By John O’Ceallaigh
Iceland is full of surprises: the first thing I saw when I arrived at Torfhús Retreat was a chef giving a wall a haircut. About a 90-minute drive east of the capital Reykjavik and by the grand natural wonders that form the country’s Golden Circle trail, the rural resort is inspired by the form of traditional Icelandic Viking farms and features standalone residences and terraced cottages with grass-topped turf roofs, the type more commonly associated with the Faroe Islands. Incorporating the retreat’s restaurant, the main reception building is covered entirely in grass and wildflowers, and blends in almost completely with the surrounding meadows. As our car pulled up, the chef was slicing herbs from the greenery with a scissors – they would feature in that night’s dinner.
It was a nice touch to a property that was always intended to be a conduit to Iceland’s idiosyncratic and incredible landscapes. Its founders are the couple Siggi Jensson, a local, and Alex Hoop, whose roots are in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. She started visiting Iceland 30 years ago, drawn by her love of Icelandic horses. He made his fortune operating franchises for the likes of Accessorize, Monsoon and La Senza throughout Scandinavia. From speaking to the couple, it feels like Torfhús is a passion project rather than a business, which I mean as a compliment. The pair designed the retreat themselves and many of its components were built and assembled directly on the 50-acre site. As Siggi told me: “We don’t want to be ‘five star’, we don’t want to be starred.”
Nonetheless, with rates starting at €600 a night the resort is clearly pitched at wealthy consumers. Those prices correspond to the entry-level Torfbaer Suites, individual one-bedroom abodes set in three-unit terraces. Each cluster shares access to a geothermically heated basalt stone hot pool. While some negotiation might be needed regarding access times if you don’t know the residents in your neighbouring suites, those pools make for a cosy cocoon (with beer or wine brought over from the complimentary minibar) whether experienced under the midnight sun in summer or beneath the Northern Lights come winter. (Just watch out for the super-slippy slicks of mossy organic material which can occasionally form on the pool’s stone floor – Torfhús doesn’t use synthetic chemicals to clean the pools and while the water is filtered regularly this is something to keep in mind upon entrance and exit.)
Each with their own basalt stone hot pool, the Torfhús houses are larger, two-bedroom standalone properties with fully equipped kitchens, and that extra space will be appreciated by guests whose stays coincide with bad weather. While those guests might like to admire the Icelandic horses grazing directly in the fields surrounding Torfhús, the 50-hectare site is otherwise low on facilities. The assumption is that instead visitors will spend their days exploring the truly spectacular landscapes that surround the property.
The most obvious draw is the Golden Circle. For Siggi, this is “Torfhús’s back garden” and while its attractions – the boiling waters that shoot from the ground at the great Geysir, the pummelling Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvellier National Park – are well worth seeing, there are even more impressive sites nearby.
Powering through lunar landscapes in buggies one day on an excursion arranged by Torfhús, we made our way to the momentous Háifoss waterfall, which plunges into a canyon from a height of 122 metres, and onwards into Iceland’s remote Highlands, where we saw nobody in over an hour’s driving save for a group of men fishing silently and amiably in a pristine river. Siggi told me his team would occasionally leave more intrepid guests at a drop-off point further upriver so that they could then spend a day hiking downwards to some sort of civilisation. Even if walking for five or six hours they’d often have the trail entirely to themselves.
Guests also use Torfhús as a base for trips to Langjökull glacier, which is visible from the resort on clear days, and most thrillingly of all – for now at least – to visit the volcanic eruption at Mount Fagradalsfjall, some 90 minutes away. Having commenced in March, this is the longest ongoing eruption to occur in Iceland in over 50 years; while it could stop at any time and the intensity of activity varies from night to night, it is perhaps the most thrilling of all natural phenomena to be seen in the country. I hiked to the summit of a nearby mountain one evening to observe the eruption from a safe distance, admiring clouds dusted sunset-pink by the flares below and mesmerised by the glowing amber flows of molten lava that oozed from the volcano to the steaming valleys below. I’ve never witnessed something so innately powerful and primordial, it’s an encounter that will stay with me forever.
It’s access to such encounters that has contributed to Alex’s long-standing love affair with Iceland, and her many years of world travel that have contributed much to the hospitality concept at Torfhús. She’s clearly proud of what she and Siggi have created in this remote stretch of Iceland, and we discussed these things during dinner at intimate, timber-framed Torfhús restaurant, which is only open to guests.
Here chef Thorarinn Eggertsson shares a new menu every night (priced at €80 per person and good value for a high-end property in Iceland), with dishes made almost entirely from locally sourced produce (and presumably seasoned with herbs clipped from the restaurant’s wall). We dined on sharing plates of salmon caught in the local river, sea trout tacos and cod tempura one night; the next, we enjoyed asparagus and trout soup followed by Icelandic duck with sweet potato, yellow beets and raspberry sauce. It was all properly and impressively delicious, but the most memorable moment was when a ‘chocolate bomb’ dessert was dropped onto our plates from behind, a surprise kamikaze strike that provided an enjoyable jolt. As a means of ending a meal at a destination that is built on an appreciation for surprise and adventure, It seemed a fitting flourish.
Rates at Torfhús Retreat start from €600 per night to stay in one-bedroom Torfbaer Suites, including breakfast and a simple soup lunch if on property during the day.
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