News & Reviews Rest of the World Iceland Review: The Retreat at Blue Lagoon, Iceland

The Retreat at Blue Lagoon, Iceland
Room type: Lava Junior Suite
Duration: 17th > 19th November, 2018

If my expectations from the luke warm reviews being served up by prior guests of The Retreat were not already lower than a peasant at a Knighthood ceremony, then arriving into Iceland on a bleak and dreary November day was certainly not going to raise them.  Think arriving into Mordor, but even more depressing.  The feedback to date wasn’t requiring the imagination of Dr. Seuss to believe.  None of the Nordics are famed for the hospitality and I didn’t need to spend more than 30 minutes in Iceland to be reminded of this, when we discovered in Hotel Borg that our suite resembled a leprechauns broom closet.  When enquiring if it truly was a suite, “no” came the lifeless response – it was their basic room category.  After trying to figure out if we’re talking the same language and dealing with someone from the same species, it turns out they made a mistake and gave someone else our room, and that was that.  In a hotel where the Jamie Oliver’s restaurant was the best part of it, they still somehow managed to let me down.

So imagine just how low expectations were before going to The Retreat.  And then imagine my surprise when someone greeted us straight from the car.  Yes, Iceland had already battered me so much, that my hopes really were this low.  At the point when they took our luggage I assumed they were just stealing it to pay off their national debt.  After he warmly greeted us, offered us a glass of champagne, took my first name, wished me happy birthday and gave us a show around, I realised this was Iceland, but not as we know it.

And this sense of generosity and personalisation continued throughout, right down to the turndown notes which were based on conversations we had with staff throughout our stay.  It started well, and for a change it ended well.  An arrival experience can make or break a property.  Here, they have clearly perfected the art of keen guests arriving well before check-in. It’s not like you’re going to want to spend more time in your hotel elsewhere, seeing that only Deplar Farm is the only other luxury hotel here.  As we escaped Hotel Borg quicker than a Jamie Oliver restaurant can file for bankruptcy protection, our room was not ready, so they offered us a day room to store our luggage, get changed and use all the spa facilities.  It was already at this point that I was feeling no expense was spared here, particularly as all of the toiletries – naturally, their own branded products – had never even been opened before, and the changing facilities were better thought through than most hotel rooms.

Naturally the spa facilities are the sole reason you’re here, so you will be disappointed when I tell you that I have no pictures of it.  I’m a considerate soul, so will only go rummaging around a spa when no one is there.  That is an impossibility here.  First: sunrise is after 10am, so morning opportunities are non-existent; secondly, there is a team of photography Nazi’s employed to stop anyone taking pictures.  Were I not one to consider my photos an art form of similar importance as Joe Rosenthal’s,  I’d applaud them for this policy.  It’s actually refreshing to see a hotel care about its guests and not its social media likes.

I managed to sneak these photos out whilst no one was looking

With 61 rooms, I was worried whether this would offer the kind of exclusivity that is desired for the price they’re charging.  After all, this is a hotel with all 3 of their top suites, with private lagoons, having rooms above them that can look down on them.  Not exactly private.  Day passes are also possible to outside guests.  I was fearing the worst.  Did it feel like a zoo? No, but even a zoo wouldn’t have felt like one in this weather – the animals would have been on strike.  Yet all the same, even indoors it was spacious enough to avoid ever feeling crowded, whereas outside it was mostly a ghost town – quite literally if you stayed out there long enough; you would either see the milky faces of silica induced patients, or see an occasional corpse float past with frostbite.

I last visited the Blue Lagoon in 2010, prior to there being any hotels within sight.  I now have developed myself to a place where I can pay money to avoid spending time with my lesser-self from a near decade ago.  What a life.  The Retreat has its own lagoon private area, so you don’t need to hang around with the commoners, like the eight-year-ago me.  I’m not saying I’m any better now, but I’m definitely less frugal; I am now in a position in life to afford paying to avoid hanging around with the person I used to be.  And that’s all you can ever hope for.

I was warned of 2 points with The Retreat: the price and the service. It turns out none were a concern; the real enemy was the weather.  Were I one for hyperbole, I would tell my grandchildren how I survived a category 5 hurricane and hope I’ve infected them with stupidity genes so they never look it up.  Shocking as it may be to hear, I spend an abnormal time on photos. Even if I hate the place, I will do what I can to take a great photo. That often involves multiple reshoots and waiting on lighting conditions. Here there was no point – it was never going to improve.

Yet I will avoid my English cliche to talk about it for the entire article, so let me focus on the only real negative I can come away with from this property: the size of the room.  It is no shoe box, but at 40 sqm it certainly is no aircraft hanger either.  Every Junior Suite is identical in size and price, it’s just the view that changes, so you’re best going for one of their 2 suites: Moss or Lagoon.

