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A two-centre holiday offers an Icelandic immersion!
Iceland, violently created through the fusion of fire and ice, is a country worth building a relationship with. Its vast landscape can test the nerves of an experienced thrill-seeker whilst its eco-system is a nature-lovers paradise. With dramatic waterfalls, crystal-blue rivers, hidden valleys and wide, wide horizons it’s a place to soothe the mind and invigorate the body.
The capital city, Reykjavik, is the base camp for many visitors. From here day-trips provide access to the island’s most well-known attractions. Beyond the city, however, you’ll find (very) small towns and a host of accommodation offering the opportunity to connect with the local community. Pick up a hire car at the airport and you can be off on your own big adventure within a very short time.
Our destination was the Hotel Ranga, some 90 minute’s drive from the airport, and situated off route 1 in Iceland’s beautiful south. This four-star hotel is ideally located to explore the attractive countryside surrounding it and to enjoy the exhilarating experiences which have become a key part of Iceland’s tourism scene.
Arriving at the Ranga, you’re greeted by a full-sized Polar Bear, a reminder of Iceland’s northerly location, just south of the Arctic Circle, and the fact that you are in a true wilderness. The hotel is a haven of warm pine and the wood envelopes you in its warmth.
Situated over two floors, the 52 bedrooms, including fabulous suites themed and styled after the seven continents, are equipped with everything you need for a luxurious and cosy stay. The deluxe and deluxe superior rooms are located at ground level either facing the scenic East Ranga River or looking out onto the volcano, Mount Hekla, and when visible, the Northern Lights. The standard rooms all look out across the plains to Hekla, big and brooding in the distance.
At this latitude, spring days are long (in May the sun sets at 2200) and we found the Ranga the perfect spot to arrive at after an action-packed day. Relaxing in the outside hot tubs, oblivious to the chill in the air, it was a joy to take in the wide-open vistas, wild swans flying overhead, hear the river flowing by and listen to the evening birdsong.
The Ranga restaurant is light and airy and its glass walls give the impression you’re dining outdoors. On offer are delicious dishes created from predominantly local ingredients (the East Ranga is one of Iceland’s finest salmon rivers) and inspired by modern Nordic cuisine. We enjoyed the Spring Menu of cured cod with smoked trout roe, lemon foam and dill oil; a main course of sous-vide beef tenderloin with potato, sunchoke puree and buttermilk crumble, followed by a dessert of baked Alaska (an Icelandic bargain at £62 per head). At breakfast, you can enjoy national favourites of waffles, eggs every-which-way, smoked fish and yoghurts as well as a generous continental buffet spread. A feast to set a Viking up for the day!
A good place to start a tour of the southern coast is the Lava Centre, a short drive east, at the local town of Hvolsvollur. Through the use of an interactive exhibition, the Centre explains the incredible landscape you’re driving through and the volcanic and tectonic activity which continues to create it.
Heading further east you can enjoy breath-taking waterfalls (including the 60m high Skogafoss) and Iceland’s most southerly point (a protected bird reserve – look out for Puffins!). This whole area is bound to the north by Eyjafjoll, whose eruption caused such chaos in Europe back in 2010, and by Katla, whose movements are monitored as carefully as that of a sleeping new baby. Tours of their glaciers (walking, climbing, quad-biking) are all easily booked (the local team at the Ranga, headed by manager Thor, will be more than happy to help you plan your time effectively). If ice is your thing then just beyond Vik, at Fjallssarlon, you can take a boat out onto a lagoon, sail around the edge of the glacier and see icebergs up close and personal.
To the south, a long coast of coal black volcanic sand is washed, hypnotically, by ice-white North Atlantic waves. Beyond the shore, and easily accessible via the ferry, are the Westman Islands including their little sister, Surtsey, born out of the sea in 1963. A guided tour gives a great insight into the life of this very remote community.
If it’s your first time to Iceland, and time is limited then from The Ranga Hotel you’ll want to drive north-west to see the attractions termed the “Golden Circle”: Gullfoss (the Golden Falls); Geysir (the original, plus its much more active sibling, Strokkur) and the home of Iceland’s original “parliament” Thingvellir. They are all gems and, understandably, major crowd-draws. Approaching from The Ranga to some extent you’re driving against the crowd. With forethought you can dodge the coach parties, arriving before or after them, and enjoy the serenity and space.
If you are wanting to truly “get away from it all”, then head to the Highlands. Much of Iceland’s interior is closed between late autumn and late spring when the ice and snow make the roads and rivers impassable. But in May it’s possible to drive to The Highland Center at Hrauneyjar, at the entrance to the country’s most impressive and active volcanic area.
Early in the season this modern, hostel-style hotel which sits deep in the valley of the River Thjorsa (Iceland’s longest river), offers comfortable accommodation, good food and space to enjoy the serenity of the volcanic landscape outside. Once the interior roads open (approx. late June – early September) the 98 rooms will offer accommodation to an international crowd of both individual travellers and groups choosing from modern en-suite doubles and twins; economy rooms and sleeping bag accommodation. The Centre’s restaurant is open to non-residents and is no doubt a much-appreciated sanctuary from Iceland’s changeable weather.
Iceland is a land of waterfalls, and from the Highland Centre, you can see some stunners. Driving southwest on the route 26 you’ll pass delightful Fossabrekkur, the source of our now familiar East Ranga river and further on, Thjofafoss (“the Thieves Waterfall). Across the Thjorsa valley, once grassy and flourishing but since 1104 a land laid waste by volcanic devastation, you’ll find the beautiful twin-drop falls, Hjalparfoss and nearby a reconstruction indicating the style of turf-topped dwellings that once populated the area. Haifoss and Gjain complete the terrific trio, but in early May were inaccessible to us. Instead, we drove 20 minutes from the Hrauneyjar Center to Sigalda and walked into one of the many hidden gorges in the area, Sigöldugljúfur canyon, to find an unexpectedly beautiful scene of snow-bound cliffs, fairy-tail falls and tiny flowers fighting for sunlight, all directly alongside the Sigalda power plant and reservoir!
For city dwellers, it can be perplexing to be amongst so much “outdoors”. Particularly as, once off-the-beaten-track, paths are not marked and, off-season, few people are about. But by concentrating on one area, the landscape becomes familiar and, with careful map-reading, eyes initially boggled by the vastness, start to recognise landmarks and to distinguish features.
Iceland is a country which offers many enriching experiences all of which are best savoured and given their due time. With local staff to help you navigate the area and a comfortable base to relax back into, a two-centre trip to The Ranga and the Hrauneyjar Center (both sharing the same owner) offers a perfect Icelandic experience.
Jenny was a guest of the Hotel Ranga and Hrauneyjar Highland Center. The Ranga is open throughout the year providing a full range of services designed to enhance your stay – check out the Ranga Newsletter for inspiration. The Highland Center closes during winter – check the website for opening dates.
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