A fortnight ago I escaped to a remote Eco Retreat called Deplar Farm, in an ancient, primordial landscape where people live a very different, and highly compelling life. Chief amongst any list of ‘the most beautiful places to visit on Earth’ will be found Iceland – I now understand why, and I hope this post shares some of that magic. It’s long been a romantic dream of mine to visit this isolated, mystical land with its rumbling geothermal engine, and tundra-punctuated basalt landscape; perhaps more interesting to you, my dear reader, is the recent proclamation in The Lancet that Iceland is ‘the healthiest country in the world’ alongside my homeland Sweden! But don’t be fooled, as it’s also one of the most inhospitable places to live on the planet – temperatures where I visited can plummet to an average of −30°C in January, and howling winds can lash at a brutal 160mph, with several meters of snow dumping daily. This means schools close, infrastructure suffers and cars avoid some roads for risk of flipping and/or just being buried! The land is barren and rugged but that’s bred a nation of robust and resourceful people. I was astonished by the natural beauty and the local food, but more than anything by just how much there is to do here! Click MORE to discover my expedition to Deplar Farm, the ultimate modern luxury retreat that I uncovered in the land of trolls and elves – a truly magical Icelandic saga!
It says something when countless films and advertisements have been captured in so small a country (including ‘Star Wars’, ‘the Fast and the Furious’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ – a total of 250 movies in under 10 years). That speaks to the rugged authenticity and spellbinding wow-factor of the landscape. From a more practical perspective, Iceland also hosted the trial sessions for Neil Armstrong & Co to practice their moon landings; some people, to this day, maintain that they simply landed here instead, but let’s leave it at that!
Geologically speaking, the country sits literally atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and is effectively just two continental platforms which are separated (and separatING) by an active volcano, which means the island is growing by about 2cm per year – the size of a fingernail. The country lies just outside the Arctic Circle but is situated on a quite unique geological ‘hot spot’ and is warmed by the North-Atlantic Current, meaning you get pretty reasonable summer temperatures and vast amounts of geothermal activity; but it’s called Ice-land for a reason. That poetic coexistence of ice and fire means there’s exciting activity all around the island. Some of the ancient hot springs are explosive geysers which regularly shoot towering pillars of boiling water that can liquefy wildlife on contact, but others are totally benign and in fact propose the perfect temperature for a spot of restorative bathing; these hot springs are equally popular with travelers and locals alike.
Of particularly interesting remark for me is the enormously skewed ratio of citizens-to-tourists; a mere 336,000 Icelandic souls permanently inhabit this island, yet over 11x that number visit annually for holiday purposes. 36% of the country’s GNP comes from tourism; I can’t imagine many (if any) other single-island countries that have such a dedication to travelers, and that all tells you that the hospitality simply *must* be good.
THE DESTINATION – DEPLAR FARM:
Just 40 kilometers from the North Pole, in one of the most remote enclaves of Iceland, Fljot Valley, you’ll find Deplar Farm Hotel, a former sheep farm and part of the Eleven Experience group – purveyors of fine ‘Experiential Travel’ to the international Adventure-set. Shrouded by a crown of towering snow-capped mountains, this place is wild, remote and isolated – it’s completely private and experiences some of the highest average snowfall on the planet in some brutal winters. This is the ultimate secluded adventure pad, pictured below in its snowier winter robes!
The hotel’s architecture celebrates the traditional Icelandic build – abandoned ships were historically turned upside down and clad with a moss roof, and the aesthetic here very much recalls that charming vignette. When approaching this hotel for the first time in one of their specially-adapted Mercedes’ (a sign of the comforts to come), you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a minuscule structure, shrinking into obscurity at the base of these monstrous mountains which would miniaturize anything. Yet when you enter the 28,000 square foot 13-suite uber-hotel it feels reassuringly airy, spacious, modern and light with floor to ceiling glass windows inviting the outside in.
A PLACE TO COME HOME TO…
Before arriving at Deplar Farm I was asked to fill out an extensive questionnaire to inform the hotel of any particulars. You can be as descriptive and detailed as possible, including foods which you like/dislike, music, activities etc. Based on this Deplar fashions a customized plan ahead of your arrival, and they pride themselves on delivering bespoke tailor-made experiences entirely in tune with your desires. If you return to this place (I can vouch that you’ll want to) you can expect that your favorite drink will be waiting for you with your favorite tune playing in the background. Deplar Farm store all your preferences for next time you stop in, welcoming you home.
When sitting down for your first breakfast you’re introduced to the chef, you’re also introduced to the waiter, the bartender and everyone else who works on the property. You quickly recognize who works there, yet it only occurred to me on my final day that they were all wearing a uniform. Subconsciously it had registered but the details here are so subtle and well-thought-out that it’s not obvious.
