I have heard of Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon since I first heard about Iceland as a travel destination. It’s likely Iceland’s most famous attraction. As someone who has joked before about needing a bumper sticker to say “I Brake for Hot Springs,” it’s a place that has long intrigued me, and high on my “must visit” list.
But there’s a “new kid in town,” the Sky Lagoon, just opened in May of this year. It’s getting a lot of press as being a leading attraction of its own. Neither of them are cheap, costing over fifty bucks for the experience of steamy showers followed by unlimited soaking, towels, and one complimentary drink.
So how to choose? Well, life is short, and if there is one thing COVID has taught me, it’s to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” So I decided to do both!
Each of the two lagoons offers multiple levels, so it’s good to compare what features are important to you. The second tier at The Blue Lagoon offers an additional drink, an additional face mask, and a bathrobe. Not features I really had to have, so I went with the basic package there. But the Sky Lagoon’s second tier offers a seven step ritual that sounded compelling, so I splurged on the added benefits.
The Icelandic bathing ritual is quite strict, and I like it. You must shower not with a swimsuit on, but rather completely naked, scrubbing with soap while focusing on all the cracks and crevasses. There are even posters with charts in the shower stalls highlighting the places that should receive target washing. I always wondered how wetting down the body while covered by a swimsuit really got one clean, so I like this mandate as at least some will be compelled to actually wash before entering the pool!
Also, to address the COVID conundrum, at all times I found it possible to maintain a comfortable distance from others. If the locker room was crowded, I just carried my stuff to a less crowded corner to do what I needed to do. But Iceland’s current restrictions also limit occupancy in all pools and hot springs to 75% capacity. And since the soaking itself was outdoors, I felt like I was able to minimize risk of exposure.
First up; The Sky Lagoon. Overflowing with hot geothermal sea water, its infinity pool looks out over the ocean facing the setting sun. It’s flanked on the other three sides by black volcanic boulders giving it more of a “lagoon” atmosphere. It’s a lovely place to be at sunset, though waiting out the sunset during my time there meant soaking until 10:30pm.
Sky Lagoon’s basic package, “Pure Lite” comes with unlimited soaking, a towel, and one drink of choice included. I splurged on the middle tier, “Pure,” which offers a seven step ritual in addition to unlimited soaking. First step is the lagoon, along with a cold plunge pool (considering everyone gets those first two steps, it should really be marketed as a “five step ritual,” if you ask me.) Then one enters the Ritual Hut for the remaining five steps; an unbelievably hot, dry sauna, followed by a cold rain-like mist. Then a salt scrub, and a steam bath, ending with a shower and more lagooning.
While I enjoyed my time at the Sky Lagoon, I could have been most anywhere, really. Though that much hot water anywhere is a novelty, it was otherwise just a giant hot saltwater soaking pool. It did have a great swim-up bar selection that turned me into quite the fan of sparkling Prosecco Rosé, however.
But the mother of all hot springs lies 45 miles outside of Reykjavik, just minutes from Keflavik, the international airport. The Blue Lagoon, what I consider to be “Iconic Iceland.”
While both of these lagoons are filled by natural geothermal sea water heated beneath the earth surface, they are both man-made. Neither is a true natural hot spring that Iceland is known for, yet they are among Iceland’s most frequently visited tourist attractions. You won’t find many locals there in spite of both lagoons working to incorporate the tradition of bathing culture for which Iceland is so well known.
Both lagoons are made up of geothermal sea water. This water is heated 6,000 feet beneath the earth’s surface. It’s a scorching 200° C (400°F) at that depth, but by the time the water reaches the lagoon, it is a near perfect bathing temp of 38°C. (100°F) It’s comprised of 70% ocean water and 30% fresh water.
But the difference between the lagoons comes in the form of mineral make-up. The water in the Blue Lagoon is heavy in silica, which gives the water it’s pale blue milky color due to light refraction.
The Blue Lagoon came about as a result of a byproduct from the Svartsengi Geothermal Resource Park. Back in the 80’s, locals began swimming in a lava lagoon filled with this byproduct of the geothermal extraction, as it was discovered to soothe and heal psoriasis.
As further explanation, I plagiarized this from the “Guide to Iceland” website:
“For heating, boiling hot water is taken directly from the ground and pumped into the radiators of Iceland’s houses. The Svartsengi plant drills for hot water for this purpose and the water that it receives is around 200°C (392°F).
However, this water is full of dissolved minerals mixed in with seawater and is therefore not suitable for direct use to warm up houses (the minerals would damage the pipes). Instead, the water heats freshwater that is then pumped to nearby urban areas.
After this, the water is simply released into the nearby lava field. Lava is porous, so water usually sinks into it and seemingly disappears. This water, however, is rich with silica that separates as it cools down. The silica quickly formed a mud layer in the lava that stopped the water seeping through, creating the lagoon.”
Another thing the two lagoons have in common is the use of technology throughout the lagoon exerience. Guests are issued a wrist band upon check-in. It’s used to open and lock one’s personal locker, purchase additional drinks, masks, etc. Not only does it keep track of the first included drink and any subsequent purchases, it cuts you off at three drinks. LOL! At the end of the stay, one deposits the wristband into a kiosk that tells whether or not additional monies are owed, then opens the exit gate accordingly.
I booked the first appointment of the day at The Blue Lagoon so as to avoid a crowd as much as possible. Having done my research, I knew the drill to shower before putting on my suit, remove all jewelry, and coat my hair in conditioner as a protectant from the minerals in the water. So I was the second person in the pool this day….a cold, gray, foggy day when I finally plunged myself into the iconic pale milky blue pool, enveloping myself up to the neck in a warm bath, with only my head protruding into the foggy mist rolling through. I wish I had words to describe coming out of that shower, wet and cold, and taking that first step into that warm, enveloping bath of perfectly heated water. It was every bit as blissful as I anticipated.
Blue Lagoon’s basic package includes unlimited soaking, use of towels, a silica facial mask, and one drink of choice. Like the Sky Lagoon, they also include a higher priced middle tier, but it was just more of what you get with the basic package (another mask and another drink and a restaurant reservation, on which I didn’t plan to splurge) so I just went with the first tier.
Though more people arrived throughout the morning, it never really felt crowded. Between the many little coves and hidden areas and the misty fog, it was easy to stay distanced from the crowds both physically and visually.
I spent about four hours in each of the two lagoons. While I enjoyed them both immensely, my verdict is The Blue Lagoon is in a class by itself. It’s just huge. It’s visually stunning being surrounded by nature-made lava fields rather than those sculpted by man. The mineral-rich pale blue water is beautifully soothing. And even though there may be crowds, it still feels possible to soak in solace and solitude.
For a hot springs junkie like me, there’s just nothing better.