The Retreat at Blue Lagoon, Iceland review: the ultimate five-star spa hotel
Lose yourself in silica-rich waters beneath the Northern Lights
The swirling steam blows over the surface of the Blue Lagoon and drifts up to the white sky as I bob in the soothing geothermal waters of Iceland’s recently opened Retreat Spa.
As the steam lifts, massive walls of black and copper lava – now well and truly cooled – covered in green moss and a thick layer of snow are revealed. The only sound is the lapping of the warm milky blue waters in which I’m floating, and the whistling breeze blowing Arctic air across my cheeks.
I smile as the steam closes in again, leaving the whole world invisible to me except for my fingers, now prune-like after a luxurious two-hour soak... hmm, perhaps I should considering getting out.
Retreat to the Retreat
This is day one of my visit to the freshly minted The Retreat at Blue Lagoon, which opened in April 2018. The furnishings still look as though they have just been unwrapped, and everything smells brand new. The staff seem as excited as the guests to be here, and such enthusiasm is understandable – this is a hotel where no expense has been spared, no corners cut. From the intelligent lighting and crisp linen bed sheets to the high-spec bathrooms and cutting-edge architecture, everything is perfectly observed and executed.
Yet this place has only fairly recently become a hospitality hotspot, and The Blue Lagoon wasn’t initially devised as a spa. This ancient lava field, near Grindavík on Iceland’s southwestern Reykjanes Peninsula, was initially the site of an electric power station, built in the mid-1970s to exploit the region’s geothermal waters in order to deliver hot water and electricity to homes across the country.
In the early days, the pools now known as the Blue Lagoon were merely the waste water from the power plant but according to modern legend, one of the plant’s workers began bathing in them in his spare time - and was amazed when his previously incurable psoriasis quickly cleared up.
The site soon became a popular bathing spot, as people from across Iceland flocked to experience the reported healing powers of the silica-rich lagoon, and in 1992 the site opened as a public day spa. It has since grown to become the country’s biggest tourist attraction, with restaurants, a shop, a popular cosmetics line and, as of last year, the ultra-luxe The Retreat at Blue Lagoon.
On arrival, guests are greeted with a glass of champagne, and taken through a check-in process that includes all the basics you expect in a high-end hotel, as well as one thing you probably don’t: a waiver form asking you to accept that staying here comes with risks, for which the hotel will not be liable. This presumably covers the extremely remote possibility that bathers might drown in the spa pools - an eventuality made all the more remote by the presence of the lifeguards who patrol the walkways around the lagoon.
The hotel has 62 suites, set on two levels, both of which offer different advantages. Those on the bottom level open straight out onto the lagoon, with views of the mossy rockscape, that Moon-like geology that makes photos of Iceland so instantly recognisable. Some rooms even offer access to a private slice of lagoon - the ultimate luxury. Meanwhile, the upper-level rooms offers some incredible views, including that of Thorbjorn mountain - like a moss and snow-covered version of Australia’s iconic Uluru.
Inside the rooms, intelligent lighting casts a dim glow over the raw concrete, local wood and lava that comprise the majority of the hotel’s construction materials.
These suites have a minimalist aesthetic, with floor-to-ceiling windows that focus visitors’ attentions on the beauty of the lagoon outside.
Rooms are largely furnished with classic pieces by B&B Italia, plus the odd bespoke item designed exclusively for the hotel, including reproductions of classic furniture by Icelandic designers. Guests also get tablets that provide the latest weather updates, information on activities and events in the hotel, plus touch-of-a-button access to room service, spa bookings and private excursions, including walks across the stunning Reykjanes Peninsula.
The whole complex was designed by Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir, founding partner of Basalt Architects, who masterminded both the Blue Lagoon Spa and the nearby sister Silica Hotel. Basalt then collaborated with Design Group Italia on the Retreat at Blue Lagoon - with spectacular results.
