Taking the waters
Grindavík, Iceland


Icelanders have long harnessed the power of the island’s potent hydrothermal abundance, not only in their use of geothermal energy to heat their homes and humidify their greenhouses, but also when it comes to bathing for wellness.

The practice of cleansing and healing through water and heat may be relatively recent here, but its global provenance goes back millennia. Some people believe that the word ‘spa’ dates back to the days of the Roman thermae and is an acronym of the Latin salus per aquam (or sanitas per aquam), meaning ‘health through water’. Meanwhile, in the Chinese Western Zhou dynasty of 1046–771 BCE, there are records of physicians who prescribed bathing in sulphuric springs to treat diseases. For proponents of this, combining two of the zodiacal elements of water and fire meant energising the mind, spirit and passion in their bodies.

Fast-forward to the advent of complementary and integrative medicines and it soon became well-established that warm water can be a relieving balm that stimulates restoration, regeneration and renewal, particularly in challenging times. You only have to look across the world – from Busan to Budapest, Yamashiro to Yellowstone – to see that hot-spring bathing and spa culture are a luxury that is in demand.

This story first appeared in The Spellbinding Scotland Issue, available in print and digital.

This story first appeared in The Spellbinding Scotland Issue, available in print and digital.

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Speaking of luxury, in almost all the ancient cases, taking the waters was the pursuit of emperors and the nobility, to such a degree that they built opulent palaces, residences and bathhouses over them. Of course, their democratisation over time (and the necessity for wholesale public health) meant that thermal spas are now open to everyone. But the best are still at the highest end of the scale.

Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s top – if not most Instagrammed – attractions, is a stunning and expansive public thermal spa set in rugged volcanic topography. The pearlescent-blue water is what makes it so eye-catching, along with the contrast to the black lava fields and silvery moss that surround it.

The water here is a constant 39ºC (102°F) all year round. But there’s a peculiar twist – in a country bubbling with natural hot springs, this isn’t one of them. The lagoon is the product of the runoff from the neighbouring Svartsengi geothermal power plant. We hear the thud of your disappointment, but we urge you not to be – though Blue Lagoon’s story may not be from some mystical Icelandic legend, it’s testament to Icelandic ingenuity.

As the country began to finesse its use of geothermal energy in the 1970s and 80s, the mineral-rich seawater employed to cool the plant caught the attention of its workers as it poured out into the reservoir. One observer, who had chronic psoriasis, decided to bathe in it and, doubtless with the mantra salus per aquam running through his head, found the water alleviated his symptoms. Word spread like wildfire and the plant’s owners had no choice but to conduct research into the water’s safety and quality. In 1995, it was confirmed that the water did indeed have healing properties, leading to the launch of a skincare brand and spa facility that rapidly became world-renowned.

But it is Blue Lagoon’s latest venture that takes us full-circle to the bathing of kings and queens – its five-star Retreat Hotel. A sublime architectural extravaganza, it represents the best of Nordic design, melding into the lava-carved landscape as if birthed directly from the rock. In all, it’s one of the finest examples we’ve ever seen of how man-made and natural can happily coexist.

The understated entrance soon reveals a truly cavernous space, akin to a Bond villain’s lair, flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows that present what we loved most about this property – a by-invitation-only part, exclusively for hotel guests and wellness day-visitors only.

Retreat Spa is the main event. Limited to just a handful of guests, it’s an effortlessly chic and sprawling space with the best version of everything you’d expect from a pamper palace. In Lava Cove – our own secret sanctuary, like a private spa within a spa – we had a signature, floating massage in the health-giving waters and were delicately stroked to carefree bliss by a handsome therapist dressed all in white: a baptism indeed. Ushered into the Ritual Room, we then performed the ‘ritual’ – a hammam-like bathing rite using mineral exfoliation and silica mud from the lagoon for the ultimate in rejuvenation.

Lunch at the spa’s restaurant was an informal affair, but the food was fresh and light and went a long way in showcasing local produce with international flair (a lot of Icelandic fish is sold to Japan for the highest-grade sushi). Delicious as it was, our meal here was just a taster of the lavish fine dining in-store at the hotel’s Moss Restaurant, which serves up a theatrical-tasting menu of mouthwatering local flavours that elevated our palates and was matched only by the spectacular view of the otherworldly volcanic landscape lit by the never-setting summer sun. We were blessed with hour after hour of sunshine on our visit, but to return in winter could reward us with an entirely different experience – that of the Northern Lights.

The views continued in our spacious Lagoon Suite, where simple yet elegant minimalist Scandi-style design championed what lay outside – our own private lagoon and patio. Should you wish to spend even more time in water, the marble bathtub with a view was a highlight. Our space was sublime, but, for the ultimate escape, the hotel has a secret suite, one of the most lavish in the world, by appointment only.

There is never any doubt that the spa and the water are the star attractions here – the focus is kept firmly on the waterscape and lava fields that the resort calls home – but we found our attentions drawn too to the complex’s design because it embodies what we love most about the Nordic aesthetic – functional minimalism. It’s sophisticated, elegant, considered and practical, but not in a utilitarian sense because there’s absolute beauty in what has been delivered, with all the elements sitting harmoniously side by side. Even the naming conventions of the hotel’s facilities keep things simple and unfussy, as is evident in the property’s designation – ‘retreat’ – a word we immediately took to heart.

We came to the spa hotel for the restoration its magical waters offer, but we were soon immersed in a wholesomeness and wonder that extended far beyond.

www.bluelagoon.com / www.inspiredbyiceland.com

Photography courtesy of The Retreat at Blue Lagoon