Reykjavík is today not the sleepy fishing village many people imagine it to be. After a decade of expansion, this is no longer simply a base from which to embark on the Golden Circle around the geological sites of Iceland – but a destination in its own right.
The capital is a thriving city, galleries abound, while fine-dining options blossom. The modernist Hallgrímskirkja towers over it all. There is also an active party scene. Around Laugavegur, including Bankastraeti and Austurstraeti, the clubs run until the early hours - and this is a 24-hour city in the truest sense of the phrase, as it never gets dark!
On Friday and Saturday night, the capital is more like Amsterdam than rivals Nuuk or Tórshavn. If you’re looking for untouched wilderness in 2023, head for the Faroe Islands or Greenland - Reykjavík has fallen to bombastic American holidaymakers!
Thankfully, help is at hand.
Many will be familiar with the sulphuric waters of the Blue Lagoon, a volcanic oasis that has grown to become an icon of regional, even global, tourism.
But, more recently, the destination has added a luxurious hotel, shifting the entire hospitality geography of the island. This is now the place where well-heeled guests stay when they are searching for natural splendour, avoiding the crowds in the increasingly congested capital.
At the heart of the development is the Retreat Spa, a facility which reinvents a stalwart of the Icelandic hospitality market for a new generation of travellers.
A ticket to this sensory wonderland can be purchased for ISK69,000 (£400), allowing guests to stay for five hours. On first blush this might seem like quite an extensive visit, but there’s much to enjoy and the time drifts away.
First up, the Retreat Spa offers a more sophisticated version of the classic Blue Lagoon experience – the Retreat Lagoon. Guests can soak in a number of shimmering blue pools amid this mineral-rich waterscape, with temperatures hovering between 37-40 degrees Celsius. Only a handful of guests are permitted at any one time, so an air of quiet tranquillity pervades - a world away from the bustling pools on the other side of the fence.
Although the focus here is very much on wellness, a welcome surprise sees drinks served in the Retreat Lagoon, with guests able to ring a buzzer, place an order and float away - glass in hand. Imagine a much more luxurious Caribbean swim-up bar!
Once acclimatised, guests can explore subterranean spaces that sprawl out from the pools.
In the Lava Spring, visitors will discover the gently mesmerizing sights and sounds of water falling within the earth, while there is a chance to enjoy the timeless warmth and meditative light of a burning fireplace in the Fire Room.
Warmed by the dry heat of hot rocks, the Sauna is a great place to cleanse the pores, while the Steam Cave sees visitors take shelter in an earthen chamber of moist heat. Visit either before taking a plunge in the invigorating Cold Well.
Away from the water, Nest sees guests lounge in suspended chairs in a spacious room encased by floor-to-ceiling windows. Here you can gaze out at the shimmering waters of the Retreat Lagoon from a sanctuary of comfort and contemplation.
Finally, a Terrace allows visitors to feel the winds of Iceland from an elevated perch with marvellous views of the surrounding terrain.
The star attraction is the Blue Lagoon Ritual, a sort of do-it-yourself, head-to-toe skin care routine. This is an exhilarating cycle of well-being based on the trinity of natural wonders that make up the Blue Lagoon: silica, algae and minerals.
In a spacious sanctuary of three interconnected chambers, you cover your body with the treasures of geothermal seawater, becoming one with the rejuvenating powers of the volcanic earth.
Silica, the iconic white mineral, cleanses and strengthens your skin, giving you a fresh, pure, radiant appearance, while the algae is extraordinarily dynamic. It renews, nourishes and moisturizes your skin, opening the door to an enduring, youthful glow.
Finally, the uniquely potent array of minerals found at the Blue Lagoon have energizing effects on your mind and body, exfoliating your skin and stimulating your circulation.
Even a sceptic would have to acknowledge the healing powers of the ritual – we left looking radiant after the hour-long experience.
The Retreat Spa is aimed at a well-travelled global tourist; this is an international space recognisable to the luxury holidaymaker.
Private changing rooms are equipped with a walk-in rain shower, an extensive selection of complimentary Blue Lagoon skin care and all the amenities necessary for a relaxing spa journey. Also included is access the Spa Restaurant, which offers a full menu of exciting culinary options.
Take a look at the Breaking Travel News interview with Grímur Sæmundsen, chief executive of the Blue Lagoon, here.
The Blue Lagoon is only a short drive from Keflavík Airport – much closer to the runway than Reykjavik. For this reason, the Retreat Hotel at Blue Lagoon would make a great base to explore the island, calling into the capital to see the sights, before escaping the crowds.
The flag-carrier flies a modern fleet of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, with London Heathrow to Keflavik running twice a day, leaving at 13:05 and 21:25.
London Gatwick to Keflavik runs once a day, departing at 13:05.