GO KEY FREE…
Unlike anywhere I’ve visited before (other than somebody’s house), you can roam the hotel freely; room keys are optional and most guests choose not to have them. There are snacks, tea and coffee in every room. Books adorn the shelves and you can ensconce yourself anywhere to lose yourself in a foreign world, if you fancy. In many ways, the homely and relaxed familiarity succeeds in that holy grail of the hospitality world – it feels less like a hotel and more akin to a villa with subtly supreme service. The flow of the rooms is beautifully thought through, and I found myself effortlessly gliding from one room to the next, enjoying the succession of communal spaces – as if it were my actual home.
Much as you might experience when arriving at an African safari, the journey is intrepidly off the beaten track, in a remote, isolated and completely foreign environment. You absolutely need a guide to reveal the unknown to you here, and having access to one who knows the area’s hidden gems is transformative and really allows you to immerse yourself in the ancient natural landscape, sped along by Deplar’s modern-day luxuries. Our guide was the incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and calming Michael Barney from Colorado, Silverton, who is also a heli-ski guru. He helps create this place into an adventurous man’s playground.
There are endless outdoor activities on the island including heli-skiing, Icelandic horse riding, hiking, fishing, kayaking, clay shooting, and many more. I’ve included a small selection of my images captured during this mesmerizing trip!
HELI SKI PARADISE
The Fljot Valley enjoys some of the highest average snowfall on the planet. Because of this, the route to Deplar is closed all winter, making it even more remote, private and unreachably wild.
During ski season, there are two helicopters on site; by scrambling the choppers, you could be fishing within 30 min (rather than enduring a 4-hour car journey) and can combine it with a spot of skiing thereafter.
Every heli program is completely custom made – should you wish you could cover just 5 runs or ski for 12 hours a day, come back for lunch or stay out. Skiing in Iceland sounds truly unique in that you can be 1850 meters up in the mountains with a view over the crisp North Atlantic Ocean and finish your long run at just 5 meters of elevation, right down by the ocean. You always have such a clear view of the sea and proximity. Obviously, given my visit was in summer, that wasn’t on the cards for me (I’ll shelve that for a future dream), and instead…
GETTING TO KNOW THE ICELANDIC HORSE
The Icelandic Horse goes back a thousand years. Settlers brought their horses from Scandinavia, but the horses couldn’t cope with the harsh climate, which killed the poor little things. So instead the Scandinavian horse was cross-bred with the independent Mongolian horse who’s more used to temperatures of -40 degrees! To this day, the law decrees that no other horses are allowed on the island. The riding is quite different – it’s a sensation of constant bouncing as opposed to the rhythmic up-and-down motion I’ve come to expect. For me, who as a young girl literally lived in a stable and had horse photos plastered on her wall, this was the dream! Riding an Icelandic horse through the Icelandic mountains is definitely one extra check off the bucket list! Seeing the delicate flowers up close, birds nesting, baby lambs and horse fowls, this was an experience not just for the body but for the soul.
HIKING THE TERRAIN!
Yet I found that the best way to see Iceland’s nature was by foot. In Iceland, there are some spellbinding hiking trails to discover. The air is impossibly fresh, imparting generous restoration upon the lungs and constitution, and the scenery is simply stunning – vertiginous heights, dramatic mountains, hyper-real waterfalls, adorable newborn lambs, and a simply awesome ocean. On one of our trails, we were treated to some secret hot springs; one hidden in a cliff face, in the ground we climbed down to discover a totally private hot spring, carved by glacial processes thousands of years ago, and yet filled with crystal waters.
Iceland, resting on a terrestrial ‘hot spot’ means there’s a disproportionate amount of geothermal activity just aching to escape to the surface. Deplar Farm is completely fuelled by a nearby hot spring which has been piped into the hotel. These springs and geysers are so numerous that you’ll simply find them all over the country; for some, the clue’s in the title and they are indeed boiling hot, but others might legitimately be re-named ‘tepid springs’, or perhaps ‘pleasantly warm springs’ – simply the perfect temperature to bathe in. Hot springs are said to have a number of health benefits including promoting the elevation of blood circulation, assisting with stress relief, and improved sleep quality, pain relief. Further, the water found in natural hot springs contains a variety of different minerals, including calcium and sodium bicarbonate, which are said to have a therapeutic effect upon the skin and broader constitution.
FISHING FOR SOMETHING…
Iceland is said to offer some of the best fishing in the world with a variety of rivers and lakes. Serious anglers will journey here just to experience it, and I know a few who’ve done as much! The hotel has direct access to the Fljotaa River which is teeming with wild salmon, brown trout, and arctic charr, amongst many more.
