Fire & Ice
Exploring an Iceland “hot” spot with a reputation for chill
Christened by National Geographic as one of the “Wonders of the World: Earth’s most awesome places,” Iceland’s Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa is definitely a phenomenon that we Americans won’t find in our own backyard. Among Iceland’s most popular attractions, the spa is located in the lava fields of Grindavik (one of the few easily pronounceable towns in Iceland), approximately 20 minutes from the Keflavik International Airport and 50 minutes from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik.
I decided to make a two-night stop at the Blue Lagoon before embarking on a 10-day photographic workshop on the frozen Icelandic landscape. The stunning photographs of icy blue glaciers and black volcanic rock seduced me—not to mention the promise of rejuvenating spa treatments in the lagoon’s geothermal seawater with its healing powers. With the Blue Lagoon only a quick bus ride away, a regenerative post-flight indulgence at this distinctive spa is a great welcome to the Land of Fire and Ice.
Neon Flashing Spoiler Alert: You can’t be a “wonder of the world” and amongst Iceland’s most well-known attractions without the risk of becoming a tourist trap. Yes, the crowds can be off-putting. But with good planning you will come away from, arguably, the planet’s most well-known spa with smooth, glowing skin, a slower pulse and a very memorable experience.
The appeal of the Blue Lagoon rests in the fortuitous combination of striking arctic scenery and healthful, mineral-infused water. The ethereal steam from the hot water of the lagoon creates a dreamy effect against the backdrop of immense lava fields. Outdoor water treatments feature skin-healing minerals naturally produced by the lagoon’s geothermal seawater.
The milky, aqua-blue bathing water that characterizes this unique hot spring mecca is the result of the mineral content in the geothermal seawater surging from 6,500 feet beneath the earth’s surface. As it travels up through porous lava, this seawater blends with fresh groundwater, picking up bioactive components along the way. A unique cocktail—rich in silica, algae and other minerals—is generated, giving the Blue Lagoon its special place among spas and primary place as a medical treatment center for psoriasis and other skin diseases.
A HAPPY ACCIDENT
The genesis of the lagoon and the booming industry rooted in its proven health benefits is a story of pure circumstance. In 1976 a geothermal power station, Svartsengi, was built to harness the naturally occurring geothermal activity produced by this volcanically active island and transform it into the renewable energy source that lights and heats thousands of Icelandic homes.
When the plant was built, the salty warm wastewater was directed into an adjacent lava field with the expectation that it would seep back into the earth. Surprisingly, the usually porous lava rocks filled up with silica and instead formed a lagoon.
Adventurous workers from the plant “took to the waters.” One of the workers with psoriasis noticed a dramatic healing effect from the water … and the rest was history.
In the following years, people began to bathe in this Icelandic lagoon and apply the silica mud to their skin. Not only did it prove to be an effective cure to those with severe skin disease but also proved to be helpful for maintaining the appearance of healthy, young skin.
Blue Lagoon’s Research and Development Center devotes substantial resources to scientifically verify its claims and analyze the benefits and unique components of the lagoon’s minerals. Independent scientific research confirms that “the bioactives in the Blue Lagoon have the capacity to improve skin barrier function and to prevent premature skin aging.”
That sounds a bit clinical … what does it really mean? The algae found in the Blue Lagoon have proven properties that stimulate collagen creation. Collagen gives our skin strength, structure and elasticity, so when its production naturally declines with age, so goes that smooth, taught, unlined face we used to know and love.
The Blue Lagoon silica is the most characteristic element of the lagoon’s geothermal seawater. The fine, clay-like silica mud enhances the functioning of our skin barrier, which keeps the “bad stuff” out and protects us against the loss of body water. Silica is also great for exfoliation and firming up the skin. Unsurprisingly, silica mud is the star product of the Blue Lagoon skin care line.
Over the years Blue Lagoon has been innovative in harnessing this gift of nature to develop different spa services and products. For an entry fee of about $45, one can spend all day lounging in the lagoon’s 2.4 million gallons of water, take a break in the sauna or steam room, or swim up to the Lagoon Bar for wine, beer or a smoothie.
Servers at the Silica Mud Swim-up Bar scoop the fine white substance into the hands of its eager recipients who, in turn, smooth it onto their face and skin. I was amused by the eerie vision of ghostly bathers materializing from the misty steam sporting these white silica mud masks.
However, to truly optimize your lagoon experience, an in-water massage is the way to go. All of the treatments at the Blue Lagoon are done outdoors in water in a private, designated treatment area of the lagoon. You can opt for a 30- or 60-minute massage or add an additional body treatment, such as a Full Body Silica Salt Scrub, Foot and Leg Silica Wrap or Upper Body Scrub and Head Massage.
The Blue Lagoon’s signature treatment—and its most popular—is a two-hour, in-water marathon starting with a silica salt body scrub. Next, your massage therapist covers your body (yes, you are in a bathing suit) with either algae or silica (your choice), and you float for 20 minutes in the comfortable, 100º water wrapped up to your neck in plastic. The final touch is a one-hour massage.
For my first day at the lagoon I booked a 60-minute Relaxing Massage. OK, how does “relaxing” work … given it was 32º outside plus wind? This would have to be pretty good to justify the insane act of exposing ANY skin to the frigid arctic air—even for a massage.
