Keeping up with the Jonsdottirs

Five years ago, Iceland didn’t really do luxury accommodation. Now, it’s home to some of the most exclusive and adventurous retreats on the planet

First published in Celebrated Living, July 2018. Photography by River Thompson

Sitting at the elegantly minimalist bar at the ION City Hotel in Reykjavík, Sigurlaug Sverrisdóttir is telling the story of how she kick-started not just her own hotel brand, but the whole concept of Iceland as a luxury destination.

“Ironically, I was looking for a place where I could unwind and go fly-fishing with my husband,” says Sverrisdóttir, whose unfussy glamour betrays the fact that she used to manage more than 5,000 cabin crew members for a major charter airline. “But, instead of a summer home, we ended up creating a new tourist destination.”  

We’re sitting in Sverrisdóttir’s second hotel, which opened on Reykjavík’s main street last summer, but she’s telling the story of her first one—the brutalist ION Adventure Hotel, an hour’s drive east of the capital in the starkly beautiful Þingvellir National Park, which opened in 2013.

Back in 2011, the Icelander was living in Switzerland and managing a massive operation for the Air Atlanta Icelandic airline, which ranged from writing manuals for cabin-crew members to organising onboard services for Saudi princes or the Rolling Stones. “It was all hiring, firing, stress and lots of travel, often to stay in five-star hotels which all had the same menus of club sandwiches, Caesar Salads and artificial salmon,” she says. “Iceland represented an escape to something more natural.”    

On a scouting trip for her summer home that year, she came across a rectangular slab of concrete that was the staff building of the nearby geothermal power station, with views across to Lake Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake. After the financial crash had decimated Iceland’s economy, there were only two workers left in the formerly bustling building, and Sverrisdóttir couldn’t help herself imagining its potential.

“Initially, I thought we could do the place up and rent it out when we weren’t here. But I couldn’t help thinking it could be more than that,” she recalls. “But there was nothing here, and Iceland was barely a tourist destination, let alone a place you came to stay in a design hotel. There was one boutique hotel in Reykjavík, but that was it. When I said we could turn this into a high-end destination, people thought I was joking.”

When I said we could turn this into a high-end destination, people thought I was joking.

She wasn’t, and she had a vision—specifically, “a place that looked outside of Iceland in terms of levels of design and service, but which was totally Icelandic: trout from the lake, local design, Icelandic bands on the stereo. I wanted to created the antithesis of those could-be-anywhere hotels, where you feel this immersion in the landscape.” As a woman whose idea of a holiday is to cross the infamous Haute Route in the French Alps on cross-country skis, she also wanted the hotel to be a base for adventures, from fly-fishing to lava trail-running and snorkelling at the nearby Silfra Fissure, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in some of the clearest water on Earth.

Wanting the design to complement the nature, she enlisted the help of Minarc, a Santa Monica-based architecture and design studio founded by two Icelanders, known for their use of natural materials. Using repurposed lava, driftwood and recycled rubber, the team kept the brutalism of the old staff building, but added a spectacular glass-walled bar at one end, for maximal Northern Lights viewing, and a spa below, with a hot pool among the concrete pillars that hold the building up.

But, when the ION Adventure Hotel finally opened in 2013, it was still a tough sell, even if global design blogs fawned over the way the rectangular telescope of a building seemed to merge with the mossy landscape. “We really had to go out and tell the world,” says Sverrisdóttir. “A lot of the time, we were explaining to people where Iceland was.”

It’s fair to say that people know where Iceland is now. As tourism has exploded in the country—from less than half a million visitors in 2010, to 2.3 million last year—so visitors have increasingly demanded quality places to stay. While occupancy rates at the ION Adventure Hotel were less than 50 per cent in the first year, by 2016 they were more than 85 per cent, and growing. “Our timing was good,” says Sverrisdóttir. “We were here just before the real explosion, around 2015, when tourism here went up a level. It’s changed so much, in such a short space of time.”   

The ION Adventure Hotel was merely the first in a batch of high-profile escapes offering luxury, high design and total immersion in the Icelandic landscape. But while the ION Adventure Hotel is a relatively affordable escape—you’ll get a room for not much more than $300—many of the stays that have followed in its footsteps are increasingly extravagant and exclusive affairs.

