The term “experiential luxury travel” has actually been around for a long time, but in recent years it has become more and more popular, to the point where it has quickly became the de facto way in which many luxury travelers prefer to see the world. For me personally though the definition has two different aspects. There are some travel experiences, some entire trips even, that are so exceptional they become luxury travel experiences. These run the gamut, from African safaris to a cruise around Antarctica, but their commonality is that they are remarkable activities that do more than just take you to a new place, they transform who you are as a person. The second definition is more mainstream, which is luxury travel but luxury that doesn’t cut the traveler off from the places they visit. Thankfully, this has been the norm lately and all of the luxury travel experts have been quoted saying that experiential travel is the new luxury, and I couldn’t agree more. Sure, spending some time at a nice tropical resort where you do nothing but rest by the pool can be fine, but many people want more than that. They want to get out and explore, experience local communities and cultures and feel like they’ve actually traveled somewhere. Nice pools exist everywhere, but those cultural connections, those are unique.
Experiential luxury travel is possible in many parts of the world, including one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet – Iceland. The country is unique in how it approaches luxury and, until very recently, more mainstream luxury experiences weren’t available. Iceland though has quickly adapted to its surge of interest and today there are many experiences around the island nation that exemplify the modern meaning of experiential luxury travel and why it’s such a fun way to see the world.
Experiences are everything
When it comes to experiential luxury travel in Iceland, the emphasis is entirely on the activities. One of the many reasons why tourism in Iceland has exploded is because the sights around the country as so very unique and remarkable. Whether it’s searching for waterfalls or boating around a glacial lagoon, the activities in Iceland are amongst the best in the world. Here are just a few of the many experiences in Iceland so unique that they automatically become luxurious in nature.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – Global warming is the reason we have to thank for the emergence of this lagoon fed by glacial waters and chock-a-block with calved icebergs in all sizes, shapes and colors. 75 years ago it didn’t exist, but today it’s one of the top attractions in the country. There are a few different options to experience the lagoon, from just admiring it from the shore, to taking a duck-boat ride to the option I selected, a Zodiac boat tour. The Zodiac is, I think, the best option, if you really want to make the most out of your once in a lifetime experience on the lagoon. For more than an hour, our captain took us up to the foot of the glacier itself as sheets of ice crashed noisily into the water below, and dodging in between icebergs throughout the lagoon.
Blue Lagoon – The Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most popular tourist activity and photos of the hazy thermal waters usually find their way onto calendars and in magazines around the world. I’ve visited a few times, through both the normal entry and via their luxury package and the differences couldn’t have been more dramatic. Given its popularity, the Blue Lagoon can be a very busy place with hundreds of people scrambling around the facility in a kind of somewhat organized chaos. The Blue Lagoon luxury package removes this chaos and for me was the perfect addition to my luxury Iceland trip. The experience is limited to just 6 groups of two – no more than 12 people will ever be in the Exclusive Lounge area, and that’s on a busy day. The lounge area includes 1 private dressing room/shower facility for each group of two, which are locked and secured using individually keyed wristbands. The rooms are in what the folks at the Blue Lagoon call the Exclusive Lounge, which is a private lounge area adjacent to the main Blue Lagoon. Inside is a roaring fire, plenty of places to lounge about, snacks and drinks and a couple of different private entrances to the lagoon itself. In the middle of a chilly winter, this meant I didn’t have to run from the locker room in my trunks into the freezing air before walking into the spa itself. Instead, I slowly acclimated using the private entrance, a James Bond-like secret door that leads directly into the pool. That level of exclusivity and service guaranteed a relaxing Blue Lagoon experience, instead of a chaotically disjointed one and my time spent there was as calming and therapeutic as I had hoped it would be.
Into the Glacier – On my most recent trip to Iceland there was one experience near the top of my list – spending some time in the heart of a glacier on the special Into the Glacier tour. A few years ago, a group of intrepid folks designed and dug out the first and largest man-made ice cap glacier ice cave at the massive Langjökull glacier. Since then they’ve been taking folks from Husafell to the very top of the massive glacier for a once in a lifetime walk through glacial caves. Climbing onto the specially designed trucks at Husafell, we made the hour-long trek to the glacier on what was a surprisingly beautiful day. With clear skies we could see for miles, admiring the pinks and reds bouncing off of the snow-capped mountains. The cave experience itself was just as special as I had hoped, making it well worth the years long wait to finally enjoy what really is a once in a lifetime adventure.
