What It’s Like to Stay in Iceland’s Most Remote Hotel

Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll is making Iceland’s central highlands an all-seasons destination for those adventurous enough to make the trek.

Hotel building with three stories in the middle of a snowy landscape with green northern lights overhead

The Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll’s remote location makes for great northern lights viewing in the winter.

Courtesy of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

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The vibe: A sleek retreat from the hoteliers behind the Retreat at Blue Lagoon in a less-visited part of Iceland

Location: Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland | View on Google Maps

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The Afar take

Iceland’s remote central highlands have long been off the radar for most visitors, but Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll, the first all-season destination in the area from the team behind the Retreat at Blue Lagoon, is a game changer.

Historically, the Icelandic highlands dominating the center of the island were a place where most didn’t dare to travel. Whether they were avoiding the glacier-filled landscape, the outlaws who retreated from authorities there, or the trolls rumored to roam the mountains, many Icelanders kept to the coastlines for centuries. (Some even believe the Knights Templar hid the Holy Grail in these mountains.)

Starting in the 1930s, naturalist and entrepreneur Guðmundur Einarsson went into the highlands and began teaching mountaineering classes in the Kerlingarfjöll mountain range. (The Kerlingarfjöll name itself comes from an 82-foot pillar of volcanic rock, the legendary remains of a giantess who lived in the mountains and turned to stone when touched by sunlight.)

It became more popular with locals in the 1960s, when a ski school opened on the original site of Highland Base in the Ásgarður Valley within the mountain range. Over the years, thousands of Icelanders learned how to ski here until the school shut down in 2000 because of increasingly poor snow conditions due to climate change. In the interim, hikers continued to use the A-frame cabins in the summer. The resort changed hands several times over the years, but the Blue Lagoon hoteliers took over ownership toward the end of the 2010s. They started renovating the existing structures and adding new ones made from sustainable cross-laminated larch timber that is designed to stretch and expand without cracking in the cold weather. (All construction materials were chosen in accordance with the standards developed by BREEAM—the world’s leading sustainability assessment method for buildings.)

With the addition of more upscale hotel rooms and suites, the 2023 debut of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll opened up the highlands to a new demographic of Icelanders and foreigners who previously might not be willing to make the trek because of the region’s remoteness and limited services.

“It’s a tough place [to operate a hotel], but that’s not a weakness,” said Magnús Orri Marínarson Schram, the managing director of Highland Base.

Armchair in front of picture window, with view of several A-frame cabins on a green hill

After a day outside, cozy up in front of a large picture window in the lounge with a hot chocolate and a book.

Courtesy of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

To keep the region accessible to people of all budgets, the retreat has campgrounds below the main buildings, and the original A-frame cabins and hiking hut have been retrofitted so that those who prefer more basic accommodations can rent them. (There are also 20 hostel rooms just off the main building.)

The hotel also aims to minimize its mark on the beautiful natural environment. In addition to being built with sustainable materials, the hotel and its newly opened hot-spring style baths and sauna are powered by geothermal energy sourced deep below the hotel.

Who’s it for?

Adventurous travelers of all ages who want to ski the region’s backcountry or hike to natural hot springs, but prefer creature comforts such as rain showers and spiked hot chocolate, will find themselves at home here.

Those tagging along with outdoorsy travel companions but who prefer indoor creature comforts can spend their days going from lagoon to sauna in the newly opened baths on site. Afternoons are best spent curling up with a book and a mug of hot chocolate on the nubby wool couches in the upstairs lounge in front of the wood-burning fireplace.

Due to Highland Base’s solitary location, this hotel is ideal for those who’ve previously been to Iceland and want to spend several days off the beaten path from the popular Golden Circle route. Although Highland Base is owned by the same team as the Retreat at the Blue Lagoon, you won’t find luxurious amenities, five-star service, and Michelin-star restaurants here. This is decidedly a more casual property.

Wooden exterior of a hotel building in the snow

The new buildings at the hotel are built from sustainable cross-laminated larch timber that is designed to stretch and expand without cracking in cold weather.

Courtesy of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

The location

“How did you like being in the middle of nowhere?” my driver asked as we departed Highland Base when I visited last October. He wasn’t joking—Highland Base is located just a dozen or so miles from the remote geographic center of the island in the Ásgarður Valley deep in the Kerlingarfjöll mountain range. To get there, it’s a three-hour drive (at least) northeast from Reykjavík, half on gravel roads.

Once you pass Golden Circle landmarks like Gullfoss and Geysir, the crowds—and paved roads—disappear. Plan for a bumpy ride and pack Dramamine for the drive if you’re prone to car sickness. When there’s snow on the ground, which can happen as early as mid-October, the trip can take six hours. Visitors need to pack their patience and keep their expectations ready for last-minute changes due to weather.

