When planning a trip to Iceland, up on the edge of the Arctic Circle, don’t forget to pack your board shorts. Trust me, despite the temperature easily getting below -10oC in winter and even flirting with 0oC in summer, you’ll still spend a lot of time outdoors in geothermally heated pools. It’s Iceland’s way of hitting the beach.
One of the best spots to get steamed is the Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel which is ideal in all seasons.
It’s an easy hour’s drive from the capital Reykjavik with dramatic landscapes all the way, and the hotel itself is surrounded by spectacular views.
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It’s on the edge of an active rift valley called Thingvellir, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly tearing apart from each other. And it’s a launch spot for all sorts of adventures, from 4WD tours to climbing ancient lava flows, kayaking, fishing and even snorkelling and diving in Thingvallavatn, the rift valley lake.
Add cosy rooms, deeply comfortable beds, a glass-walled bar, a fabulous restaurant and a small spa with a large outdoor geothermal pool and you’ve got the perfect Icelandic package.
We arrived in mid-winter with half a metre of snow on the ground and the most brilliant of blue skies above us. Just a kilometre or two from the hotel is the Nesjavallavirkjun geothermal power station, which is the biggest in Iceland and the second biggest in the world. Far from being an eyesore, it adds to the magic of the place, reminding guests that the ground beneath them is alive.
We checked in and headed straight for the ten-metre geothermal pool, which in an open decked area beyond the spa. Once we had poached for 20 minutes we swam to the far end where the snow had drifted over the fence, and had a swimwear snowball fight.
Then back to the room for hot showers. Despite being very comfortable, cosy and cleverly designed, luxury hotels in Iceland are actually quite basic. Ion’s exterior is stark and dramatic, its Standard Rooms have good but not lavish furniture and bathrooms, and its newer Deluxe Rooms have a touch more refinement but are still reserved.
The Northern Lights Bar inhabits a blue-glass box jutting out from the end of the hotel on concrete stilts. Our waiter told us the team had endured many hangovers trying to perfect the house cocktail, also called Northern Lights. It contains blue curacao, grenadine and prosecco but the preparation is secret. The colours in the champagne flute resembled perfectly the famous lights and as we sipped them, they changed from green to red and blue and back to green, just like the actual Aurora Borealis.
Related article: Top 5 Places to See the Northern Lights
We indulged in a second one – purely for the novelty, of course – and headed to the restaurant Silfra where we dined by candlelight on delicious Arctic char (caught in Thingvallavatn), fried plaice with mussel emulsion, and baked local lamb, great examples of Iceland’s take on New Nordic cuisine.
Just as we were enjoying our dessert of skyr (yummy Icelandic yoghurt) there was a commotion; the Northern Lights were starting. We dashed back to our room, threw on as many clothes as we could and bolted outside to see the lights as they danced across the starry sky and faded to a peppermint green glow.
Back in Silfra, our desserts and cocktails (ok, maybe we had a third round) had been kindly preserved by our waiter who smiled: “we’re used to people running away halfway through a meal”.
It had been the perfect Iceland evening.