Accommodations are nice but…
Until just a few years ago, visiting Iceland was a novelty for the international tourist. Then, overnight really, Iceland turned into the hottest tourist destination on the planet. While the tourism infrastructure is pretty good, as a country Iceland has struggled to keep up with demand. This is most notable in a couple of different aspects of the travel experience, but especially food and lodging outside of Reykjavik. The capital city is fine in regards to hotels, although it could use more of them. In the past couple of years new ones have popped up that do indeed offer a luxury experience, including the new Sandhotel in downtown Reykjavik. Once you leave the city limits though, everything changes. Restaurants outside of rest stops are practically nonexistent as are hotels. There are some though, like the Icelandair Hotels, strategically placed around the country and while they are good, they’re not a true luxury experience. However, some establishments do call themselves luxury hotels and, in comparison to the rest of the country, they are indeed on the higher end of offerings.
Hotel Ranga – Driving up to the hotel, conveniently located along the Ring Road, I was excited for my stay, one that promised to be an experience and much more than just a nice place to spend the night. Checking into my room, I opened the door and was blown away by what I discovered. The suites at the Hotel Ranga are decorated by theme, each of the 7 continents are represented. I was booked into their Asian suite, and it was as if the door I opened transported me to Kyoto. Every detail, from the shoji screens to the traditional bathtub and wooden slippers in the bathroom were straight out of a Japanese design book, and a great introduction to the incredible level of detail for which the hotel is known. One of rural Iceland’s few luxury properties, everything at the hotel is executed perfectly from the service and rooms to the fine-dining restaurant that was one of my favorite meals in Iceland. Add in the pastoral beauty of rural Iceland on the hotel’s doorsteps, and this really is a must-stay hotel along the Ring Road.
Hotel Husafell – Luxury travel comes in any number of forms, but in the case of the Hotel Husafell in West Iceland, it is a more experiential form. Part of the luxury found here is the amazing location in which the hotel finds itself, offering guests access to some of the most exciting adventures in the country. That doesn’t mean that the hotel itself isn’t a luxurious experience, it certainly is. With just 48 guest rooms, the hotel has the feeling of a retreat instead of a hotel; a rural getaway to escape the stresses of modern life. Inside the design is what I’ve come to expect from great properties in Scandinavia and certainly in Iceland. Muted colors but high design in a way that is complementary to the natural environment instead of in opposition to it. Leather couches I could sink into with a cup of coffee and a book, plush rugs and plenty of windows throughout the property show off the gorgeous natural setting. In addition to its location, the hotel has plenty of perks to offer lucky guests. One of my personal favorites was the access to the hotel’s thermal pools. Open year-round, the complex consists of four pools heated to a variety of temperatures and also includes complimentary use of the hotel’s float water therapy. In the middle of a freezing cold winter, there’s nothing better than sinking into the warm waters of the thermal pools.
Sandhotel – New boutique hotels in Reykjavik are starting to open, offering discerning guests something different away from apartment rentals and the omnipresent CenterHotel chain. One of these great properties is the unassuming but truly exceptional Sandhotel, part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection. Although it was a new name for me, I quickly understood its quiet brilliance and in a very short period of time, the Sandhotel became one of my new favorite hotels in Reykjavik. There’s an excellent reason why I’d never patronized the Sandhotel though, it’s newly opened – first accepting guests in the summer of 2017. Its incredible location is one I know well, Laugavegur. This hip street is home to shops, cafes and restaurants, including my personal favorite the D’Italia. Everything in Reykjavik is an easy walk away and I was excited to experience what is a new trend in Reykjavik, luxury boutique hotels that offer guests a sense of place as well as comfort. I’ve stayed at many different hotels in Reykjavik over the years, almost never completely happy with the experiences. Either the rooms were too small, the staff too rude or the location too inconvenient to warrant a second stay. Sandhotel is different though; it’s the first time I’ve left Reykjavik completely happy with the hotel experience and that, above anything else, has endeared them to me forever.
Getting there in style
Another development in Iceland tourism is the number of airlines now servicing Keflavik International Airport. One of the mainstays though still offers what is my favorite luxury air experience, Icelandair. Making the best out of narrow body transport from the US to Iceland, their business class cabin, which they call Saga Class, is one not to be missed. The Saga section is comprised of 14 seats in what many frequent fliers may recognize as a common design in domestic US flights. The seats are wide and comfortable, although they lack a shell design and don’t lie flat. Luckily, many of the Icelandair flights, including the one I was on, are short so it’s really not an issue. At least it wasn’t for me. What I did enjoy was extra space and comfort, which is always appreciated for someone tall like me. Add in a fantastic lounge at KEF and delicious food onboard, and it’s a fun and luxurious way to travel to and from Iceland.
Total experiential luxury travel package
Iceland isn’t a country that naturally lends itself to luxury travel. It’s a rough and rugged place and the spike in tourism is a fairly recent phenomenon. Frankly, they’re still catching up but that also means that it is a great time to visit and make the most out of the luxuries that are already there. But more than spas and conveniently located hotels, the real key to luxury Iceland travel is the freedom to do whatever you want with ease and comfort, exploring to your heart’s content.