Travel Expectations Vs Reality

Travel Expectations Vs Reality

By |2016-07-21T23:57:22-04:00February 2nd, 2011|Australia|45 Comments

Surf Beach in TorquayHow would you feel if you planned your dream trip to the Dominican Republic, flew to the Caribbean, spent ten incredible days on an island and only upon returning home, discovered that you had actually been on the island of Dominica?

Would it affect what had been a memorable experience?

Of course, I doubt that this scenario would really happen, at least not on such a large scale. But on a smaller scale, it certainly can occur during our travels.

For example…


On Sunday morning, for the first time since arriving in Australia at the end of December, I finally ventured beyond the city limits of Melbourne. In a rented, bright blue Nissan Micra, Liz and I drove west out of the city and towards the Great Ocean Road, a well-known coastal region of Victoria. Our eventual destination was the small beach town of Anglesea, where a friend of mine had reserved his brother’s beach house for a week so that six of us could enjoy a short beach break.

About an hour and a half outside of Melbourne, and after a sweet yet talkative elderly volunteer at a roadside information center spent thirty minutes explaining to us, in painstaking detail, every single activity and sight in the entire region when all we asked for was a map, we caught our first glimpse of the ocean as we pulled into the laid-back town of Torquay.

The town of Torquay is essentially a surfers hangout, where the main attraction is the beach, and more specifically, Bell’s Beach. Made famous by the 1991 classic surf film Point Break (the final scene was set at Bell’s Beach) and known for having the longest running surf competition in the world, this legendary location seemed the perfect place to begin our five-day adventure along the Great Ocean Road.

Surf Beach in Torquay

For days prior we had talked about visiting this beach, and given our interest in surfing from our days back in Mexico, we were genuinely excited to catch a glimpse of surfers riding such famous waves.

After picking up some food in the centre of town, I drove back onto the main road, confident that I would easily locate Bell’s Beach, which is, after all, the most well-known attraction in the area. And sure enough, five minutes later, I turned onto Bell Street and immediately found myself driving down a small road packed full of both cars and people heading towards the beach.

We had arrived. High-fives all around.

I parked the car, we grabbed our sarongs and food and we practically ran up the dirt path that led to the top of a small hill. At the top of that hill we stood in silence as we marveled at the impressive stretch of beach before us. We happily inhaled the refreshing ocean air and smiled widely at the golden sand and emerald waters. It was easy to understand how this location had become so famous.

Despite the crowds, we found a small empty patch of grass and sat down to eat our lunch, which included a vegetable and cheese roll that I proceeded to drop all over my shirt simply because I had difficultly concentrating on eating with such a remarkable beach in front of me.

To the left were hundreds of colorful people engaged in such activities as sunbathing, playing beach cricket or building sandcastles. In front of us were dozens of more people swimming and frolicking around in the ocean. And to the right were the surfers, approximately fifty or so brave individuals attempting to ride the waves of one of the world’s most holiest surf spots.Surf Beach in Torquay

After our leisurely lunch, we walked down the hill and wandered along the beach for over an hour, while making several honest attempts to go for a swim. Of course, being used to the much warmer waters of Mexico, we only made it up to our toe nails before finding it too cold to proceed any further. But it still felt wonderful to be standing in the ocean at a place I had looked forward to visiting for quite some time.

Eventually, after sitting on the grass once again and watching the surfers ride their waves, we said goodbye to the beautiful Bell’s Beach and returned to our car, where we gave each other one more high-five in celebration of our successful two hour visit.

We then exited the car park and began the drive along the coastal road towards the town of Anglesea.

And then, less than a minute later, we passed a large sign that read, “Bell’s Beach – 500 meters ahead”.

It turns out that we had not been at Bell’s Beach after all. We had actually spent two hours at the far less famous Surf Beach instead. Bell’s Beach is located on Bell’s Beach Road, not on Bell Street.


