Iceland: Raw Beauty

With a rugged Narnia-like landscape and an established high-end adventure offering, Iceland is a hit with those seeking unique experiences in luxurious settings, finds Sarah Siese

When people say Iceland is cool, you might assume they’re talking about the temperature, but the whole country spawns a kind of ‘hyggeness’ lifestyle that us Brits swoon over.

Nowhere more so than the new hotel by Unesco Global Geopark. The Blue Lagoon’s popularity as one of the 25 Natural Wonders of the World means it’s fallen victim to its own success and has become a scrum of Insta-posing daytrippers. Luckily, there is an escape route on a private inlet, aptly named The Retreat at Blue Lagoon, where guests can find refuge in 35 minimalist suites with private access to the revitalising waters amid moss-covered lava.

Whether you come to meditate in front of the pastel glows of the midnight sun or for the wintry magic of the aurora borealis – it’s all about the water. I’m sitting in a well enjoying the milky, steamy, silica-rich 40C turquoise waters, with soothing in-water jets massaging my body. Next it’s time to enter the sanctuary of interconnected chambers where my body is covered in mineral-rich seawater silica, algae and minerals. I ensure I look after my body internally too, by dining on delicious prawn ceviche, scallops, Arctic char and sushi, all served alongside shots of thyme, crowberry or algae. It’s all about the balance of feeling good inside and out.

Nearby Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost sovereign capital, is more like a big village, crammed with old coffee houses, colourful rooftops and singing bells of the iconic Lutheran Hallgrimskirkja (be sure to climb the tower if you have time). There’s a burgeoning street art scene and loads of funky clothing and lifestyle shopping. But the real reason for visiting Iceland is to escape.

Magical lands

A thrilling 45-minute Icelandic Air flight from Reykjavik, drops me in remote Akureyri, en route to the ultimate hideaway. It’s a pristine environment with unique geological components that leave my mouth so regularly ajar that I run the risk of fly-catching: Narnia-esque mountains rise up from the fjords on the Troll Peninsula; geothermal vents form numerous hot springs; and the sheer proximity to the Arctic Circle invites the wondrous aurora borealis from October to April.

American private-equity guru- cum-hotelier-cum-Willy Wonka dream maker, Chad Pike, clearly has a huge taste for adventure, looking at the wilderness experiences he’s created around the world. He also has a very British sense of humour. His brand, Eleven Experience, is all about taking the experience to the next level. The name is inspired from the This is Spinal Tapmovie (Google ‘these go to 11’). And whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or a pampered pussycat, you’ll feel the difference.

Eleven’s Icelandic offering Deplar Farm has been designed to embrace every aspect of the great outdoors. Built next to an elf hill (yes, you read that right, and you’ll find them all over Iceland) that the locals refuse to mess with, the menu of activities is chock-a-block with theatrical imagination and Top Gear-style toys that enable access to some of the most untouched parts of the island.

You don’t visit Iceland for the weather, but what it lacks in isobars it makes up for in opportunities: fishing, hiking, kayaking and riding, for starters. You can even snorkel in a lake between the tectonic plates that separate two continents – Europe on one side, North America on the other. In spring, surfing and heli-skiing can be done on the same day; and no trip is complete without a gander around the north’s colourful fishing villages, such as Siglöfurður, which had the biggest herring industry in Europe until the 1960s. Now it’s home to a small ski resort with three button lifts and one drag lift as well as super-smooth slopes and lights that come on at dusk, also known as 2.30pm, in winter season.

A ride to remember

The country’s landscape is somewhat greener than its name suggests, 66 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, with plenty of adventure alongside vast white glaciers and long black beaches. I fill my lungs with sea air and my eyes with images of smoking geysers and freezing waterfalls, circumnavigating active volcanoes on an obedient Icelandic pony. Icelandic horses are sturdy both in character and gait, making for a smooth ride through the valleys. Skilful equestrian Lukka never stops smiling at me or her 82 horses, bred for pure enjoyment and eventing across the island. She describes her horses as “hardy, easy keepers that work well and have helped inhabitants survive over the ages”.

Deplar includes two guide-led activities a day and yet I still have plenty of excuses to just sit and stare. Decked out in sheepskin, Moroccan wools, shiny grey driftwood and polished stone from the Fljótaá riverbed, the 13 bedrooms are in cosy contrast to the raw landscape.

Inspired by Iceland’s turf houses, the spa is surrounded by nature, framed beautifully by full-length windows. This has to be the place to experience a Viking sauna: three rounds of working up a steaming glow including birch-whipping and cathartic yelling, followed by breathing exercises and plunging into the icy waters of the outdoor well for two minutes. All this, combined with ginger shots, leaves my skin plumped and tinglingly fresh. Rather that than the gym, which is full of pickaxes and brings a whole new meaning to fighting fit.

Staff are a mix of Troll Peninsula and valley locals who speak English without a trace of an accent, and outdoorsy Rocky Mountain youngsters who are here to roll with the good times. While unapologetically luxurious, the vibe is informal and very friendly – guides are only too happy to join you for a drink in the outdoor pool bar after a hard day’s riding or snowmobiling.

Icelandic diet has barely altered since Viking days and Arctic char, salmon, lamb, and skyr (thick Icelandic yoghurt) remain favourite ingredients for Iceland’s 2018 chef of the year, Garðar Garðarsson, who adds his own delicious signature dashes of flavour. Neighbouring farmers and fishermen make regular deliveries, so menus are always fresh: blueberry-topped pancakes, langoustine soup, and pasture-raised lamb, as well as craft beers from local brewers and well-paired wines from the extensive cellar. I want for nothing.

On my final day, I snowmobile 12 miles to Deplar’s romantic Ghost Farm where Senya, my guide, produces a warming lunch of cauliflower soup and meat sandwiches, doused down with craft beer. We listen to Icelandic funk and become curious about the table decoration: woolly willow pods from the wetlands. This is a one-stop-shop to reboot, relax, and explore the solitude, mystery, and sheer sublime isolation of Iceland. Forget other so-called experiential brands. Chad Pike has set the pace for this adventurous type of travel, raising the bar that extra level on getting out there and doing it. Just as the brand name claims, it surpasses everything and goes to eleven. 

Book it

International flights to Keflavik airport, and domestic flights to Akureyri, are offered bu Icelandair. Return flights from Gatwick lead in at £116.

Rates at Deplar Farm start at £2,075 including meals, two guided tours a day and equipment, house alcohol and airport transfers from Akureyri.

Suites at The Retreat at Blue Lagoon start from £1,029. The price includes a la carte breakfast, soft drinks and Icelandic beer in the minibar, daily guided hike and group yoga session, and afternoon Icelandic coffee.