Holiday ideas for your five senses: Food, sounds, smells, sights and touch

Travel is almost always visually stimulating, but actively engaging all five of your senses can enhance the experience of a destination.

We all gaze at vistas, temples and famous paintings while on holiday, soaking up the sights without thinking much about our other senses. Looking seems automatic, but listening and smelling are done more deliberately, usually in particular settings such as concert halls or gardens. We often ignore the everyday background noises and aromas that make destinations so distinctive: the peculiar siren of an overseas ambulance, the smell of a foreign supermarket.

Even taste seems increasingly overlooked, sidelined these days by restaurant decor, celebrity chefs and food that presents itself prettily on social media. As for touch, it's the last unexplored frontier of travel. We're never likely to discover what an old master, the Statue of Liberty or a hummingbird feels like. Still, there are many ways we can enjoy our journeys by engaging all our senses.

SOUND

Listen to the world and you're rewarded with another layer of sensory experience. If the sight of orange-clad monks means Thailand, so too does the tinkle of temple bells, splutter of motorbikes and clank of ladles on street woks. Certain sounds are as specific to a place as language or food: the screech of cockatoos, rattle of passing trams, tolling of cowbells, the muffling qualities of snow. Even conversational volume is culture-specific: Japanese and Iranians murmur, Cantonese and Americans bellow, French kids rarely yell in restaurants. As for nature, it provides many agreeable noises: a lullaby of waves or wind, rain pattering on windows, the song of birds and whales.

Listen to the world and you're rewarded with another layer of sensory experience.

Listen to the world and you're rewarded with another layer of sensory experience.

Don't forget to indulge in the obvious. Visit a jazz cafe in New Orleans, a concert hall in Vienna, a gamelan performance in Bali. Take a Spanish course in Guatemala or learn to play the guitar in Andalusia. The world is also full of music museums and composers' homes, nightclubs and village teahouses where old men with raspy voices sing of lost love. Keep your ears pinned back, and tune into the world's melodies.

LISTEN UP: THREE PLACES WITH AMAZING SOUNDS

AUDIOVERSUM, AUSTRIA

This interactive, high-tech museum of hearing is an entertaining investigation into how we perceive and react to sound. See audioversum.at

KHONGOR SINGING SAND DUNES, MONGOLIA

Gobi Desert dunes amplify wind sound: sometimes harp-like, sometimes revving airplane engine. See mongolia.travel

MUSEUM OF POP CULTURE, US

Music is a big focus at this Seattle museum. Pluck guitars, spin turntables, record a CD and listen to Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix. See mopop.org

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Singing sand dunes in the Mongolian Gobi Desert.

Singing sand dunes in the Mongolian Gobi Desert.

TASTE

Food is a supreme travel pleasure, but we seem to have forgotten to focus on our tastebuds in restaurants, distracted by plating, food porn and the pretentions of provenance. Terroir was something only winemakers once muttered about, but has now spread to whisky, beer, coffee, chocolate – and no doubt soon to potatoes. Tastes have their fashions, among them New Nordic cuisine, Nespresso coffee, cupcakes and our inexplicable obsession with macarons and quinoa. New food combinations challenge us before becoming mainstream, such as salted caramel, wine-and-chocolate pairings or green-tea ice-cream.

Fortunately for our tastebuds, comfort food (read: lip-smacking traditional cooking) is on the upswing. A good, plain meal often provides the most memorable taste experience, whether a Moroccan tagine, well-made nasi goreng or fish 'n' chips on a windswept beach.

Taste has unexpected consequences. Take spicy meals: scientists say that capsaicin, a chemical found in chillies, stimulates the body's production of feel-good endorphins, explaining the vague euphoria that accompanies a curry. Capsaicin is also a natural opiate that causes slight addiction, bringing us back for more. Who's complaining? However you explain it, taste (like music or lovely views) simply makes us happy.

Traditional moroccan tajine of chicken with dried fruits and spices, selective focus.

Traditional moroccan tajine of chicken with dried fruits and spices, selective focus.

TUCK IN: THREE PLACES WITH REAL FLAVOUR

MUSEUM OF FOOD AND DRINK, US

Uncover the history, culture and science of food through not only hands-on but tongue-on exhibitions and guided tastings. See mofad.org

COGNAC, FRANCE

A master blender from Camus takes you through the flavours of cognac before you blend and bottle your own exclusive drop. See camus.fr

ULTRAVIOLET, CHINA

The world's most outlandish restaurant combines inventive flavours with sound, smell and a sense of drama. See uvbypp.cc

SMELL

Smell is the most underrated sense, despite its importance in human bonding, food flavours, memory and identification of place – all central to the travel experience. We would look askance if we asked for travel advice and were told to sniff a particular corner of Paris. And yet our millions of olfactory receptors are constantly on the snuffle, and even mundane trains and banks have their particular odours.

So linked to memory is smell that hotel chains and airlines spritz signature perfumes to promote brand loyalty. Perfume company Sephora tried to bottle Singapore (light, feminine, orchidy) and Red Square's famous department store produced Ciel de GUM (amber, rose, pepper). Smell instantly transports us to a time and place. Eucalyptus, dust and rusting iron is the outback; donkeys, honey and spices – Egyptian souks. West Africa smells of open drains and tropical damp, dried fish and cooking fires.

Not all travel smells are welcome. There is nothing like the acrid stink of Third-World public toilets or the soppy staleness of beer-soaked pub carpets. Unexpectedly, even Antarctica can be quite a pong thanks to rookeries rank with regurgitated fish and penguin poo.

