Hotel Ranga's suites follow the theme of a continent, such as South America. // © 2017 Hotel Ranga
Feature image (above): The property is located about an hour drive from Reykjavik. // © 2017 Hotel Ranga
For weeks leading up to our late November trip to southern Iceland, and then each day once there, my friends and I anxiously checked the region’s weather forecast. We longed for clear, wintry skies to accompany a lack of light pollution — the magical formula for spotting the elusive aurora borealis.
But after four consecutive days with nary a glimpse of this wispy green light show, our hope had dwindled. At Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon, an Australian couple ruefully told us that we had missed a spectacular show by one measly night. The next evening, we drove outside Hofn in high spirits, only to discover the sky aglow in a dim pink instead of green, the consequence of stormy weather and smog from the nearby town’s streetlights.
On the eve before our flight home, we arrived at the 51-room Hotel Ranga in Hella, Iceland, crossing our fingers that the patch of bad luck would change with the hotel’s remote location, which is about an hour drive outside Reykjavik.
A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the four-star, eco-friendly boutique property sits on a desolate swath of land, with no other buildings or trees for miles. There are only far-flung and snowcapped mountains that look almost two-dimensional in their perfection; the tranquil East Ranga river, a brisk walk from the hotel; and, closer still, three geothermally heated hot tubs for guests.
Aware that most visitors will have a bucket list item to check off, Hotel Ranga presents a range of services for potential northern lights viewing. Outdoor benches are intended for contemplating the sky, and guests can borrow thick blankets and one-piece, astronaut-like suits to stay warm. There’s even an optional wake-up call should the lights materialize, unannounced, in the dead of night.
But for clear evenings lacking any chance of the light phenomenon appearing, the hotel has dreamed up a stunning stargazing experience (and “sungazing” during Iceland’s fleeting summer season) for guests through its Hotel Ranga Observatory. Open since 2014, the observatory — which is solar-equipped, features a retractable roof and is considered the most advanced of its kind in Iceland — houses two high-quality telescopes on computerized mounts for tracking the sky. Here, Saevar Helgi Bragason, a Reykjavik-based science communicator, astronomy teacher and author, regularly leads free tours for hotel guests.
“With the unaided eye, we can see roughly 2,500 stars from Hotel Ranga,” said Fridrik Palsson, general manager for the hotel. “All of them are part of the Milky Way. The closest ones are less than 25 light-years away, and others are perhaps 2,000 light-years away. In Iceland, the sun is visible for about four hours during the darkest part of the year, making it possible for us to observe the stars for about 20 hours nonstop at a time.”
At check-in, my travel companions and I eagerly jotted down our names and room number for the northern lights wake-up call, then headed to our guestroom, passing a 10-foot-tall polar bear named Hrammur (“paw” in Icelandic) along the way. (We were later told by Palsson that the bear, perpetually frozen in a menacing stance, works in the hotel security department and handles all complaints.)
Our double room with a corner bathroom was small but had three beds, perfect for our trio. And like the rest of Hotel Ranga, it was exactly how one might picture a cabin set in Iceland’s often bracing atmosphere: warm in both color palette and temperature, as well as slightly kitschy. (Shimmy up to the whiskey-stocked bar near the lobby, for example, and wooden legs topped with a flirty skirt will serve as your barstool.)
Other accommodation options include standard guestrooms and seven popular junior and master suites, which are themed after each continent. The suites are decorated with artifacts and furnishings from their respective continent, such as a set of tribal drums in the Africa suite and Japanese shoji panel screens in the Asia suite.
Our dinner at the on-site Ranga Restaurant, which overlooks the nearby river, was a grand affair in ambiance, presentation and taste. Initial hesitation fell away to curiosity, then delight, when we indulged in the “most Icelandic” items of the gourmet menu: reindeer carpaccio and smoked puffin to start, with pan-fried Arctic char and lamb two ways (slow-cooked and cured, and smoked and pan-fried) to follow.
But before we had sat down to commence our Nordic-inspired feast, Hotel Ranga employees announced that the evening’s entertainment, starring the inimitable aurora borealis, was to take the stage after all. Grinning from ear to ear, we rushed outside in our borrowed puffy suits, with camera gear in tow. At long last, there they were: the northern lights, shyly dancing across a night sky dotted with winking stars and radiant planets.