Maybe it’s the rainbow. Maybe it’s all that black rock against the ethereal blue water. For sure, it’s the way the northern lights turn the sky into a Jackson Pollock canvas at night. But, at Iceland’s Blue Lagoon and its new five-star hotel, The Retreat, the otherworldliness is palpable.
No wonder Game of Thrones filmed some in Iceland—the country is as enchanting as a fairy tale. Angry volcanoes, unbridled seas, ubiquitous waterfalls, explosive geysers and icy glaciers define the landscape. Here, according to legend, rocky promontories are explained as naughty trolls turned to stone, and elves get blamed for human mishaps. At The Retreat, located only 20 minutes from Keflavík International Airport and set on the shore of the iconic Blue Lagoon, magic seems to hang in the air. I feel it when I submerge in the warm, milky-blue waters; when I watch a sunset turn the sky tangerine from the hotel’s rooftop terrace; when I practice yoga in a room where floor-to-ceiling windows seem to bring the moss-covered lava patches inside; and when I join a Retreat-led hike to the top of a nearby mountain to take in the views.
This Moss junior suite brings the outdoors in.
Since it opened, the Blue Lagoon has lured tourists to its lava-filtered, geothermal, mineral-rich waters. But until recently, upscale travelers didn’t have a nearby place to stake a claim and stay the night. The Retreat has changed that. The 62-suite, design-centric hotel lies mere steps from the iconic pool. Even better, it offers guests its own interconnected set of lagoons that hold water from the same source. Guests also have the option to go back and forth—enjoying the hotel’s more tranquil, luxurious enclave as well as the more festive, splashy, tourist-thronged original lagoon in turns. During my stay, I enjoy mixing it up. I float in peaceful repose amid the nooks and crannies of The Retreat, and I swim through the hotel’s private watery portal to the Blue Lagoon to join a rowdier crowd for the occasional change in atmosphere.
Voted one of the 25 wonders of the world by National Geographic, the Blue Lagoon (and by connection The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon) isn’t your everyday natural hot springs. In the 1980s, Iceland began drawing water from the earth’s core to produce geothermal power. That water held so much silica it wouldn’t soak back into the earth, and it formed natural pools, or ponds, atop the lava fields. Research proved the healing water, a residue of the energy process, had salutary powers that healed skin diseases such as psoriasis and promoted general well-being. Enter the Blue Lagoon and (at last) The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon, brainchildren of medical doctor Grímur Sæmundsen, who envisioned and executed this therapeutic (and entertaining) oasis on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
The spa’s restaurant specializes in light fare, such as prawn, scallop and arctic char ceviche.
I come to The Retreat for the water—everyone does. But this savvy hotel offers so much more. Its stunning, meditative, subterranean spa, for example, complements the lagoon’s H2O with in-water massage therapies, restful alcoves, saunas, hanging nest chairs, fireplaces and lava walls. For me, a high point is the do-it-yourself three-part Ritual, which takes place in three cave-like spaces. This all-over-body experience begins with a lava salt exfoliation in one room, followed by a silica mud mask (for detox) in another. The finale is a slathering of algae—a species unique to this lagoon—that’s proven to nourish skin and rebuild collagen. Three restaurants—including the casual spa cafe and the gourmet, farm-to-table Moss—add to the coddling.
A luxurious alternative to a day trip to the Blue Lagoon, a stay at The Retreat can be a base for exploring southern Iceland or a jet lag-conquering interlude before a more comprehensive tour of the island nation. For true spa buffs, however, The Retreat reigns as a destination in itself. Junior suites from $1,400 per night.