Exploring The Icelandic Highlands: The Newest Destination In The Nordics

By Alanna Ospina

7 months ago

Alanna Ospina checks in to Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll


The Icelandic Highlands was opened as a mountaineering destination in the 1930s by pioneering naturalist and entrepreneur, Guðmundur Einarsson. It later first became a tourist hotspot when city dwellers escaped Reykjavík for the hills, hiking the sprawling hinterland and glacier spotting in the summertime, and cross-country skiing in winter. But visitors have been rustic adventurers roughing it – until now. Alanna Ospina checks out Iceland’s latest luxury opening, Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll.

Read the C&TH Responsible Tourism Guide

Review: Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

Exterior of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll is the latest opening from the Blue Lagoon Family who have been transforming Iceland’s hospitality scene in recent years: The Retreat at Blue Lagoon, an uber luxe hotel and spa offering private access to the Blue Lagoon; the Blue Lagoon itself, where bathers go to rejuvenate themselves in its hallowed waters; and Silica, a more affordable accommodation option for those keen to reside next to the Blue Lagoon. The opening of Highland Base will once again transform the nation’s travel landscape, opening up this previously (mostly) inaccessible region in the centre of the country. It stands as a launch pad for visitors to experience the raw splendour of Iceland’s heights all year round, as part of the ambitious project to create a mountainous retreat delicately carved into this geological paradise.

STAY

Inside Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

Icelandic company, Basalt Architects, oversaw the architecture of the hotel alongside Design Group Italia who worked on the project’s design. Highland Base has been strategically positioned alongside the White River in the dip of the Kerlingarfjöll mountain range, protecting it from the extremities of Iceland’s elements. Sustainably built from multi-layered wooden panelling and with a jagged flat roof, the hotel structure creates a clever coup d’oeil – creating the perception of being its very own mountain range from above or afar.

The lodges and hotel rooms offer cocoon-like spaces, simply designed with tones reflecting the colours outside, with lava stone greys and blacks and warm wooden hues reflecting the iron tones found in geothermal rock formations. Modernist shelving and hooks replace the fuss and fanfare of furniture; the main focus is what sits on the other side of the vast windows, which have been designed to frame the beautiful and ever-changing landscape outside.

A-frame huts

A subterranean tunnel links the main hotel building to many of the bedrooms, so the chill of winter can be avoided during extreme bouts of weather when breakfast, dinner or Icelandic waffles call. After a day of hiking, the Highland Base lounge awaits, the perfect place to defrost and enjoy the serenity of the fire while watching the world go by or digging into one of the many books on display. In addition to the upscale lodges and hotel rooms and suites, budget options are also available, with a campsite in the summertime featuring tents and huts.

EAT

The Restaurant and Bar at Highland Base is the heart of the space, offering dining throughout the day in a high-ceilinged space, combining industrial chic with warm alpine comforts. Starting the day with a hearty breakfast buffet – including shots of cod liver oil and dollops of creamy skyr – is the perfect fuel for a day of exploring. Icelandic waffles are served at around 3pm, inviting guests to congregate for a heart-shaped, jam-and-cream-fuelled sugar hit, and to cradle cups of whipped cream topped cocoa.

Icelandic waffles

Lunch and dinner offer a varied menu that celebrates Icelandic produce and methods, from cured goose with blueberry jam and salmon, to Icelandic lamb soup and Arctic Char.

DO

Highland Base has partnered with Outsiders Iceland for hikes and treks exploring the surrounding mountains and valleys. Sandra, our knowledgeable guide, took us through the land she explored as a child. Traversing snowy valleys and passing glaciers and geysers (the hissing smoke plumes of geological activity escaping underfoot amongst chunks of volcanic obsidian, a crystal beloved for its protective properties), she backgrounded the truly awesome nature of this place with fairy tales and stories. Icelanders shirk any notion of philosophy – or even theology – in favour of the folklore and sagas that have been inspired by its unforgiving landscape since the Vikings landed here over 1,000 years ago.

Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

From next spring, the final phase of the Highland Base project will be completed with a series of geothermal baths – the Highland Base Baths – that will wrap around the front of the hotel overlooking the river. For truly intrepid minds, hiking to the glaciers, bombing around on snowmobiles, or backcountry skiing beckons.

We recommend combining a stay at Highland Base with a night or two at The Retreat for a soak in the Blue Lagoon and fine dining at Moss, a newly crowned Michelin star restaurant helmed by Agnar Sverrison. Aggi, prior to Moss, worked with Raymond Blanc and had his own Michelin star restaurant, Texture, in London for many years before heading back to his homeland. The seven-course tasting menu introduces the delicious profiles of Scandinavia’s freshest flavours, from smoked lamb to Norwegian langoustines.

The restaurant

FINAL WORD

Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll is a pioneer of Icelandic hospitality, creating a leading example on creating a new destination sustainably, blending into the surrounding landscape. The hotel aims to be 100 percent powered by geothermal and hydro energy sourced from the surrounding area. Next year, the hotel’s geothermal baths will open for post hiking soaks and, quite possibly, it will be the most magical place on earth to watch the Northern Lights. Highland Base works in harmony with nature; staying here feels like being in communion with nature too.

BOOK IT

Nightly rates at Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll start from 72,400 ISK (£428 per night) per night, based on two sharing. Rates include breakfast and admission to Highland Base Baths. highlandbase.is

Alanna Ospina flew from LHR to Reykjavík return, with a carbon footprint of 572kg of CO2e (ecollectivecarbon.com)