Travel: San Gimignano sunset

Travel changes us. Whether it’s a trip around the corner or around the world, travel has the ability to affect us in so many unexpected ways. Find out why where you are affects who you are and how to travel better, no matter where you go.


The art of cropping: In photography, travel and life

Why cutting things out improves what is left

Cropping — the cutting off or leaving out of areas of an image — is one of the most common yet powerful tools a photographer has. And the principle behind cropping — editing to reveal the most important element of something — applies to far more than photographs. As we’ll see, cropping has implications for how we approach many creative aspects of life including travel.

Cropping after the fact

Great photographers crop, but they usually do so mentally when framing their shot, seeing the final image in their mind before they release the shutter. Personally, I’m not quite there. More often then not, when I get home from a trip or photo shoot, I find that many images could stand a trim to improve the image I thought was there or, in some cases, to reveal an even better one.

Cropping: Val di Funes, image croppedThe photo above is a good example. You may recall this general scene from the article on the Dolomites. Here’s what the original looked like before cropping:

Cropping: Val di Funes - uncropped

I almost deleted this shot because at first it seemed like a picture of a big field with some mountains crammed in on the right.

I was actually trying to get the shot that most people take when they come to Val di Funes, this lush green valley in the Dolomites. Here’s an example of the more typical shot of the church with the mountains behind it:

Cropping: Santa Maddelena, Val di Funes, image cropped

It’s an interesting photo. But I still like the one of the field because it’s less typical. And even this one with the church benefited from cropping as this view of the original reveals:

Cropping: Santa Maddelena, Val di Funes - uncropped

In both of the above original images, cropping helps. With the first, it takes a so-so image and turns it into a strong composition. With the second, cropping improves an already interesting image by concentrating your eyes on the essential elements in the photo and removes some distractions like the white hay bales on the far left.

Cropping is for more than images

The same principles of cropping apply to most art forms, including travel. Writers edit. Chefs eliminate ingredients from recipes or replace them with something new. Composers take elements from a symphony that isn’t working and use those to create a smaller, yet more refined piece. And travelers? They choose to cut out parts of their itinerary in order to enjoy fewer places or experiences in greater depth. Here are some principles of cropping you can apply to travel or any creative endeavor.

Principles of cropping

  • When you cut out the non-essentials, you enhance what remains. That, is the heart of cropping, improving what is there by removing what shouldn’t be.
  • Cropping helps you discover something fresh in a scene, a focus beyond the obvious original intent. We like the familiar but we love the novel, especially when it retains enough of the familiar to be inviting. I once saw a wonderful photo taken near the Taj Mahal. But only a portion of that famous building could be seen in its reflection in a pool. The rest of the image captured the interesting people there. It was a new, intriguing way to view this iconic landmark and far more interesting by cropping out just enough of the more familiar.
  • You learn to transform the merely adequate. Cropping lets you take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. Each photo becomes a treasure hunt to see what can be improved by finding the true story in the image. Like the comment attributed to Michelangelo that within the rough block of marble lies a horse and all he did was to remove the parts that didn’t look like a horse, so too with a photo or trip. You crop out the parts that don’t fit the best story inherent in the image or experience.
  • You see the same scene but in a different way. You’re actually re-seeing it because cropping allows you to shift perspectives. Same with a trip: Eliminate a few activities and gain more time, and you’ll view what you do see in a different way than if you were rushed.
  • You learn to tell the true story inherent in the image or trip. You may not always consider your viewers when you snap your shot. But when you edit, you begin to think about how others will perceive the image. What’s the story you want to convey? Cropping helps you refine that story and craft a final image that “reads” and makes sense even if the viewer has never been to the location in the photo. On a trip, you define what you want from your time in a place then ruthlessly cut out anything that doesn’t fit. It sounds harsh, but the results can be extraordinary because you’ll have the trip that matters to you, not one that everyone else did. This is the same idea as that expressed in this article on how to enjoy a museum: by seeing less, you actually see more of what delights you.
  • Everybody crops. Every decision to forgo something in favor of something else is a form of cropping. Cropping is so familiar, we likely don’t realize what a useful tool it can be. Cropping is the difference between a first draft and a final work, the refining process that separates good (or even adequate) from great. With travel, cropping out the non-essentials is the difference between visiting a place versus truly getting to know it.
  • Cropping well only comes with experience. It takes time, exposure to good design and practice to learn what makes an image, an experience or any work of art “just right.” Guidelines such as the “rule of thirds” help, but practice remains the key. Same with travel. You learn your own pace and what to leave in and out only by doing it repeatedly.

The results of cropping: Less is more

Thus, if you’re a photographer of travel images, you may want to pay more attention to the cropping function. With it, you can recenter, rotate, remove and re-position. But most of all, far beyond the realm of photography, cropping serves as a vital discipline for all creative types, including travelers. It enables you to discover and highlight the heart of the image, subject or place and to eliminate the distractions and lesser narratives. You end up with less: cropping is inherently reductive. But that less is almost always more: a stronger image, story, point or trip. By taking away, you add. And the results can be spectacular.


