Iceland is on many peoples’ bucket list, and it has always been on mine. I love the way this blog has a habit of making dreams come true, as I received an invitation to visit Iceland’s Golden Circle with Hotel Ranga. The theme of the weekend was gastronomy, for which Hotel Ranga is justifiably renowned.
As the only four star hotel in South Iceland and the highest starred hotel near the Golden Circle, it’s a very convenient base from which to explore Iceland’s highlights. Glaciers, the Westman Islands and Mount Hekla volcano are all within easy reach, and fishing, dog-sledding and river-rafting are just some of the activities on offer nearby. Popular with celebrities, it’s the first Icelandic hotel to become a member of Great Hotels of the World. Overlooking a river, it’s constructed in a log-cabin style and has 51 rooms and suites .
Hotel Ranga is a scenic 1 hour drive from Keflavik, the main airport.
Before heading there, we stopped off in Reykjavik, where there’s a lot to see and do. On the way, we visited Urta, a local producer of Icelandic salts, jams and syrups. We also explored the Ghost and Elf Museum. Storytelling is a huge thing in Iceland and the museum tells some of those tales in a very entertaining fashion.
We were greeted at the door by Fridrik, the hotel’s affable owner who speaks perfect English. Check in was a really quick and efficient process and we were on our room in under five minutes.
Our spacious bedroom had direct access to the porch outside, which would come in especially handy when the Northern Lights are out.
In fact the hotel has a special Northern Lights wake up call which alerts guests who’ve signed up for it if the lights are out at some point during the night.
The bathroom had a large jacuzzi bath and amenities included a quirky tea sachet. Quirkiness is in abundance throughout the hotel – a case in point are these leggy cocktail chairs…
And this whacky harp massage chair. If someone plays the harp, the person sitting in the chair feels soothing vibrations in their back.
We had time for a quick tour before dinner, and admired the billiard room…
We sampled the local beers before dinner, from Olvisholt Brewery – they’re all very drinkable but my favourite was the red ale.
We then moved on to the light-filled upstairs private dining room…
for a lavish four-course dinner rustled up by head chef Karl Johann Unnarsson, who kindly explained the dishes to us. The concept of the restaurant is based on a farmer’s market, using local, seasonal ingredients. I particularly enjoyed the warming wild mushroom soup with Madeira wine…
Whilst Mr Luxe’s highlight was the chocolate mousse with fresh cream, crumble and strawberries. This is highly accomplished cuisine in terms of presentation and flavours.
After a great night’s sleep in the comfy bed, we were ready for breakfast the next morning, overlooking the river and hot tubs.
I’d definitely recommend the four types of herring but I’m told that the waffles are pretty good too.
The Golden Circle is a not to be missed circuit of some of Iceland’s top attractions, spread over 300 kilometres. Along the way we spotted a magnificent double rainbow…
And many Icelandic horses…one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world.
The area of Þingvellir is a very popular tourist destination due to its beauty, cultural and geological significance.
The site of Iceland’s first parliament, established in 930, it’s possibly the oldest Parliament in the world. It remained here until 1798 and Þingvellir National Park was founded in 1930, to commemorate its 1,000th anniversary. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
It’s also the centre of an unusual phenomenon – you can clearly observe continental drift between Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Earthquakes have caused the plates to split further and further apart, increasing Iceland’s land mass considerably and moving it closer to Europe. See the rocks on the left and right of the photo below – they were originally joined together.
It was interesting to see and thankfully the earth didn’t move on this occasion! The last earthquake was in 2000.
We then visited a very cool ice cream parlour, Efsti Dalur Farm, where you can see the cows grazing through a glass wall as you sample their delicious organic yoghurt and ice cream.
Our next stop was the incredible Gullfoss or Golden Falls, my favourite stop on our tour. Flowing from the Hvítá river, it’s sometimes known as the double waterfall, since it plunges at two stages into a 32 metre crevice.
There were some attempts to use the current to generate electricity and at one point it was rented out to foreign investors but thankfully it was sold back to the State of Iceland and is now a protected landmark.
Let’s go in closer shall we? The sheer power of the current is mesmerizing.
By now we’d worked up an appetite so headed to Fridheimar Tomato Greenhouse for a lunch with a difference…it’s inside a tomato conservatory and all the dishes are tomato based!
Their tomato soup is exceptional and I don’t even normally like it! The olive bread was a real treat too and we washed down our meal with four types of Bloody Mary. The Guardian considers these the best in the world. We tasted tomato flavoured ice cream for dessert which was surprisingly tasty, and a moreish tomato cheesecake.
After lunch we visited Haukadalur valley and Geysir, world famous as the site of many active geysirs, including tiddly Litli Geysir…
and big brother Strokkur ;-). A group of people were patiently waiting for one of the geysir’s to erupt, which it does every eight to ten minutes. When it did blow, the effect was spectacular. It was over as quickly as it started. The word geysir comes from the Icealandic word geysa meaning to gush. These eruptions have been active for around 10,000 years and can project boiling water up to 70 metres high or up to 40 metres in the case of Strokkur. Earthquakes tend to increase the activity of the geysirs.
The Icelandic Saga Centre is also close to the hotel and we made a short visit there to participate in the embroidery of a tapestry, the Njáls Saga, that should be finished in 3 years. We were shown how to recreate the Bayeux stitch that was used in the Viking age. Once finished it will be approximately 90 metres long.
Back at the hotel, we were treated to a gastronomic 8 course feast. A special mention for the beautifully presented slow cooked cauliflower with buttermilk sauce and pickled red onion…
As well as the lightly cured and blowtorched salmon with trout roe and spinach vinaigrette…or Northern Lights on a plate as I christened it.
and the pan-fried fillet of lamb with spring onion, roasted cabbage purée and demi-glaze sauce. We loved the subtle flavour combinations and contrasting textures.
After this epic meal, we kitted ourselves out in the fleecy overalls provided by the hotel, encountering a 10 foot polar bear named Hrammur along the way…
We then walked the short distance to Hotel Ranga’s very own Astronomical Observatory. This is totally unique – the most high-tech obeservatory in Iceland, with two 11-inch computerized telescopes, space for 30 people and a retractable roof!
Sadly it was a cloudy night when we visited so we couldn’t see any stars but the night before we arrived the sky was star-studded and the Northern Lights made a spirited showing. The next morning I couldn’t resist jumping in one of the outdoor hot tubs heated with geothermal water, whilst the snow fell around me…Getting a bit of a surprise as a wild goose landed on the pond right beside me 😉
It was another unexpected pleasure and a fitting end to our stay at Hotel Ranga. Now if you’ll forgive me, I should hop off! Have you ever been to Iceland or seen the Northern Lights?
Hotel Ranga, 851 – South Iceland