I thought I’d hate this experience but I absolutely loved it! Donning fantastic wetsuits which are surprisingly comfortable and breathable, it’s a bit of a different activity but remarkably demanding. Another superb way to observe the crisp Icelandic scenery from an alternative angle, there are hundreds of powerful rivers down which to kayak – some materially harder than others (I didn’t fancy the one pictured below!). My experience was such that controlling your vessel amidst the rapids takes great coordination, balance, foresight, and strength, but it’s utterly exhilarating and superb fun! If you’re looking for something a little less strenuous, kayaking on a still river is pretty special too; for me, the deafening silence of this land is astounding, both wholly inspiring and compellingly terrifying in equal measure.
It’s a contemporary and ‘relevant’ take on service – not overbearing, but rather understated, modern and of the highest quality, with all the ultra-luxurious details manicured into the provision. There are of course drivers on standby, a Michelin-decorated chef, and spa treatments under the northern lights. For the time you’re here, there’s the inescapable sensation that the place is yours, and no request would be too niche; ‘cinema in the middle of the night with pizza’ is but a helicopter’s call away!
Iceland is said to be the healthiest country in the world, and the cuisine is unquestionably a key part of that. Fishing used to be Iceland’s largest industry, it’s now second to tourism, and I’d say I can’t think of many places able to compete from a ‘freshness’ perspective. Deplar Farm is superbly advanced from this perspective!
Deplar Farm makes the most of the Iceland’s local surroundings; their Swedish Executive Chef Andrea Hurra and her partner Alex Thorsteinsson have put together a refined menu (always accompanied by a short but precise presentation) which is local, fresh and sustainable. The fish which arrives on your plate is caught locally only hours earlier; all products are bought from local farmers; indeed Deplar Farm’s mission is eventually to be able to harvest all their own vegetables on site. This is a compelling proposition, and the quality of the fare, combined with the exquisite and engaging presentation makes the nutritional component of an active escape here a very memorable highlight.
Each one of the 13 en-suite rooms have their own unique look and feel and are adorned differently. Having never experienced perpetual sunshine that runs far into the night, I was mildly worried about sleep interruption, but the rooms have perfect remote controlled blackout blinds to ensure delivery of a terrific night’s sleep, on vast beds with fluffy pillows. The finish is of a lofty quality, giving a reassuringly high quality sensation the moment you step into your room and start enjoying the details and touches.
Cement walls with wooden imprints. Minimalist, Scandinavian symmetrical. Floor to ceiling glass with a spectacular 3 wall view of the mountains outside. This country’s need for a hot bath and a restorative spa experience is, understandably, significant. This was one of the things I looked forward to the most at the end of an active day!
There’s an outdoor Hot Pool where one can lay on the immersed sleep beds – this is an exceptionally relaxing experience. Indeed, it’s possible to swim from the inside of the spa to the outside, and during winter, to sit in the hot pool surrounded by snow watching the Aurora Borealis cascade above. That sounds like the definition of magical, so I shall have to return to experience it!
There’s both an outdoor and indoor sauna; indoor offering floor-to-ceiling windows so you can sit inside and gaze out at the mountains, lake and sheep grazing in the fields. The outdoor sauna sits inside a little hill, much like a hobbit home with perfect access to the Plunge Pool…
The plunge pool enables something that’s very much a Nordic bathing ritual. Traditionally, as Swedes we used to (and still do) carve a hole in the ice, sit in the sauna and then when we’re just about ready to melt, we plunge into the icy cold water… Then back into the sauna, and repeat. This is very much the same, and is unlike anything you’re ready for; the cold hits you like a wave of heat. It shocks the entire system but you feel so alive, so energized, and invigorated. And bizarrely, when you step out of the water, a gorgeous sensation of warmth pulses through your body, tingling up and down. It is unworldly and absolutely amazing. There are a host of medically proven ‘immune system’ benefits to this practice, but it’s the lasting sensation of contentment, as if my body is smiling, that I take away from it, for the rest of the day. A must!
Then there’s the extensive range of treatments, the Sleep pod, and the ability to enjoy a session under the Northern lights in Winter!
THE FITNESS ETHOS
This country takes its health and fitness seriously; there is no fast food chain on the island, simply because when a major one opened up, nobody cared to go there, so it closed down. Children start with sports early – football, handball, swimming, and teachers emphasize the importance of proper nutrition to improve results.
Fitness competitions are big here, I know one Icelandic fitness winner myself and there have been several Strongman winners from Iceland including Magnús Ver Magnússon and Jón Páll Sigmarsson. People are outdoorsy and the climate requires strong mental determination – the lifestyle is ingrained in both the national psyche and people’s DNA – men work hard on fishing boats, historically carrying stones, and fighting as Viking warriors.
I could keep going but you’ve stuck with me an awfully long time now. In short, this is magical. The country is unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Deplar Farm hotel is truly the most refined and comforting way of experiencing Iceland that I could imagine. So many aspects of this escape have been astoundingly remarkable that it doesn’t really fit into the classification system of places I’ve previously visited. It has a unique energy which generated a compelling vivacity within me for quite some time after my return, and THAT is the sign of something special.