Get more from a museum by getting less

Museums: HuntingtonHow to enjoy a museum more

Museums, particularly art museums, overwhelm me. And the bigger the museum, the greater the feeling of being thrashed by a wave of sensory overload.

I want to see it all. But in museums like the Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid, I simply can’t. Not at least in a few hours. And if I go beyond that, fatigue tends to mar even the best viewing experience. So, what’s the solution to getting the most out of an art museum in a short amount of time? Here are three solutions I’ve found that work well.

Choose your battles carefully

Museum: bust of insane man

As this and the following head shots show, art museums have interesting characters.

The same strategy that works for parenting works for visiting museums. Knowing you can’t see it all, choose only a few sections and concentrate on those. Forget the rest. Maybe you can come back later. Maybe not. But many museums now put their collections online so you can see what you missed when you get home. You’ll at least have seen in person those works of art that seem most interesting to you. I pay special attention to visiting exhibitions knowing that these will be the hardest to see again.

Play reconnaissance

Intentionally go fast just to see what stands out. No one said you have to appreciate every single artwork. Zip your way through until you find something interesting. Then, move into the next approach.

Go deep

Chinese sculptureStop and stare. Then stare some more. If you’ve found something you like, take time with it. This New York Times article from a few years ago recommends essentially the same thing. Peruse the paintings or sculptures until you find something that speaks to you. Then really look at it.

Here are two additional approaches I’ve found to help you do that even more effectively.

Sketch it

I’ve recently resumed an earlier attempt at drawing. I’m still no good at it (if “good” means capturing the image in its exact proportions), but that doesn’t matter. The very act of trying to sketch something helps me see it so much better. You literally see things you miss with a cursory or even extended examination. It’s like learning anything. You learn best when you teach others. Drawing is like that as well. You see best when you have to translate it into a different medium line by line, shape by shape, color by color.

Museums - The Five Senses - Sight painting

There’s a lot going on in this painting, The Five Senses – Sight by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1625). It’s a great candidate for looking more closely at the details.

Snap a detail

Can’t sketch? No worries. Try this. Take a photo instead. You can shoot the whole painting, but lately I’ve found a greater enjoyment of the whole work when I concentrate on just a part of it. Taking a photo of just one section that appeals to me is again, another form of translation. But instead of translating what I see onto a piece of paper, I’m translating what I see into an emotional experience.

Museums: The Five Senses - Sight: Detail

Here’s a detail of the same painting. There’s plenty to keep you interested in this one small section.

Let me explain.

Unless you’re an art historian, student or critic, you’re likely going to an art museum simply for the delight of it. I know this is hard to imagine if you don’t like museums. But somewhere along the line, we picked up this notion that art museums were all about culture and appreciation. They are, but that’s not all.

Let your jaw drop

Greek SculptureArt museums are, to me, places of wonder. Sometimes I’ll come across a work that staggers me. It is usually some piece I’ve never heard of before. Something that isn’t bogged down in expectations or hype. Other times — and this is where the details exercise fits in — I’ll see a piece and I may like it. But if I spend time with it, I find that there is some element that speaks not to my head about technique or lighting or the historicity of the piece, but to my heart.

With these small sections of details, my reaction isn’t to tuck the ear piece of my glasses in the corner of my mouth and nod philosophically. Instead, it is to smile. Maybe even sigh in a happy way. In those moments, I’m completely disarmed by the beauty of that one detail. It triggers something inside me. It connects to some inner longing or interest. I may try to figure out what that connection is. Or maybe not. Often, it is enough to just stand there and be enchanted.

Go slow and small

Roman sculptureSo if art museums tend to overwhelm you, don’t “go big or go home.” Instead, slow down and go small. Find the artworks that appeal to you, but also focus on the small sections or moments within those. Take a photo (where allowed) and capture that section as its own work of art. Some artists hate this. They feel you should appreciate their work as a whole. And quite often, you will. But other times, take the opportunity to find what matters to you in their work. Treat each piece like a “Where’s Waldo?” book or poster: find the secret gem within the bigger whole that resonates with you.

One aid in doing this is my guide to seeing the right details. Check it out if you want to get better at noticing and capturing details, either in photos or in writing.

However you do it, finding the works or even the details of the works that resonate with you will enable you to walk away from the museum happier, more energized and more inclined to visit other museums in the future.


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Museums: How to get more by getting less

Museums: Get more by getting less


Gardena Pass (Passo Gardena): Experiencing the best of the Dolomites in one breathtaking place

Gardena Pass - view with dog

The magic of the Dolomites

The Dolomites of Northern Italy are, to me, some of the most visually distinctive mountains in the world. The Himalayas are more extreme. The Andes longer. The Rockies higher. The central Alps of Switzerland, France, Austria (first cousins to the Dolomites which lay within the Southern Limestone Alps) are more famous. But the Dolomites can be just plain magical.

