Many of Iceland’s most treasured cultural institutions were conceived during uncertain times. Take for instance, Reykjavik’s hallowed Hallgrímskirkja church, commissioned during the Great Depression, which took over 40 years to complete. Or the Harpa concert hall, a Björk and Sigur Rós-approved landmark built during Iceland’s economic downturn from 2008 to 2011. Though the cost and avant garde design were deemed exorbitant then, today the Harpa is beloved for its glacial form and shimmering exterior, a work by famed light installation artist Olafur Eliasson. Indeed, this tiny country of less than 400,000 people doesn’t balk at ambitious projects that push conceptual boundaries and defy norms.
Enter Iceland’s latest feat, which opened this spring: Sky Lagoon, an immersive swim and thermal spa experience nestled in a cliff just 15 minutes from the Reykjavik city centre, and an impressive ode to old Norse bathing culture fused with modern Nordic design.
To set the scene: I am part-Icelandic and visit the country often. I’m also an avid swimmer. I kept hearing from friends and family that this was one of the last decade’s biggest developments in Iceland tourism. With deep-pocketed backers (Canada’s Pursuit Collection and the local firm Nature Resort), no expense was spared. Estimations pegged the project at over US$50 million. This, plus the fact that it was constructed in just 15 months while the country was in complete lockdown, was perfectly in-line with the þetta reddast (it will all work out) attitude of ingenuity I have come to expect (and respect) from Icelanders.
“Everyone involved in the project felt very strongly about bringing this very old and authentic Icelandic bathing culture to life for our guests, while still leading with our sustainable goals for operations,” says Dagný Hrönn Pétursdóttir, CEO of Sky Lagoon, who spent 10 years running her now-competitor, the iconic Blue Lagoon. “We set out to create a journey from the moment you arrive. At first some of the ideas were believed to be undoable but with a strong vision and little stubbornness, we always found a way to make the dream come true.” She adds that winning over Icelanders first, tourists second, was always the priority. “If you capture the heart of the nation, you know you have an authentic space with high value.”
After hearing the hype and seeing the splashy ad campaigns around town, I was ready to take the plunge myself. I had just spent days on a photoshoot at the Fagradalsfjall active volcano for my Nordic lifestyle brand Therma Kōta, and my body and spirit were ready for some restoration.
When I arrived at Sky Lagoon one moody Saturday morning, I was struck by its turfhouse exterior, which protects the blackened timber building from the harsh weather. A traditional Klömbruhleðsla technique used volcanic ash-dense turf tilework and was overseen by one of the only living experts left in Iceland.
Ancient methods and sustainable modern solutions were braided into the design and building of Sky Lagoon. “We use geothermal energy as a primary energy source to keep the lagoon hot,” says Pétursdóttir. “Fresh hot water is constantly entering the lagoon and warm water flows out. The warm water is captured exiting the lagoon to heat spring water for the showers, the building via an in-floor system, and the pavement around the buildings to keep the areas free of snow and ice in the winter.” Talk about putting your water to work.
“Everyone involved in the project felt very strongly about bringing this very old and authentic Icelandic bathing culture to life for our guests, while still leading with our sustainable goals for operations.”
Like The Blue Lagoon, The Sky Lagoon is by appointment only, and is certainly a splurge compared to Iceland’s charming but no-frills public pools. Passes range from around US$55 for basic entry to US$110 for the full Sky Experience, which includes a private changing room, shower, and seven-step spa ritual. I decided to go all out, both in the name of research and because I had heard from trusted friends it was well worth it.
After changing and showering with the woodsy body wash from Sky Lagoon’s new Vor body care line, I entered the geothermal waters through a cave tunnel. Upon emerging, I waded through silky steamy waters, taking in the soaring lava rock walls until a turn of a corner offered the big reveal: breathtaking vistas of the city and an infinity edge that appeared to merge with the sea.
Within minutes, my shoulders began to drop and the softness returned to my face as the perma-scrunch of work mode melted away. I paddled my way to the swim-up bar to order a Collab seltzer featuring marine collagen and caffeine, followed by a flute of Töst, a Danish non-alcoholic sparkling drink. Unlike the Blue Lagoon’s famously mineral rich waters, which one should avoid getting in their hair at all costs, Sky Lagoon’s H20 is only lightly chlorinated and cycles through often. Thus, one can and should fully submerge themselves for a proper thermal baptism, which I recommend doing by the waterfall. Aesthetically speaking, it really adds to the sea goddess energy you feel here.
Just ask top Icelandic fashion designer Hildur Yeoman, a favorite of Scandinavian pop stars and Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdottir alike. Yeoman commissioned artist and photographer Saga Sig to shoot her current spring/summer collection within the waters. “I picked the lagoon because my collection, entitled Splash, is inspired by adventures by the sea or at the pool, with a hint of mermaid vibes,” says Yeoman of her collection’s drippy mesh dresses, wet-look matched sets, and bustier one-pieces.
After a bracing and brief dip in the cold plunge (a nod to the original Snorralaug pool, referenced in sagas as far back as the 12th century) to stimulate the immune system, next it was onto the sauna. Unlike the small traditional dark cedar sweat lodges I am used to, this was airy and light-filled thanks to a two-and-a-half-ton glass pane (one of the most challenging elements of the build out, Pétursdóttir notes). Overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean with views of the Reykjavik Harbour and Bessastaðir, the President of Iceland’s official residence, Sky Lagoon reps say it’s the biggest window in all of Iceland. “Another example of our very typical Icelandic stubbornness,” Pétursdóttir says. If you’re lucky, your view will be complete with aurora borealis light shows and ominous volcanic activity. “That’s the one thing we cannot control here: the nature and the view,” Pétursdóttir says. “It contributes to each person’s individual experience.”
Breaking from the heat, I slowly entered the next phase, a cold fog mist space for further rejuvenation, skin tightening, and refreshing full body tingles. This was followed by a self-applied Sky Body Scrub: an Icelandic salt, coconut and sesame oil treatment served in individual askar bowls, used by vikings in the ancient turf houses. For step six, I marinated in a steam room to let the product absorb and to breathe in the humidity. And finally, a warm waterfall shower left my skin squeaky clean and glistening like a sea creature.
After back on land and changed, you can visit the in-house Smakk Bar and try pastries by heritage family baker Sandholt, or simply do what I did: sink into a sofa by the stonewall fireplace and indulge in more essential Icelandic elixir: the purest water on the planet. In that moment, I realised all this aquatherapy had caused a noticeable shift in my inner and outer being. Stress case ready to erupt at any moment? I don’t know her anymore.
This story was originally published on Vogue.com.