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Independent Minds: Fridrik Pálsson, Hotel Rangá

Treating his beloved homeland with the care and respect he shows his guests, learned from his childhood days on a farm in Northern Iceland and later during his thirty year career in the fishing industry, sustainability has always been a way of life for Fridrik Pálsson. Hospitality comes naturally to this friendly host, who can often be found sipping Brennivín with travellers at Hotel Rangá, his homely log cabin hotel in the Icelandic wilderness.

Making the most of its striking setting in Northern Lights territory, it is impossible to leave Hotel Rangá without experiencing the natural beauty of its surrounding volcanoes, black beaches, glaciers, and thermal springs thanks to an extensive list of outdoor activities curated by Pálsson and his local guides. The star of the show is the hotel’s state-of-the-art observatory, with an optional wake-up call to make sure you never miss the sky come alive at night.

By day, guests are fuelled by modern Nordic cuisine at The Rangá Restaurant overlooking East-Rangá River, renowned for salmon fishing – bringing his seafood expertise to the table, the farmer’s market concept menu uses seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, and has become one of the country’s leading gourmet destinations.

What does being ‘Independently Minded’ as an hotel owner mean to you?

I have had the experience of running my small hotel both in a chain and independently, and there is a major difference in the way that you can improve and tailor the customer experience as an independent hotelier. For example, you can offer whatever services you like in the way that you believe will make the customers feel happy and welcomed.

I became a hotel owner at the age of almost 60 years; 30 years prior to that, my career required me to stay in different luxury hotels for up to 200 nights a year. Pretty early on, I figured out that staying in smaller, privately owned hotels made all the difference. I learned that the owners were keeping their eyes on everything in the hotel from day to day, constantly striving to do things better which is now my own aim as a hotelier.

What was the inspiration behind the hotel, and where do you continue to find sources of inspiration?

I had retired from working after 30 years in the international seafood business and took over the hotel almost by total coincidence. I had always had a dream to run a restaurant but never thought I would run a hotel. But our experience shows that for a small country hotel, it is absolutely imperative to run the restaurant and hotel hand-in-hand. Being a hotelier soon became my passion, and this has truly turned into my retirement hobby which is fantastic because there is never a dull moment.

How do you think your hotel stands apart from other boutique hotels?

We are the only hotel in the world—that we know of—offering guests both a great location to see the Northern Lights and stargazing tours every clear night in our private observatory. I got this idea when I noticed guests sitting outside, waiting for the Northern Lights. I wanted to create a place where our guests could experience the wonders of the stars. The resulting observatory is only 150 metres from the hotel with two world class telescopes, perfect for stargazing. Offering this experience in addition to a wake-up call service for the Northern Lights makes us unique.

We also pride ourselves on featuring local artwork throughout the hotel—I have invited many local artists to paint a mural in almost every room. These murals are totally unique, but all feature some aspect of Icelandic culture and history. Speaking of décor, our suites are another one-of-a-kind offering that guests love. Each suite is in the style of a different continent, and I worked personally with expert craftsmen to make every suite feel authentic. For example, you can visit Asia for the night and really feel like you are there. The ceiling is modelled after a 4,000-year-old design, called a Kyoto Ceiling; there is also a wooden bath, and then there are real shoji doors that you slide back and forth.

In addition, our hotel is in a prime location for everything that Iceland has to offer. Guests have fantastic access to nearby sights along the South Coast and many different activities. The possibilities are endless.

If you only had 24 hours to get a taste for your hotel experience, what would you recommend a guest must do?

If you only had 24 hours to visit our hotel, we would suggest that you arrive in the middle of the summer to experience the midnight sun—when we have 24 hours of daylight. Upon arrival, we would recommend that you don’t sleep much but rather use your room to change clothes and eventually take a little nap to refresh. You can check-in around 3pm and stay in our Icelandic Suite, and get a welcome drink at our well-known whiskey bar.

Afterwards, you would go on a buggy tour with a local guide and drive across Iceland’s famous black sand beaches with gorgeous views of the rugged landscape. You will come back to the hotel for dinner at 8pm in our top-rated Rangá Restaurant. The menu will consist of reindeer carpaccio followed by our famous wild mushroom soup, locally-raised Icelandic lamb and a delicious dessert made with Icelandic skyr.

Then you will prepare for a leisurely round of midnight golf under the midnight sun, or perhaps an easy trail ride as Icelandic horses are well awake at this time. You would return at around 3am to take a little rest. You can then wake up at 7am to soak in our geothermal hot tubs outside the hotel to be fresh and ready for our champagne breakfast at 8am.

At 9am you will be picked up in a Super Jeep to go for a pleasure ride, perhaps to the beautiful nature reserve Þórsmörk or the glacier Eyjafjallajökull. Obviously, you have already negotiated a late check-out, so upon returning from your tour you will indulge in a nice coffee and a slice of Hnallþóra (Icelandic cake). At that time, we expect you to want to stay another night after your many adventures the day before.

How would you describe your own perfect luxury experience?

I always choose small hotels knowing that the service will be personal and that you mean something to the staff as well as the operation. I do this because experience has taught me this much.

Do you have a vision for the future of the hotel?

Sustainability is the name of the game for Icelanders. We were at the forefront in setting catch limits by managing our fishing efforts, which is the livelihood of our country. In that way, we have protected our very important natural resources so in a way sustainability has been going on for years. I have a clear vision that we protect our natural resources and the beauty of the country as our main goal. What’s more, we go out of our way to practise sustainability from day to day in the hotel—whether using green and renewable energy, practising recycling, or buying as much as possible from local suppliers.