Val de Funes

Val di Funes lies in the eastern side of the Dolomites about a two hour drive from Gardena Pass

The limestone of the Dolomites affects both their shape and color. The hard, chalky stone wears down over millennia in such a manner as to create the dramatic jagged rows of peaks that, in some areas look like the Bumble’s teeth on Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and in other places, like lofty cathedral spires, castle battlements or simply bizarre rock formations on a massive scale. And the whiteness of the stone that gives the Dolomites its other name, “the Pale Mountains,” makes these peaks stand out at any time. But view them when the sun rises or sets and the mountains radiate Alpen glow colors ranging from soothing pink to purple to brilliant scarlet. Locally, they even have a name for it: “enrosadira” (from the Italian word, “rosa” for pink).

Gardena Pass: Santa Maddalena Church

Also in the Val di Funes, the Santa Maddelena church stands before the rose-colored mountains that make up the Dolomites

The sharp, spiky nature of these mountains at first reminded me of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. But the Dolomites’ appeal goes beyond the mountains themselves to include the lush green valleys, the quiet lakes and the tiny hamlets of surprising history and character that you find throughout the area. It’s a place I long to return to simply because every season will reveal a very different experience.

The various ranges that make up the Dolomites are part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site. In summer, many people come to hike, bike or climb. In winter, skiers throng the area enjoying the numerous downhill and cross-country runs. But if you visit the Dolomites in the shoulder seasons, spring or especially in early fall, you can enjoy their beauty without jostling others on the trails or getting stuck behind a dozen cars on the twisty mountain roads.

Gardena Pass

Experiencing the Dolomites in a single day

You can spend weeks, even months, exploring the Dolomites and still never see or experience all they have to offer. But if you want to get a sense of them in the shortest time possible, head to one of the range’s higher passes, both literally and figuratively high points of the Dolomites.

Three of the most popular are Passo Sella (Sella Pass), Passo Pordoi (Pordoi Pass) and Passo Gardena (Gardena Pass). With Passo Sella, you can look out on a lush valley beneath you. With Passo Pordoi, you can take a cable car up from the pass itself getting even higher to Sass Pordoi where you can hike, eat or just enjoy the view. Any of these will provide an incredible vista of the surrounding mountains and give you a clear sense of why the Dolomites are so special. But Passo Gardena, is less visited. As such, once you get out of the main parking/overlook area, you can enjoy spectacular views all to yourself.

In addition, Passo Gardena (which I’ll refer to as Gardena Pass from here on) serves as such an excellent exemplar of the Dolomites because it lies near the center of the range. You can’t get to it without beholding other enchantments along the way. And when you arrive, it feels as if everything else has simply been a foretaste to entice and intrigue for the view ahead.

Here are some other factors that make Gardena Pass stand out.

Gardena Pass

A place of wonder

First of all, you experience sheer awe. It doesn’t matter what type of traveler you are, the vastness of stone around you and the dramatic views below you leave you in a state of wonder. I’ve seen incredible mountain ranges around the world, but on the day we visited, with contrails above crisscrossing the blue sky after a snowfall the day before, I can only describe the scene as stunning.

Road to Gardena Pass

On the well-maintained road to Gardena Pass, you sometime encounter road rallies like this group of sports cars seen through our windshield.

Surprises beyond surprises

You also experience the surprise factor. We drove up from the west, driving past the ski towns of Ortisei, Santa Cristina and Selva di Val Gardena. The views through each of these are magnificent so you think, “Well, that was lovely,” and you assume the best is behind you. And then, you navigate your way up the snaking (but well-maintained) road and you realize how wrong you were. By the time you reach the overlook at Gardena Pass, you’re a bit numb from sensory overload.

Church at Gardena Pass

Seeing the details

In addition to the grand vistas, Gardena Pass affords some up-close interests as well. Just out of the parking area, you can hike up to a small church and past weathered wooden huts, each with its own personality.

Hut at Gardena Pass

Getting out into the scene

Numerous trails radiate from Gardena Pass, both short and long (the pass is part of the Alta Via 2, one of several multi-day hikes through the Dolomites where you stay at refugios – mountain inns set up like hostels, usually with shared bathrooms and dormitory-like rooms – along the way foregoing the need for carrying tents or food).

Gardena Pass chair lift

In the winter, these ski lifts carry skiers from all over Europe to the runs above the pass. In the summer, trails lead out from here to points throughout the Dolomites.

