Bespoke Luxury: South Coast
Southern Iceland is a movie-set-handsome montage of unique landscapes, in turn bleakly elemental, softly verdant, tempestuous and serene. Tap into the in-depth knowledge of local guides to steer off the beaten track, opening up secret vistas and intimate experiences and revealing the Iceland few visitors are privileged to encounter.
Self-drive | 7 nights / 8 days
Stargaze with Iceland’s top astronomer
As enchanting as the landscapes of southern Iceland are, remember to lift your eyes – particularly after sundown: light pollution is negligible and stargazing exceptional. On a clear, dark night, when the Milky Way drapes a frost-rimed scarf across the heavens, join Iceland’s top astronomer Saevar Helgi Bragason at Hotel Rangá’s observatory (which has the country’s biggest and best telescopes) for a private introduction to the cast of celestial characters: Mars and Neptune, Cassiopeia and Cygnus, even Aurora – this is a prime spot for admiring the cosmic dance of the northern nights. Even in high summer, when true darkness is elusive in these lofty latitudes just shy of the Arctic Circle, you can observe sunspots, filaments and flares using Rangá’s specialist solar telescope and filters.
Of course, the stars and aurora are quite as mesmerising when admired from a steaming hot tub – Rangá has three. The stellar standard continues in the kitchen, where fresh local ingredients are married in the restaurant’s innovative modern Nordic cuisine, showcased in both à la carte – perhaps savour salmon hauled from the East Rangá River that babbles past the hotel – and seasonal gourmet menus showcasing the imagination and craft of head chef Bragi Þór Hansson.
Hop between continents at Thingvellir
Head back to the very beginning at Thingvellir, site of Iceland’s Althing – the world’s first democratic parliament, initially convened by early Norse settlers in AD930. Politics aside, in Thingvellir National Park you can enjoy a curious and unique experience: the chance to straddle continents. The line along which the North American and European tectonic plates meet slices through Thingvellir National Park; the hardy can don a drysuit to snorkel in the preternaturally clear (and cold) waters in Silfra, the fissure between continents.
Thingvellir is the focal point of the so-called Golden Circle, a trio of attractions near Reykjavík completed by the 32m-high double ‘golden falls’ of Gullfoss, where the Hvitá River streams over rock steps into the canyon below, and Geysir, whose eponymous geothermal fountain is now overshadowed by neighbouring Strokkur, which erupts in 15m-plus plumes of steaming, stinking water every six minutes or so.
Key to enjoying such spots, so beloved of coach tours, is expert local knowledge. One of our experienced guides will help you curate your perfect itinerary through the south-west, providing insights enabling to you scratch beneath the surface and discover the historic, geological and natural wonders of the region’s most alluring spots.
Drift between bergs on Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon
A creak, a crack, a crash, a splash – and a berg is born. Iceland’s great maternity ward of icebergs is a spectacular spot in itself, a glacial lagoon formed less than a century ago as mighty Breiðamerkurjökull retreated, creating this extraordinary blue mirror. Watching a frozen monolith as it calves from the glacier’s tongue is high drama performed live, and the show continues with a private guided voyage between floating frozen sculptures to the shore. Here, the beach glitters brighter than a well-stocked counter at Tiffany’s, with ice fragments scattered across the black volcanic sand. It’s a photographer’s dream – but key an eye focused skywards as you compose your shots: lithe Arctic terns and big-billed skuas patrol the skies, defending their territories.
Sleek, contemporary Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon provides the perfect base from which to venture out among the icebergs of Jökulsárlón, backed by the lowering ridges, hiking trails, cascades and ice rivers of Skaftafell.