Upon seeing that sign, we didn’t have time to do anything but shrug our shoulders, share a short laugh and carry on with our drive to Anglesea. We had friends to meet and were already running late.

But during the rest of the drive, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had enjoyed our visit to Surf Beach because it was actually a beautiful beach or if only because we thought it was the famous Bell’s Beach at the time?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Surf Beach basically looked like quite an ordinary beach, similar to hundreds I’ve seen before all over the world. And so, before long, I began to feel that my positive experience there was most likely a direct result of my expectations and not at all of what I had actually discovered.

So now I’m confused.

Does this happen consistently during our travels? Do we sometimes appreciate a travel experience simply because we believe we are supposed to appreciate it? Even if we end up at the actual place we’re looking for, do our expectations blur our interpretation of reality?

In other words, is it possible to view the Taj Mahal as anything less than impressive?

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  1. Kevin October 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    Well the scene in Point Break that’s supposed to be Bell’s Beach is actually filmed on the coast of Oregon! So the real Bell’s is actually pretty elusive. 🙂

  2. Lyn July 10, 2012 at 11:47 pm - Reply

    I just discovered your blog and I love it. But to answer your question directly, I actually have seen the Taj Mahal and been less than impressed. However I was 10 years old when I visited so I had no long history of built up expectations. I remember my parents getting me up early to see it at sunrise and arriving to see a rather small (by comparison to other extensive buildings and temples we had visited previously), off white building (it was rather dirty actually) with a tomb inside. the fact that it was made out of marble also did not do anything. I found the gardens around the Taj Mahal to be the far more beautiful attraction.

    It wasnt just because I was a bored 10 year old. I loved the Red Fort in Delhi and considered another temple (i forget the name) absolutely beautiful. I was also fascinated by the general sights and smells on the streets. But the Taj Mahal was just another building no more impressive than the other sights.

    My parents on the other hand were awed by it. My father had visited the Taj Mahal many years before as a by not much older than myself at the time and he said he remembered a similar “unimpressed” reaction to it at the time. seeing it as an adult however, he considered it the best part of the trip.

  3. LozinTransit May 17, 2012 at 3:13 am - Reply

    To think, had you not been interested in surfing, never seen ‘Point Break’ or gotten the recommendations you would’ve had little expectation for Bells Beach.

    Though Its a battle to live up to it everyday, I subscribe to the idea of ‘living in the moment’. The moment itself should have a narrative to it and not just be an “I was here moment”. So there is still an onus on you to create the story and meaning for that place.

    This kind of things happens with meeting famous people too. Where you might not be aware after the fact. These moments have happened to me in Japan and LA. Where reading a book after the fact made me appreciate the place after the fact. Its best to enjoy the moment during it, then reliving the memory of it. Not the other way around.

  4. puertoricoistheplace February 10, 2011 at 5:03 am - Reply

    Fun read…lol… I guess at the end of the day, what matters is that you had a wonderful time.

  5. Gray February 7, 2011 at 8:22 pm - Reply

    Great story, and even better question! Nothing like that has ever happened to me, so I can’t really say what my reaction would be. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens quite a lot. There are certainly plenty of people in the world with no opinions of their own who simply go along with the herd and say they love a place because they think they’re supposed to. Then there are those of us who say “This? Really? This is what all the fuss is about?” It’s often very hard for reality to live up to our expectations.

    • Earl February 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm - Reply

      Hey Gray – I find myself saying exactly that – This? Really? – all too often lately, which is precisely why I’m not too bothered about seeking out major sights when I travel. I’d much rather be surprised by some unknown place that I stumble upon than force myself to like something simply because I think I should!

  6. Andrew February 6, 2011 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Expectations are a part of pretty much any plan. People talk about having no expectations, but I don’t think I can manage that. Even expecting nothing is an expectation. The point I guess is to be flexible and not let missed expectations to ruin an otherwise wonderful experience. Like your beach, expecting to be on one beach and being on a different one shouldn’t ruin your experience. Someone else mentioned that without this mistake the story wouldn’t have as much interest.