The one downside of coming in October when we did is that most of those refugios close at the end of September and many of the chair lifts or smaller cable cars aren’t running. Thus, you’ll have to hoof it a bit more for a longer hike since you won’t get the shortcut of the cable car. But even a short hike in any direction provides additional views and an opportunity to behold this beautiful scenery all by yourself.

Gardena Pass overlook

The view from the upper parking lot near the guesthouse showing trails and ski runs on the right and the craggy peaks in shadow on the left

Making it personal

Gardena Pass was for us (my wife, son and daughter-in-law) one of those magic moments on a trip. You don’t expect it. It completely wows you with beauty. And it provides you the opportunity to not just observe nature at its finest around you, but to take time to contemplate it and enjoy it in a manner that personally brings you joy. Every type of traveler (you can learn what type you are by taking this quick Traveler Type Quiz) will find something of value, all in this one spot.

For example, you can take it in on the immediate level as my wife and daughter-in-law did. They observed the view outside then, because they weren’t prepared for the colder temperature of the pass, headed into the lodge near the lower of the two parking areas. There, as Connecting Travelers, they had a wonderful conversation with the multi-lingual couple in the gift shop followed by a delightfully warm respite, sitting by themselves in a secluded area of the restaurant in front of a large picture window, knitting and crocheting (transportable hobbies useful on long car rides), sipping Italian coffee and hot chocolate and simply enjoying each other and the view.

The inn at Gardena Pass

You can also go deeper in your experience of Gardena Pass as my son – a Creative Traveler – did, sketching the magnificent view from various perspectives. Or you can do what I (more an Adventurous Traveler in this place) did and explore, physically taking in as much of the scene as possible. I hiked all around, made photos and continuously marveled at the views in every direction.

Gardena Pass and hut

In short, we all encountered the same place. But we each came away with something personally meaningful.

Places such as Gardena Pass make that possible. They stun you with an oversized beauty, which then opens you to the whispers of your own longings. That’s the power of awe. The marvels you witness before you stir emotions within you, ones most of us rarely feel. The good news is, there are no right or wrong ways to process it. Just feel it. And be grateful for places such as Gardena Pass which, in our distracted and jaded world, still have the power to capture our attention and our hearts.

East of Gardena Pass

Descend several hundred meters from Gardena Pass and the temperature and colors change dramatically, but the magic of the Dolomites remains. This is on the east side of Gardena Pass on the road to Cortina.



What to look for in a photo tour

Photo tour

Improving your photography through a photo tour

If you’re a photographer or a traveler, chances are you have or will someday hit a plateau. In any field, we all reach levels where we feel a bit stuck. We want to grow and improve, but on our own, we’re not sure how. One way to jump-start your progression toward photographic mastery is to take a photo tour.

View finder on photo tour

What is a photo tour?

These come in various shapes and sizes from multi-day (or even week-long) excursions to workshops that take only a few hours. In most cases, you’re led by a guide/instructor who takes you out to a location and exposes you (pun intended for you old school film shooters) to new approaches or conditions for shooting.

Photo tours differ from online classes or even classroom workshops in the onsite interaction you get from your instructor. While it’s good to start with some basics before your tour, being on location and getting instant feedback provides a very different, highly customized way of learning you simply can’t obtain from a book or video course.

The competition for these tours and workshops is growing daily as photographers seek alternative revenue sources for their profession. Thus, to get the most from a photo tour or workshop and to help you sift the good from the bad from the great, it helps to know a few key questions to ask before you sign up for one. The better you prepare and the more questions you ask and get answered before you go, the better your chances of having a great experience that can dramatically improve your ability as a photographer and your enjoyment of both your craft and your tour. Here are some key questions to consider:

Photo tour group

Important questions to ask in choosing a photo tour

  • Who is your guide/instructor? Look at the types of photography that he or she specializes in. Look at his or her photos. You want someone whose work you appreciate and resonate with. How long have they been doing tours (not just photography, but actually leading workshops or tours)? How well do they relate to students? Someone can be an amazing photographer and a lousy instructor. Check out what others have said about them by reading multiple reviews.
  • Where will you go? Find out if the guide has been there before and knows it well. This is really critical if you’re going for specific shots of a place rather than to learn photo techniques in any picturesque location. Some guides don’t like to reveal ahead of time the specific sites in order to keep them special. But they should be able to give you a general sense of the environments you’ll be in and the types of settings (and thus images) you can expect.
  • What about timing? How long will you be in each location? How far is each spot from the previous one? You don’t want to spend your whole time just getting there or be rushed once you arrive. Also, how long will you be out each day? You want to shoot as much as you can, but also realize that you can get “photoed out” after too long without a break.
  • What are the logistics? Where will you be staying? Eating? Are those included or are you on your own for those? How much time will you be spending in your room (i.e. find out if your schedule has you out before dawn and back late to know how important the quality of the room will be). Also, how easy or expensive is it to reach the starting location and then to return home? And don’t forget to include trip insurance in your planning as it can save you a great deal if plans change, you need medical help or your gear gets stolen.
  • What else is included? Are there side trips or other forms of instruction that might be added or part of the package like tours to other locations apart from the photo tour or cooking classes or connections to local cultural activities or events? You may be coming for the photography, but as long as you’re there, get as much out of the experience as you can.
  • Do they speak your language? The website might be in English, but is that a language your instructor is fluent in? Photography is a visual language, so you can still learn a great deal from someone whose English isn’t perfect. But it’s harder to get detailed explanations if you both can’t communicate in a common language.
  • What are the payment terms? How much of a deposit is required? By when? How much do you get back (if any) due to inclement weather or other factors that mar the experience?
  • What will you learn? Be clear on the focus of the particular tour. Is it mostly about a place or a type of photography (e.g. landscapes, street, architecture, portraiture, etc.)? If there are certain techniques you want to perfect, find out if those are covered or could be included. That might include panning, low-light, nightscapes or star photos, wildlife, time lapse, macros, etc.
  • What about spouses or partners? If you’re traveling overseas, you may want to bookend or extend your photo tour. And if so, you may want to travel with someone else. Does the tour allow for that or offer activities for your partner to do while you’re out with the group making photos?
  • Do you have the right equipment and clothing? Find out what you’ll need, not just in terms of camera(s) and tripod but also if you’re expected to use filters, flash or other peripherals. Will you need to be prepared for harsh weather? Crossing streams? Mosquitoes? Are you expected to have a laptop so you can share your images with others in the evening? The more you can get a clear picture of the environment you’ll be in and expected activities, the better you can prepare. And if you don’t have all the needed equipment, see if the guide can loan you some or you can rent some before you arrive.
  • What is the amount of instruction? Will you be “trained” or merely “guided/coached.” Some tours are more about the location whereas workshops/classes are more about teaching specific approaches and techniques. Find out which is the focus and which is more appropriate for you.
  • How big is the group? The more people, the more you might be bumping into each other or getting in each other’s shots. The smaller, the more personal attention. But with high-profile guides, even a few minutes in each location with a master can be valuable. Also, larger groups allow you to learn more from the other participants which can be almost as helpful.
  • How experienced do you need to be? You don’t want to be on a tour where every other participant is a pro if you don’t know your F-stop from a stop light. Find out what level the tour caters to and if it is right for your skill level. Also, be aware that one of the most meaningful aspects of a photo tour are the relationships you develop with other participants. The more you have in common, the more you’ll likely connect.

The best of both worlds

Photo tour photographer

Photo tours can be one of the best ways to improve your photography while having a wonderful experience in a new place. Asking the above questions will help ensure that your overall experience — and the photos you come home with — are both top notch.

Not quite ready for a photo tour? Start with my free Guide to Making Amazing Travel Photos. It’s helpful for both beginners and even more seasoned photographers.

Also, if you want to know more about my own experience on the photo tour shown in the images above, check out this article on Passion Passport.

The value of the splurge: How to know when and when not to go all out

Splurge: Soca River

Hisa Franko, site of our splurge, lies outside of Kobarid, Slovenia through which runs the gloriously blue Soca River

Splurge: the act of spending money freely or extravagantly

The making of a good splurge

I’m a big fan of splurges, experiences where you go big and spend a lot on some special occasion that will stand out and be remembered, potentially, for the rest of your life. But splurges come with some significant caveats if they are to work as intended.

  • First, they need to be rare. Justifying that fancy new outfit as a splurge doesn’t work if you just did the same thing last week.
  • Second, they need to be somewhat reasonable. Spending a month’s salary on great seats at a playoff game or an opera performed in some exotic setting makes sense if you know you can make up that expense later on. If it leaves you in debt or jeopardizes necessities, you better think twice. Splurges should stretch you, not break you. Optimally, you save up for them beforehand. Doing so builds your anticipation for the event and helps insure you can afford it.
  • Third, they should align with your greatest passions, not just a passing interest. If you’re going to spend that much money, make sure it’s on something you’re pretty sure ahead of time will be both memorable and meaningful to you.
  • Fourth, they need to deliver. And that’s not easy. The problem with splurges is the pressure they create. You’re spending a lot of money, so your expectations are somewhere north of Saturn. If one or two aspects of the activity don’t turn out perfect, the whole experience is diminished. Maybe even ruined. And all you’re left with is disappointment and the deep dread of receiving your next credit card statement.

Let me give you an example of a recent splurge on a trip to Slovenia with my wife, son and daughter-in-law to give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to splurges.

Splurge - Plum five ways

Plum in five consistencies filled with sour cottage cheese and served with a spicy plum nectar

Splurging in Slovenia

We decided to visit Slovenia in large part to try out the restaurant Hisa Franko outside the small town of Kobarid. The chef, Ana Ros, was not only profiled on the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, she was also deemed the world’s best female chef last year. Not Slovenia’s or even Europe’s. But the best female chef on the planet. Dining at her restaurant seemed splurge-worthy. The problem was, we didn’t realize ahead of time just how much of a splurge it would turn out to be.

