One of the most fascinating things about traveling is just how individual each experience actually is. What I might find breathtakingly beautiful, you might find quite ordinary. Or the place that completely changed your life may have little impact on me. And while we might generally agree on something like Michelangelo’s David being one of the most impressive sculptures of all time, did you cry your eyes out the way I did when I first laid eyes on this masterpiece?
The thing is, traveling isn’t just about physically going somewhere to see/taste/smell/feel something new or different. It’s about everything that goes along with it. Your mindset. The weather. Your physical health. Your mental health. How much spending money you have. Who you’re traveling with. How you’re traveling. Other people. The list goes on. Similar to the concept of terroir when we talk about wine and how the natural environment of where grapes are grown impacts its taste, there are a whole host of natural goings on in our traveling environments that affect how good or bad our association with a place is. And like terroir, only parts of this equation are predictable – the rest is unique to your situation and the moment in time that you experience it.
For example, did it pour down rain on the day you were scheduled to do a city walking tour? Did you check into your hotel and find yourself unexpectedly upgraded to a beautiful suite? Did you have to wait two hours for a table at a restaurant even though you made (and confirmed) reservations? Did you randomly make friends with your taxi driver and end up having a free personal tour guide for the day who took you to all the best local spots?
What about the other people involved? Were you traveling completely alone, or did you make new friends along the way that you shared snippets of your journey with? Were you traveling with your best friend whom you’re perfectly compatible with, or someone you didn’t know well who you discovered was a horrible travel companion? Were you on a group tour where you instantly bonded with your tour mates who you know you’ll stay friends with for life, or did you get stuck in a group with know-it-alls and Negative Nancys who took the wind out of everyone’s sail at every turn?
And let’s not forget about the impact we have on our experiences. Did you stay out late and drink too much wine the night before an all-day hike? Did you luckily win a scratch-off lottery ticket and find yourself with $100 extra dollars to spend? Did you wake up with a terrible cold, unable to taste or smell, on the day you’re supposed to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant? Was there something going on in your personal life that had you incredibly excited or terribly upset?
I’ve experienced more of these unplanned or unpredictable things than I can even begin to count, and whether I wanted it to or not, each one impacted my overall trip for better or for worse. So I might tell you that Tulum, Mexico is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to and a place you absolutely must include on your bucket list, but the reason I loved my visit there so much isn’t simply because it’s beautiful, it’s because of the total “terroir” of the trip (don’t get upset, wine friends – I know I’m not using this word properly!). I traveled there with my sister – who is my best friend and the person I love spending time with the most – to witness one of my dearest friends get married, and we had perfect weather the whole time and we visited some amazing historical landmarks and we ate delicious food and indulged in one too many tropical drinks and I made friends with people in the wedding party who remain friends today. But had I been alone and it rained the whole time and I was stuck in my hotel room and unable to see any of the sights, I might not encourage you to go to Tulum. See where I’m going with this?
That’s why I don’t plan my itineraries or base my expectations solely on the opinions or reviews of others. I definitely read blogs and troll Instagram and visit tourism websites and read travel publications whenever I’m planning a trip because I want to know about the things that the broader travel community deems “must sees” or “must dos.” But instead of assuming ahead of time that my favorite stop will be the place that has 1.1 million hashtags about it on Instagram, I let my own heart and mind – and the moment itself – make this determination.
I bring this up because this travel terroir concept (a concept that yes, I've completely just made up!) was never truer than my time in Australia last year. I was in quite a fragile place emotionally and professionally, and even though I was on an amazing adventure in a country I always wanted to go to, the realities of my real world didn’t suddenly just go away. Sure, I was seeing incredible sights, but that didn’t change the fact that my heart was hurting or that I felt like the door was slamming in my face every time I turned around. I was in the middle of an emotional roller coaster ride, so the places I stopped to see became part of it.
The Razorback is one of them. While it’s certainly listed on all the Australian tourism-related websites as a place to stop along the Great Ocean Road, it’s not a location many travel bloggers or writers tout as a “must see.” Unlike the 12 Apostles or Loch Ard Gorge, which everyone under the sun (including myself) will tell you that you have to visit, The Razorback seemed to be more of “see it if you have the time, but don’t worry if you don’t” kind of recommendation. But for me, it was one of the highlights.
The Razorback is a massive, narrow, limestone rock stack, with bumps and sharp edges along its back formed over thousands of years by wind-blown ocean spray. Every 14 seconds a wave crashes into this impressive piece of rock, the power of the great Southern Ocean slowly carving out deep grooves and weakening its base. Over time vertical cracks have formed, which widen with the rain and create further areas of weakness. Already huge chunks of The Razorback have collapsed into the sea, exemplifying coastal evolution and the Great Ocean Road’s forever changing landscape.
On the day I visited, Mother Nature was in a mood, gracing me with bright, cheerful sunshine one minute and surrounding me with dark, heavy clouds the next. The ocean was calm when I arrived, but turned angry before I left, and I stood in awe watching the waves aggressively ebb and flow, knowing The Razorback was weakening with every retreat. That truth coupled with the contrast between light and dark around me brought me to tears because it felt so analogous to my life. One day teased with hope and promise, the next day full of despair. Appearing strong and knowing on the outside, but fighting a battle on the inside and crumbling a tiny bit more with each defeat. I stood staring at The Razorback for a very long time, forming a strange connection to this impressive piece of nature and a deep sympathy for its plight. For some, it’s just a beautiful stop along a beautiful road. For me it owns a tiny piece of my heart.
I’ll forever shout it from the rooftop that the Great Ocean Road absolutely must be on your bucket list, only I’d like to compare notes after you go to see where our hearts and minds align. Chances are my favorite places along this coastline might not be yours, just as the favorite places of others didn’t end up being mine. Because my moment was my moment. And yours will be yours.