    I sometimes go out of my way to find the little travel mistakes that make a trip cool. Over course trying to make mistakes like that doesn’t always work well.

    Often when traveling I am underwhelmed by sites/sights. I tend to feel that a lot of people ignore other nearby cool things just due to a single famous thing. The number of people huddled in one square in Pisa looking at a crooked tower was amazing especially in comparison to the rest of the town. I liked the tower, but the town itself was more interesting to me.

    • Earl February 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm - Reply

      Hey Andrew – I fully agree that having no expectations is basically impossible and I think it all depends on the traveler’s mindset. Some travelers are intent on only visiting ‘must-see’ sights and so a simple mistake may prove to ruin their experience. However, other travelers will realize the value even in a mistake and view it in a positive manner.

      And I’ve noticed that I’m also underwhelmed quite often while traveling, especially when I visit more well-known places. These days, it is the lesser-known or even completely unknown places I end up in that seem to be the most rewarding. Your example of Pisa is one I can relate to. I glanced at that leaning tower for about three minutes and then headed into town myself. Even a good meal at a local cafe or an interesting conversation with a local is worth more to me than a photo of such a sight.

      Thanks so much for your interesting comment!

  7. Olov February 6, 2011 at 3:21 pm - Reply

    Great post! I think it’s a little bit of both. Reminds me of last week when i visited Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the largest building in the world. It was an impressive sight but would be be as impressive if you didn’t know it was the biggest building? Not sure…

    Probably made this “misstake” a couple of times with out knowing it. I really hope we get the same experience either way but i’m guessing the “omg the largest building in the world” VS “omg thats a big building”has a tendency to be rewarded higher.

    Where are you travelling right now?

    • Earl February 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm - Reply

      Hey Olov – I tend to believe the same thing, that the Burj Khalifa wouldn’t be as impressive if we didn’t know what it represented beforehand. And while we probably can’t avoid having such expectations, it is nice to limit them as often as possible, opening us up to potential surprises along the way.

      And at the moment I’m in Australia and heading back to Southeast Asia within a month or so.

  8. Annie February 5, 2011 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    It is a good question! Although I love beaches period so I think any one (especially if it looks like the one in the picture) is beautiful and amazing!

    I guess I always try to control my expectations, just in case, so that I won’t be disappointed. In the end, sometimes I still am. To me when someone has built something up so much then it’s like there is supposed to be some kind of magically feeling to it and it’s rarely those things that I have that feeling about!

    I don’t know if that just sounds negative, I’m definitely not always disappointed, I just try to see more than just that one thing to feel a city or place… don’t know if I’m making sense!

    • Earl February 6, 2011 at 4:12 am - Reply

      Hey Annie – That made sense! I think it’s important to remember that each person connects differently with every place and there is always a chance that your experience won’t match up to that of someone else. If I were to list the most magical places I’ve visited during my travels, most of the locations would be unknown to most people. Those major sights that are always talked about, rarely, just like you, have much of an effect on me.

  9. Jason February 4, 2011 at 10:48 pm - Reply

    Interesting post Earl, gets the brain ticking over. I think expectations of a place can be quite polar. Sometimes you get to a place and can feel quite let down after it being built up so much in you mind, and there are other times when it can totally exceed what you imagined. Maybe you should just live with the memory of your Bell’s Beach, as thew real one is not the most beautiful of places and can get quite cold, windy and miserable at the best of times.

    • Earl February 5, 2011 at 12:58 am - Reply

      Hey Jason – Well, with that description of Bell’s Beach, I’m quite happy with the experience I ended up with! But seriously, I’m not really complaining and I don’t feel a need to go and see the real Bell’s Beach now. I’m happy with the outing I had, although as time goes on, I’m sure the impression this beach left on me will fade considering that much of that impression was pre-manufactured by my expectations!