Splurge: Ravioli

Goat-cow cottage cheese ravioli, corn, prosciutto and hazelnut broth

Let’s be clear up front: The dinner was astounding. We had eleven official courses (plus a few additional starters and a third — yep, third — dessert thrown in), each offering combinations of tastes I’ve never (or rarely) had before (you can read the menu for yourself if you’re interested). However, all of that goodness still didn’t push it over-the-top in terms of a splurge that becomes a “defining moment” on a trip. What follows are some of the reasons why.

Splurge: Trout

Trout, whey, roasted poppy seeds, beets in tonka vinegar, sour cress


First of all, I messed up on the price. We booked way back in March for an October dinner and at the time, I had read that the price for the eight-course tasting menu was 75 euros per person. I unfortunately didn’t bother to double check the price when I received an email a week before we left for the trip informing me that the eight-course menu was no longer being offered at dinner time. I figured we’d pay a bit more for the 11-course meal. But I didn’t realize it would cost us 150 euros (about US$175 per person, not including drinks or tip). Thus, the shock of the price when we sat down to eat created cognitive dissonance that was hard to overcome. What made it worse was realizing it was my fault for not confirming the price ahead of time.

Splurge - Potato cooked in hay

Potato cooked in hay. Again, it was helpful that they explained that the thing in the lower right corner is what the potato cooked in and is not edible.

High Expectations

Second, our expectations were so high that while we enjoyed most of the dishes (the parsley and porcini mushroom crumbles on sour milk ice cream was a stretch too far for some of us), they didn’t blow our taste buds away the way we had hoped. That’s not a knock against Ana Ros’s amazing food. Her creativity and the presentation of each item are dazzling. It’s the inherent problem of expensive splurges: You go in with such unrealistic expectations that nothing in reality can reasonably match them.

Splurge - beef tongue

“I love red” – beef tongue, oysters, redbell peppers and roasted salad of
purslane and borage

Limited Appreciation

Third, if you’re going to splurge, make sure you’re able to grasp the nuances of the experience. Personally, I may not really be able to appreciate the genius of Ana Ros. When I was younger, I once noted that I could tell the difference between a $50 stereo speaker and a $500 one but my hearing and training were incapable of discerning the difference between a $500 speaker and a $5,000 one. Such is likely the case for us at Hisa Franko. I recognized and applauded the inventiveness and the unusual combinations – these truly are works of culinary art rather than simply food prepared in a novel manner. But I may not have been able to value it as much as say, a food critic with a more discerning palette.

Splurge - Roebuck

Roebuck (venison), forest mushrooms, parsley root, spruce

Knowing Your Own Interests

Finally, and in hindsight, probably the most important, I believe we did the whole splurge for the wrong reasons. We have friends who have splurged on fine restaurants like this and they love it. But for us, for all the value in trying one-of-a-kind food like Hisa Franko’s, we realized that it’s not really our thing. We dined at a restaurant in Kobarid the next evening that specialized in local cuisine. It wasn’t fancy. But for us, the atmosphere, the new tastes and the hospitality made it as enjoyable an evening as the meal the night before that costs us ten times the price. Thus, it comes down to this: Know what matters to you. Discovering a simple family-owned restaurant on our own that produces a remarkable meal for little money, that’s more of what delights us. Or if we’d taken a cooking course with Ana and had hands-on involvement in the meal – learning from a great chef, combined with eating – that would have been worth the same investment as eating at Hisa Franko – to us. And that’s the key. To us. Know your own longings and pursue them. Hunt down experiences that satisfy you, not what others tell you works for them. In short, choose your splurges carefully to maximize the likelihood that they will reward you well.

Splurge - Rowan ice cream

Rowan ice cream, aged goat cheese, foam of apple and butter, brown butter shortbread

Close, but not quite there

In summary, our evening at Hisa Franko was one we’ll likely remember, but not a defining moment. Yes, it had elements of a defining moment, but not enough of them. It was, in part, an elevated experience. (We don’t dine, for example, on beef tongue, oysters, red bell peppers and roasted salad of purslane and borage every night. Not even every Wednesday night.) There was also some accomplishment in getting there (it’s way out in the Slovenian countryside) but not really a sense of pride. In fact, when we looked around the dining room and realized that Americans (including us) occupied six of the eight tables, even what we’d thought would be a contributing factor to the experience – finding a place far from home that few others get to – even that got knocked down a notch. We did have taste combinations that provided new insights, but not ones that stuck with us beyond the evening. And finally, over the four-hour span of the full meal, we definitely had a great sense of connection, to each other and to the charming, yet very down-to-earth wait staff. (When my wife mentioned, for example, that she didn’t like the parsley on the ice cream, one server scrunched up her nose and amiably concurred).

