Take a wintry break amid Iceland's natural wonders

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Alexandra Jones
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Stylist junior features writer Alexandra Jones books into a Nordic design den in the wilderness, and leaves city life far behind

I defy anyone to visit Iceland and not consider making it a permanent move. Personally, I thought about moving there pretty much every time I rounded a corner onto a vista that could just as easily have been the moon as earth. It’s an analogy that you’ll hear over and again: Iceland’s barren, undulating landscapes have an other-worldly quality. In just over three hours flying time, I’d left behind a loud, overpopulated London and landed on a near-deserted planet. Beat that, Virgin Galactic.

Visiting Iceland in winter, when everyone else is plotting winter sun getaways, might seem perverse, but I’ve always been attracted by the solitude, rugged beauty, snow, steaming rivulets, spectacular geysers and small-ish horses. And despite its renowned barrenness, Iceland is breathtakingly beautiful, and a wonderfully offbeat place to throw off the shackles of frenetic city life and get back to nature. Just what my December needed, in fact.

I’m headed for the ION hotel, close to Thingvellir National Park (a Unesco World Heritage Site) and a lonely 45 minute drive out of Reykjavik, which is perfectly placed for all that rugged, stark wilderness…


Minimal Fuss

A brutalist concrete block, jutting out from the base of a (thankfully dormant) volcano, ION could easily be a crash-landed spaceship. The sight is made more spectacular by the fact that other than a steaming power plant next door (bear with me on this…), it’s the only building for miles around. I feel like I’ve left civilisation behind completely, which is a very, very good feeling to have when you approach a new hotel.

ION is a minimalist masterpiece of polished concrete and grey, modular furniture, enlivened with zingy-hued, sheepskin scatter cushions and rugs. Most items are Icelandic-designed and locally made, right down to the woollens on sale at reception, knitted by the owner’s mum. The 46 rooms are a minimalist concoction of polished concrete, edgy over sized artwork and wooden floors. Don’t expect an excess of luxury and cosiness here, though - stark Nordic design is the order of the day. And I have to admit that after a day out in the snow, a roaring fire would be a dream.

But ION’s public spaces are the stars of the show. At the renowned restaurant, Silfra, the emphasis is on new Nordic cuisine, all locally-sourced and skilfully prepped dishes like traditionally smoked trout with dill rye bread crumble, and lamb tartare. And the glass-fronted Northern Lights bar is a great place to start and finish your day. Watching the snow-covered lava fields turn as pink as the sunrise (easy for lazy sorts to catch, considering that in December sunrise takes place at a civilised 10am), was a highlight. By night, it’s a fantastic place to sink a negroni and hope for a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights.

Au Naturel

The island of Iceland only appeared 20 million years ago, a zygote in land-mass terms, and it is still a site of volcanic activity, constantly shifting, spewing and reforming. Eco-friendliness is virtually a way of life here; the whole island runs off geothermal power, harnessing the energy of water from the hot springs to heat the houses of the 300,000 inhabitants. It’s why the Icelandic people I meet are oddly proud of their power plant, which is engaged in a very natural process of distributing the water.

The power station next door does mean that luxury comes eco-friendly and guilt-free at ION, and I gleefully make the most of the outdoor hot pool (a divine 10 meter-deep strip in which you can bob about and take-in the view). The green theme continues at the hit restaurant nearby (improbably housed in a carbon-neutral tomato farm) Fridheimar, where I dine on bottomless bowls of organic tomato soup and freshly baked bread in the company of 3,000 organic tomato plants.

Get outside

Getting a speedy overview of Iceland’s main sights is best done in a super Jeep (from around £610 per vehicle). Car hire requires half a day’s training, understandable given how treacherous the roads can become, but not how I fancy spending a chunk of my weekend. Taking in the major sights - Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, or the infinitely quieter Secret Lagoon as well as the Gulfoss falls and the great geyser, can be done in two days, but I resolve to come back and linger a little longer in this spectacular landscape - now I understand how people come here for two weeks at a time, every year.

Iceland sees a steady stream of young adventure travellers, who come for the glacier climbing, skiing and diving. The island has around 400km of black sand coast, and I’m told the southern coastline is an excellent spot for surfing. Water temperatures in summer can climb to around 12 degrees, comparable to Cornwall in the spring, which is hard to imagine when you visit in the winter months. Pony trekking, on the other hand, is safe for even a neophyte to try, even in winter. I venture to Solhester stables (rides from £30 per hour), a 30 minute drive from ION. Absorbing the landscape on a pretty and mild-mannered shaggy-haired pony is a particularly calming experience - apart from the bit when we battled our way through a not-so-tranquil blizzard.

But as I leave, I can’t help feeling that the best way to experience Iceland’s natural wonders is on foot. The trails around the ION hotel range from a short 1km uphill circuit to a 8km all-day trek, and treat hikers to some of the strangest and most spectacular wilderness you’ll ever experience. It might not be quite the moon, but it’s as close as I’d want to get.

Three reasons to go to Iceland in 2016

Sonar, Reykjavik; 18 - 20 February 2016

The Icelandic edition of this Barcelona-based festival is in it’s third year in 2016, featuring music from electronic heavyweights Boys Noize and Hudson Mohawke, as well as Stylist favourite Angel Haze. It’s a more boutique version of its Spanish counterpart, taking place at the spectacular harbourside complex, Harpa in downtown Reykjavik. An incredibly cool mix of music and tech.

The Northern Lights; March 2016

Though seeing the aurora borealis is never guaranteed (it often comes down to cloud cover - which obstructs your view) 2016 has been forecast to be a particularly good year for magnetic activity. The best time to go is in March, when the spring skies are clear, but before the evenings become too light. Light pollution can be a problem in the city, head for somewhere secluded like ION or the Secret Lagoon for a prime spot.

Secret Solstice Festival, Reykjavik; 17 - 19 June 2016

OK, so most of the acts are niche (Youandewan, anyone?) but this festival is so unlike anything you’ll experience in the UK that it’s high on our bucket list.  Ever been to a midnight sun party? Us neither but it sounds pretty incredible. The festival makes the most of three days of 24-hour daylight, with DJ-sets inside a glacier (yup, inside) and a festival takeover of the beautiful Blue Lagoon. You’ll basically get to experience all the best parts of Iceland, while also being a bit drunk. Cheers.

ION offer doubles from £184 per night on a B&B basis. WOW air flies from London Gatwick to Reykjavik daily, with up to two flights per day, from £98 return. Luxury Transport Iceland offers airport transfers. 

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Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones is a freelance journalist and the former commissioning editor at Stylist magazine. She writes features on everything from dating to global feminism. She has bad taste in films, a penchant for pickled foodstuffs and a spiralizer that has yet to be unboxed.