Visual appeal: Plan your trips around what delights you most visually

Japanese Garden Steps

What you see is what you get

When planning where to go on a trip, don’t overlook one of the most important, seemingly obvious and least considered aspects of travel: The visual appeal to you of the places you’ll visit.

Now obviously, travel consists of so much more than what you see. In particular, the people you meet tend to be highlights of your trip. But also the smells, the tastes, the sounds and even the texture of new objects, all that adds to the experience. Moreover, what you feel in response to all this, your reactions to the thoughtful gesture of a stranger, the exoticism of new tastes or the delight in walking in the footprints of some historical figure, those emotions go far beyond anything visual on a trip.

And yet, what you see affects so much of how you feel when you travel. The odd thing is, if you’re like most of us, you may never have factored into planning for your trip the kinds of things you desire to see on that trip. Instead you may show up and experience deep bliss without ever considering why or what triggered that happy feeling or how much the visual stimuli contributed to it.

Machu Picchu

This shot captures what has the greatest visual appeal to me: nature, architecture and people, especially those close to me.

An exercise if determining what appeals to you visually

Fountain in Rome

Just in case you were wondering what that sculpture in front of the Pantheon looked like…

To help you get better in touch with both what you see and also how it affects you, your trip and planning where you’ll go, try this exercise.

Think of any place in the world that you’ve been to (or have seen pictures of) that you adore. Be specific. Don’t think, “Rome, Italy.” Instead, think, “that fountain with the comically-faced sculptures in front of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy.” Got it?

Now imagine you were magically plopped down there for the first time. Look around. What stands out? What specifically appeals to you visually there?

Maybe it’s the natural beauty displayed in the rocks and trees. Maybe it’s the epic expanse of a big sky or open sea. Or, conversely, it might be the intimacy of small cafe or Gothic chapel. Are you outside in the country? Inside in the city? Wandering down a quaint village road? Huddled beneath a jungle canopy? Looking out on a vast mountain range? Hanging out with newly-made friends in a quaint pug? What grabs your attention visually? Bright colors? Ancient surfaces and textures? The unfamiliar angle of the sun? Or perhaps it’s the people who make that scene work for you. What specifically about the people in a particular place attracts your attention?

Consider all the factors

Baihe Courtyard with great visual appeal inside and out

Sometimes architecture doesn’t have to be planted in nature for visual appeal. Sometimes, as in this traditional courtyard home in Baihe, China, they bring nature inside.

When determining what visually appeals, it’s likely a combination of many elements and it could even include the weather, quality of light, season or time of day.

Visual appeal - AmalfiBut think about what you most love to see on a trip.

Try to jot down all the components that have the greatest visual appeal. Then prioritize them. Which one emerges as most important to you? You could expand this beyond the visual, but that quickly gets overwhelming. Restricting this exercise to only what has visual appeal to you reveals insights you may never have considered before.

If you want, try the same exercise again only with a different location. See if the same factors that worked regarding visual appeal for you the first time hold up in a new location.

You may be surprised

Before I did this exercise, my guess would have been that nature would have been the aspect that had the most visual appeal for me. And that’s still at the top of my visual-interest list. But this exercise revealed that neck-in-neck with flora and fauna is architecture or other human-made elements. And most of all, when you combine the two — human design combined with natural beauty, I’m a goner. The images above and below will give you some idea of what I mean by that combination of the human element combined with the natural.

Sailboat in fog

The mountain (Morro Rock in Morro Bay, California) wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without the boat.

But how about you? What’s the visual appeal priority or highlight for you on a trip? Knowing this can dramatically assist you in choosing destinations that delight you. You might be amazed how many people don’t consider what elements have visual appeal to them before they go on vacation so they end up choosing trips that may be enjoyable, but don’t spark that “I can’t believe I’m here!” response.

Visual Appeal - Morocco

Sometimes, the architecture blends in with nature as in this village in Morocco

Understanding what has visual appeal to you also helps you know what to pursue on your trip, particularly if you want to take photos. Finding places, people and scenes that appeal specifically to you rather than just seeing what everyone else is looking at, can dramatically enhance your trip and your photos. To learn some simple yet powerful techniques to taking better travel photos, check out this free guide.

Applying this to planning a trip

Scottish Doorway with great visual appeal

Even elements of architecture increase their visual appeal, to me, when even small bits of nature are added.

Think about what appeals to you visually, then go where you’re predisposed to liking what you’ll see once you arrive. If you’re a nature lover, minimize cities or find hidden examples of nature even in urban centers (e.g. The High Line or Central Park in Manhattan). If you love the sea, you may not want to vacation in Nebraska. If you’re a people person, avoid deserts, ghost towns or Times Square at 5:00 a.m. If you love artifacts and sites related to ancient history, stay away from the suburbs. And if you, like me, love that combination of nature and architecture, choose places like national parks, gardens, castles in rustic settings, remote villages or anywhere the design is distinct, unusual or incorporates elements of nature into the buildings themselves or their surroundings.

In short, find what you love and pursue it. That sounds so obvious, but you may never have really isolated the key elements of what you love, at least visually. Do so. Plan your journey around those. Then go have a trip where you come home knowing why you love it. And how to find even more of that on your next trip.

Finally, realize that the visual appeal of a place is but one factor in planning a trip, albeit an important and often overlooked one. But you may find that knowing your Traveler Type can also be invaluable in helping you decide not just where to go on a trip, but how.

 

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.