What prevented it from rising to the level of a magic or defining moment – a splurge worthy of the investment – was the combination of value for the money and investing in the wrong kind of experience for us.

Splurge - Sour milk ice cream

Sour milk ice cream, parsley granite, porcini crumble

The Bottom Line

In reality, splurges will always be a gamble. You never know until you try. But if you want to increase the likelihood of creating defining moments on a trip, don’t assume that spending more money alone will do the trick. Splurge where all the factors are in your favor:

  1. You have some sense of what you’re getting into. The more expensive the splurge, the more careful research you should do up front.
  2. The splurge feels worth the extravagant expense.
  3. You do something that aligns with your values, interests and, since it’s a splurge after all, your deep longings.
  4. You keep your expectations low so you leave room for surprise. Surprise is critical to a splurge. That probably was the biggest missing piece of all for us: There were some intriguing new tastes, but no true revelations. What the evening lacked most was the crucial element of surprise that is key to delight and essential for that even higher-level response, wonder.

Finally, if you haven’t done so already, check out my piece on defining moments noted above. It shows that sometimes the most powerful experiences, the magic moments that stick with you forever, don’t have to be splurges. In fact, often when they align more with what you know delights you, you can substitute ingenuity and personal attention for money and come out with a richer experience. It’s a splurge of an entirely different nature with only upside possibilities.

Creating defining moments on a trip

Seminary Library Ceiling

Ceiling of the Seminary Library in Ljubljana, Slovenia

The best moments on a trip, defining moments, often occur serendipitously, or so they seem. You go looking for one thing and then suddenly, something unexpected occurs and without warning, your jaw is dangling, your eyes expand to Ping-Pong ball size and you’re babbling like a baby or, conversely, bereft of any words.

But these magic or defining moments don’t have to be accidental.

The Power of Moments

As Chip and Dan Heath point out in their excellent book, The Power of Moments, such occurrences can be created. Moments that are both meaningful and memorable don’t lose any of their appeal because they are manufactured. In fact, as I recently discovered on a trip to northern Italy and Slovenia with my wife, 24-year-old son and his recent bride, the intentionality put into crafting such defining moments can actually enhance them.

The Power of Moments provides a framework for these “defining moments.” Such experiences demonstrate one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Elevated – they occur outside of our normal routines.
  • Insight – they provide a new understanding, often an “aha” moment of clarity or awareness.
  • Pride – they reflect a sense of accomplishment.
  • Connection – they make you keenly aware of your relationships and draw you closer to others.

Applying The Power of Moments to a trip

In an effort to enhance our trip, I suggested that each of us take on the responsibility to create a learning experience for the others. Each person could choose whatever they wanted, but the goal was to make it meaningful for the other travelers as well. For example, I would have loved to have attended an all-day photography workshop, but that likely wouldn’t have thrilled my non-photographer family.

I honestly expected some pushback from the clan on this. I steeled myself for responses such as, “This feels like homework,” or “We don’t have time for this on our trip.” But nope. They all took it as a welcome challenge.

And here’s what happened.

If at first you don’t succeed, try cheese

My son had planned on having us all learn how to yodel. We were, after all, in the Italian Alps with Switzerland a nearby neighbor. But the timing and location of the yodeling school (yes, there is such a thing) didn’t work out. So he shifted to plan B.

In the small town of Feldthurn where we stayed for several days, he found a class teaching traditional woodcarving, a specialty in the region. But once again the timing didn’t fit our itinerary. On to Plan C: cheese tasting.

Creating defining moments on a trip - cheese tasting

Our four cheeses complete with warm wine/apple juice drink and jam to mix within

We’d passed through several regions famous for their cheesemaking. In one of these, my son purchased a variety of different cheeses. Then one evening in our rented apartment in Ljubljana, Slovenia, he had us taste four types. Our goal was to identify the flavors and bonus points if we could name the cheese. I’m not a huge fan of cheese, but he carefully selected mild ones with interesting flavors: smoky, spicy, and rosemary, for example. He explained each, provided apple slices, crackers and sparkling water to “cleanse the palette” and made the whole experience surprisingly (even for me, the non-cheese guy) enjoyable.

Of vines and blooms

Creating defining moments on a trip - wreath making

Making the final touches on one of the wreaths

My daughter-in-law presented her “experience” the same evening. She had been gathering a variety of flowers along the way, most dried already. She then used those as raw material to teach each of us how to make small wreathes of vines and flowers. It’s not a craft I’d have chosen myself, but as with the cheese, it became a wonderful creative and bonding event. In addition, on our first day in Italy, she ran across an article in a magazine about a local drink for a cold evening made of wine, apple juice and cranberry jam, all heated and mixed together. She served that while we made the wreathes.

