The turquoise geothermally heated 37-39°C (99–102 °F) swimming waters of Iceland’s man-made Blue Lagoon are a modern-day international phenomenon and Iceland’s #1 tourist attraction. Without exception, not a day goes by without my Instagram feed showing scantily clad, perfectly preened individuals meditatively staring into the pool’s otherworldly blue waters as though unaware their picture is being taken (belying the fact that they’ve been setting up the photo for the last 20 minutes).
It wasn’t always like this. I remember visiting the Blue Lagoon in the 90’s and other than some fairly basic shower facilities the site was ‘under-developed’ and ‘under-visited’. My untoned body, bereft of the beneficial effects of natural sunlight (the curse of the ginger), didn’t seem out of place. I could wallow in peace and solitude, enjoying the warm (and occasionally boiling) turquoise waters.
So, on my trip to Iceland in 2018, nearly twenty years after my first foray onto the tiny island with a mere 300,000 inhabitants, I was intrigued to revisit the Blue Lagoon and see how its Instagram infamy had affected its authenticity.
I’d heard that the Lagoon gets busy these days – I mean crazy busy. Resulting from a potent mixture of laziness and demanding work schedule, my wife and I had deferred buying Blue Lagoon entry tickets until the week before our visit. It was January with average temperatures just below freezing – so surely we’d have no problem (or so we thought). Wrong. Our chosen 2pm slot (which we had specifically picked to most appropriately factor departure flight times and hangovers) was fully booked, as were the slots four hours either side of it. This wasn’t a good start and certainly was nothing like my experience twenty years ago when I just rocked up, walked in, and was one of the only ones bobbing around in the water!
As a result of our booking snafu, we were forced to accept a 9am slot. As the sun doesn’t rise in Iceland until around 10.30am in January, we would initially be wallowing in darkness. Also, not great for photography.
However, our initial disappointment soon evaporated when we realized the benefits of arriving early. The first being that there were no queues when we arrived. This benefit didn’t fully reveal itself until we emerged from the water like a pair of shriveled prunes 3 hours later to be greeted by a line of people snaking their way around the building. If we had snagged our preferred slot, it seems we would have spent the first hour of the experience in a tailback somewhat akin to rush hour in London. The second benefit of early arrival was that we had the chance to experience the lagoon in all phases of light; floodlit darkness when we first arrived, sunrise (which was fairly spectacular as the steam rose from the lagoon) and full daylight. This scenario is perfect for any photographer who wants to see the lagoon in its full colour spectrum.
Result: Through luck more than judgement, the crowds didn’t cause us many problems. As the morning waned into afternoon, the crowds got thicker, the noise level (fueled by beer and prosecco) increased to a dull roar and we couldn’t bob for two minutes without being hit by a selfie-stick. By the time we left, the queues were reminiscent of a Disney theme park ride, and I imagine it was getting much tougher to find an empty locker to store one’s tighty whities and other valuables in whilst swimming. There were undoubtedly more bathers in the lagoon than when I first visited, but the lagoon has also expanded in size since then. I didn’t personally feel that the experience was tarnished by the number of people, but if you’re looking for a serene spa experience, then perhaps the Blue Lagoon isn’t the right place for you.
Technology and Expense
What struck me next was the infiltration of modern technology into what is otherwise a fairly traditional Icelandic experience. Upon ‘check-in’ we were handed a wristband to wear which controls pretty much every part of your experience. Want an extra towel? Scan your wristband. Access to your locker? Scan your wristband. Want an algae mask? Scan your wristband. Prosecco, spa services or an in-water massage?….you get the idea. The good news is that this makes the payment process simple and avoids you carrying a pocket-full of soggy banknotes or a later dysfunctional credit card (I can’t imagine that the silica in the geo-thermal water would do it much good). The bad news is that this makes the payment process too easy – resulting in you unwittingly racking up enough high value purchases to prompt a call from your bank (yes, Iceland is expensive!). The one click-purchase is undoubtedly handy but at the same time unnervingly easy to ‘mistakenly’ abuse to your own financial detriment.
This leads me to considering the expense. The Blue Lagoon is no longer an inexpensive and unique afternoon of relaxation. To get your money’s worth, you’ll probably want to spend at least 3 hours absorbing as much silica into your skin as possible. Never mind the silica has tightened your face so much that you’re having trouble opening your mouth to speak – you just paid exorbitant amounts of money, and it’s time to get your fill! At the time of writing, even the most basic package (which doesn’t even include use of a towel) will set you back ISK 6,990. So, make sure you choose your package carefully and include everything you want from the get-go. Buying add-ons when you get there will end up costing you more. The final thing to consider is that ticket prices change on the website as demand increases, so avoid doing what we did and buy your tickets online as early as possible so that you get them at base price.
Result: There’s no getting away from it, the Blue Lagoon is expensive. I’m not normally a spa kind of guy and so I was reluctant to pay the sort of money they were asking for (I’d have rather spent it on an extra hour of snowmobiling across a glacier). However, lounging around in the warm waters ended up being the most relaxing way to end our trip, and I would never have begrudged my wife for who this was the highlight. In summary, the owners of Blue Lagoon have taken full advantage of its notoriety and who can blame them…it certainly hasn’t reduced demand!