On the Troll Peninsula in the windswept North, Deplar Farm is a sheep farm that’s been converted into a low-key billionaire’s retreat, a series of moss-covered lodges from which to go heli-skiing, salmon fishing or even surfing. Opened in 2016, Deplar Farm is the creation of American company Eleven Experience, which was founded by Wall St executive Chad Pike, and whose eight properties around the world—from Colorado to the Bahamas and the French Alps—are aimed squarely at the adventurous elite, or Adventure Capitalists in company-speak. “Our guests are the one per cent of the one percent,” says managing director Jake Jones. “We give them the means to switch off totally, and to hit the joy button.”

If Deplar Farm encourages visitors to buy out the whole property, you can at least stay as a regular guest if you’re prepared to pay upwards of $3,000 a night. There’s no such option at Trophy Lodge, a restored hunting lodge under the shadow of the hulking Langjökull Glacier a few hours north of Reykjavík, which is available only by referral to those who’ll rent out the whole place, Michelin-standard chef and all. Guests at the former private hunting lodge of owner Jóhannes Stefánsson have included Bill Gates, Jay-Z and Beyonce, the latter of whom chose the Trophy Lodge for Jay-Z’s 45th birthday.

Even the Blue Lagoon, a place with such mass global appeal that it has appeared on an episode of The Simpsons, has begun to target the elite traveler. This April saw the opening of The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon, an understatedly luxurious hotel and day spa carved into the 800-year-old lava flows of Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, and surrounded by the bright aquamarine water of the famous geothermal spa.

But don’t expect to see or hear the hordes who get silica face masks in the main lagoon—at The Retreat, rooms start at around $1,450, and the whole thing is designed for maximal escapism, from the clean Nordic interiors to the  floor-to-ceiling windows displaying unbroken views across the jagged black lava fields.

“It’s not a building as much as a deep-nature experience,” says Sigrídur Sigthórsdóttir, who has been the lead architect on the Blue Lagoon project for almost two decades, when we meet in her Reykjavík office. “We wanted the highest level of luxury, but nothing that would distract from this sense of lava and water flowing through.”

The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon is not a building as much as a deep-nature experience.

Everything in the hotel is designed to accentuate nature, from the lighting that mimics the phases of the sun to the use of lava as the key design feature—most notably in the locavore Moss Restaurant, where the chef’s table is hewn from quarried lava rock, and the key feature is a lava-based wall installation by artist Ragna Róbertsdóttir. The building is even clad in lava, which was delicately cut by skilled craftspeople. “In a place like this, the nature has to be the star,” says Sigthórsdóttir. “We’re just designing a way to access it and be part of it, while respecting it completely.”       

While the deep-nature retreat has arguably become the focal point of a visit to Iceland, visitors are also well set when it comes to spending a night or two in Reykjavík, which has quietly become a haven for smart boutique hotels. The Nordic-minimalist 101 Hotel was Iceland’s first design-driven boutique hotel when it opened in 2003, and is still Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s favored Icelandic hostelry (they visited most recently in 2016, for Kourtney Kardashian’s birthday).

Since then, so many design hotels have popped up that it’s tough to make a top-ten list. Sverrisdóttir’s second venture, the 18-room ION City Hotel, is in a space that used to be the Reykjavík Backpackers youth hostel, giving a sense of how things have changed. After deciding that she wanted “a slicker, more urban sister to the more organic adventure hotel”, it took Sverrisdóttir and her friends at Minarc a year-and-a-half to turn the run-down old hostel into a place of clean lines and timber, with a palette of white and grey.

Within weeks of its opening last summer, another design-driven boutique, the Sandhotel, opened up next door, inspired by the adjoining Sandholt bakery. Later this year, a branch of Marriott’s EDITION hotels is due to open, too. Bill Gates is said to be one of the investors, a sign that—as with Kim and Kanye—people that visit Iceland tend to want to come again.   

“Reykjavík city is changing so fast,” says Sverrisdóttir. “The tourist boom has meant prices going up fast in Reykjavík, and more and more people doing Airbnb. It means it can be tough for young people to get on the property ladder, and it’s meant more competition when it comes to accommodation.” Iceland may be coming terms with what this tourism boom means for the country—but, for the luxury traveller, it means that Iceland is suddenly one of the most exciting destinations on the planet.

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