It’s all about how we felt

Creating defining moments on a trip - felt sheep

The final product, a felt sheep, with elements in the background of works in progress

Two evenings before our cheese/wreathe/warm toddy event, my wife had arranged her “experience” in the small town of Solcava near the stunning yet remote Logar Valley in Slovenia. The region is known for its production of felt. Through a helpful woman at the tourist information center there, my wife contacted a local felt artist who agreed to do a workshop for the four of us that evening. At 5:00 p.m., we showed up at her studio and soon we were taking pieces of raw wool, layering them, adding a mixture of soap and water, and rolling the wool in our hands until, as we joked, our fingers began to lose the whorls of their fingerprints. Taking soft wool from the local sheep and rolling it long enough until it stiffens is like magic. We came away with little felt sheep, a felt mushroom and a deep respect for what it takes to make felt by hand. I would likely never have bought such cutesy items as souvenirs. But because we made them ourselves, they took on much greater significance.

Booking a library

Creating a defining moment on a trip - Seminary Library

The Seminary Library in Ljubljana, Slovenia

My experience occurred in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (lewb-liana). I had arranged for us to visit the Seminary Library there. It was the first public library in the country, set up in the early 18th century. This isn’t your neighborhood branch public library. The few images of it I’d seen of it reminded me of something out of Harry Potter. Unfortunately (or maybe not – there’s added value to the elusive nature of the place), you can’t just show up and visit. You have to arrange for a private tour in advance. And so I did. The idea was to create an experience that would remind us all of our love for books. The plan was to immerse ourselves in this beautiful space with all the old, leather-clad volumes, ornate wooden shelves and stunning ceiling frescoes. Then, primed with bibliophilic zeal, we were to walk to a charming nearby bookstore I’d researched that carried art books and supplies, hand-made journals and a good selection of English-language books. I would then give each person a 20-euro bill that they could use to buy any book or item in the bookstore of their choosing. We’d then visit one of Ljubljana’s many riverside cafes for coffee, gelato and the chance to share about our purchases and favorite books. The whole experience seemed like a sure winner for my reading-obsessed family. Until my son picked up some bug early that morning that wiped him out that entire day. Thus, only my wife and I visited the library. It was wonderful, but not the meaningful moment for the whole family I’d envisioned.

What we learned

The library visit ended up being more of a typical trip excursion, highly enjoyable – the librarian, our guide, was gracious and wonderful at explaining the history and context, plus it is simply a gorgeous room – but because it was incomplete from the original plan, not a defining moment per se.

The other experiences, however, were phenomenal. In fact, at the end of the trip, all four of us agreed that the two evenings, one making felt and the other doing the cheese tasting and wreath making, were the peaks of our trip. Why?

  • They involved elements that could only have happened by being where we were on the trip (adding to the already elevated nature of travel).
  • They demonstrated effort and creativity on the part of each participant to put together an experience that they knew the others would enjoy. As a result, the connection for us as a family was dramatically heightened.
  • We actually made things with the felting and the wreathes. That provided a strong sense of accomplishment and pride and gave us tangible reminders of the experience to take home.
  • We learned about areas most of us knew nothing about, particularly the felting workshop. Insight was thus a key factor.
  • Best of all, the very act of being intentional on a trip to use “ingredients” we gathered along the way and to design experiences that meant something to all of us, that truly helped to turn these into defining moments.

It proved to me that magic, defining moments can be planned. They can be crafted. They don’t take away from other activities on a trip. In fact, they add to them. For example, because all but the library took place in the evening, we still did our hiking, sightseeing and other activities during the day. But the events gave us something to look forward to at day’s end.

Honestly, even at the start of our trip, I was skeptical that this would come off well. I figured people would flake on doing it or that what we did wouldn’t be all that special. I was wrong. I hope to incorporate other such experiences in future trips because they add so much. They created peak experiences during the trip and then, on our last evening together, by recalling what we did, it created a wonderful end experience.

What you can do

If you want to try to create a defining moment on your trip, start by reading The Power of Moments. Understanding more about elevated, insight, pride and connection will help. Then, do a bit of research to know about what your traveling companions like and how that aligns with the specialties of the area you’re visiting. Finally, if, like us, the original plans don’t work out, just be open to alternatives. They’ll present themselves along the way and that too can add to the meaning and fun.

We’re a family that loves art and craft. If that’s not your thing, find something that is. Sports, history, cooking, music, adventure activities or any hobby you and your traveling companions enjoy likely has a relevant outlet on your trip. Just discovering what that might be is half the enjoyment.

One final tip is to focus on the details of a place like we did: cheese, flowers and felt. Find the things the place is known for then pay extra attention to those. You may find my Guide to Seeing the Right Details by Asking the Right Questions helpful in this regard. Whatever you do, make it fun. That alone will help make it memorable and maybe even magic.