Oskar, my new best friend and seven-year veteran of the Blue Lagoon, had me lie on my back on a floating, yoga-like rubber mat and covered me with a hot, wet blanket. Only my face was exposed to the cold air. As he massaged each limb, he occasionally dunked both my mat and me to circulate the hot water. For this I was very grateful.
The cold air on my face—contrasted with the warm, relaxing soak and Oskar’s strong hands—made this massage like no other I had ever had. Did I mention it started to snow? A signal perhaps to call it all off? No way.
If you do this after dark (and in the winter it is usually after dark), you might be treated to the most amazing light show nature has to offer: the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Now THAT would be a home run.
The next day I tried the Authentic Silica Salt Glow. This time my therapist, a former world-class soccer champion, exfoliated my skin with a combination of the Blue Lagoon’s minerals, silica and oil. The weather was a balmy 34º and no wind! The hot, wet blankets did their job perfectly. So did the silica, which left my skin fabulously soft and smooth.
FOOD & ACCOMMODATIONS
While you are there, be sure to eat at the adjacent LAVA Restaurant, which sits against a stunning lava cliff and overlooks the lagoon. The head chef won the 2013 Icelandic chef of the year and is a member of the Icelandic National Culinary Team. I liked the langoustine soup with garlic-marinated langoustine, white chocolate and seaweed SO much I had it twice.
I accompanied the soup with a glass of chardonnay from their extensive wine list. Divine. And the intense blue of Into the Blue—one of LAVA’s specialty drinks (Bacardi Razz, blue curaçao, blueberries, lime, 7UP)—not only looked great, it was great.
The Blue Café offers more ready-to-go food options.
The contemporary, 35-room Silica Hotel—a 10-minute walk from the spa through surrounding lava fields—features a private bathing lagoon of geothermal seawater that provides an antidote to the crowds at the Blue Lagoon. Guests of the hotel receive one complimentary admission to the spa. A five-star, 60-room hotel is due to be completed on-site at the Blue Lagoon in 2017.
Every day 2,000 to 3,000 guests visit the Blue Lagoon. In 2015 the number of guests was 918,000—a 20% increase from the previous year. The Blue Lagoon appears to be a beneficiary of Iceland’s dynamic growth in tourism.
Last year 1.3 million people visited Iceland. This might not sound like a huge number of tourists; more than 75 million visited the U.S. during the same period. But the population of Iceland is only 330,000.
While that is good for the Blue Lagoon’s balance sheet, it’s not so good if you are hoping for a quiet and relaxing spa experience. So how does the Blue Lagoon integrate this growth and still manage to provide their guests with a satisfying experience?
Stating that their mission is to protect the experience of their guests, they have recently instituted online booking to time and control the number of guests entering the facility. They increased the size of the lagoon itself by 50% but are keeping the number of lockers and guests constant.
It’s a challenge to be sure. Rule #1: You MUST book early to guarantee entry and get the treatment you want. It is suggested that you book months ahead, especially for summer—the height of the tourist season.
With such a turnover of bathers, I wanted to know how the Blue Lagoon ensures the cleanliness of its water. The 2.4 million gallons of water in the Blue Lagoon is self-cleaning and renews every 40 hours. The ecosystem maintains itself and is an environment where foreign bacteria can’t live. Nevertheless, the geothermal seawater is regularly monitored for quality and samples are sent to an independent and officially authorized laboratory.
There are countless spas worldwide that offer great mud wraps, sea-salt body scrubs and healing massages. And there are other less crowded, less expensive and more rustic hot springs in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon differentiates itself by delivering the whole package.
It’s a well-run machine, offering great outdoor in-water spa treatments with its own unique brand of geothermal extracts that deliver proven results. It’s a novel experience in an otherworldly setting. Perfect? No. Incomparable? Yes.
Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa
Phone: 011 354-420-8800
Booking: It is required that you book in advance and recommended that you book months in advance to secure entry and treatments.
Blue Lagoon Spa
Phone: 011 354 414 4000
Blue Lagoon Spa in Reykjavik offers a broader array of treatments than the spa in Grindavik, including waxing, manicure/pedicure and massage. However, there are no in-water treatments or lagoon. It is closed on Sundays.
Skin Care Products
Blue Lagoon’s skin care products utilize the natural ingredients found in the geothermal seawater for which the Blue Lagoon is known. The key ingredients are algae, silica and minerals. The products are hypoallergenic and dermatologically tested. They are paraben-free and GMO-free. They can be ordered online (bluelagoon.com/shop) and are shipped from a facility in New York.
Every season offers stunning scenery and fantastic light. For my trip (in winter) I was lucky to find Arctic Exposure : Landscape Photography Tours and Workshops in Iceland. www.arcticexposure.is Skarpi Thrainsson is a pro landscape photographer native in Iceland and runs workshops year ‘round in Iceland, Greenland and Norway.
Here are three outstanding reasons to visit Iceland in the winter:
- THE AURORA BOREALIS (NORTHERN LIGHTS) … the mind blowing, illusive natural light show that is best seen from September to mid-April. It is actually active all year but you can only see it in the darkness and under clear skies. The winter season provides full dark nights.
- A BREAK FROM THE CROWDS … Ever since the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull put Iceland on the front pages of the news in 2010, tourism has had a meteoric rise. Peak season is May thru September in the land of the midnight sun. The winter offers less crowds, not to mention frozen landscapes and magical ice caves.
- MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK … Off season promises dramatically lower prices for accommodation, car rentals and airfares.