In the wilds of geologically active Iceland, a hotel with a unique view offers a chance to wonder at the awesome power of nature – above and below. Director donned snow boots and hit the road to find it
Should you ever lose all perspective and need reminding you live on a rocky planet adrift in space, touching down in Iceland on a starry evening will swiftly stop you worrying about the small stuff. As Director stepped from Keflavik airport into the crunch of freshly fallen snow, a vast night sky sparkled above and the faint smell of sulphur wisped in on the chilly air – the aroma of a steaming geothermal vent somewhere in the dark beyond.
This is, of course, a land as famous for its volcanic activity – the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull reminding the world of the immense power simmering beneath the island’s 40,000 square miles – as it is for its vantage point on that most revered of celestial phenomena, the northern lights. Our destination on this trip, Hotel Ranga, promises a unique way to view the latter, but on our journey there we hoped to get a closer look at non-erupting examples of the former.
The late arrival meant an overnight stay in Keflavik, before getting on the road the next morning. If this is the case on your visit, the downtown four-star Hotel Keflavik (kef.is) is a great option – manager Steinþór Jónsson is somewhat tech-obsessed and the warm, stylish suites are equipped with awesome gadgetry from state-of-the-art Bang & Olufsen TVs, to iPad-style touch controls for the lighting, heating and showers.
After a hearty buffet breakfast, including Icelandic staple skyr, we were met by our tour guide/driver Stefnir Gíslason from Midgard Adventure (midgardadventure.is). If you’re intending to explore Iceland by road, a driver is strongly recommended, as the weather is prone to change suddenly, surfaces can be treacherous and many hire cars are ill-equipped for driving beyond the tarmac of towns.
The affable Gíslason, in his snow tyre-equipped 4×4, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his homeland and its hidden wonders and, as we made our way towards the deserted coastal road along the island’s south, he was soon pulling over next to a seemingly featureless snowfield. Striding out together through the drifts, we arrived at an ominous opening in the ground into which our guide hopped before calling us down – the Raufarholshellir cave is a 1,400m lava tube through which molten rock flowed thousands of years ago. Today it is carpeted with a shimmering army of stalagmites created as snowmelt filters through the porous rock and drips into the chilly cave.
Back in the 4×4, the road-trip continued along the beautiful, rugged coastline past icy fields of Icelandic horses, the country’s only breed, and a lonely seaside church built – Gíslason explains – by a shipwreck survivor who swore he would devote his life to god if he was saved. Turning inland, we skirted the Ölfusá river through the town of Selfoss – home, surprisingly, to the grave of controversial American chess icon Bobby Fischer – before heading through to another unexpected sight near the historic village of Reykholt…
While Iceland is not as cold as many imagine – even in winter the average temperature in the lowlands is a relatively mild zero degrees – you perhaps wouldn’t expect it to be a hotbed of tomato production. But at the Fridheimar farm (fridheimar.is), greenhouses warmed by pipes flowing with geothermal hot water produce 370 tonnes of tomatoes a year, 18 per cent of Iceland’s market. Visiting the restaurant there is a must as the tomato soup will be the best you’ve ever tasted and, if you’re not driving, the bloody Mary the finest you’ve ever had.
Less than an hour’s drive south is Hotel Ranga (hotelranga.is), a luxury countryside retreat nestling next to the Ytri-Rangá – a popular salmon-fishing river. Looming just 20 miles to the north-east is the breathtaking Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes – which last erupted in 2000. Like a giant, low-slung log cabin, the wood-constructed hotel has 52 luxurious rooms, including seven themed suites designed to represent the seven continents. Director stayed in the black and white Antarctica Suite, complete with free-standing Jacuzzi bath, designer furniture, penguin statues and panoramic views.
The big attraction here, far from the light pollution of the towns, is stargazing and, of course, a chance to view the northern lights. The charismatic owner Fridrik Palsson has literally aimed for the stars when it comes to giving guests the best view of the heavens. Teaming up with astronomer Sævar Helgi Bragason from Reykjavik University, he has constructed a state-of-the-art observatory in the hotel grounds. Bragason comes to the hotel on clear nights to point the high-powered telescopes at planets and galaxies and provide a fascinating commentary.
Similarly, on nights when the aurora are visible, Bragason is on call to come and talk you through the experience – Hotel Ranga even offers a special wake-up service should the lights dance into view during the small hours. Sadly, on Director’s visit, they were nowhere to be seen, but we did enjoy the humbling sight of two galaxies colliding via Bragason’s telescope before clouds spoiled the fun. It will certainly give you something to talk about over dinner as you enjoy Karl Jóhann Unnarsson’s beautiful Icelandic cuisine in Hotel Ranga’s restaurant.
The next day, back on the road with Gíslason, we enjoyed the spectacular Strokkur geyser – which erupts every six to 10 minutes – and the sprawling, thundering Gullfoss waterfall and took a snowmobile ride with Arcanum Glacier Tours (arcanium.is) up into the crater of the Katla volcano. Geologists believe Katla is overdue an eruption and – while our guides assured us there would be considerable warning signs before anything happened – as you stand there knee-deep in powder considering Iceland’s beauty and the immense power churning beneath your feet, you can be sure you’ll no longer be sweating the small stuff.
For more information, visit hotelranga.is