ION Luxury Adventure Hotel: Truly Icelandic4 min read . Updated: 27 Jun 2014, 08:51 AM IST
Iceland seems like an entire planet away but this little speck on the map is well worth visiting for the sights, sounds and a splendid hotel
Reykjavik is just a short non-stop flight from most European capital cities, but in every other respect, Iceland is a world away. The island nation is a dramatic and unique landscape of volcanoes and lava fields, black sand beaches and therapeutic hot springs, towering waterfalls and thousands of kilometres of well marked hiking trails. It’s much larger than most visitors think, but very sparsely populated—imagine a modest London neighbourhood’s population transported to over 100,000 square kilometres. In Iceland, there is a horse for about every three citizens, and while sightseeing you are likely to see as many people riding as driving.
For all these reasons, Iceland makes a distinctive escape—in the truest sense of the word—from the ordinary, and the year-old ION Luxury Adventure Hotel has capitalized on the country’s unique appeals. About an hour from the capital, the very eco-conscious property was developed from the former staff housing for a geothermal water and power plant—thanks to its abundant use of naturally occurring energy, Iceland burns virtually no fossil fuels and has the cleanest air on earth.
Cantilevered over a field of lava boulders, the hotel is set at the base of a dormant volcano and next to hot springs, and it has already won several design awards from groups such as the American Institute of Architects. ION was intentionally styled to fit seamlessly into the surrounding landscape while offering up plenty of creature comforts. At one end of the long, rectangular building, the glass enclosed Northern Lights bar and an outdoor deck with large hot spring fed soaking pool and lava rock walled sauna are both precisely positioned for viewing the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, clearly visible here whenever cloud cover is absent from October to April.
The hotel’s focus, inside and out, is on the sights, flavours and activities that make Iceland so special, and it is just 10 minutes from the fissure of the tectonic plates in Lake Pingvallavatn where Eurasia collides with North America. The actual seam is quite visible in the ultra-clear lake, Iceland’s largest, and scuba diving enthusiasts come from all over the world to dive in the narrow channel between the continents where you can literally put one hand on each. It has been named one of the world’s top 10 dive sites, but is also accessible for snorkelling, and guests can visit with one of the many top-end adventure outfitters the hotel contracts with. ION has also leased a section of the lake front where a warmer river flows into the lake, creating a huge gathering place for spotted trout. Here, guests can enjoy some of the best fly fishing in a country famous for it—catch and release, of course.
A substantial network of sign posted hiking trails, with colour-coded markers by difficulty, begin from a trailhead at the foot of the hotel’s entrance drive, and in winter months, outdoor enthusiasts here can enjoy alpine, Nordic and back country skiing, as well as ice climbing. The hotel sits on the edge of the Pingvelier National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site, and part of Iceland’s “Golden Circle" of top natural attractions, including the Hengill volcanic area, full of bubbling mud and boiling pools; the famous Geysir hot springs; and the impressive Gullfoss waterfall, where a short walking path lets visitors completely circumnavigate the cascade, front and back. Many hotel guests opt for horseback riding tours from a nearby stable partner, and other activities the hotel organizes include river rafting, kayaking, off-road jeep tours, glacier tours, helicopter flight seeing, diving and ice climbing. In winter, the Northern Lights are the main attraction and in summer, this is the land of the midnight sun and it essentially never gets dark, leaving plenty of time for exploring.
ION is about as comfortable a base camp as the active traveller could hope for, simple but fully equipped, with a modern spa, fitness centre, thermal tub and sauna, and just 45 well-equipped and contemporary rooms. These are sleek, with exposed concrete walls, oversized photographic murals of Icelandic subjects, high-end Italian espresso machines and modern bathrooms with large walk-in rain showers and locally made organic toiletries.
The attention to detail and authenticity is pervasive, from the original Icelandic modern art throughout to the more than two-dozen varieties of locally made craft beer in the bar. The focus is on sustainability and locality, and almost everything is made in Iceland, from the lobby furniture to the background music, even the mattresses and lines in the rooms, which are made here from 100% organic fair trade cotton. The Silfra restaurant is representative of the currently exploding haute New Nordic cuisine scene, and while the menu changes often and seasonally it is “slow food" driven, emphasizing local ingredients and always showcases Iceland’s two chief specialities, native lamb and arctic char, in various ways, often using Indian and Moroccan spices.
Good food, good drink, good lodgings and a wealth of natural wonders and outdoor activities make the ION Luxury Adventure Hotel a top weekend or week-long escapist choice, and it is surprisingly easy to get to, especially since Iceland is one of the most user-friendly countries in the world in which to drive rental cars, with just one main road and virtually no traffic.
Larry Olmsted is a golf and travel writer, and a columnist for Forbes and USA Today.