I admit that I love winter – bring on the sub-zero temperatures, the snowfall and frozen landscapes. As long as you are prepared with adequate layers and outdoor gear and have a crackling fire to retreat to, there is nothing more beautiful than a bluebird winter’s day outside! Some may think me crazy, but in late January, I headed north to Iceland for a strategic winter sortie. Although Iceland has long been a favorite amongst Frontiers clients (we’ve been going regularly ourselves and sending clients there for the past 40+ years, long before it was trendy), current figures are staggering with an estimated 2.1 million visitors in 2017 which is no small feat for a tiny island nation who boasts one of the world’s highest literacy rates, yet one of the smallest populations at just 337,000.
All of us in the travel industry have been trying to unravel Iceland’s meteoric rise in popularity as a destination in recent years. Icelandair has expanded their lift to 18 cities in the US and the low-cost international carrier, WOW offers non-stop service to Iceland from 14 cities on a year-round basis. Second tier cities like Cleveland, Kansas City, Cincinnati, St. Louis and my home town of Pittsburgh are now connected with Iceland…who knew? One has to wonder where all of this demand is coming from? And how is Iceland’s infrastructure dealing with all of this growth? These were just a few of the topics on my mind as I navigated the arrivals hall at Keflavik Airport which was teeming with humanity at the uncivilized hour of our arrival, 5:45 a.m. Two quick ginger shots at the trendy Danish outpost, “Joe & The Juice” cleared the cobwebs of a short night’s sleep.
I’ve long known the fondness that Icelanders have for trolls – these mythical dwarf-like cave dwellers feature prominently in the country’s folklore and fables called “sagas” – you can even have your picture taken with one outside an enterprising shop on Reykjavik’s High Street (whose unpronounceable name consists of 24 consonants!) But I knew nothing of the Troll Peninsula, in Iceland’s northwestern corner, whose spell-binding beauty revealed herself to me in the days ahead. The genesis of this winter trip was an invitation from Eleven Experiences to visit Deplar Farm, situated on 3,000 acres on the afore-mentioned remote peninsula. By the way, this is not the easiest place to get to – but oh, so worth it!
Unfortunately, Iceland’s domestic flight network operates out of Reykjavik’s city airport which is literally five minutes from downtown, but less convenient for international arrivals. We transferred from Keflavik International Airport nearly an hour into town, stopping at one of my favorite spots, Sandholt Bakery, for coffee and a pastry, and checked in with Air Iceland for our 50-minute flight north to Akureyri. We were met by “Biggi” who commandeered one of the most impressive vehicles I’ve ever seen – a totally “tricked out” black Mercedes Sprinter raised up on tundra tires. Its daunting height, girth, and blackout windows looked like something Star Wars character, Darth Vader, would covet. We set off on the 90-minute journey to Deplar, most of it on a good paved road that hugged the dramatic coastline of the Arctic Ocean, punctuated by passage through four tunnels, one of which is 7.1 km long! Our trip took more like two hours because we stopped all the time for photos, one spot more beautiful than the next.
The name “Deplar” means “spots”, back in the day, when you looked down from the mountains, the farm appeared as small spots. Turning onto the track that leads to the farm, we paused at to take in the expansive view of the Fljota Valley and could barely make out the spot in the distance that was Deplar. Designed perfectly to blend into the landscape with its timber construction and grass-covered roof, this 13-room former sheep station, now considered the country’s premier luxury property, would be home for the next few nights. We were welcomed by the lovely manageress, Aslaug, with a glass of champagne and shown to our Gallery Room on the main level of the lodge which has fixed king bed, spacious bathroom, step out balcony and a loft accessed by ladder which could be handy for families traveling with children.
Next up was a briefing with our guide, Gestur, to plan out each precious moment of our stay, which having been here just one hour, I realized was already way too short. He mentioned that Deplar’s very own Snow Cat had just groomed the Nordic ski track that encircles the lodge and so we opted to give that a try in spite of the setting sun and headed next door to the “Svarta Brekka,” which is a fantasy sports shed containing every type of outdoor sporting equipment you could dream of. Donning flashlight headlamps, we headed out on cross country skis for an hour of adrenalin pumping exercise with a full moon rising overhead and retreated to the geothermal heated pool. Richie and Ivan manned the swim up bar with an inventive array of cocktail selections.
I could have happily soaked there for hours, but alas, it was time to move onto dinner which was served in a quiet alcove of the Great Room. A multi-course farm-to-table menu was beautifully presented featuring local specialties like whale, salmon and cod, each complemented with a wine pairing from Richie. The plan for tomorrow was recapped: Gestur would take us on a snow mobile safari through the mountains with our lunch destination Ghost Farm, a once derelict outbuilding on the farm, reinvented in Eleven’s inimitable style. Massages were booked for the afternoon and I retired high on anticipation.
Lobster daintiest an Icelandic delicacy.
After breakfast, we headed back to the Svarta Brekka to be kitted out with snowmobile suits, helmets and special boots. Feeling like the “Michelin Man,” I approached the fleet of snowmobiles with a healthy dose of trepidation — they suddenly appeared large and terrifying. Gestur suggested a practice loop around the lodge and after barely a nano-second; I volunteered not to drive and to be a passenger! It was a bluebird day and we set off making virgin tracks over hill and dale in a single file line, stopping at intervals to check in on each other and take pictures of the vast and amazing surrounding. The snowmobiles were state-of-the-art with heated handlebars (which I gripped for dear life) and a luggage compartment for camera gear and day packs.
At last, after about 90 minutes, we could see Ghost Farm nestled in the valley and set off knowing that a roaring fire, hot cocoa, and a fully flushing bathroom awaited us. We drove the snowmobiles right up to the snow-covered front deck, peeling off helmets and layers and looking down the valley, we posed the question – is it possible to take the snowmobiles all the way to the sandy beach of the Arctic Ocean? Gestur reckoned that yes, this was indeed possible. Thinking we were in such a unique spot to experience this ourselves, we jumped back on the machines and headed for the coast. The first part of the trip was easy flying over the crusty snow, but as we descended into the town of Olafsfjordur, navigating the ice-encased lanes of the town was tricky. I was so thankful not to be driving!
At last, we arrived at the point where the snow met the black sand beach of the sea and paused for a well-deserved photo op. Feeling hungry at this point, we were all anxious to get back to Ghost Farm and tucked into a hearty stew of lamb shanks personally delivered by the chef from Deplar via snowmobile, of course. This tiny one-bedroom cottage is also used for honeymooners or couples wanting to get away from it all. We had a champagne toast and then donned all of our gear to head for home in the waning daylight.
My hands were permanently cramped from holding on so tight, but I have to admit that in spite of my fear and getting a little outside of my comfort zone, it had been a spectacular day and these memories would burn brightly for months to come. I could not wait to get back into that geothermal pool, my daughter sampled the Isopod, a psychedelically lit free form saline tank containing 1,350 kg of salted water apparently great for your joints and all that ails you. Richie was spot on in the bar, enthralling us with his mixology skills and invented a new cocktail which he aptly named “I almost crashed my snowmobile.”
It was such an exhilarating day and I thought how spot on their mission statement is: “Our purpose is to custom make powerful experiences that impact the people who impact the world” – a lofty but inspiring goal and one that Deplar Farm delivered in spades.
This exclusive hideaway, a natural playground, is open on a year-round basis with heli-skiing in the spring, fly fishing, horseback riding and mountain biking in the summer and fall. They are great with families and this would also be an ideal takeover venue for a special event – the lodge has 13 rooms but optimal capacity is 21-22 people. It’s pricey but all-inclusive and utterly unforgettable.