If Imagination had a home, Iceland would be it.
But, deciding where exactly in this skyr-topped millefeuille land of folklore, trolls and spirits, is a hard task indeed. Perhaps Imagination would boldly burst its knuckles on the door of Þórsmörk’s lamb-stew steaming Volcano Huts; or maybe it would edge, inch by spray-splattering inch behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall, cosying up on frost-bitten moss beds; or perhaps Imagination’s own dreams of in-water massages, of sole soul-bathing in one of the wonder’s of the world, of yawning ‘Góða nótt’ from a room carved into the volcanic earth, would tick all its house-hunting boxes.
Yes, if Imagination had a home, The Retreat Hotel would be it.
The Retreat Hotel at Blue Lagoon:
I’m closing my eyes as I type this (so please forgive any typos). I’m closing my eyes to shut out the car-park greys and the bare-branch winter browns surrounding me, and to let in the crisp Icelandic light, the peaks and troughs of lava-sculpted landscape, the bubbling blues of the hot, steaming lagoon - to let in every millimetre and millisecond of our stay at The Retreat.
An exquisite champagne-welcome from wonderful Rolf gives you a much-needed few moments to sip in the ethereal scenery. Sculpted from an 800-year-old lava field, the Retreat’s floor-to-ceiling windows throughout thrust your gaze onto the faraway snow-topped mountains, the corrugated monochrome fields with their liquorice-black rocks, and, a mere nose-tip away, the steaming invitations of the hotel’s private geothermal lagoons.
It was an invitation we took no time at all in accepting. A gladly no-phone, selfie-free zone, we slippered and dressing-gowned our way to the spa, down its gently-lit, gently-sloping corridor with walls of rough, exposed lava, to explore the treasure trove of rooms waiting to de-stress, detox, delight.
Here await the revitalising steam cave, the rich, dry heat of the sauna with its top-to-toe lagoon view, a lava spring room with the hypnotic sounds of water falling back to earth and the bracingly cold outdoor well (for those of you feeling brave enough!). Huge, camouflaged doors slide away as you approach, nudging you into underground chambers where guests indulge in the ‘Blue Lagoon Ritual’, a three-step DIY treatment of earth-giving silica, algae and minerals. FYI, your skin will feel amazing afterwards.
Our absolute favourite thing of all was swimming directly from the blissful serenity of the spa out into the private geothermal pools. We bathed beneath snowy skies in our lava canyons, not another soul in sight, hot steam and biting Arctic air colliding on our oh-so-happy faces.
Indulging in an in-water massage is an absolute must here, and you should absolutely experience the public Blue Lagoon, despite having private lagoons at fingertip reach. The public Blue Lagoon can also be accessed directly from the hotel’s spa. Here, all you can’t see is just as beautiful as all you can. Somewhere beyond clouds of steam danced dialogues from all over the world, anonymous laughter fizzed through the water, the air thickened by that almost magical energy created by shared experience.
Each room at The Retreat pays homage to its surroundings. Minimalist, natural textures, clean, crisp lines, all with vast windows framing their panorama friendship. We embraced our stand-alone bath (you can ask for it to be run for you, filled with natural salts), the Northern Lights wake-up call if so desired (too cloudy for success), and the joy of thrusting open our bedroom door onto our private terrace to be met solely by the sound of falling snow, as imperceptible as the touch of ‘hush please’ finger to lips.
Oh what a joy mornings are here! Our yoga session (yes, even my downward-dog-averse husband joined in with relish!) led by soothingly-voiced Atli was followed by our utterly delightful breakfast of Icelandic delicacies, freshly squeezed juices, warm, buttery pastries and frothy cappuccinos. Here, just as with the daily delicious afternoon tea for all guests, dressing gowns are encouraged. Relaxation is the only fashion.
We did, however, put on actual clothes for our dinner at the chef’s table in the hotel’s Moss Restaurant – a gourmet experience that begin by climbing into the depths of the Retreat for a glass of champagne in their work-of-art wine-cellar. Indeed, art was a theme throughout the evening, each dish infused with the imagination of their culinary creator, each chef sharing the details of the delicacies awaiting our unified approval (which, with all of the seven dishes, it got). Scallops served with sorrel, apple and dill on a bed of budding forest pine, king crab with mouli and dashi, sizzling beef served from a freshly-cut log with wild mushrooms and wasabi, a pre-dessert (this is now going to be a thing at my dinner parties) followed by actual dessert of chocolate marquise with praline ice cream and lemon butterscotch sauce, and not-so-petit fours served on lava rock plates. Each course was accompanied by a glass of wine expertly paired, and expertly explained, by sommelier Manuel.
