he Retreat at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland is far, far more than a spa destination. It takes the heavenly experience of bathing in its legendary geothermal aqua pura and raises it to new levels. Its beauty means that every moment is an Instagram dream and it is a glorious (and very safe) antidote to a grim year of pandemic.
Nestled in a stark landscape of ancient lava, the hotel is surrounded by milky blue water warm enough to produce clouds of steam, shrouding everything in mist. Guests have access to a spectacular private section of the Blue Lagoon and the water, shaped by volcanic rocks, ebbs and flows around the hotel like a moat with endless hidden corners and coves.
For historical context, the Blue Lagoon is a combination of both nature and human ingenuity. The mineral-rich seawater first came gushing out of a geothermal power plant in 1976 and locals who started bathing in it found that it improved their skin. Scientists at the Svartsengi Resource Park – a geothermal power plant producing green energy – had expected the water to seep through the lava and return to the earth’s volcanic aquifers. Instead, thanks to extra silica, proper draining didn’t happen and the result is this beautiful body of opalescent water. Turnstiles for visitors were added in 1985, but it wasn’t until 2018 that The Retreat opened its doors.
Man alone, however, could never produce what nature has bestowed on this heavenly place – it is one of the wonders of the world. And to use another cliche, it’s way ahead of its time. Long before Covid-19, The Retreat was all about privacy and social distancing. There are only 62 guest suites in soaring, spacious surroundings which could easily house many more. It is sweeping and airy; you can wander and not come close to another person.
It is so private and discreet, in fact, that the odd glimpse of a Hollywood star, wearing a robe and the same spa-dishevelled hair as you, is in equal parts unlikely and expected. Celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Justin Timberlake and Beyonce are said to be converts (although The Retreat staff are far too tasteful to comment).
I spent three days here before the first lockdown in 2020 and have never felt so well. In fact, I am convinced it was this which sustained me through the next few months.
Just 20 minutes from Iceland’s international airport, Keflavik, The Retreat’s location makes it the perfect post-flight destination. Within an hour of touchdown, you can be soaking away the aches and pains of travel in the private lagoon with chilled champagne but, from experience, you’ll begin shedding your worries the moment you enter.
The brains behind this haven decided on a personalised approach, in which you are greeted by your own host who serves as guide and attendant, managing itineraries, confirming tours, giving insight into local culture and informing guests of the arrival of the Northern Lights. You do feel that no request is beyond the staff who achieve that holy grail of service: friendly and attentive without being in any way intrusive. Like consummate professionals, they make it look easy.
The hotel’s design, meanwhile, pays homage to its surroundings with a soothing colour palette reflecting the landscape’s muted tones of greens, greys and slate while vast floor-to-ceiling windows allow the majestic lagoon to take centre stage. It’s a jaw-dropping introduction.
The calming colour palette continues in the guest suites, with snowy and soft grey linens and the smallest details carefully considered. Gorgeous cotton drawstring holders for bathroom bits and pieces laid side-by-side with luxurious products and the arctic gleam of fluffy bathrobes are a lovely sight. And, unlike some grand getaways, The Retreat is famously generous with its top-class toiletries.
My suite was a serene sanctuary with such a magical view over the lava fields and opalescent waters that it wasn’t until day three that I realised there wasn’t a television. Not that I would have used it. The idea is that guests have a body and mind detox; when you're dreamily soaking in a marble bathtub gazing at such a view, the last thing on your mind is Sky News.
The nightly turn-down service, too, is a wonderful treat with delivery of freshly handmade chocolates, and the plentiful in-suite bar is complimentary. It is, however, the quality of sleep I’ll remember. I’m normally insomniac, but apparently a combination of health-giving waters, soporific surroundings and a bed fit for a king puts paid to that.
Other touches include customised Moleskine notebooks to record feelings and thoughts. It’s surprising how quickly your mind clears in this environment and you find yourself jotting down all sorts. Flicking through mine when back home in London, I found I’d scribbled choice remarks like: “This must be what real relaxation feels like – can’t find the words,” and, “This is the most heavenly place. I must claim squatters’ rights and refuse to be removed from my room when checkout comes (am only half joking!).” For those looking to seriously amp up the luxury, the Lagoon Suite comes with its own private waterside to dip into.
The world-famous spa is, of course, the star of the show. It is out of this world, and also under it, being built into the inky, 800-year-old volcanic rock. Privacy is a priority, and while guests may request staff to take snaps of them, they are not themselves allowed to use phones or cameras in the spa.
A hypnotic vibe pervades the cave-like spa, which has an outdoor steam room, traditional saunas, relaxation pods and the Blue Lagoon Ritual Room. This last is the jewel in the crown; where guests exfoliate, cleanse and moisturise their face and bodies using the water’s natural products – mineral salt, silica and algae. The result, for me anyway, was the sort of fresh and plumped-up skin I have not had for many years.
You could spend wonderful weeks working your way through the vast treatment menu, but the one that shouldn’t be missed is the in-water full-body massage. Taking place as you float on a lilo-like bed, it manages to be both deeply relaxing and blood tingling and, unlike a normal massage, you don’t have to heave yourself into your clothes and hit the outside world after. Instead, having finished being pampered, you are left to simply drift around, trance-like on warm water, feeling that you have all the time in the world. It’s divine.
It’s awfully hard to find fault with The Retreat, but I did try. A stickler might be put off by the water’s mild sulphur whiff, which everyone quickly becomes immune to, but that’s about it. As well as it’s reputation for beautifying and health-giving, the hotel is home to three restaurants. The Lava is the oldest and largest, and merges Icelandic cooking with modern European. The Spa restaurant is a marvellous option for sustenance between soaks, with light and healthy plates such as Arctic Char ceviche, succulent sushi and barley salads.
For serious and devoted foodies, however, the hotel’s landmark restaurant Moss is a must. The ambrosial tasting menu includes dishes like pine-smoked reindeer, mouth-watering Gravadlax, piquant liquorice ice cream and still-warm pistachio Magdalenas. All, of course, accompanied by wine from what is probably Iceland’s most fabulous cellar.
For more down-to-earth and comforting fare, coffee and freshly baked Icelandic treats are served each afternoon in the lounge. There is something deeply comforting and blissful about this high tea taken, was with everything at The Retreat, with mesmerising views over the waters.
In the last year we have all suffered one way or another. Those lucky enough to escape physical symptoms may have struggled silently and mentally, and anything which helps is most welcome. Whenever I’m overcome with a blast of anxiety, I’m lucky enough to be able to close my eyes and imagine I’m back in those warm blue Icelandic waters. They are my new, and I suspect my forever, happy place.