Lava rocks protrude from outside the building to form walls within the complex, blurring the lines between nature and architecture. Water is visible everywhere, flowing both around the complex and beneath it. Behind the check-in desk, a font of steam billows in the wind. The effect is a seamless interplay of water, moss, lava and high design.
Of course, most guests come here for the lagoon first and foremost, spending much of their days floating from room to lagoon and back again.
All rooms are a short walk from the entry to the spa, via a diminishing corridor of lights that looks like a starry night sky. Once in the complex, you have full access to the somewhat more private waters of the Retreat Spa, as well as the more extensive general admission area where most visitors gather.
In the spa, you are more likely to find a nook or cranny where you can float entirely undisturbed. On the other hand, a trip out into the broader lagoon offers a more extensive view of your surroundings, as well as the lively atmosphere of people sharing drinks, hanging out with friends and, of course, taking selfies.
Whatever their preferences, every guest should experience at least one of the spa therapies. The Week Portfolio opted for a 60-minute massage, conducted on a floating massage bed in the lagoon. With your eyes covered, your ears underwater and your body completely suspended in warm water, it is an intensely relaxing experience.
The Blue Lagoon offers three main dining options: the Blue Cafe, which serves up casual meals to day visitors; Lava restaurant, a slightly more formal dining room that is also joined to the main complex; and the upmarket Moss restaurant, built into the Retreat itself.
The spa also has a restaurant that offers breakfast and lunch and is serviced by the chefs at Moss upstairs. The fare on offer includes wonderfully fresh sushi, soups, sandwiches and ceviche, as well as fresh juices and smoothies, created with delicious Icelandic skyr - a yoghurt alternative with the thickness of the Greek stuff but a subtler flavour.
My companion and I had a truly memorable dinner at Lava, seated at a table which fell right in the V of an 800-year-old lava crevasse, just outside our window. Heavy rain fell on the night of our visit, splashing into the lagoon and sending water droplets as large as marbles ricocheting back up into the night sky, before returning to the pool.
Diners can choose between a four-course tasting menu or à la carte options, of which we opted for the latter. My baked celeriac and apple starter and my partner’s langoustine soup offered a light entry point to the rather more substantial mains: lamb two ways for me, both fillet and shoulder, and grilled beef tenderloin for her.
It’s classic stuff perfectly done, and the same is true of the dessert options - oats and skyr, Icelandic cheese, or strawberries with coconut, mint and almonds - allowing the high-quality ingredients to shine through.
The next night we visited Moss, a restaurant of culinary fireworks as bright as the Aurora Borealis that often lights up the sky above the Retreat between October and March (guests who visit in this period should book a wake-up call with reception - it is worth it).
Executive Head Chef Ingi Þórarinn Friðriksson says that the team at Moss “set out to reimagine Iceland’s culinary traditions through three tasting menus, five- or seven-course, or vegan, based on the extraordinary possibilities of Icelandic ingredients.”
The resulting menus take diners on a whistle-stop tour across the volcanic isle, moving from the mountains to the rivers to the seas.
For me, the highlight of the meal was a slice of lamb that arrived at our table served on smouldering fir tree fronds. Friðriksson tells us that this dish was inspired by “cooking over an open fire, the smell of smoking pine, fir, and birch”, which is “very nostalgic to us Icelanders”.
My companion went for the vegan starter option, a wonderfully tasty blend of barley and turnip, followed by the chef’s signature leek and wild mushroom plate for her main, while I attacked some venison.
Friðriksson says “the way that we reimagined our cultural and culinary traditions, creates something sensational and engaging, something that honours our heritage while also embodying a uniquely new gourmet experience”. He is not wrong - a visit to Moss is truly memorable.
Indeed, the genius of The Retreat as a whole is the way that it keeps all that is Iceland at its heart - architecturally, culinarily and sensorially. The result: a one-off way to experience the very best of this wonderful nation, and a near perfect retreat.
Suites start from £1,029 per night including an à la carte breakfast – to make a reservation, visit retreat.bluelagoon.com