The style of the rooms is exactly to my liking: that Scandinavian, modern, elegance that, naturally, reminded me of an Italian hotel. The open planned room has the bathroom right next to the bed, not so much.  Yet you won’t really be spending a great deal of time in your room, so perhaps some of the quirks didn’t bother me as much as they normally would.  The single vanity, the temperature control without any numbers, the lack of bedside tables to put anything, and weirdly, the lack of a telephone.  It may sound like I’m starting to describe an empty aircraft hanger after all, but the truth is that they have packed in a huge amount of technology into these rooms, so some of the decisions are incongruous.  You can book spa treatments and restaurant reservations straight from the iPad, yet have to walk to reception if you want to speak to someone.  You have motion sensors for the lights, but we had to charge our laptops over by the sink as there were no other sockets.

We also wrestled with the duvet – a beast so large that it was hard to stay cool, even during November.  If only we knew the room temperature to set it accordingly.

For 40 sqm for around £1k/n, you may think I’d frequently go on about the value proposition, but Iceland is a country where a taxi ride from the airport is more than some families entire holiday budget. So it ain’t so shabby.  There are also plenty of value adds here, such as free minibar, afternoon tea served in the lobby, breakfast, daily yoga sessions, and daily wine tasting in the cellar.  The spa is open until midnight; a rooftop viewing area exists for those nights where the Northern Lights dance across the sky; a library with an honesty bar is always open.  They even played some of my favourite classical music around the property.  Now if that isn’t personalised service, I don’t know what is.

This is not a simple project designed to financially plunder you without any return; the hotel looks stunning and delivers on its promises of relaxation.  The use of wide spaces, high ceilings, light colours and glass started to give me a slightly familiar feeling to Aman Tokyo’s lobby.  And, of course, I have not even started with what is on offer in the spa yet:  a sauna with views onto lagoon, steam rooms, relaxation room, cave rooms, just to hear the water droplets.   If it’s all too much, just go lay down in a dark room, lit only by a fire, or go for a self-treatment.  The Ritual, as they call it, involves rubbing three different elements over your face and body.  I’m certain they’ll look at us in magazines in 30 years time and laugh at the stupidity of smearing this shit all over our bodies and faces, but chances are we’ll all be dead by then anyway, so YOLO and all that.

But actually, the best thing about The Retreat, was not the spa, but actually the food.  At first glance, I saw the menus with descriptions that were best describing art work, so I scoffed at their arrogance.  Then I tasted it, and I laughed at my naivety.  With 3 different restaurants ran by 3 different kitchens, regardless of your taste, you are in for a treat.

I enjoyed our first meal so much at Blue Cafe, that I got over confident and ordered the sushi, which even an amateur knows not to do unless it’s a specialist restaurant.  Later that evening we went to another of their restaurants: Lava.  It looked like a cheap school canteen, and apparently got its name from the fact that it possesses a large mass of unwanted waste: the guests.  Silly me: it was even better than Blue Cafe.  And then we went to Moss, their fine dining, dinner-only option, which was somehow even better.  If they had a fourth restaurant, it would have probably dripped liquid orgasms into my mouth and had 18 Michelin stars.

Everything is just so easy here.  Dress code during lunch is bathrobes and up; signing for a bill is never required; everyone speaks English better than you and it’s only 30 minutes from the airport.  You receive a bracelet for your room and locker access, but you can also use it to essentially sign anything to your room.  The contraption initially felt like 1984, but Orwell left out a little snippet of truth: it turns out full time surveillance has its benefits.  I will be disappointed the next time I have to remember my room key or someone doesn’t force bracelets upon my wrists.

Worth Knowing

We were told frequently the water was so pure that I could drink from the toilet and still live until 135.  Keep coming back to see how long I manage.

The Good

  • A reason to come to Iceland

The Bad

  • The weather was so bad that I’m convinced I saw palm trees as we landed back into England; it was like arriving into Fiji.  Go in Summer.
  • I only felt a hint of that infamous Nordic coldness, when going to see wine cellar at 6:28 and told it’s too late, when it closed at 6:30.  Everyone looked on in panic, but eventually someone realised this mathematical error wasn’t going to crash the stock market again, so we were allowed.

The Luxurious

  • A unique sense of place
  • The best food I’ve had in a hotel in a long time

Conclusion

I have been to my fair share of properties with high expectations, but this was the first where I went with almost none.  Having visited the Blue Lagoon previously, I already knew what to expect, but the reviews of The Retreat have not been glowing.  When a new hotel opens in such a unique location, in a country completely uncustomsed to luxury, bad things normally happen.  Yet not here.  The Retreat is worth your time, perhaps even a few nights of it.  2 nights is good; 1 is good enough.

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 2nd Dec '18

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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