  10. Theodora February 5, 2011 at 12:43 am - Reply

    One classic Australian confusion is Mount Conner — big, purple (by day) megalith in the Outback — with Uluru (more famous huge megalith in the Outback). Mount Conner makes it into many people’s photos.

    Have they missed out? Err, yes. Because they didn’t see the Wonder they were hoping to see.

    So I think you should look at your day as discovering a new and wonderful beach. Not as missing out on the famous one. And perhaps head back and check the famous one, too.

    • Earl February 5, 2011 at 1:05 am - Reply

      Hey Theodora – That would be an unfortunate error mixing up Uluru with Mt. Conner. Maybe I should go back and check my own photos 🙂

      And I do look at my time at Surf Beach as a surprise experience that I otherwise would never have had. I certainly don’t regret sitting at a very nice beach, staring out into the ocean, watching surfers and walking along the sand. If I do make it back to Bell’s Beach at some point, great. If not, I’m still happy with how that day turned out!

  11. krantcents February 4, 2011 at 9:18 pm - Reply

    Whenever I travel, I am always surprised with the unexpected! For example, I am still impressed with Washington, DC. Paris holds my fascination and I have been there 5 times. There is a long list of places that are fascinating, but not necessarily for what I expected to see. Many times the best part of the trip is not what saw, but we experienced. The people we ran into and stayed with or interacted with. I think that is why travel is so much fun!

    • Earl February 5, 2011 at 12:55 am - Reply

      @krantcents: That’s a great point you make. There are parts of India that I return to over and over again, not because of any particular sight, but because of the people who live there and the overall atmosphere of the region. And it’s incredible how interacting with one person or eating one perfect meal can turn even the most ordinary of places into one of our favorites destinations. Or it can lead us to become attracted to popular destinations, but for entirely different reasons than most people, such as your attraction to Paris I suspect!

  12. Bill February 4, 2011 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    Expectations can work both ways. In Italy, we were a little disappointed in Venice. We’re glad we saw it, but wouldn’t go back. But we found a little out of the way town on Lago di Como that we just adored. Last year we went to Peru, and after a week of traveling about, visiting stunning vista after stunning vista, we thought surely that Machu Picchu would be a disappointment. Nope. An incredible place to which we would return in a heartbeat. Not sure how much expectation had to do with either. We did expect more from MP because we’ve wanted to go since we first saw photos of it. Venice is one of those places we’ve read about all our lives but had no “urge” to visit.

    • Earl February 5, 2011 at 12:45 am - Reply

      Hey Bill – It really does go both ways, and I’m sure that every traveler has experienced both ends of the spectrum. Often times it seems that a disappointment ends up followed by a wonderful surprise, such as your visit to Lago di Como, probably because we no longer have expectations after being disappointed. And then we stumble upon some unheard of location and are able to enjoy it as it is, without comparing it to any photos we’d seen before.

      And I’ve yet to make it to Machu Picchu but I’m trying to keep my expectations in check for whenever I do make it there!

  13. Priyank February 4, 2011 at 5:30 am - Reply

    Hi Earl,
    From the examples, sorry but I don’t think this is a case of expectations v/s reality. You were expecting a beach to enjoy, spill the cheese roll and maybe surf, and you did get all that. Perhaps the name was different but that didn’t belittle your experience.

    As for people who don’t know Dominican Republic v/s Dominica, I suggest they go back to 5th grade geography. 😛

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 7:33 am - Reply

      Hey Priyank – If you think the Dominican Republic vs Dominica situation is bad, when I worked on board a cruise ship in Hawaii as a Tour Manager, I once had a passenger approach me and demand a refund for his Helicopter tour over the active volcano known as Kiluea. He claimed that my staff had told him he would be flying over Mt. Kilimanjaro when he bought the tour tickets and he didn’t see Mt. Kilimanjaro so he wanted his money back. Needless to say, I was left speechless.

      • Priyank February 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm - Reply

        Haha, this reminds me of the following conversation (in my brief stint at a travel agency in Toronto).

