Packing list for Iceland: a swimsuit, a parka, Led Zeppelin’s third album. The swimsuit is for the 170 public thermal pools dotted throughout the island – 17 in Reykjavik alone. The parka is obvious; average daytime highs range from 13°C in summer to 2°C in winter. And the disc is to listen to on the 40-minute four-by-four ride from the capital to the Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel. Track one, “Immigrant Song,” wails, “We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.” Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote these lyrics while touring the tiny country in 1970.
When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, causing worldwide air traffic snafus, Iceland and its population of 320,000 found themselves unexpectedly thrust into the world media spotlight. Out of this natural disaster, a new era of adventure tourism was born, transforming Iceland from a flyover nation to a globetrotter destination. The increased tourism has spawned new hotels, and while a five-star has yet to open anywhere on the island a handful of boutique design hotels have popped up, among them Ion. Launched in February 2013 near Thingvellir National Park, on the slopes of volcanic Mount Hengill, it offers dramatic views of Lake Thingvallavatn and the mountains.
Owner Sigurlaug Sverridóttir recruited childhood friend Erla Dögg Ingjaldsdóttir and Tryggvi Thorsteinsson, of the Santa Monica, California, design studio Minarc, to conceptualize the hotel. They converted an existing 22‑room inn for workers from the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant into a 46-room design property. Set on a lava field, the hotel melds, inside and out, with the surrounding landscape.
To maximize energy efficiency and reduce its carbon footprint, a prefabricated panellized building system was used for the contemporary extension as well as the original structure. The black corrugated sheet metal and the sober concrete exterior, meant to suggest lava rock, successfully integrate the hotel into the volcanic terrain. However, building on a lava field had its challenges. “While digging the foundation, we found big caves,” says Ingjaldsdóttir. “Icelanders are very superstitious people, and we certainly didn’t want to disturb the elves who live in the lava. For the same reason, we went so far as changing the plan to go around a large rock rather than through it.”
Lava, local flora and fauna, Icelandic culture and sustainability are the dominant threads woven into the concept. Natural hot springs provide energy-efficient geothermal heating and hot water. The guest rooms are outfitted with fair trade organic linens and amenities; and close-ups of Icelandic horses, by photographers Gígja Einarsdóttir and Skarphedinn Thrainsson, adorn the bare concrete and polished steel walls.
The newest wings deliver two of Iceland’s major draws: the northern lights and hot springs. From September through March, guests can watch the aurora borealis and sip Icelandic craft beer from their cozy seats in the Northern Lights Bar. Surrounded by full-height windows, this may be the top vantage point in the country from which to view these elusive midnight rainbows. Below the bar on the ground level, steam rises above a hot pool framed by 24 angled concrete pillars that support the extension. Fed by overflow from the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant and thus chemical-free, it offers another spot from which to take in the natural light spectacle or simply warm up after a day of hiking across the glaciers.
When the Vikings settled here in the ninth century, this was an unforgiving land. The same brutal topography beckons tourists today, and Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel makes sure they want to come back.
If you go
Things to do
In the winter months, Icelandic Mountain Guides arranges two-day northern lights excursions. For glacier hiking, sea kayaking, lava caving and ice climbing, several outfitters organize tours, including Arctic Adventures.
Naturally, the country that produced Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men, offers music festivals aplenty. Iceland Airwaves (November), the Reykjavik Jazz Festival (August) and Sónar (February) are among the best.
For a hot spring soak, skip the often-crowded Blue Lagoon. Instead, try Laugarvatn Fontana or one of Reykjavik’s many public thermal pools.
Where to eat
Near the old harbour, Forréttabarinn serves traditional foods with a twist. Whale, lamb hearts, nut steak, and skyr (a yogurt-like dairy product) have all appeared on the menu, washed down with a pint of local Kaldi beer.
At KEX – an eatery, bar, hotel and music venue on the waterfront – curl up on a vintage sofa, or grab a stool at the bar and order the crispy parmesan crackers with garlic-herb dip and a glass of imported Spanish wine.
What to buy
Reykjavik brims with boutiques that sell traditional Icelandic goods and local design products. Kraum showcases local clothing, furniture and jewellery. The fish skin Uggi Lights, by Dögg Gudmundsdóttir and Fanney Antonsdóttir, are especially striking. The Spark Design Space gallery features the best of Icelandic design.
→ Rooms from $273 per night