One family, many characters…
In a decade of travelling the world with our kids, we have stayed in some interesting hotels. We’ll never forget the Latvian establishment made entirely out of chipboard, or the working hospital on top of a former nuclear bunker. They were quite basic and quite mad. But in Iceland we came across a chain of Icelandair hotels where individualism, luxury and imaginative design and marketing combine in a typically creative Icelandic way….
World’s tallest man welcome.. and smallest too
Hannah is sitting in a chair made for the world’s tallest man. It was constructed shortly before he visited Reykjavik from his home in Turkey.
“Was it a surprise?” I ask Guðlaugur Kristmundsson, known as Gulli, who is giving us a tour of some of the quirkier rooms at Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura.
“No, we knew he was coming. That’s why we made the chair.”
But I meant for him, the big guy. Was he surprised to get this giant chair?
“Yes.” Gulli replies. “He cried. It was so emotional for him. He said it was a feeling he hadn’t had since childhood; sitting in a chair the right size for him. Interestingly, the world’s smallest man stayed with us four months later,” he says, pumping up the story even further. The world’s tallest man followed by the world’s smallest? I am starting to wonder if he is telling me a tall tale. But then this is the country of elves, so small people are seen quite often around here.
“Can I sit in the teeny chair?” whispers Hannah as we make our way down the corridor to the bedrooms Reagan and Gorbachev stayed in (not together I assume) during the famous Reykjavik Summit.
While they may have been the most powerful men on earth, it seems they weren’t big enough to warrant their own chair.
Bringing the outdoors indoors
The Reyjkavik Natura sits on the edge of town, quietly overlooking the city airport. Once upon a time this airport was the hub of all Icelandic international flights and the hotel (then known as Hótel Loftleiðir) was at the centre of things. But these days only private and military aircraft land here and the hotel has had a total makeover. Some might think a quiet out of town spot a disadvantage but Icelandair have turned it to a positive.
As the name suggests, this place is nature themed, drawing inspiration from nearby Nauthólsvík, a unique beach with geothermal hot pools, and the unusual wooded hill opposite (there are very few trees, woods or forests in Iceland). Inside all is nature inspired too. There are flower rooms. There are rooms dedicated to poets and artists. There is a relaxing naturally heated spa. In fact indoors the whole hotel is a shrine to the outdoors. There are display cases of birds and animals, nature paintings on the walls and books on the tables. In reception and the restaurant there are all manner of locals hanging around, all made from wood, each one a work of art. One is a shepherd, happily herding his flock. There are three sheep at his heels, although by rights it should be four.
“There’s a black sheep in every family isn’t there? Our black sheep is outside, doing his own thing,” says Gulli. Sure enough, the black sheep is spotted out on the patio. It’s not unusual for these sheep to move around; in fact it’s the job of the receptionists to make sure they keep popping up in different places.
And there’s entertainment on site too with a hotel cinema that shows films about Icelandic nature and also hosts weekly storytelling evenings. Storytelling in Iceland is a tradition born in the days of the Sagas. It’s kept alive in a more modern format here each Thursday night when guests and visitors alike are invited to snuggle up with blankets, pillows, hot chocolate and biscuits to listen to stories from Icelandic authors, told (in English) by the hotel’s official storyteller.
One family, many different characters
I think Icelandair Hotels have something good going on here. They’ve mastered how to do a theme hotel, and rolled the concept out. A good handful of their nine hotels distinguish themselves in the tourist market by their unique branding and themes. There’s the golfer’s hotel, the food lover’s hotel, the wilderness hotel, the ski hotel. There’s the partnership with the Hilton, Reykjavik’s flagship hotel, which provides me and the family with a room with a view to die for. “We think of Icelandair Hotels as a big family,” says Gulli. “Even though there are many characters, each is a very different person.” I think he’s met my family.
On the third night of our stay in Reykjavik we move into town to meet the newborn in the family. Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina is so young that it was only christened the night before at its official opening party. The view from our room is a ship out of water. Literally. The red, white and blue vessel towers above the people out for a walk in the dwindling daylight.
The Reykjavik Marina is an old paint factory set on the edge of the harbour. It makes its past the focal point of its identity. The walls are decorated in knot wallpaper, there’s knotted rope in the glass cabinets and the TV remote hangs in a net bag. The library looks like it’s constructed from driftwood, on the walls are shipping receipts from a time when things were cheap here, on the ceiling above my bed is a giant picture of a fishing boat coming in. In this hotel the inside reaches outside too in great stripes of colour that run from the bar of this old paint factory through walls and windows and into the Marina beyond.
Spin but not as we know it…
The Icelandic people seem to have a certain genius for taking something that could be seen as negative about the country and turning it into a positive. But this is not spin, it’s a kind of quirky truth telling. Perhaps advertising agencies from around the world should send their interns to Iceland on field trips. No paved roads? Then come and have the ride of your life in a jeep. Active volcanos? Have you ever explored one? It’s light all night? Just right for a spot of midnight golfing. It’s clever but there’s no disguising or mis-selling, more like bringing the obvious to your attention then putting a humorous or positive twist on it.
Take the Blue Lagoon for instance, apparently Iceland’s most popular attraction and a magnet for anyone coming to or from the airport. Now we all know it’s a luxury geothermal spa. But did you know it’s also connected to the nearby industrial water heating complex; you pay to bathe in hot water which is a by-product of the plant next door. It’s all very clever, safe, efficient, perhaps even health giving, but you wouldn’t think the location or source of the water would make great marketing material. But they do here.
From the waters of the Blue Lagoon the steel pipes and towers of the plant are in full view and no attempt is made to hide them. In fact the whole industrial business is pointed out in the various information plaques telling you the history and geography of the attraction; and this curious juxtaposition makes the place what it is.
Back in the Reykjavik Marina a sign on the wall of our bathroom flags up the lack of space, advising us it makes the acoustics perfect. It recommends we take advantage of this by singing in the shower, as a prelude to singing to the staff on reception who, we are assured, will respond by singing a traditional Icelandic folk song in return. It’s honest, engaging, and very, very Icelandic. And I have no doubt the staff are primed to sing. Only thing is I’m not Icelandic or brave enough to test it.
What’s the most creative and inspiring place you’ve stayed?
This post is part of our Iceland Season. We visited Reykjavik for the Children’s Culture Festival and spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike. We’re grateful to Visit Reykjavik, Icelandair and Icelandair Hotels, Reykjavik Excursions and The Blue Lagoon for their support in helping bring you this season of posts from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival.
Read more from our Icelandic Spring 2012 Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:
- Looking for the Source – preview post
- First impressions – arriving in Iceland
- Not your usual Golden Circle tour
- Letting go of the reins – Icelandic Horse Riding
- Making music with a carrot – Contemporary Music for Curious Children
- 8 things that make Iceland the most creative, kooky place I’ve been
- Does a happy revolution sound like this?
- Whale watching or whale eating – what’s would rather you do?
- Spin but not as we know it – the Icelandic art of marketing
- Posts from our Adventure Islands Season in Iceland and The Faroes