Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s biggest lake, sits cradled in the snowy tundra 45 kilometres east of Reykjavík. Surrounded by mountains and dotted with islands, the shimmering water recedes into the hazy distance, semi-frozen in the depths of the Icelandic winter. Shards of ice clink up onto the pebbly shore like broken glass, and the cold radiating upwards from the still surface is tangible. It’s a huge, majestic body of water that dominates the area; a deep blue inkblot lurking in the monochrome landscape.
There are hundreds of tucked-away cabins and summer houses dotted around the shoreline, meaning the narrow road down the lake’s west coast is serviced during the dark season. Even so, the asphalt is iced over and thinly dusted with snow. The route passes a couple of farm buildings with flickering porch lights, winding gradually downwards, flanked by a steep forested cliffside on one side, and a precipitous drop to the water on the other.
Into the valley
Not far from the lake’s southern shore lies Nesjavellir, a geothermally active valley that’s home to the Nesjavallavirkjun power station. It also contains the Ion Adventure Hotel, our destination for the night. We circle slowly up the long driveway towards the main building, which sits low and discreet in the landscape, protruding from the hillside supported by an array of distinctive diagonal struts.
After checking in, we decide to make the most of the remaining daylight and head out to explore the hiking paths that crisscross the area. On the hillside outside the hotel, a sign signals several short routes to viewpoints over the valley. As we ascend the shortest trail, it quickly becomes apparent that we won’t get very far—the whole area is snowed in, with the yellow trail markers gradually vanishing into near-vertical banks and deep, wind-sculpted snow drifts.
We scramble up as far as a rocky outcrop that looks out towards Nesjavallavirkjun. The power station runs all-but silently, emitting billowing columns of geothermal steam that catch the orange evening sunbeams, casting dancing shadows over the white plains below.
The high life
As the sun sets, the temperature drops to energy-sapping levels, so we return to the hotel, striding through the powdery, thigh-deep snow. Ion is billed as luxury accommodation, and it more than lives up to the description. The bedrooms are crisply decorated and comfortable, coming equipped with tasteful artwork, king-sized beds, internet-connected flat-screen TVs, and views over the surrounding mountains.
At the far end of the hotel is a high panorama bar with floor-to-ceiling windows, minimalist decor, and a tempting cocktail menu. As we take a seat and warm up, a snowstorm sweeps in across the valley, the weather quickly blotting out the pink-hued landscape. Shielded from the howling winds, we look on in silent wonder—it’s like a ringside seat to watch the fierce elements at work.
The storm, it seems, is also staying the night, so we head to the hotel’s cosy restaurant to try the set three-course dinner menu. A bowl of creamy seafood soup is followed by a succulent lamb shank with sunchokes and puréed vegetables. Full to bursting after the generous main and a milk ice cream dessert, I retire to my room. With the sound of the storm in the background, I sink into the plush mattress and a deep, dreamless sleep.
By morning, the storm has passed, leaving the hotel semi-buried in a blanket of fresh snow. We decide to try out the hotel’s spa. Ingeniously located in a courtyard under the pillared section of the building, the outdoor hot pot is sheltered from the wind. The water ripples in the breeze, sending an inviting cloud of steam into the sub-zero air.
The water in the long rectangular pool comes from the power station, and so naturally changes in temperature from time to time. It’s just deep enough for a little swimming if there’s nobody else around. As we bathe and paddle, a brisk wind whips dusty snow across the water, and after a while I realise my hair has developed frosty icicles, but a few steps away there’s a coal-fired sauna that quickly melts them.
Fully rested and completely relaxed, we reluctantly check out. The lakeside route has become slippery with wet snow from the storm, so we decide to take the safer southern road back to Reykjavík. After coasting carefully around the iced-over lake of Úlfljótsvatn, we cruise through Selfoss towards the south coast, skirting past small villages and icy black beaches, turning towards Reykjavík via the Krýsuvík route.
The sunset begins just as we reach a dramatic viewpoint overlooking the eerily still lake of Kleifarvatn. We linger a while wandering around the zig-zagging walkway at the Seltún geothermal hot spot, taking in the otherworldly scenery and feeling fully replenished by this dreamy countryside getaway.