Annie Lindgren, Sunshine Ink

Link to the photo album: 

I left the country for the 2023 holiday season, spending 16 nights in Iceland and Belgium. This would be my first solo trip to another country and my first time in Europe. Like every big adventure I find myself on, I learned a lot and saw beautiful and exciting things. Here is more of that story.

December 19, the same day the Grindavik volcano erupted,I flew to Iceland, arriving at 600am, skipping a night’s sleep. I stayed four nights in a lovely tiny home, Air BnB, in the countryside along the bay near Borgarnes. There were four exciting adventure days around West Iceland and the Golden Circle. 

Christmas Eve, I flew to Brussels and took a train to Antwerp, where dear friends greeted me. I had a lot to learn about navigating city life in Europe, and I am grateful for Kathleen and Don, who have been ever-present for so many of these giant leaps out of my comfort zone. Spending Christmas Eve, Day, and New Year’s Eve with them was so much fun in Belgium. 

Friends were in Belgium for National Cyclocross races, and I attended one with them (the day I learned to navigate the train system!), but I didn’t enjoy the people-filled, chaotic vibe of the races. I did fall in love with Fritz (fries) and mayo at the race and was grateful to be wearing my shoes that had survived muddier conditions. 

While they went to races, I stayed back in Antwerp to work or visit other parts of the country, and we would meet back up at night like roommates to watch the race (the one they just came from). It was like having race announcers in the living room, except for the additional ‘there I am!”s. I took two big day trips to Amsterdam and Ghent.

I parted ways with friends and Belgium on January 2 and spent two more nights and days exploring South Iceland before heading home mid-day on the 4th.

I struggle with how detailed I want to be with trip reports. I travel around and find the most outstanding beauty in things less touched by humans. I never want to be the cause of something being loved to death. 

 I will split this trip based on country and experiences, but the stories shared will be in no particular order. There is more of the story to share, but I hope to do future blogs on topics like ‘tips for traveling solo in other countries. 

Iceland, Dec 19-24, 2023, and Jan 2-4, 2024: Finding a new favorite winter wonderland. 

  • When I committed to spending six days alone in Iceland, seeing the Northern Lights was on my bucket list. In 6 nights, I did not see them (I was looking at local forecasts and the sky at midnight, but sadly conditions weren’t right). Turns out they are more elusive than I gave them credit for! And, that I have future trips to plan for on that bucket list. 
  • I carefully planned around the volcano, watched for updates, and educated myself on the dangers. It started rumbling in November, and was erupting on the same Peninsula as the airport I was flying in and out of. I was really hoping to see an active volcano while in Iceland. Instead, I had clouds blocking views, roads closed in all directions, and no intelligent way to get close enough. I tried! But, onto the next Island (come on Big Island of Hawaii, show me your volcanos! )
  • While the above two bullet points may sound like a letdown of a trip, Iceland was far from that. The ocean coasts were stunning and primarily covered in black sand beaches. I saw glaciers, hot springs, lava tubes, geysers, waterfalls, geothermal sites, lots of volcanic terrain, blankets of snow that went on forever, the space between continents, and bits of Icelandic History. Iceland is fantastic, and I am excited to return and experience different seasons. 
  • The food was delicious. I tried to eat out once every day and hit a grocery store in Reykavik on day one that supplied food for the rest of the meals. 
  • My rental car for both ends of the trip was a Dacia Duster, which was a manual diesel SUV that got excellent gas mileage and never left me stranded. I drove through some blizzards and snow drift-covered rodes but made it out unscathed, ….except for the two times the wind blew the door closed on my leg. When I returned home from the trip, I had to retrain my brain to stop defaulting to holding the door with all my might whenever I was getting in or out of the vehicle. 
  • Iceland is a beautiful and fascinating country. In the winter, there are only about 5 hours of daylight, and even when the sun is up, you don’t really see it because it is on the horizon. This translates to the landscape being in sunrise color and lighting throughout the sun being ‘up’, which made the snow-covered, blue-watered, occasionally steamy terrain even more stunning. It was sometimes brutally cold, with wind and temps in the single digits and decreased visibility due to wind-blown snow. Doing a little extra bundling up was worth it to experience the beauty of Winter in Iceland.

Belgium and beyond, December 24, 2023-January 2, 2024: Finding a new favorite way to spend holidays.

  • I have friends who feel like family, and an opportunity to spend the holidays with a few of them while also visiting Europe for the first time from a shared base camp was my biggest driving force for this leg of the trip. I had some days in Antwerp when I felt overwhelmed by the city and worried I didn’t have what it takes to travel solo in such people spaces. But, my friends helped me learn the train system and how to get around, and after a few days of adjusting, I took two big solo day trips, one to Amsterdam and the other to Ghent. 
  • I love European countries’ public transportation systems and walkability. The history and architecture is unlike anything we have in the US. And the food options were endless and delicious. I fell in love with Belgian chocolate and waffles. 
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the outings and sites in Belgium and Amsterdam. I visited many museums, from art to history, to musical instruments and chocolate. I visited castles and bell towers, explored canals by boat and foot, explored botanical gardens and churches, and enjoyed the warmer climate. It rained a lot, but it was never below freezing, and the plants remained green. I rocked my rain paints on New Year’s Eve, bought and destroyed a cheap umbrella, and got incredibly muddy at the one cyclocross race I attended. 
  • I missed some sites due to insufficient time or not making reservations in advance. The Anne Franke House, Van Gogh Museum, and the city of Bruges were all places I really wanted to see. I will have to return (and may next year, with a bigger group of friends).
  • The holidays were so much fun, exploring Antwerp on foot and through the palate. We spent Christmas Eve exploring the historic town center and Christmas Market, eating Italian food, and then heading home for a movie at a movie theater across the street (we saw ‘Wonka’). On Christmas Day, we received a private tour of Snt. Paul’s Church did more exploring and ate at a Nepalese restaurant. On New Year’s Eve, we gathered with the masses to watch fireworks go off from a barge on the river and experience nightlife in Antwerp. The historic buildings and streets were extra beautiful decorated for the holidays. It felt like my new favorite way to spend the holidays. 
  • Belgium was fascinating in all its different languages. I used an app to translate ingredients on food, as I have some food allergies, and it was hard to know which language I was translating from when there were around five non-English ingredient lists on packages. Barley is ‘Orge’ in French, ‘gerst’ in Dutch, ‘Cebada’ in Spanish. You grow accustomed to being surrounded by people but unable to understand what anyone is saying. I learned to say ‘English’ when people asked me questions in other languages (fortunately, most spoke some English). I remember being at the airport, in line to get on the plane back to the US, and finding it strange to hear people conversing in English with American accents. 

I took some time off work for the holidays but also worked hours while on the trip. I was the ‘farthest one away’ on one of the live grant webinars I participated in at 930pm one evening in Iceland. Adjusting work hours to 7-8 ahead was awkward, but fortunately, my coworkers tolerated my weird hours. 

Overall, it was a successful and spectacular trip. There were some struggles, but I worked through them and gained confidence along the way. I managed the whole trip without catching anything except for bed bugs… hoping it’s a first and last for that. I did have a few challenges being solo, such as navigation and being treated like crap by a car rental employee. But, mostly, I was just mistaken as a local (in both Iceland and Belgium). 

Here is a link to the album of favorite photos from this trip: