HATC Magazine Trip to Iceland
Monday morning and I’m doing something a little different to my usual weekday routine, as I’m off to Iceland for some escapism and relaxation, all to find some mental health respite.
Leaving the gym to pack my case I cast my mind back to the last time I left the UK all the way back in 2019 (hello COVID). It’s a welcome return to normality albeit with slight anxiety about travelling while the pandemic is still clinging on. But with concerns aside I grab two coffees from Gail’s, jump in the car, and head off to London’s Luton Airport.
The 3-and-a-half-hour flight to Iceland is easy and comfortable, just enough time to relax, snooze, or get some work done and with no pesky time zone jumping you land refreshed and raring to explore. One of the best parts of flying to Iceland is the dreamy scenery down below as you make your descent towards the country’s main airport Keflavik, so reminder to book yourself the window seat. In the last 15 minutes of the flight, you get the opportunity to see some of Iceland’s beautiful countryside, black beaches, and lagoons, and if you are travelling in heart of winter like we did (January/February), you get the chance to see Iceland in all its beautiful glory, with a dusting of snow covering every treetop.
As we land at Iceland’s Keflavik airport around 5:30 we are immersed in darkness, something the country knows all too well in the winter months. As we gather our bags, we head towards the front of the airport to meet our private transfer. For me, this is something completely new. Having admittedly never used transfer services abroad I find myself slightly apprehensive about the things that could go wrong; will we be on time to the bus, will we get to the right hotel, so on and so forth. So, it’s fair to say I’ve come into the world of transportation transfer services completely neutral in the sense I have no experience or bias. So, when I tell you it could not have been smoother, I mean it. Now if you do your research before flying to Iceland (which as an organisation freak, I’d always recommend) public and private transfer companies are recommended, and from my experience throughout the trip, boy are they right.
Once disembarked and through customs, we head towards Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik. Although dark (Iceland in wintertime sees a sunrise around 11 am and sunset at 4 pm) you still get to see the country’s magic from quaint country homes to fields of black molten rock. It’s a relatively quick journey, all about 45 minutes before we are dropped off and then a 5-minute walk at the top of Reykjavik’s Old Town. For our trip to Iceland, we decided to split our 4-night stay between the Old Town and the Harbour. The Old Town is quaint and colourful even in the dark as we experience the start of a snow flurry.
Our place of rest for the first half of our stay is Kea’s The Sand Hotel, one of the very best from Kea’s Icelandic armoury of luxury hotels. The hotel’s open-plan layout is welcoming with a light bustle from other guests gearing up to leave for Northern Light tours. The hotel’s décor is representative of what you’re paying for, with the right balance between minimalistic luxury and supreme comfort. The staff welcome us dotingly, all our needs met before we even asked, and we walk away from check-in with the names of all the city’s best restaurants circling in our heads as if they read our minds. Or heard our stomachs.
We make way for our room, tired and dishevelled, only to walk into one of the chicest suits I have ever seen. A perfect mix between modern luxe and heritage elegance the living room space is fitted with a sofa, desk, fridge, safe, Nespresso machine, and large screen television, perfect for my quick inbox visits in the morning. The living space backs onto the Master bedroom through a sliding door for added privacy between each room. The master is a healthy balance when it comes to space, with the built-in wardrobe area creating ample floor room, a variety of lighting options, and a bed fit for a queen.
I can tell you now that I haven’t sighed from that level of comfort for quite some time and my home mattress is impressively comfy in my opinion. It’s everything you’d expect from a suit, King size bed, feathered pillows, and duvet with just enough memory foam to sink slightly but supported enough that your back’s not going to ache in the morning. They even supply you with a free smartphone for free text, calls, and data to use around Iceland! But the real treat was yet to come ... I’m talking about the bathroom which is bigger than my London flat (which is reasonably sized). The bathroom boasts a dark marbled theme with a Victorian sink and walk-in shower fitter with a traditional shower set overhead and in hand.
The room itself comes with every amenity possible, all eco and environmentally friendly. The whole room is beautiful and luxuriously designed whilst being functional and cosy, perfect for us to submissively give into exhaustion post-dinner.
We wake early for our first day in Iceland and head straight for breakfast. It’s relatively quiet with only a handful of guests already sitting or joining the space. The breakfast boasts a generous continental range including fresh pastries, smoothies, cereals, and fruit, stocked enough to feed a small army. After breakfast, we make a move to Reykjavik’s bus terminal where each excursion transfer begins, a pleasant 10-minute walk through the top of the Old Town to start our journey to The Blue Lagoon. The best thing about Icelandic transfers is that pretty much all of them offer to pick up and drop off close to each of the city’s major hotels, but on this glorious morning who could turn up a sunrise walk.
