Iceland’s wildly rugged terrain isn’t for the faint-hearted, discovers Georgie Lane-Godfrey…
Iceland experiences on average 15,000 earthquakes a year – although very few of these tremors are felt, I’m told. As we cruise along the open roads out of Reykjavik, you begin to see exactly what that means. Rather than the charming old churches you’ll spot scattered across other Scandinavian countries, the architecture here is dominated by severe concrete functionalism – everything else has simply fallen down.
However, if you think that functional can’t be beautiful then you’d be very much mistaken. Our destination for the weekend was the luxurious ION Hotel – a mass of concrete and glass which juts out the base of a dormant volcano. The place is completely isolated except for the geothermal power plant it borders, for which the hotel building formerly served as staff quarters. Don’t let the prospect of the plant put you off though – the steam rising from it only serves to make the place feel even more atmospheric. The views here are all decidedly space-age, and the surrounding landscape has an eery, otherworldly feel to it.
This futuristic feeling continues inside ION, one of only two design hotels in the entire country. The whole place is a haven of Nordic minimalism where the interiors champion all things Icelandic, from the shaggy pony skin rugs on the floor to the reception desk constructed from black volcanic rock. Dotted around the walls are abstract pieces by local artists, while the fluffy bar stools are made from the sheep you see on the surrounding hills. Lovers of traditional log fires need not apply – this place isn’t exactly cosy, but it is cool.
It also happens to be completely eco-friendly. Alongside the hotel’s naturally sustainable interiors, much of it is made from recycled materials such as the cloakroom sinks which are fabricated from old tyres and are – rather disconcertingly – stretchy. In fact, the whole hotel is heated with geothermal energy from the power plant next door, which pumps so much heat that it supplies almost all of Iceland’s 330,000 inhabitants.
This environmentally friendly approach is shared by the entire country. During our wanderings around the island, we stop at a Fridheimar, a solar powered greenhouse and restaurant that houses 3000 plants to produce 300 tonnes of carbon neutral tomatoes a year – most of which will be in Icelandic supermarkets the very same day. Surrounded by rows upon rows of sprawling vines, visitors can sample Fridheimar’s produce at the greenhouses café, where a rich tomato soup, pasta and even tomato cheesecake is served.
Back in our 11-man 7-door super jeep – made specifically to contend with Iceland’s extreme geophysical conditions – we speed through the barren landscape, passing lava beds and glaciers, undulating hills and plunging gorges. The wilderness is overwhelmingly beautiful. Ludwig, our driver and guide, points out one of the volcanoes on the horizon. ‘We’re waiting for that one to erupt at any time now,’ he tells us, matter-of-factly. ‘If you’re lucky, you’ll see it. It’s always a very nice eruption – you can go right up to the lava and feel the heat.’ It’s amusing but apt – while they might sound pretty deadly to us, for Icelanders volcanic eruptions are just another part of every day life.
But it’s not only the volcanoes which are spectacular. We head into the Golden Circle to take in some of Iceland’s many natural wonders, from the thundering mists of the Gulfoss waterfall to the explosive energy of the Geysir and Strokkur geysers. Bypassing the packed Blue Lagoon, we stop for a dip in its smaller but serener rival – the Secret Lagoon – a natural hot spring which maintains a toasty temperature of 38°C all year round yet still remains blissfully off the well beaten tourist trail.
While our super jeep is the most convenient mode of transport, to really explore Iceland you have to go back to basics. From ION there’s a number of hiking trails, ranging from a quick 1km climb to an 8km day-long trek up the neighbouring dormant volcano. Don’t worry if your fitness isn’t up to much – rope banisters have been helpfully planted along some of the tricky steeper patches to keep you on your feet. My friend Alex even managed an entire icy hike with a latte in hand, much to the hotel staff’s amusement.
For the more intrepid, there’s no more authentic way to explore the scenery than on horseback. Just 30 minutes from Reykjavik, Solhester riding stables has a herd of small and sturdy Icelandic steeds who will take even the most inexperienced of riders safely out into the surrounding terrain. More experienced riders will get to try the ‘tolt’, a fourth gait between trot and canter which is unique to Icelandic horses – provided that the weather holds up. We ended up riding straight into a blizzard so didn’t get up much speed (despite my shaggy little pony’s valiant efforts).
Weather like this might make the summer period seem a more tempting time of year to visit (there’s zero darkness in June and July), but it’s the Icelandic winters which provide the more astounding experience. During these colder months it can feel like you have the place to yourself – there’s simply no one else around. It’s also the best time to see another of Iceland’s main draws – the Northern Lights. The helpful ION hotel staff will give you a wake up call in the morning if they’re forecast to be in the early hours, so all you have to do in trundle down to the aptly named Northern Lights bar, where the floor-to-ceiling glass walls provide the perfect place to catch a glimpse.
It’s also a great place for an aperitif before dinner at the hotel’s Silfra restaurant. Here the food is exclusively made from fresh, locally sourced Icelandic ingredients, from the over roasted fillet of lamb that you will have seen roaming wild in the surrounding hills, to the Skyr ice cream (a kind of Icelandic yoghurt) served with birch meringue and bilberries. Along with crowberries, bilberries (confusingly similar to blueberries) dominate the menus across Iceland – they’re the only fruits that grow naturally on the island.
However, if you can, try and time your Northern Light sightings with a trip to the hotel’s Lava Spa. Here the massages are a healing combination of calming and curative, and use deliciously aromatic Soley Organic products made from wild Icelandic herbs. Follow this up with a dip in the outdoor floatation pool and watch the stars glowing in the sky above you. It’s the perfect antidote to a day of volcano-fuelled adventure – and there’s not an eruption in sight.
Rooms at ION Hotel start from £184 per night on a B&B basis. For more information and bookings, visit www.ioniceland.is.
WOW air flies from London Gatwick to Reykjavik daily from just £49 each way (inc taxes and hand luggage allowance). For more information or to book please visit www.wowair.co.uk or call 0118 321 8384.