In the summer, guests are welcome to drive themselves to Highland Base as long as they can verify that their rental vehicle is insured for Iceland’s mountain F-roads. The hotel offers daily bus transfers from Reykjavik and from Gullfoss from July 1 to September 30. Because the highland roads are not serviced during the winter, Highland Base is only accessible from October 1 to June 14 by a 4x4 super jeep driven by a professional that the hotel can arrange.

The 2023 debut of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll opened up the highlands to a new demographic of Icelanders and foreigners.

The rooms

The more upscale offerings at Highland Base are located across multiple structures encompassing 46 hotel rooms, 2 suites, and 6 luxurious lodges. All are decorated in a Nordic style with blond wood, textured linen sheets, and reading nooks set inside large picture windows. Bathrooms include rain showers and bath products from the Blue Lagoon’s own skincare line. The rooms and suites are located in a separate structure attached to the main building via an underground passageway. For more privacy and space, the six lodges are stand-alone one-bedroom cabins decorated in a similar style; they also include sunken lounge areas.

A one-bedroom hotel suite with blonde wood and minimalist Nordic decor, with gray sofa

Inside one of the six one-bedroom lodges at Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

Courtesy of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

The food and drink

There is one casual alpine-hut style restaurant on site that offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast—included in the hotel room and lodge rates—is served buffet style with meats, cheeses, bread with cucumber, tomatoes, plus eggs, sausage, bacon. There are plenty of freshly baked pastries, traditional Icelandic skyr-style yogurt, and, for devotees of fish oil and its health benefits, cod liver oil shots.

Menus change seasonally, but typically lunch is hearty ski lodge fare like hamburgers, a vegan roast, mushroom soup, and lamb stew. Dinner is also served à la carte in the winter, with slightly more refined dishes like salmon, cured goose, pan-fried arctic char, and roasted cauliflower for vegetarians. In summer, dinner is served buffet style.

Large dining room with wooden walls and high ceiling, plus long dining tables and modern chairs

The expansive all-day restaurant at Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll has a casual ski lodge–style dining room.

Courtesy of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

Cozy and comforting desserts like brownies and a skyr yogurt mousse are available, but the sweet treat to try is the daily waffle bar served in the afternoon starting around 3 p.m. For U.S.$25, guests can order unlimited waffles fresh off the iron with whipped cream and jam. It’s an homage to the destination’s ski school days when kids were drawn off the slopes with the smell of freshly made Icelandic heart-shaped waffles each afternoon. Walking into the restaurant after a two-hour hike in the snow, I’ve never smelled anything more inviting.

The bar offers classic cocktails like negronis, Moscow mules, and whiskey sours, and hot chocolate can be spiked with Jokla, an Icelandic cream liqueur.

Staff and service

There are staff in reception 24 hours and full waiter service in the bar and restaurant. Daily housekeeping is available—don’t expect turndown service, though. Restaurant and bar staff are happy to help fill any specific requests—during one afternoon while we worked from the lounge we asked if they could make us hot toddies. Even though the staff weren’t familiar with the drink, they Googled it and brought us one of the best toddies I’ve had.

Aerial view of line of people backcountry skiing on a snowy mountain in Iceland

Private and group tours can be arranged for those who want to explore the surroundings via skis or snowmobiles in the winter.

Courtesy of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

When it comes time to explore the surrounding landscape outside, the hotel offers group tours with experienced guides for backcountry skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, as well as hiking and e-mountain biking in the summer. Private guides are also available to book through the hotel.

Accessibility

Despite its remote location, accessibility for all guests wasn’t an afterthought here. Guests can stay on the ground floor of the hotel building where rooms 101, 102, and 103 are fully accessible and built to accommodate wheelchairs. There are elevators in the main building connecting the restaurant on the ground floor, the lounge upstairs, and baths downstairs (which were also built with accessibility in mind). And though the main building with the restaurant may look separate from the hotel room building from the exterior, guests can enter the restaurant and everything in it via an underground passageway, which is helpful in avoiding the outdoors in inclement weather.

View outside to a series of pools from the inside of wooden sauna

The newly opened Highland Baths have a sauna and three outdoor pools heated with geothermal power.

Courtesy of Highland Base Kerlingarfjöll

Spa and swim

The most recent addition to the property is the on-site bathing area with a trio of geothermally heated outdoor lagoons and a sauna that opened in 2024. The Highland Baths, as they’re called, are heated by geothermal waters 3,200 feet under the hotel. They’re located just below the restaurant and are also connected to the hotel building so visitors don’t need to go outside to access the facilities. The Baths, which are included in room rates, also have a cold plunge pool and changing rooms. From $430

Lyndsey Matthews is the former senior commerce editor at Afar, covering travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.
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