From the Blue Lagoon, we headed east along empty roads towards the mountainous interior. We soon learned that driving anywhere in Iceland was going to take us much longer than expected – partly because of the snowy conditions (I’m very glad we hired a 4×4), and partly because we ended up stopping every few minutes to marvel at yet another amazing view.
Eventually, we descended into a wide valley to see the concrete hulk of our first base, Ion Hotel, looming out against the all-white landscape. Set on stilts beneath Mount Hengill, near the famous ‘Golden Circle’, it was originally built as accommodation for workers at the neighbouring geothermal power plant (a strangely beautiful sight, with columns of steam spiralling up into the sky) before being transformed into a sleek retreat in 2013.
Inside it’s strikingly beautiful, with clean lines and steel beams offset by snuggly sheepskins and flickering candles. After checking in (and confirming that yes, we would like a wake-up call should the Northern Lights appear during the night), we dumped our cases in our room – a compact but stylish space with feathered Eos lampshades and a mural of a soulful-looking Icelandic pony – and headed straight to the bar. It sits in a glass box jutting out over the rocky lava field, and it proved the perfect spot to linger over a bottle of wine while scanning the inky sky for any hint of the elusive Aurora Borealis.
We spent the next day meandering around the shores of Thingvellir Lake, gazing out across its frozen surface to distant peaks tinged pink by the low winter sun, and visiting Thingvellir National Park. Covering a rift valley where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, the park was the site of Iceland’s first parliament in 930 AD and is now one of the country’s top attractions. It’s a beautiful place, and we had great fun taking in its volcanic ridges, iced-up waterfalls and tiny wooden church before warming up with a hot chocolate at the visitor centre.
We had planned to see the Golden Circle’s other sights – Geysir and Gulfoss Waterfall – the following day, but our exploring was cut short by a severe snow storm. Roads across Iceland were closed, and we had little choice but to stay put at the hotel and relax. It turned out to be an unexpectedly lovely day, spent alternating between cocktails in the bar and lazy floats around the thermal outdoor pool as the wind howled and snowflakes swirled around us. We also took the opportunity to gorge ourselves on the restaurant’s wonderful food: cured Arctic char, delicate lamb carpaccio, beef in a liquorice sauce, and a platter of Icelandic cheeses drizzled with honey.
As for the Northern Lights, they put in an appearance late one night. Our phone rang just after midnight, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone from near-comatose to awake and fully dressed in so few seconds. It was worth the shock to the system: outside, streaks of green shimmered and danced overhead, and the sky was splattered with thousands of stars. It was a magical sight, and one which I’ll never forget.
I’ll post more about our Icelandic adventures next week, but in the meantime you can find full details of Ion Hotel over on i-escape.
All photography by Abi Dare