If I drew a picture of what a perfect holiday looked like for me two years ago, it would have featured a bar somewhere hot with palm trees and a social vibe. Not, I’d imagine, an isolated 18th-century sheep farm in the wilds of northern Iceland, where dawn is at 11am and dusk in the early afternoon – which is where I found myself this winter.
As my travel tastes have evolved so has my interest in wellbeing, but I’ve fallen in and out of love with the concept, finding myself getting swept up in big commitments and therefore failing in almost all my efforts. I settled on honest ways to feel healthy, like tucking into an organic Sunday roast after a 12-mile hike in the Yorkshire Dales. I also started jogging home from work, a functional journey. That felt more like wellness to me.
When the opportunity to experience Deplar Farm, a remote-as-anything boutique hotel in Iceland’s Troll Peninsula, came up, I could feel that yearning rise again. Eleven Life, the hotel’s new wellness programme, was exactly what I was looking for and I was desperate for a slice of detachment in a faraway place.
It took 10 hours to get there from Heathrow but that frosty nip of night air slapped my face like a hit of raw caffeine and I knew the trek had been worth it. The hotel, crouched in the fold of two sweeping hills etched with snow like a Picasso linocut, was a sight in itself: a dark wood, grass-encrusted, converted farmhouse – complete with a geothermal pool – in the Fljot valley.
Inside, cottage-cosy interiors have a hunter’s lodge vibe with a mix of Scandi-style furnishings, snowdrift-deep beds, crackling fires and a sleek granite grey spa. In the evenings guests gather around a horseshoe-shaped bar for antioxidant-rich mocktails. The feeling is one of homeliness, to the point that guests are encouraged to wander around in robes and eat dinner en famille in pyjamas.
Instead of giving up the things you love, the programme is all about incorporating fitness on-the-go and practising small, incremental challenges called “marginal gains” with the belief that if you make a series of small adjustments – like stretching at the end of the day with yossage balls, or light breathwork sessions – your general health will improve. It’s also known as “habit-stacking”.
The gains were laid out on cards we received at the end of each day. “Gratitude”, for instance, really stuck with me. Laid on top of a writing journal, it highlighted a 2011 study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being that said 15 minutes of journaling your gratitude before bed helps you sleep better and longer.
Some days we did low-intensity activities such as whale watching and balance training. Other days we raised the intensity with interval training as we hiked up Siglufjaroarskaro, snow spikes on shoes, and enjoyed a spot of axe throwing. Silent night walks were also available. It was heavily reinforced that if we didn’t feel like doing something, we didn’t have to.
The most interesting – and out-of-this-world – activity was the Viking sauna, set in a grassy knoll. It involved chanting to ethereal Icelandic music as general manager Tony tapped us with birch twigs, interspersed by dips in the icy plunge pool. Sweating sheds the body of toxins like zinc, copper and mercury, and 3C (37F) pool increases blood flow, enriching the body with oxygen and enhancing endorphins. For me, it also aided a good sleep.
Food was on another level, but it’s not news that Gardar Kari Gardarsson, Deplar’s executive chef, is Iceland’s best (he has the award to prove it). His modern take on classical Icelandic cuisine is reinterpreted for the wellness programme (but still looks like something from a Michelin-starred menu) and uses products such as lamb from the neighbouring farm and herbs and fruit (angelica seeds, Arctic thyme, crowberries) foraged locally. Vegetables are produced by a farm in Hveravellir, which uses geothermal heat in its greenhouses.
The trip was a gentle way to enjoy the roots of what makes one happy, and if you’d prefer a raw diet and more fitness excursions, that can be arranged too. Many of the exercises available, like intuitive eating, breathwork and gong baths, are bang on trend for 2020. But it wouldn’t be possible to have an experience like this without the location.
As I sank back into the geothermal pool after an exquisite meal, and looked up at the greenish glow of the Northern Lights, I felt every inch the grateful urbanite, drifting into my thoughts after a day learning how I can apply those small changes when I return home, and reflect on my incredible holiday, gratefully.
Rates for Eleven Life start from £2,350 per room per night (based on two people sharing), including a consultation, guide services, gear, meals, minibar, non/alcoholic beverages and transfers to Akureyri Airport.
Read the full review: Deplar Farm, Iceland