Seek out secretive Gljúfrafoss waterfall
Southern Iceland’s cascades are celebrities in themselves: Gulfoss, the ‘Golden Falls’, gilded water streaming over picturesque tiers etching the basalt layers of the Hvítá River canyon; thundering Skógafoss, a rainbow-painting cataract plunging some 60m over a sheer cliff; the white ribbon of Svartifoss piercing extraordinary geometric rock pillars, like a vast array of giant church organ pipes; and the lacy veil of Seljalandsfoss, creating a delicate curtain from behind which visitors peer. Not all falls are so extrovert, though – some reveal their wonders only to those in the know and prepared to veer off the beaten track. One such is Gjúlfrafoss, secreted in a mossy cleft in the rock close to Seljalandsfoss. Edge into the canyon to absorb its echoing, percussive symphony as the clear water drums the pool below.
Confront Eyjafjallajökull volcano
Viewed from above, vast Vatnajökull National Park resembles the skin of a white elephant, wrinkled with groaning glaciers – not least its eponymous icecap, reputedly Europe’s largest, covering some 8% of Iceland’s surface. Beneath that frosty veneer, though, grumble several volcanoes that periodically erupt into action – most notably Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced, roughly speaking, “Eh-ya-fyak-la-yoe-ku-kull”), which in 2010 spewed a huge column of ash that disrupted air travel over much of the northern hemisphere.
To encounter the culprit, board a superjeep for a private tour across the dramatic lunar landscapes and icecap of Vatnajökull, trusting the hardy vehicle’s oversized tyres to traverse fierce glacial rivers. After immersing yourself in the highlands’ stark grandeur, descend south-west to absorb the verdant beauty of Thorsmörk (literally, ‘Thor’s Forest’), guarded by a trio of glaciers, its valleys blessed with twisted birch trees and ribboned with streams. Just to the south lies Umi Hotel, set alongside the Svaðbælisá River, affording sweeping views across the south coast to the Westman Islands and inland to lowering Eyjafjallajökull.
Be serenaded by seabirds at Dyrhólaey
The monumental rock arch that bookends the peninsula at Dyrhólaey, looming 120m from Atlantic surf pounding the coast below, would be extraordinary enough in itself. But from late spring the cliffs that flank this photogenic crag host thousands of Iceland’s most charismatic inhabitants: puffins. These comical creatures, so graceful underwater yet clownlike in their ineptitude on land, are among several seabird species that nest on the rock faces here. To view their antics, carefully pick your way along the paths to the cliff edge overlooking the arch, or roam the black-sand beach at nearby Kirkjufjara, where soaring sea stacks stand sentinel amid the raw North Atlantic.
Soak away the stress at the Blue Lagoon
The volcanic activity that built Iceland, and which now powers much of its lights and heating, has a delightful side-effect – one that’s most evident at the Blue Lagoon on the Reykanes south-west of the capital. Here, wellness-seekers steam and soak in milky-blue thermal pools surrounded by craggy volcanic rocks, applying silica mud masks to leave faces clear and glowing. But while upwards of a million people flock to the Blue Lagoon each year, you can sidestep the crowds with a visit to the adjacent Retreat Spa, with its secluded lagoon hidden amid folds of lava. Book a private session to soak in peace, enjoy an in-water massage and undertake the ‘Blue Lagoon Ritual’, applying silica, algae and other minerals to rejuvenate and exfoliate the skin, stimulate circulation and energise mind and body.
An out-of-the-way alternative to the Blue Lagoon lies 65 miles east of Reykjavík, in the village of Flúðir: the Secret Lagoon – reputedly the oldest pool in Iceland, fed by hot springs maintaining the pool at a balmy 38-40C year-round. It’s a simple set-up, but that’s its charm, with entertainment limited to the nearby geyser that erupts every five minutes or so.
At a glance
Car hire for 8 days
2 nights at Hotel Ranga
2 nights Fosshotel Glacier lagoon
1 night at Hotel Umi
2 nights Reykjavik
Privately guided superjeep adventure in Thorsmork
Tailored to you exactly
We have been at the forefront of creating amazing holidays to Iceland for 37 years. If you’d prefer to visit these locations on private guided tours, we can arrange that. In addition to hotels, our portfolio also includes a selection of hand-picked, private luxury houses and villas in extraordinary locations.