A Land of Ice & Fire: Exploring Iceland's Natural Wonders, Luxury Hotels & Fine Cuisine
Iceland is on fire, both literally and figuratively. The country, a jagged island tossed adrift northwest of its Scandinavian neighbors, is sparsely populated with barely 300,000 people. Tourists, however, according to the Iceland Tourism board, are coming at a clip close to one million a year and for good reason. The world is discovering that the entire country is rather like Mother Nature’s rendition of a Pollock painting, an intense terrain of gushing geysers, bubbling mud beds, volcanoes that spit out lava, and glaciers that grind deep valleys between jutting mountain ranges.
Equally stunning and scary, Iceland is known for extreme adventure, whether for scuba diving in the Silfra fissure, exploring the ice-cold and crystal clear valley 328 feet deep, or navigating the insides of a dormant volcano. Iceland is also starting to court the luxury adventurer. ION hotel epitomizes Iceland’s allure to the discerning traveler. The property was once the bland staff quarters for a nearby power plant, but today it is regarded as the luxury boutique hotel of the entire country. Under the direction and imagination of Icelandic native Sigurlaug Sverrisdóttir and her husband, and the meticulous detail of Santa Monica-based Icelandic designer duo Minarc, ION’s style and architecture rivals the arresting beauty of its natural setting.
Photo Credit: ION Iceland Hotel
The property, mostly a rectangular edifice propped up by massive concrete legs, juts out across volcanic, mossy plains. Although located nearby the UNESCO-listed national park Thingvellir, there isn’t much else nearby save for unending raw and pristine nature. ION makes savoring nature its top priority. An elongated geo-thermal heated outdoor pool lets visitors enjoy a soak under the Northern lights while the main restaurant Silfra serves modern Nordic cuisine with views of the steaming terrain. Or guests can choose to wrap up in fluffy lamb skin in the Northern Lights bar, a glass-enclosed lounge with a panoramic vista, for a quiet evening. Protection of nature is also part of ION’s priorities, and the hotel has collected an array of environmental and design awards, most recently the Boutique Hotel Awards’ sustainability accolade.
Photo Credit: Norourflug Helicopter Tours
Iceland is even more compelling from the sky, and a helicopter tour is an absolute must while in the country. Norðurflug Helicopter Tours, the largest and highest-rated operator with a fleet of five helicopters, offers a comprehensive menu of excursions. Numerous movie posters, ranging from Batman Returns to Flags of Our Fathers, hang in the offices, depicting just a few of the movies Norðurflug’s team filmed for dramatic landscape scenes. Unsurprisingly, Norðurflug’s team treats tourist guests like Hollywood elite, as hundreds of reviews attest.
Photo Credit: Norourflug Helicopter Tours
After a quick briefing, the pilot walked my group a few yards outside to our red, shiny helicopter. Moments later, we lifted from the ground and we were over Reykjavik, the glimmering city that is home to two thirds of the country’s population. Twenty minutes into our Geothermal Tour, one of sixteen currently offered, the pilot began to explain the geography of the hot springs, lava fields, and gaping craters that make Iceland so distinct. We landed on an untouched bluff nearby several hot springs, and I touched the water streaming down a little creek. “I have tea bags and cups, if you’d like,” our pilot mentioned. The water is that hot and pure.
Photo Credit: Hotel Rangá
Dining in Iceland can be just as adventurous and refined as a helicopter experience. Hotel Rangá's restaurant, located in South Iceland an hour from Reykjavik, sits majestically along the salmon-rich Rangá River. The destination, attached to the 51-room property, is remote and considered “in the countryside,” but that pretty much describes every area outside of the capital. Service is warm, matching the all-wood dining room that fills with patrons nightly. Request a reservation, as even Reykjavik residents make the trip. The menu could be aptly called farm-to-table, but Iceland doesn’t have any culinary context to tout to discerning Americans that its ingredients are sourced (at times), just a few miles from the property.
Icelandic classics, from smoked puffin to pan-fried arctic char, are the restaurant’s signatures. The filet of lamb and lamb shoulder entrée with noisette white cabbage purée is a top choice, as well as the tender reindeer carpaccio appetizer sprinkled with parmesan, truffle oil and rucola. After dinner, head over to the hotel’s new observatory, equipped with two, high-quality 11-inch computerized telescopes. The nondescript observatory is allegedly the most advanced in Iceland.
Iceland is well on its way to enticing a growing set of lucrative patrons. A luxury adventure, complete with dining at Hotel Rangá, Norðurflug flying, and ION hotel accommodations, makes this land of fire and ice an incredibly alluring destination.