The Temperature and Facilities
As you can probably imagine, Iceland is cold in the winter, and on the day we visited, there was even an occasional sprinkling of snow. Recalling back twenty years to my first visit, I seem to remember walking (i.e. running/shivering) outside in order to reach the water. Just the thought of doing that in the frigid winter conditions of Reykjavik is enough to send frostbite down my spine. Needless to say, the good people of Blue Lagoon now have you covered. You can gracefully slip into the water from the warmth of the changing area, pop through the doors and glide, swanlike, into the lagoon.
There’s also no doubt that the popularity of the lagoon has led to some fairly significant upgrades to the facilities on offer (and they are in fact just finishing up a new round of improvements set to open in mid-2018). Back when I first visited, I don’t recall much more than the lagoon and a changing room. Now they have a gift store, restaurant, café and bar, walk up bar in the lagoon itself, silica and algae facemask station, massage waterfall, full spa and in-water massage service, steam rooms and saunas. It’s a veritable feast of options that will have you easily spending 3 hours in-situ.
A few notes my wife urges me to include (which I couldn’t have cared less about): apparently, while wondrous for the skin, the silica and sulphur in the water seriously damages your hair (think coarse, cardboard-like strands and weeks of conditioning treatment ahead of you). The lagoon itself is very shallow, so there’s no real danger of getting your hair wet unless you wanted to (or did so by accident). However, as a precaution, use the conditioner in the shower room and simply leave in your hair when in the lagoon (or bring your own). A few women wore shower caps (which are available to buy there), but besides looking a little ridiculous, it’s also a bit over the top. Next, your silica mask is included in your basic ticket purchase – the algae mask is not. If you have even slightly dry skin, your skin will be begging for an algae mask once the silica comes off. If you want to pass on the expense of an algae mask, then toss a little moisturizer into your handbag for when you depart (your skin will thank you). Last but not least, remember to drink a lot of water when you’re in the pool. There are a few drinking fountains dotted about (and the water is actually really good). For the unacquainted, being in warm/hot water will dehydrate you pretty quickly. Now, mix that with a plane flight and a couple Proseccos and you have a potent cocktail that will knock you out – quite literally. It’s so easy to get carried away with how amazing the experience is (and who drinks just one Prosecco?), but people have been known to faint at the Blue Lagoon. So just be mindful, stay hydrated and take breaks if you start to overheat.
Result: The lagoon may no longer be an authentic Icelandic bath experience (hence you don’t see many locals frequenting it), but what it now offers is more akin to a full spa service (at a price). To my mind the upgrade has been both significant and world class. Of course, if you want a more traditional (and cheaper) option then you could look at other nearby sites such as the Secret Lagoon.
Photography and Preening Patrons
I was excited to see that photography was allowed in the lagoon. Of course, I guess this should have already been abundantly clear from the aforementioned prevalence of photos on Instagram. I imagined that I might find a few people wielding cameras as they waded through the waters. What I didn’t imagine were scenes akin to a Victoria’s Secret calendar shoot taking place everywhere I turned. There were people adopting yoga poses on the slippery rocks (and subsequently slipping and injuring themselves in the process), people staring blankly in to the distance like catatonic zombies as their friends snapped away and, somewhat strangely, one woman wandering around in the water taking selfies whilst wearing a g-string, white woolen sweater and matching white woolen bobble hat. It was like she couldn’t quite decide whether she wanted a day at the beach or was heading out on an artic expedition.
Result: Being able to photograph the lagoon is a bonus, but at points it felt more like the lagoon had just become an elaborate (and admittedly stunning) stage for people to engage in a classic bout of Instagram ‘one-up-manship’. Having to negotiate your way through people posing in full makeup and fake tans as you’re desperately trying to relax can be a little infuriating. I think I preferred the lagoon in its more authentic state, but I do appreciate the irony given I’ll no doubt post my pictures to Instagram as well (although I can confirm that I won’t be in them, and my wife banned me from wearing a g-string…kill-joy).
I’m of the mindset that you should try everything once, and despite some of my minor grumblings above, the Blue Lagoon is a surreal and otherworldly experience that I would have been sad to miss. The above should give you enough basic information about the experience to make an informed decision on whether or not it’s for you (or whether you might prefer the more authentic surroundings of somewhere like the Secret Lagoon). I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
Location: The Lagoon is located 45 minutes outside of downtown Reykjavik and about 20 minutes away from Keflavik International Airport. Its location makes it perfect to visit on either the day you arrive or depart. If you have an early arrival (most flights from America, for example) but can’t check-in to your hotel until later in the day, then the lagoon is a great place to start your trip. There is luggage storage on site if you haven’t rented your own car (again, at an additional cost) and so all you’ll need to do is come armed with your trunks in your hand baggage (and a towel if you don’t want to rent one).
Transportation: There’s no doubt that the best option for flexibility and cost effectiveness in Iceland is a rental car. However, if you don’t have one, then you can either book transport alongside your ticket purchase on the Blue Lagoon website or you can book it independently though Reykjavik Excursions. Taxi is also a possibility but that will set you back a small fortune (especially if you have the driver wait). However, if you want the comfort of being on your own schedule and hate having to constantly check your watch for your bus departure time, then check out the Icelandic Taxi Tours website (this is just one of many companies I found offering this service).