The journey to the Blue Lagoon takes about an hour after picking up anyone else booked onto the coach transfer. On the journey, you travel through a landscape lined with molten rock, wide shorelines, and mountainous peaks (depending on which side of the coach you sit of course) before you head further inland. As you get closer to the Lagoon you pass several smaller lagoon pools, steam rising skywards, picturesque postcard scenery in every direction.
Once we step off our transfer, we pass masses of molten rock leading the way to the milky blue lagoon, steam rising from ridges whitened by the sulphur impurities. Once inside we are armoured with wrist bands fit for digitally ordering drinks from the remote bar in the middle of the lagoon and bathrobes, an extremely important accessory for the -3 weather outside. We undress into our swimwear, shower, and apply conditioner (something I learned on my last trip 5 years prior, that your hair will thank you for). The shower and changing room facilities are next to none with possibly the best water pressure I’ve experienced in years and lockers that connect directly to your wrist band. Before getting into the Lagoon, we pass into a foyer area with hooks for our robes, towels for after the experience, and two entrance ways, one through glass doors directly outside or the inside lagoon entrance which takes you on the scenic route, which I’d recommend as a less bracing approach.
The lagoon’s water is the perfect temperature. As I swim out of the building and immerse myself in the water I experience pure paradise, relaxation, and escapism. In truth, I haven’t felt this relaxed in some time as I constantly find it hard to switch off from work and life. But in the Lagoon all previous tensions ease away as my body submits instantly to the warm waters, steamy surroundings, and blue skies overhead.
For the first half-hour, possibly the only part of the hour and a half we are in the lagoon that I can keep track of, we swim around with pure ease exploring each nook and cranny we can find before moving to the bar for our complimentary drink of sparkling wine. The bar is robust for something surrounded by water, offering a large selection of drinks both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. After our much-needed refreshments, we take another swim around the lagoon taking in every minute of the surroundings. The Lagoon’s rocky interior adds to the break-taking exterior with snowy mountains as far as the eye can see.
If you are looking to add to the experience, you can take yourself to the other floating hut where you get to experience a range of face masks incredibly made by The Blue Lagoon, including an exfoliating, cleansing, and moisturising mask all of which can be found in the gift shop after your visit. Just swim over to the hut to pick one up, literally they place it directly in your hands, before applying, letting it sit, and then washing off with natural mineral water. And if you think it can’t get any better you can swim or walk over to the waterfall or sauna, the perfect way to end the most relaxing and incredible experience.
After what felt like the quickest but the most relaxing hour and a half of my life, we move inside. We collect our towels and shower before getting changed for our complimentary meal at The Blue Lagoons Lava Restaurant. Although we change there’s the option to enjoy your meal at the restaurant in your robe. We are greeted by welcoming smiles and shown to our table which is directly next to a floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking part of the lagoon. The lagoons servers bring us water to hydrate us (something we’d recommend heavily following your swim) before we look over the menu filled with specific hand-picked Icelandic delicacies from locally caught fish and lamb as well vegetarian and vegan options. Whilst we waited for the first of our courses, we enjoyed incredible homemade bread and whipped butter (quite the thing in Iceland, and something I can get behind). Shortly after, possibly in record timing, our starter arrives, Cauliflower soup. If the soup is anything to go by my main of lamb will be something out of this world.
As we settle into our main with a glass of bubbly in hand, the Lagoon is hit by a blizzard, which covers the whole of the south of Iceland, and it’s quite the event to watch. The clear blue skies beyond our window were quickly engulfed by snow. The standard of food at The Lava restaurant was beyond expectations, and the bar was set high. Although the bill was a pretty penny, it’s a penny I’d recommend spending for gourmet food, a backdrop you’d consider crying over, and staff service that is of the highest standard. As we leave, taking a brief circle around the gift shop, we find ourselves in over two inches of snow, every direction we look in is covered by layers of fresh white snow, with even more falling as we head towards the transfer back to the hotel. We get off at the stop closest to our hotel and head back to take a brief break.
We take the time to relax a little longer before getting ready for dinner, at Public House Gastro a bar and restaurant with a Japanese twist that we spied a few minutes into the Old Town. Public House Gastro has the sweetest ambience, the food was again flawless, and the drinks were a perfect ending to the perfect day.
As a new day dawns, we wake and take a slower start, first with a casually timed breakfast before a lovely late check out which spans up to noon. For our second day, we planned something a little more chilled to follow the move to our second hotel, the Exeter Hotel, down by the old harbour. I won’t lie, it was sad to leave The Sand, the hospitality we received was second to none, from the comfiest bed and glamourous bathroom to the attentive staff and relaxing communal spaces. We bid farewell, gather our things and decide to walk to our second home for this trip which is only a 15-minutes through the snowy streets. Luckily Reykjavik is small, well in comparison to London, and walking does give you the chance to get a feel for the town.
