The moment I fell for Iceland was probably the same time as you – when its ethereal landscapes (including the mystical Blue Lagoon) flooded Instagram feeds circa 2014. The very same year, I made friends with an Icelandic colleague who regaled me with so many stories about the country that I often felt compelled to buy a ticket there and then.
As life would have it, I didn’t make it to Iceland until five years later. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise as had I travelled earlier, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to stay at the Retreat. I’ll put that down to luck and impeccable timing because this hotel, in Michelin parlance, is definitely ‘worth a special journey’.
Flying into Reykjavik over the spectacular landscape brought my Icelandic friend’s tales back to mind. A more immediate point of reference for Mr Smith and I was Game of Thrones, which had just aired its divisive final season at the time of our visit. As we drove past the endless lava fields from Keflavík Airport to the Retreat, it was impossible not to be immediately charmed by the real-life Land of Fire and Ice.
As our car turned into a discreet road and the building’s stark architecture came into view, it was evident that a strong vision and Herculean effort had gone into creating a hotel in the middle of a lava field. As we entered the bright, soaring lobby, I was impressed at how successfully they were able to execute it. Fashioned from cement, stone and wood, the decor is a picture of elegant restraint with clean-lined furniture dotting the mostly minimalist space. The modern interiors were stunning but it was the view that really stole the show – gigantic windows spanning the height and length of the lobby framed a panorama of pastel-blue pools, cascading lava, lush moss, verdant peaks and a clear, cloudless sky. If a Sigur Rós song were a view, this would be it.
Enthralled by our surroundings, Mr Smith and I settled on a leather sofa while Rolf, our host, arrived with our welcome drink of organic fruit juices. While checking us in, he told us all about the on-the-house activities we could enjoy: yoga at 8am, hiking at 2pm, afternoon tea from 3pm, cocktail hour from 5pm and so on. It appeared we’d be getting to know the hotel and its environs very well over the next few days.
But Iceland beckons. Both Mr Smith and I love a good walk after a long-haul flight, so we decided to join the guided hike. About an hour and a half later, we were on top of the very hill we saw from the hotel and all the wiser about the history of the Blue Lagoon itself. After a break of hot chocolate and several pieces of kleina (an utterly addictive traditional Icelandic pastry), we made our way back to our room where we found a note from Rolf next to the hotel’s own foot and leg gel, which, he wrote, was meant ‘to help rejuvenate our tired legs’.
Before coming to the Retreat, I was somewhat torn about which room to choose – the Moss Suite or the Lava Suite. Both looked enticing but as I wanted to be as close to the lagoon as I could, I chose the Lava Suite thinking I could just bathe anytime (much like jumping from an overwater villa into the sea as you do in Maldives). Turns out, they’re decorative water features but that doesn’t take away from how mesmerising it is to be surrounded by light blue pools, which looked especially beautiful under the midnight sun.
It’s clear that the spa is the heart and soul here, given that the default guest attire is the hotel robe, something we were fully on board with by the end of the first day. Coming from Asia, I thought I had seen it all when it comes to superlative spas but theirs is on a whole new level. It’s expansive yet cavernous, cocooning you in its warm embrace the moment you walk in. And there’s every facility imaginable – an outdoor sauna and steam bath carved into a rock, a rooftop that offers a 360-degree panorama, dozens of nooks for one to relax, and of course, a private mineral-rich lagoon carefully designed to fit the natural formation made by the volcanic earth.
One of the things I loved most was being able to walk into the lagoon from inside the spa. Down a short flight of stairs, into the water, leads one out into the open to enjoy the rising steam and the cool Arctic air. To keep hydrated, they’ve installed taps flowing with fresh Icelandic water outside. They’ve literally thought of everything. The most ingenious idea, however, is their signature in-water massage. It’s the only massage I’ve experienced lying on a yoga mat, floating on water, and having my entire body – back included – massaged. It’s sublime.
But the true testament of the Retreat’s transformative power is how they’ve converted Mr Smith. In just two days, the sceptic became a believer so much so that he woke up extra early on our last day just so we could squeeze in ‘the Ritual’ – a do-it-yourself treatment involving silica, algae and minerals, and is a luxe take on the quintessential practice at the Blue Lagoon. By the end of it, we were hanging out with our mud masks on, mostly silent save for the sound of the turning of the pages of our books. It was glorious to have a few days immersed in such a serene, otherworldly escape. But the greatest pleasure? I guess it’s that we’ll be booking couples massages from now on.
This review was first published in 2019 so some hotel details may have changed. All pictures shot on a separate visit by Louis AW Sheridan
Kissa Castañeda is the editorial director for homes and travel at Tatler Asia and was previously editor-in-chief of Singapore Tatler. Passionate about travel, design, and food, Kissa has also contributed to Wallpaper* City Guides, Travel + Leisure, Elle Decoration, and Home Journal. She has lived and worked in Tokyo, Manila and Hong Kong.