I have some of the dinner’s chocolates waiting for me as I type. I was simply too full to eat them all that delightful evening, and they were too scrumptious to be left on their lava throne. So, they sit temptingly in our ‘yummy cupboard’ (a term I only became familiar with upon moving in with my sweet-toothed (but won’t admit it) husband) the perfect fuel for pen on paper…
So, to a fuel of the less calorific kind. Indeed, when it comes to fuelling interest and intrigue and inspiration, there’s one man who should wear a crown, and that’s Magnus. He’s the only man I believe I will ever meet who gets hot wearing just a t-shirt in minus 15 degrees. Being a tour guide for Activity Iceland in the country in which he was born and raised, the country he so clearly admires and respects, is Magnus’ “absolute dream job”, his colleagues “just like family”. His earliest memories were made on the terrain we were to explore on our Valley of Thor super jeep tour, and, fresh out of the Blue Lagoon, we couldn’t be more rejuvenated and eager to explore.
This Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) Tour is a trip less-trodden by tourists – and for that reason alone, I was already a fan. There were just six of us in our giant-wheeled off-road monster of a jeep, none of us knowing exactly quite what to expect, and all of us having any expectations surpassed. I don’t think any photo or eloquent narrative could have prepared me for just how astounding Iceland’s scenery truly is. They call it the Valley of Thor tour for a reason. The Viking God of Thunder, with his giant-slaying lightening hammer, is synonymous with courage, power and strength. Here, his DNA runs through ice-cold glacial rivers, Seljalandsfoss waterfall spilling his fearlessness onto adrenaline-seekers beneath. His muscles move within the mountains, glaciers smooth scars on warrior skin, each telling their own silent story.
There’s a reason this area was chosen as a Game of Thrones filming location. Snow-boot steps crunching between deep, Arctic-fox-printed tracks, pure white wilderness everywhere you look, the whole Oscar-worthy landscape an invigorating reminder of just how small and powerless we really are beneath nature’s omniscient gaze.
There were times, I admit, when I wondered how the heck we’d make it home before nightfall as the jeep hurled itself across gushing rivers with their, to the untrained eye, seemingly unsurmountable banks. But where Thor is unfazed, so too is Magnus! His skill and knowledge turned Iceland from acquaintance to friend. We got to understand it, we got to know its spirit and its quirks, its tales and tribulations. At the end of the tour, if I could have grabbed Iceland’s hand and kissed it, I would have done.
Activity Iceland offer an abundance of trips. As well as group tours, they provide private tours, with even more flexibility to create the perfect trip just for you. With such an abundance to see, the team are on hand to customise your stay, building your unique itinerary, catering for solo travellers, groups, honeymooners… They say “the only limit is your imagination”, and they mean it. We shared our jeep with two travellers who had braved the cold and snorkelled between two tectonic plates – the water crystal clear (and the dry suits very much needed!). Off-road buggy adventures, helicopter tours, a 120-metre descent into a volcano and snowmobiling are all on the appetizing Activity Iceland menu.
As part of our Golden Circle Tour (a popular tourist route), our brilliant guide Simon took our little group of four for a spot of aforementioned snowmobiling. At the time, I was already a touch chilly (my fingers and toes are certainly not made for cold climes!), and the thought of spending an hour on a snowmobile filled me with excitement and frostbite fear in equal measures. For those of you feeling even a slight pang of doubt, two words. Do it! What better way to resuscitate desk-weary brain cells than this – flying through a flurry of white and zig-zagging across glaciers wrapped in snug furry snowsuits.
You know it’s a good tour when every stop is a contender for top spot. Take the waterfalls, for instance. My husband adores waterfalls – gazing at them, swimming in them, scrambling behind them, telling you all about them (and, trust me, there can be a lot to be told)… Where there’s a waterfall, there’s often a 6 foot 4 bloke with slipping and sliding size 14 feet trying his hardest to get as near as humanly possible to his latest cascading friend. So it’s a big deal for him to crown the tour’s Gullfoss waterfall with the words “I think this is my favourite waterfall in the world!”. And I agree. This is a breath-takingly beautiful slice of Iceland.
Walk between the two continental plates creating this united Iceland, brace yourself as geysers erupt twenty-five metres high right in front of you, scoop big spoonfuls of hot lamb stew into hungry post-hike stomachs, befriend Icelandic ponies with their thick chill-proof fur, learn and laugh and let Iceland’s landscape etch memories to last a lifetime.
For more information visit:
Activity Iceland: https://activityiceland.is
The Retreat at Blue Lagoon: https://www.bluelagoon.com