Sinking into the steaming, milky-blue waters of the Blue Lagoon, is a transformative experience that awakens all your senses. Since its inception in 1992, the Blue Lagoon has become one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions. Though it is visited by nearly 80% of the over one million tourists to Iceland each year, the local staff maintains its exclusive spa atmosphere, so you really feel as though you are escaping into a magical place. During our visit, in addition to soaking in the algae and silica soaked waters, we also explored the unique combination of geography and geothermal science that makes this incredible phenomenon possible.
Many travel to the Blue Lagoon straight from airport, about a 20-minute drive, or from the capital city of Reykjavik, about a 50-minute drive. Since we stayed outside Reykjavik in the south-western portion of the island, we made the trip one crisp December morning along the coast to Grindavik, where the Blue Lagoon is situated on top of an active lava field. As we wound around the epic volcanic black rocks and ash deposits, we began to feel the otherworldly enchantment of this untouched Nordic terrain. Entering the gates of the Blue Lagoon, as we saw the steam rising from the rocks and the geothermal pools, we truly felt as though we were visiting somewhere extraordinary.
History and Science
The active lava fields throughout Iceland provide the two geographic conditions, large amounts of underground water and hot magma, which are necessary to create geothermal energy. The underground water, positioned so close to the molten rock, exists under extreme heat and pressure conditions causing it to reach temperatures well over the boiling point. As this super-heated water travels or is extracted by humans to the earth’s surface, it creates the bubbling geothermal pools and hot springs that are very common throughout Iceland.
Iceland natives have been bathing in these geothermal pools for centuries. One of the first accounts is preserved within the writings of Snorri Sturlusson (1179 to 1241) a legendary Icelandic historian, poet and politician. He makes specific reference to the hot spring in his own backyard that he used to soak and bathe. This pool, surrounded by flagstone rocks and a stone patio, is still preserved today as a national tourist attraction. From Snorri’s era to the present day, these geothermal pools and hot springs throughout Iceland are integral to the culture, as a place for community gathering, relaxation and socialization.
Though Iceland has many naturally occurring hot springs (water literally bubbling out of the earth), the Blue Lagoon is not a completely natural phenomenon. It was created through a unique relationship between technology and nature as Erla Brynjarsdottir, a greeter at the Blue Lagoon, explains, “It was actually a manmade mistake…they never expected it to happen.” When the geothermal power station Svartsengi, located adjacent to the Blue Lagoon, opened in 1976 they bore holes 2000 meters deep into the earth to extract the heated water. Once they tap the super-hot water they turned it into steam to power turbines, which creates electricity for the regional, sustainable energy program. Svartsengi’s plan was to discharge the “waste water” back into the earth, but instead of it being reabsorbed, as they intended, it filled up the neighboring lava pool, which had been created 800 years prior. During its journey from deep inside the earth though the volcanic soil, the water naturally picked up abundant silica, minerals and algae. It was the dense silica component, which sealed the bottom of the lava pool, thus creating the Blue Lagoon, as it is known today.
The pool began to form in 1976, when the geothermal plant opened, and by the 1980’s Icelandic locals began to bathe in it. As Erla explains, “There was a worker at the power station and he had psoriasis. He went into the water [of the Blue Lagoon] and bathed in it for about two weeks and saw that it was helping his skin.” He told his local dermatologist about the miraculous effect on his skin and wanted to share the experience with others. In 1992 he created the Blue Lagoon, so that the healing waters would be available to the public.
As word began to spread of the healing properties and the mineral rich waters, the Blue Lagoon created its own commercial line of products that are sold onsite. Erla explains, “We have a research center with highly skilled scientists who actually harvest the algae and are constantly working to [improve the quality of the products].” The Blue Lagoon line includes an array of lotions, masks and shower gels, which are said to retain the healing properties of the waters and are purchased and shipped around the world. They even have a shop at the airport for those who regret not making a purchase on site.
The Spa Experience
Unlike a typical tourist attraction with harsh lighting and noise, the Blue Lagoon maintains a very relaxed and subdued atmosphere. As soon as we arrived in the lobby, we began to see mellow visitors milling about in bathrobes and slippers. With the increasing number of tourists, Erla recommends “That you definitely pre-book in advance.” Though there may be some tickets available at the door, it would be so disappointing to arrive and then not be able to stay! The Blue Lagoon offers a range of packages from standard to luxury. The most common, premium package, incudes borrowing a white bathrobe, slippers and a towel, one drink at the bar and a skin care trial pack. Other services available on site include a full-service spa, restaurant, café, bar and a hotel. A small note to those that like privacy, the main changing areas have an unapologetic European touch, so when you shower before getting in to the lagoon it can be very crowded with little privacy. If you can afford the upgrade, go with the VIP package to receive your own changing area and private entrance into the lagoon.
After the check-in and welcome, we headed to the changing rooms to put on our bathing suits and then make our way out into the pools. It was definitely a surreal and beautiful experience to submerge into steaming water in the middle of December — when the temperatures were well below freezing. As we gazed up at the stars, amidst the rising plumes of steam, it felt mystical, as if an ancient Viking ship might sail by.
As we explored the pool, we felt a squishy substance under our feet. Being from the northeast – we immediately thought this was some type of seaweed; however, after we picked up a handful of the deposit from below the surface –we realized that it was actually white silica. The high concentration of silica in the water gives the Blue Lagoon its milky blue appearance, and also does absolute wonders for the skin. A beauty station is set up right in the pools with free algae and silica masks to provide the full spa experience.
Though it is the top tourist attraction in Iceland, we never felt crowded or rushed. The pool, which contains over nine million liters of water, is expansive with plenty of room to explore. There is even a bar right in the water, serving alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, so while relaxing in the pool we sipped on a frozen slushie. Happy tourists surrounded us speaking many different languages. From the English speakers we heard the same repeated themes, “I wish I could stay here forever,” and “I never want to leave.”
At the end of our visit we reluctantly changed back into our clothes and could not help but gaze at our glowing skin the mirror. We stopped at Blue Lagoon shop on the way out to pick up some products, so we could take a small part of this experience home. On our way out, Erla shared some good news. With its growing popularity, the Blue Lagoon will continue to expand with new construction opening in 2018 including a five-star hotel. What a perfect reason for us to plan our next trip!
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Katie Linendoll is a technology expert and is a regular on-air correspondent to AMHQ on The Weather Channel. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and check out her website, www.katielinendoll.com!