I cannot wait to go back to Hotel Rangá in the middle of Iceland. This is the retreat for 360-degree views and, as far as the eye can see, no other signs of habitation. It is, admittedly, about a two-minute walk from the main building, a hut that turns out to be an advanced astronomical observatory that so excited two NASA scientists they have already booked for a week in 2020.
Why was I there? I had met the owner Fridrik Pálsson at a Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) meeting and I was more than intrigued. A taxi from Reykjavik was arranged by his quality manager – yes, Hotel Rangá employs a minutiae-obsessed professional for only 52 rooms.
Ninety minutes after leaving the Icelandic capital we turned off almost-deserted Highway 1 along a 1.3-kilometre twisting tarmac drive, with barren moss-covered lava on either side. The sprawling C-shaped hotel, comprised of one floor (mostly), with two floors at one end, has tan-coloured wood beams with sage corrugated eaved roofs. Beyond, say 300 metres away, is the river Rangá (“bendy”), which gives the hotel its name.
The hotel’s small lobby is dominated by a towering stuffed polar bear, all of 2.5 metres tall. One of the hotel’s two most Instagrammed spots, says Fridrik Pálsson, who has personally grown and designed the hotel from the 21-room ex-Icelandair property he bought from a friend in 2003.
He takes me via a games room, with a taupe leather Brunswick billiards table, Ravensburger jigsaws, chessboard and a good library, and on through to a memorable bar, then up to my room. We go up 18 tile steps, past watercolours of emotional local scenes by Derek Karl Mundell. It is midday and everyone else is out being a tourist, so Pálsson shows me some of the other upper rooms, themed in, say, ‘Japan’ or ‘Peru’.
I fall in love with ‘Antarctica’, which fortunately is going to be mine. This is an end space, eight metres deep by 12 metres wide, with windows on three sides, two of which include French windows on to a metre-wide balcony, rough wood rails and matching seating. Sit out here and watch that mesmerising landscape. The room has a white tiled floor. White walls rise to a low, white barrel ceiling with the blue outline of a full-size albatross giving a hint of colour. From the ceiling hang three lampshades, two black and one white, each formed of a skirt of plastic strips curving outwards. The black leather-based bed includes an incredibly comfortable mattress and bedding from Canad. One bedside table has a black Philips Eyecare light, the other the same but white – each side also has hotel-themed eyeshades and earplugs, and hotel-themed chocolate squares. The wall-set television is LG. Seating is dominated by four rolypoly black-and-white leather things, two armchairs and two sofas. In the middle a glass table holds such books as the ridiculous Spectrum, a no-annotation vanity job from HIP Hotels, sadly no longer run by its thoughtful founder Herbert Ypma. Much more sensible is the SLH catalogue, on another table.
The guide to services says both bars are open 24/7, and gives tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights (and suggests activities like whale watching)). I also like the hotel’s seasonal Rangá Review A4-sized newspaper, with things to do, guides to birds and flowers, and statements by chef Bragi Pór Hanson. Yet another tiered table holds a simple Nespresso, a kettle that glows dayglo blue when heating up, and an empty carafe with a neck label that says “enjoy our pure tap water”. Back by the room’s entrance, black, mirrored doors hide the closet, with robes, iron board, a safe, spare blanket and a simple white refrigerator with prices clearly on the outside of the door. There are masses of mirrors. I especially favour a standing white-edged mirror that, circus-style, makes me seem 50 centimetres taller and five kilograms lighter. I like having a set of ice-themed chess, each piece modelled, cast in resin and hand-painted by Ben Homer – a sheet tells me the king is a polar bear, the queen is a timber wolf, the bishop is a walrus, the knight is a leopard seal, the rook is a musk ox and the pawn is a king penguin (a glass table is appropriately marked with a board).
Also appropriate and unique are the two life-size penguin sculptures in the room. These flank an extraordinary Jacuzzi bathtub with inset shower: think of a 2.5-metre-long egg, partly opened up to become a basket that wraps around you as you bathe – its interior blue and clear mirrors match circular mirrors on the room’s wall above. The main bathing area is like an inner tent within the main room. The ‘tent’ has heated flooring, with two inset blue fish. A single oval basin and wall-set electric rail, with Grohe two-head shower, are complemented by a Geberit toilet: towels are Richard Haworth and toiletries are Italian-made Eco by Green Culture, distributed by ADA, Germany. A bag holds three 100-gram bottles of Iceland’s Argan bath salts, one each Arctic thyme, birch and seaweed.
On my way back through the bar, two post-prandial locals sit atop the other Instagram spot: a pair of Italian bar stools that look, waist down, like ladies wearing high heels. I have a birch bath in my Italian Jacuzzi, fall into my Canadian bed and fall asleep. September through April, apparently, most guests order nocturnal wakeup calls for the moment the Night Manager sees the aurora borealis – they tumble out, wrapped in blankets, determined not to miss the sighting (Fridrik Pálsson is, incidentally, not at all worried that in Norway, Trømso Villa Telegrafbukta is offering outdoor sleeping to see the aurora better: Hotel Rangá guests sensibly prefer indoor warmth).
I, however, am here in summer, so I sleep through to breakfast. Included in all room rates, this starts at 7am and by 7.10am the restaurant is busy with Back Roads bikers. Tables are now set with Brisettiti condiment mills, Chilewich mats, paper napkins and Villeroy & Boch. The central buffet has sensational caramel, plain and strawberry yoghurt bowls, plus skyr (local smetana with berries) and homemade breads for the Dualit toaster, ranges of smoked fish and meat/cheese slices, a bottle of local cod liver oil, French J Charpentier sparkling, and two do-it-yourself waffle machines that have youngsters standing in line. Excellent pump-pot coffee can be replaced by pay extra cappuccino. Included are such brought-to-order hot dishes as poached eggs with outstanding locally-smoked wild salmon, or omelettes with any three fillings.
There is just time to see the observatory, a four-metre by four-metre wood hut that Fridrik Pálsson constructed in 2014 – its whole roof slides back for viewing. Following specialist advice, he installed an Italian GM2000 10-micron from Italy’s Comec Technology, plus an Astro-Physics 900GTO Servo Drive from USA. Already, he says, at least 7% of room reservations come because of his observatory, and 100% of guests take part in nightly 9pm and 10pm guided views, led by professionals (and many then hurry out again in the middle of the night). Others come for horseback riding, fishing and so many other activities.
Fridrik Pálsson learned his marketing skills during 20 years as CEO of Iceland’s biggest cod exporter, during which he also learned which hotels he especially liked, when in London, Paris or Lisbon-Cascais-Estoril. Switching to his current life has not been that difficult – just as in his previous role, here in the middle of Iceland, his 50-strong team must try never to say no.