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A Family Trip to Remember

To celebrate her son’s high school graduation, Shannon McConnell and her family explored some of Europe’s most beautiful wild coasts on our 2019 Iceland Circumnavigation. Here, Shannon reminisces about the sights they saw, and the craft microbrews they sampled, on their last family trip before their son fledged the nest.
Ian with gunna and trausti

© Shannon McConnell

Ian McConnell, Trausti Gunnarsson, and Gunna Palmadottir on Iceland Circumnavigation 2019

Whales! Volcanoes! Little horses! Glaciers! Geothermal pools! What more do you need to know to understand just how awesome Iceland is? I’d been fascinated by this northern European country since I was a teenager. It sounded so remote. So exotic. And it’s home to one of Earth’s newest islands. How cool is that?

Iceland straddles a spreading ridge in the Atlantic Ocean. A weak spot in the Earth’s crust allows magma to percolate up through the ocean, causing geothermal activity and volcanic eruptions. I’d heard the story of how in 1973, a fissure opened up on the Island of Heimaey, causing lava to bury part of the island town. I’d seen photos of the houses encased in volcanic rock. When I learned this, I knew I had to go there!

Iceland sheep hills

© Michelle Valberg

Our son Ian was graduating from high school. What better way to celebrate than with a circumnavigation of Europe’s least populous country? He’d already travelled through several European countries, walking in the footsteps of great history, castles, and monuments. Now it was time to experience Europe’s more natural side.

Our first great adventure was actually getting to Iceland. Our flight from Los Angeles to Dallas and on to Reykjavík was delayed. Our airline re-booked us through San Francisco and Helsinki. However, our luggage enjoyed the original itinerary, so we arrived a day before it did. No worries. We had a couple days in Reykjavík prior to the expedition. This was enough time to enjoy the city, go horseback riding, catch a Game of Thrones tour, and collect our world-travelling luggage.

Iceland church road clouds

© Michelle Valberg

Aboard the Ocean Endeavour, we met new friends and got acquainted with all the planned activities. Over the next nine days we enjoyed spectacular weather! We hiked waterfalls in shirt sleeves and prowled Icelandic beaches in shorts. And we enjoyed lots of pubs. Iceland has some spectacular micro-brewery experiences and a group of us from the ship were determined to try as many as possible.

In Ríf we got dive-bombed by Arctic terns and we enjoyed beer and music at The Freezer, a trendy cultural centre. We hiked the Dynjandi waterfall. We learned about the herring industry in Siglufjördur. And we found a pub. In Grimsey we crossed the Arctic Circle and buzzed around giant basalt columns along the coast, watching puffins play in the summer breeze.

Ian poses at iceland waterfall

© Shannon McConnell

Shannon's son Ian poses on a waterfall hike

In Húsavík we went whale watching and enjoyed an amazing Whale Museum. Upon landing in Húsavík, Ian learned that his Advanced Placement test scores had been posted. So, he plastered himself against the doors of the closed tourist centre, sucking their wifi to learn his test scores. He passed all seven! This called for a celebration, so we enjoyed fish and chips under the mid-summer sun. And we drank some more beer.

We learned about farming in Iceland, and visited more waterfalls, museums, and filming locations around Akureyri. And we found a pub.

Our path around Iceland continued under sunny skies and the midnight sun. On to Seydisfjördur where we hiked up to a waterfall for beautiful photos. We walked the Rainbow Path to the town church. And we found… yes, the pub. After a midday drink on a sunny deck, we returned to the Ocean Endeavour where we continued the Adventure Canada tradition of a Polar Plunge. There, with a neighbouring ship’s passengers watching, all wondering just how crazy we must be, we jumped into the freezing water, and climbed out official members of the Polar Bear Club.

Whalewatching at husavik

© Michelle Valberg

We journeyed to the largest glacier in Iceland and spent a day becoming amateur glaciologists. Then we arrived in Heimaey, where we got to witness the reminders of that fateful night in January 1973 when lava poured across the landscape engulfing houses, barns, and roads. We spent time at the Eldheimar Museum where a fully destroyed home stands as the centerpiece of this poignant story. We passed by the Beluga Whale Sanctuary built in the harbour, awaiting the arrival of two beluga whales from China. That evening as we ate dinner, we passed the island of Surtsey. First piercing the ocean’s surface in November 1963, Surtsey is one of the youngest patches of real estate on Earth—the entire day was a stark reminder of the power of our home planet.

Guests at glacier

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Ten days after we first set out, we arrived back in Reykjavík and began our journey home. Just two days of rain, countless beers, a crossing of the Arctic Circle, and endless waterfalls later, we returned back to Los Angeles, where we arrived under cover of darkness. It was our first night sky in two weeks.

Our trip with Adventure Canada was everything we wanted it to be. We connected with Europe’s more wild, natural side. As an architectural engineering student, Ian connected with his interests in the cities we visited, especially at the cathedral in Reykjavík. And, as a family, we had the chance to connect for one last trip before our baby bird fledged the nest.

Another two weeks later, Ian and I found ourselves in the Sydney Aquarium in Australia. As we wandered the halls of this city aquarium, we encountered a large display about the Beluga Whale Sanctuary in Heimaey. Our Icelandic Adventure had continued some 17,000 kilometres southeast—proof that the Icelandic story lives everywhere.

About the Author

Shannon McConnell

Shannon McConnell

Adventure Canada Guest

Shannon has been introducing students to the excitement of space exploration since 1998. Working with NASA, she has led the Galileo Outreach Team, the Cassini Formal Education Team, and the Deep Space Network Education and Public Outreach Office.

Before her work in NASA outreach and education, Shannon worked mission planning and design for the Cassini Spacecraft, sequence design and execution for the Galileo Mission, and data analysis for the Magellan Mission.

In addition to exploring space, Shannon is a passionate traveler. She has visited over fifty countries, ten sovereign territories, and all fifty U.S. states. Her travels have taken her to all seven continents, across both the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, through the African Serengeti, and across Europe, among other places. She loves writing about travel.