In Iceland, an accidental, healthy attraction

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GRINDAVIK, Iceland -- It began as an obscure pool of hot water that college kids would jump into after staying out all night at Reykjavik bars. Now the Blue Lagoon is set to become a full-fledged destination spa.

Next spring, it will open upgraded changing facilities for up to 700 people (current facilities accommodate up to 300), a conference space for up to 150 people and a 500-seat restaurant overlooking the aquamarine water. The facility poured $7 million into the upgrades, said finance director Anna Sverrisdottir.

The Blue Lagoon The lagoon itself will be moved away from the nearby geothermal power plant that pours steam over it. "The plant scares some people," Sverrisdottir said.

The new lagoon will be set in a man-made pool carved from lava rock and flanked by a new sand beach. A new indoor section of the pool will allow bathers to plunge in without first running outdoors in freezing weather.

Those who would rather lounge than bathe will find a bridge leading to a new island in the middle of the lagoon. A dramatic walkway of lava rocks will lead visitors to the facility.

Admission will cost about $7, up from $6. By 2002, the lagoon will add a spa and fitness center -- offering massages, facials and other treatments -- more conference space and a high-end hotel with at least 200 rooms.

The lagoon opened in 1986 as a public company partially owned by the power plant, Icelandair and a gasoline station. The lagoon water is the byproduct of the local geothermal power plant. A plant worker found that the pool cured his skin rash, and soon the pool acquired changing rooms and an admission charge.

As many as 2,000 people a day frequent the facilities, Sverrisdottir said. Last year there were 152,000 visitors; 178,000 are projected for 1998. More than 21,000 visitors swamped the lagoon in July alone. The current "primitive" changing facilities can't handle all that traffic, she said. The new, larger changing rooms will have lockers instead of clothes hooks.

"We don't really know what is in the water that helps skin," Sverrisdottir said. "A certain micro-growth -- sort-of like algae -- makes the [aquamarine] color. This growth has not been found anywhere else."

The lagoon water interacts with the lava rock to create a unique composition of minerals and algae. It has a salt concentration equal to the sea, which seeps into the area's underground water. The nation's health authorities funded studies that proved the lagoon helps skin disorders and keeps skin healthy. In 1993, the lagoon started a clinic for the treatment of psoriasis that draws people from around the world. (Patients have their own pool, apart from the main lagoon.)

The upcoming restaurant is already booked for New Year's Eve 1999. The German hotel chain Dorint Hotels has reserved the entire lagoon for 500 of its frequent guests. (The restaurant will not serve hard liquor, lest someone get drunk and pass out in the pool.)

The Blue Lagoon is a 40-minute ride from Reykjavik and 15 minutes from the international airport in Keflavik. Americans often stop for a dip on their way to the airport. Travelers can even visit the lagoon on a layover, hopping a free bus that shuttles passengers between the airport and pool.

Travelers won't need to lug bathing suits and towels, as the lagoon will rent them for about $4 each. The lagoon is open every day of the year, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in summer, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. in winter and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on winter weekends.

The Blue Lagoon, Phone: (011) 354 426-8800, Fax: (011) 354 426-8888, Web: www.bluelagoon.is

Warning: Pack your own shampoo

I swam in the Blue Lagoon twice, in twilight and daylight. The clean, simple changing room had wooden hooks for clothes (valuables can be stored behind the front desk) and wooden cubby holes to store towels. Each day was rainy, so I never encountered crowds.

After showering, it's a shivering five-second dash to the lagoon (it's fun to watch people do this once you're in the water). Blue Lagoon cocktails, a secret blue mixture that tastes like a wine cooler, were served.

The lagoon is divided into sections based on the water's warmth. I had to swim around to find a really warm spot. (The new lagoon will be more evenly heated.) Lava rocks stick up through the water (no diving allowed); some below the surface make good seats. Other parts of the lagoon are too deep to stand in.

Steam from the hissing power plant rolls over the water, making it hard to see -- especially when combined with raindrops.

Some bathers scoop up the white silica mud from the lava floor and use it as a facial mask. The lagoon staff claim it absorbs oil and soothes skin rashes. Typically, the lagoon water turns skin drier, then softer.

The lagoon is not, however, good for your hair. No one warned me that it would turn my long hair to steel wool. After about 10 washings and bottles of conditioner it was a little better -- more like straw. I had to wonder about the Blue Lagoon Shampoo they were selling.

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