        Customer: So how do you commute within a city in India? Do you have buses or taxis?
        Me: No, we have elephants. You have to wait at a stop, an elephant comes and you climb it.
        Customer: Wow, can’t wait to see that…
        (I thought he’d get my sense of humor but I was surprised.)

        • Earl February 5, 2011 at 12:39 am - Reply

          Hey Priyank – Funny? Sad? I’m not sure how to classify such situations. Perhaps the customer was the same person that I dealt with in Hawaii!

  14. […] Expectations vs. Reality at Wandering Earl […]

  15. Jeremy February 3, 2011 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    There are two sides to it, I think.

    If your expectations are higher than what you really see, you’ll get disappointed. I went to Egypt with a group tour and someone said “I thought they’d be bigger” where I was blown away by how huge they were considering their age. But if you go in with low expectations (or just go with the flow), you’re going to be happy regardless of what its like.

    I think every medium that is thrown at us for travel shows desolation. Even I try and get pictures without people in it just cause they look better. I’m sure if we knew certainly that the crowds and build up would be there, expectations would be different. I go in thinking of the mindset that if I’ve heard of it before, its going to be full of other travelers. That way my expectations can only be met and exceeded. Then when I go off and explore things I don’t know, I can get blown away by the awesomeness!

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 7:17 am - Reply

      Hey Jeremy – I just replied to another comment saying how I was disappointed by the Pyramids myself for the very reason you describe. I had huge expectations unfortunately.

      And tourism marketing photos do typically show the perfect shot, without any people around at all. Expectations absolutely would be different if they used the typical photos that actual travelers end up with. But thinking ahead of time that there are going to be crowds (and perhaps garbage on the ground as well), does help lower expectations and this is actually one of the main reasons that I don’t do much pre-trip research these days. I prefer to know only the basics so that no matter where I arrive, everything is a surprise and I have few expectations to meet. Clearly I failed with Bell’s Beach but it was a good reminder 🙂

  16. Sandy @ yesiamcheap February 3, 2011 at 7:04 am - Reply

    The Taj Mahal is still the Taj Mahal an fortunately there’s only one, but a beach is a beach is a beach…as long as you had fun, that’s what counts.

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 7:10 am - Reply

      Hey Sandy – I think a lot of people miss that point. I agree that if you have a good time and are happy with your experience, the it doesn’t matter if where you happen to be. Amazing experiences can happen in ordinary places as well!

  17. joshywashington February 3, 2011 at 1:30 am - Reply

    Good topic Earl. I think we have a collective expectation to be amazed by certain places, and these illusions of a picture perfect place are enforced by marketing material, stories we read and glossy brochures. I learned in Southeast Asia to just let a place be what it, to try not to bring value judgments.
    That doesn’t mean I am stoked for certain sights, but I try not to make them out to be something they are not and I try not to get wrapped up in the placeness of a place.

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 7:09 am - Reply

      Hey Joshy – Seems like you have a good grasp of this topic and I think what you’re doing is the best way to travel. It is important to try and leave our expectations behind while understanding that a powerful, life-changing moment could occur at any time and anywhere, not simply at sites that have been labeled ‘must-visit’!

  18. Amanda February 3, 2011 at 12:08 am - Reply

    Wow, what a question! I think that, yes, in most cases our expectations do indeed color our perception of reality to some extent.

    But, just as the expectation to enjoy a place can enhance enjoyment of that place, I think high expectations actually leave room for a lot of disappointment, too.

    Definitely something to think about! Great post.

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 7:03 am - Reply

      Hey Amanda – Your comment reminded me of visiting the Pyramids in Egypt. After reading other people’s stories, my expectations were so incredibly high and in the end, my experience wasn’t nearly as exciting. It seemed like quite an ordinary site to me and I left the Pyramids feeling disappointed indeed. I kept on comparing the Pyramids to other destinations I had enjoyed more, places where I arrived without any expectations at all and which ended up giving me a much more powerful experience.