We check into The Exeter Hotel, which has a New York contemporary feel and an in-house bakery. We officially start our day of touring the city by walking down to the Old Harbour and taking in the mountainous views and the old boats before heading to Lamb Street Food, a local café with exquisite food. After lunch, we jump on our pre-booked hop on and off sightseeing bus taking our seats at the front of the top deck.
The bus sight-seeing company which runs in most major cities takes us around the whole of the capital, while we got a feel of some of Reykjavik’s main sites including Hallgrímskirkja Church, Perlan, Harpa Concert Hall, and Conference Centre, and The Old Harbour. We choose to do a loop and a half before we get off at The Church. The holy building itself is breathtaking both in size and design, but even more so inside boasting the largest musical instrument in Iceland. We spend a good 25 minutes looking around inside before heading back into the heart of Old Town, stopping in a variety of shops before taking a brief coffee break. By the time we’ve finished the coffee and a snack, the sun is starting to retreat for the day. We continue to walk through the city taking time to see every hidden treasure we can find. With a busy day to come tomorrow, we decide to have dinner at the Hotel’s restaurant and a few drinks to relax before bed.
Morning comes upon us, and I head to the hotel’s gym for an hour’s workout. I love hotels that have a gym or workout space, especially in the winter, working out for me is not just for the physical betterment but for my mental health, so the fact both hotels offered a gym was a lifesaver.
Following my workout, we dress well, I’m talking multiple layers, for our trip out to sea to hopefully see some whales. We meet Sea Trips Reykjavik by the harbour before getting on a private superyacht. The yacht was incredibly beautiful with hand-crafted interiors and impeccable hand-carved wooden features. The boat sets off and begins to take us out to sea, we take a quick venture outside of the warm lounge and get the first opportunity to see the beautiful surroundings of snowy mountainous ranges. Although it was blue skies, don’t be fooled into thinking it wasn’t cold! It was freezing, making us rather glad we wrapped up well. We repeated this venture a few times in the trip, being careful of how slippery it could be at times, clinging on in the hopes that we wouldn’t somehow fall overboard as it was extremely choppy. Sadly, for the time we were out there wasn’t a chance to see any Whales. But the trip was still worth every second with the views you got to see and warm drinks in hand from the bar on board. And to add to the team’s incredible hospitality on board, we were offered another free trip to see Whales in the next three years if we return.
As we rooted our feet firmly back on the ground, we decided to go for an early dinner at The Steak House. Having visited Iceland a few years prior, The Steak House remains the best steak I’ve ever had, and once again it didn’t disappoint with top quality food including plenty of vegetarian options.
As we didn’t get to see any Whales, we felt that we had room to try and see one more magical thing, so we booked ourselves onto a Northern Lights tour for that evening. After reapplying every layer known to man, with it now being -5, we left the hotel in the dark around 8 pm before travelling an hour outside of Reykjavik away from the light pollution in the hopes of seeing one of the world’s most magical occurrences. As we arrived by a frozen lake up a rather windy road in the middle of nowhere, we set up camp both off and, on the bus, (trust me you needed its warmth) waiting to see some lights. After a short amount of time, they appeared in all directions. The tour (Bus Travel Iceland) had set up a fire and hot chocolate station which certainly helped with what felt like -12 with the winds. The lights were breath taking. There is no other way to describe it, they demand your full attention. It’s one of those things you go through life fully aware you may never experience, so was worth every second of the incredibly cold winds that also took away my breath away.
As we woke for our final day in Reykjavik, we were hit with a wave of huge sadness, having to say goodbye to a country full of so much culture and beauty. With a few hours to hand before we had to leave for the airport, we decided to have one last gander into town and to visit one of Iceland’s three-part national galleries to see Erro’s exhibition. Erro is one of Iceland’s prominent painters of international pop and late surrealism often compared to Andy Warhol. The paintings were eye-catching and impressive, we spent a good two hours looking around
We left the gallery, went back to the hotel one final time to pick up our bags and got our transfer back to the airport. Once onboard our late-night flight, we had one last surprise. As I looked out across the wing of the plane after take-off, I got the opportunity to see the Northern Lights one last time. For 15 minutes I got to look out into the night sky above Reykjavik and witness the most impressive blue waves lighting up the sky. A sight I will never forget.
It’s safe to say I found my little bit of escapism and relaxation in Iceland. For the first time in two years, I felt my work brain switch off, or at least as close to ‘off’ as mine will allow. I went to the city in the hopes of relaxing and a bit of mental health respite, and it didn’t disappoint, and as I left Iceland, I realised it’s a country that had well and truly stolen my heart.
Words: Alice Gee
Gifted trip with Kea Hotels, Sea Trips and Northern Lights Tour.