

Another key element to relaxing well is the food, and here guests are spoilt for choice. The breakfast offering at The Retreat Hotel is decadent and unlimited, and with serving hours of 7am to 11am there’s really no need to limit yourself to only one (in fact, the 9am yoga class serves as a nice halftime break). Another unexpected perk of the hotel is the daily complimentary afternoon tea, complete with savoury snacks and light fluffy cupcakes. For all other meals guests have three restaurants to choose from: Moss, Spa and Lava, of which Moss is the most decadent. A key feature is that it beautifully highlights the natural elements of Iceland, both in name (the Retreat is literally surrounded by moss) and food served. Chef Aggi Sverrisson has led the restaurant to Michelin-recommended status (soon to be Michelin-starred, I’m confident to predict) by striking the right balance between serving healthy, local, seasonal dishes and by being bold and daring. Expect to find lots of trusted favourites on the menu such as salmon, crab, lamb, soups and breads, all well paired with popular wines from the Old World (Italy, Germany and France – especially Bordeaux and Burgundy – are well represented). 

However, some of the dishes will catch diners by surprise with their flair, such as the punchy and unusual combination of king crab served with green curry, Icelandic wasabi and coriander. Equally bold is the new season beetroot dish, served with pea puree, pistachio nuts and kohlrabi (a descendant of wild cabbage) with foamy beetroot soup on the side. And the dessert combination of madeleines, honey and lemon macaroons, chocolate caramel balls and liquorice toffees, all spectacularly presented on a rock of lava, provided a particularly memorable end to the meal. For those looking to top off an ultra-luxurious experience there are a few further treats also available. A seat at the chef’s table beckons, or there are afternoon wine (or champagne and caviar) tastings hosted in the spectacular underground wine cellar, three metres below ground and surrounded by molten lava from an eruption in 1226. Once every few months Moss Restaurant also hold special one-off evenings hosted by a guest Michelin-starred chef, which are worth booking well in advance. 

Diners may also prefer the more casual Spa Restaurant. It probably won’t win any awards for its location (a rather busy corridor between the hotel and the spa) but the meals are good (particularly the sushi, beef tataki and ceviche) and the vibe is relaxed (at least half the diners are in dressing gowns). The third dining option is the Lava Restaurant, located between the hotel and the Blue Lagoon. The setting is spectacular, built into an 800-year-old lava cliff with views looking out onto the lagoon. The restaurant has rather a split personality, as for lunch it’s open for day-visitors and has a busier, more casual atmosphere.

In the evening the dress code is stricter (dressing gowns are no longer allowed, although the popular ponchos found in each guest’s cupboard do make the grade) and it feels more like a classic restaurant. The unique cocktail menu deserves a mention (especially the neon blue but surprisingly delicious ‘Blue Lagoon Anniversary’ drink) as do the local additions which make the food unmistakably Icelandic, such as the skyr (similar to yoghurt) and the astarpungar (literally translated as ‘loveballs,’ which are decadent balls of mango chocolate mousse, vanilla ice cream and salted caramel).  

Whether the healthy spa treatments cancel out all that gourmet food is up for debate, and probably depends on whether you opt for the spinach-filled ‘green is good’ drink at breakfast or the extra slice of carrot cake at afternoon tea. What is for certain is that a break at The Retreat at Blue Lagoon will leave you feeling relaxed, refreshed and ready for your next adventure. 

Return economy flights from London Heathrow to Keflavik airport are bookable on the Icelandair website

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