  19. Darrin February 2, 2011 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    I am sure this happens to people more often than we realize. At least you discovered your error and were able to create an interesting story.

    I think travel stories are made more interesting when things happen to us that are unexpected or unplanned. These “goofs” make for a good tale to share with our friends. Your story is worthy of telling BECAUSE you didn’t make it to the beach you wanted to see.

    Best of luck with you next mis-adventure!

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 6:57 am - Reply

      Hey Darrin – I couldn’t agree more. These goofs are often the greatest highlights of our adventures, especially if we realize that sometimes the destination just doesn’t matter. Wherever we end up, we all have the ability to turn our experience into a positive one with the right mind set.

      I appreciate the comment!

  20. Christy @ Ordinary Traveler February 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm - Reply

    That’s funny! It sounds like something I would do. 🙂 Regarding your question… I guess I could see how certain places would seem more exciting because you are fulfilling a life long dream. Hmm… something to think about.

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 6:55 am - Reply

      Hey Christy – Thank you for coming to my aid and admitting that you make similar errors 🙂 And when travel is someone’s life long dream, I think we assume that it must be the perfect lifestyle, so we sometimes convince ourselves that everything we do or see is as perfect as we had hoped…

  21. John Bardos -JetSetCitizen February 2, 2011 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    Great question Earl.

    I definitely think our expectations influence what we experience.

    There is a famous story of the concert violinist Joshua Bell who played in a Washington, D.C. subway station as a test to see if people would care.

    Barely no one stopped to pay any attention. He had a million dollar violin. That alone would have been something to see. It seems most of us need to be told what is good in order to form our own opinion.

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 6:52 am - Reply

      Hey John – Thanks for sharing that link. It’s quite incredible really but it seems to be the way things work. I often talk about this topic in relation to comedy (I’m a big stand up comedy fan) as it seems to me that audiences will laugh at anything a famous comedian says and often times won’t laugh when an unknown comedian says something funny.

      We laugh when we think we should, we have incredible travel experiences sometimes simply because we think we should. Of course this isn’t always the case but our expectations most likely play a much larger role than we imagine.

  22. Gary February 2, 2011 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    Good post, thanks. You might enjoy this book
    How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like by Paul Bloom
    because he has a really good answer to this exact question. And the answer is …. well it is such a good book best to read it.

  23. Gillian @OneGiantStep February 2, 2011 at 4:57 am - Reply

    I think the opposite may happen more often. You finally get to Bell’s beach…only to find it not as spectacular as you had imagined in you mind. Perhaps you were lucky to have had the experience you did! Cheers!

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 7:46 am - Reply

      Hey Gillian – It certainly does work that way as well and that is a huge problem with having high expectations before any trip. Having no expectations increases the chances of being pleasantly surprised no matter where one ends up. It’s just easy for travelers to start creating expectations given all of the information, photos and stories that are available to us at all times these days!

  24. Kim February 2, 2011 at 4:13 am - Reply

    Damn good question and I don’t think I know the answer, but I did love your story, it made me giggle. I think that there are experiences that we build up in our mind, that we set goals around and give weight to. For example, I might say that “some time in my life I want to see the Taj Mahal.” When I finally get there, it’s not just the Taj Mahal that I am experiencing, but a fulfillment of a dream and goal that I worked hard to achieve. So, some places carry more weight (Bells Beach) and some are pleasant surprises (Surf Beach).

    • Earl February 4, 2011 at 7:52 am - Reply

      Hey Kim – Very well stated! Beyond what we see at a particular destination, our experience ultimately depends on our reason for visiting as well. Just the act of fulfilling a life-long dream is enough to lead to a remarkably rewarding experience, regardless of whether or not the Taj Mahal lives up the beauty we so often hear about. This reminds me of my visit to Iraq, as it could have proven to be the least friendly, most challenging, unexciting place on the planet and I still would have love my adventure there since I was accomplishing a personal goal of mine.

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