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Iceland: Exploring the wonders of the land of fire and ice

Iceland’s popularity with tourists has soared in recent years – more than six times the island’s population visited in 2017 – as more holidaymakers, explorers and adventurers flock to the faraway land of fire and ice. But it didn’t feel overcrowded or overrun during our February visit.

We touched down in the wintry wonderland late one Thursday evening as fluffy white snow fell and the twinkling lights of the city of Reykjavik glittered through the frost. Iceland is an easy, short flight from London and, before you know it, you’re stepping foot on an island that feels a million miles away from the UK.

After a quick dinner and good night sleep, we were up early for a jam-packed day exploring Reykjavik in the glorious sunshine. Reykjavik is a small city so a day spent pounding the streets is plenty to see it all, and you can explore everything easily on foot.

The capital of Iceland, Reykjavik is a small city and easy to explore on foot

We wandered along the seafront to The Sun Voyager Sculpture and the stunning, contemporary Harpa Concert Hall, before strolling down to the frozen Tjornin Lake. We got lost in Reykjavik’s streets and squares of chic shops, bustling restaurants and bars, and rainbow-coloured houses – all painted in bright and vibrant tones to help lift the town during the long, dark days of Iceland’s winters.

After a casual lunch in the super cool Le Kock, we climbed the gently ascending high street to the towering Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral before scaling the steeple for far-reaching views across the city’s rooftops to the glistening sea and snow-capped mountains beyond.

While the city is easy to explore under your own power, for the rest of our trip we required something with a little more horse-power (and I’m not talking Icelandic ponies!) Nordic Car Rental loaned us a car for the duration of our stay so we headed to the company’s city office to collect our keys.

Car hire is a great way to explore the stunning landscapes

While visitors can pick up the car from the airport, it was easy for us to find the city office and staff were extremely friendly and helpful, sharing local tips about where to visit and where not to visit.

As the sun began to set we jumped in our Mitsubishi Outlander for a short drive out to Nautholsvuk Geothermal Beach to enjoy views across the water at dusk.

After dinner and drinks at Hlemmur Matholl – a dining and drinking hall with dozens of pop-up bars and street food restaurants inside so there’s something for everyone – we headed out to the national park for our first night of Northern Lights hunting. With no luck.

Volcanoes, waterfalls, steaming hot springs and erupting geysirs are amongst Iceland’s natural wonders

The following day we embarked on our self-drive Golden Circle tour: Thingvellir National Park, Oxarafoss (‘foss’ means ‘falls’, and we visited a lot of those!), Laugarvatn Lake, Geysir, Gullfoss, Secret Lagoon Hot Springs and Kerid Crater.

The Icelandic landscapes are stunning and our whistle-stop tour took in the best sights from breathtaking waterfalls; exhilarating, erupting geysirs; steaming natural hot springs; and awe-inspiring natural landmarks.

The light was fading as we arrived at the stunning Hotel Ranga – our home for the next two nights. The striking hotel stands strong in a harsh and rugged landscape. While the blistering wind howls and the snow falls outside, inside the warm, wooden chalet-style hotel is a cosy and snug retreat from the battering winter weather.

Hotel Ranga provides a cosy and snug retreat with a range of rooms and suites

It’s like stepping foot inside a log cabin in the middle of the wilderness – but there’s nothing basic or minimalist about the interior of this four-star retreat.

The rich wood runs throughout the building, through the welcoming reception area and along the extended corridors to the rooms and suites. We made ourselves at home in our first-floor suite and enjoyed the stunning red skies as the sun set on the horizon.

Each of the suites are themed and we found ourselves in the North America suite. We were greeted by a much-needed bottle of red wine and, after a cold day exploring Iceland’s landmarks, I jumped in the stunning roll-top tin bath for a long, hot soak.

The North America Suite offers a rustic style bathroom with a roll-top tin bath

While there’s a little too much death adorning the walls of Hotel Ranga for my pescatarian liking (a stuffed polar bear greets arriving guests, animal skins and mounted heads embellish the walls, and chandeliers of antlers hang above the beds and tables) – but the same can’t be said for the restaurant’s menu.

Restaurant Ranga offers near-panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, overlooking one of Iceland’s finest salmon rivers, East-Ranga River. It would be rude, therefore, not to try the hotel’s salmon dish which couldn’t have come more fresh!

While I stuck with the local river offerings, my husband decided to try Iceland’s other delicacies including puffin. The food was beautifully presented and packed full of flavour, with high quality cuisine and an abundance of choice. Breakfast, much the same as dinner, was varied and appetizing – with continental options for all nationalities as well as local dishes like Skyr and honey pots.

The restaurant’s seasonal menu is inspired by modern Nordic cuisine

Ranga’s manager, Thor, spends his evenings going table to table in the restaurant to check on his guests and chat about their days. All of the staff are locals and, as well as providing efficient service, are happy to offer the best tips and advice on the local area.

But it’s during the depths of Iceland’s dark nights that Hotel Ranga really comes into its own. The hotel is perfect for avid stargazers or anyone with the Northern Lights on their bucket list.

The remote and rugged location means guests are undisturbed by any light pollution and you have the best opportunity to enjoy the sky’s stunning display – if the weather and aurora forecast are on your side. We had no luck on night one at Ranga and, after a couple of games of pool and a bubble in the hotel’s outdoor hot tubs, we called it a night – we had a long day to follow.

A trip to the Vatnajökull Glacier is a popular excursion for visitors to Iceland

We were up early to enjoy the hotel’s varied and tasty breakfast before hitting the road again in our Nordic Car Rental hire car. The Mitsubishi Outlander was perfect for the rugged terrain and harsh driving conditions here.

Outside, the tough 4×4 could tackle the battering winds and blistering snowstorms, while the studded winter tyres could handle any road surface, ice and snowdrift. Inside, we were warm and comfortable – the heated seats were a lifesaver, Bluetooth meant we could listen to music while we explored the island. 4G and Europe data roaming made it easy to use phones to navigate.

We had a long drive from Ranga to Skaftafell National Park – stopping off to explore the awesome Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui falls, and Skogafoss – before our adventurous afternoon hiking up the azure Vatnajokull Glacier and inside the beautiful ice cave. If you have the time and money to do one organized activity during your Icelandic adventure, this is well worth it.

Hotel Ranga is a prime location from which to experience the amazing Northern Lights overhead

Returning to Hotel Ranga for our final evening we set our Northern Lights phone alert again. Expectations low – the weather and aurora forecast were poor – we headed down for dinner.

Following a four-hour glacier hike and six hours of driving we were exhausted and, after packing up our suitcases, we retired to bed. But soon, the phone was ringing and we were dashing outside for our chance to see the swirling green Aurora Borealis overhead. And wow – it was certainly worth the wait.

Iceland offers spectacular sights, a captivating moon-like landscape, great food and warm, welcoming locals. But it also offers you a chance to see the unbelievable Northern Lights.

I could list a dozen reasons to stay at Hotel Ranga but I’m going to choose just one: the front-row seat it offers to the greatest show on Earth: the Northern Lights. And I could list a million reasons to visit Iceland but I’ll share just one: it’s a once-in-a-lifetime landscape that you just have to see to believe it’s beauty.

Prices from €320 for bed and breakfast in a standard room at Hotel Ranga (until May), or from €434 (from June).

Address: Hótel Rangá, 851 Hella, Iceland
Phone: +354 487 5700

Prices from €48 per day to hire a car from Nordic Car Rental.

Address: Hverfisgata 105, 101 Reykjavík
Phone: +354 771 4200