Thermal lake Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland near Rotorua.

Thermal lake Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland near Rotorua.

BY A NOSE: THREE PLACES FOR AROMA THERAPY

GRASSE, FRANCE

Raw materials for the world's perfume industry are processed here. Visit perfumeries, perfume workshops and surrounding flower fields. See grassetourisme.fr

ROTORUA, NEW ZEALAND

Nice place, great spas, startling geothermal activity but a pervasive smell of rotten eggs caused by sulphurous gas. See rotoruanz.com

GILROY, US

Touted as the garlic capital of the world and host to a July garlic festival; the harvest smell drifts for kilometres around. See gilroygarlicfestival.com

TOUCH

We scarcely give a thought to touch when travelling, unless complaining about scratchy hotel sheets or hobbling barefoot across too-hot sand. Occasionally, we're invited to stroke a python (cool and dry) or cuddle a koala, but tourism seldom caters to the fifth sense. Indeed, museums and historic sites actively discourage touching.

Yet our skin is constantly garnering endless data from our surrounds: whether we're being rained upon or sunburned, whether that bowl of pho is too hot, when we've been bitten by a mosquito. We enjoy the softness of an alpaca souvenir sweater and the rough-palmed handshake of a Romanian farmer. And who doesn't want to run their fingertips over husky fur, marble statues, the bark of an oak tree?

There is a big exception to the travel industry's disinterest in touch and that, of course, is the rise of luxury spas and wellness treatments. Let fish nibble your feet, attempt reiki on horseback, wallow in melted chocolate or grape lees. Get tapped by a wooden mallet, pummelled by Thai feet, massaged by harmony balls or slinked on by snails: all actual treatments that will challenge your senses.

Let fish nibble at your feet.

Let fish nibble at your feet.

OH, WHAT A FEELING: THREE THRILLING PLACES

IBUSUKI, JAPAN

Have yourself buried in sand hot enough to boil an egg as smoke from Kaimondake volcano rises. See ibusuki.or.jp

SIX FLAGS GREAT ADVENTURE, US

This amusement park's thrill rides provide 360-degree loops, inverted rolls, hurtles over humps and a 65-metre drop at 130km/h. See sixflags.com/greatadventure

TIANMEN SKYWALK, CHINA

A dizzying glass walkway pinned to a cliff face will test your tolerance to vertigo. See enghunan.gov.cn/tourism

The glass skywalk on the cliff of Tianmen Mountain.

The glass skywalk on the cliff of Tianmen Mountain. Photo: Getty Images

SIGHT

Travel is predominantly a visual experience: guidebooks tell us what to look at, travel magazines tempt with glossy photos, bucket lists hector us with must-sees. Travellers wonder what we might see over the horizon, and indulge in voyeurism when we get there.

We can, however, challenge ourselves to reconsider the visual cliches. Beaches don't need blue skies and coconut palms to provide a great travel moment: try storm-watching on the coast at Tofino in western Canada. Even museums, which overwhelmingly cater to looking, can challenge the norms, such as the Museum of Bad Art in Boston, where visitors are invited to contemplate about 500 hideous art works gone wrong.

You can find a sense of awe just by looking, too. Gaze at the aurora borealis or further into the twinkling universe, or zoom in through a museum microscope onto shimmering butterfly wings. Glorious views stir the soul, especially (according to Romantic poets, at least) if mountains are involved. Even watching other people can remind us of our universal traits and ordinariness despite the external exoticism. Open your eyes, and your mind might open, too.

The Crystal Dome at Swarovski Crystal World.

The Crystal Dome at Swarovski Crystal World.

NOW LOOK HERE: THREE PLACES THAT ARE SIGHTS FOR SEEING THINGS

MUSEUM, THAILAND

3D paintings and trompe l'oeil techniques invite you to become part of the art works at this kid-friendly museum. See phukettrickeyemuseum.com

GALLOWAY FOREST PARK, UK

Admire 7000 stars in one of Scotland's darkest spots, or an even more spectacular star-scape from the Dark Sky Observatory. See gallowayforestpark.com

SWAROVSKI CRYSTAL WORLDS, AUSTRIA

Wacky, wonderful journey into a kingdom of giant jellyfish, trees and a geosidic dome made of glittering crystal. See kristallwelten.swarovski.com

SENSORY OVERLOAD: FIVE PLACES THAT ASSAULT THE SENSES

IJEN VOLCANO COMPLEX, INDONESIA

Every volcano stinks, but Ijen racks it up another notch thanks to billowing sulphuric steam and the world's most acidic crater lake. (Avoid the sense of touch: the water can melt plastic.) Turquoise-coloured water assaults the eye, and glowing blue sulphuric gases occasionally flicker in the night. Hissing steam and burping lava flows provide unnerving aural surprises. See indonesia.travel

CHOUARA TANNERIES, MOROCCO

The eyes are in for a treat at this tannery embedded in Fes' medieval old town. From above, giant earthenware pots are a pointillist pattern of coloured dyes, especially in early morning. But the nose is truly assaulted, since the pungent, eye-watering dye mixture is rank with pigeon poo and dead animal skins. See visitmorocco.com

MASAI MARA, KENYA

The first time you see a single giraffe amble past your car, or a cheetah lying in a thicket, is sensory overload. But Kenya also supplies wildebeest and flamingos by the thousands. Hippos grunt, baboons shriek and bushbaby cries are eerie. Engage your nose as well: zebra farts, mangy lion and fresh elephant dung are other natural wonders. See magicalkenya.com

VAKIL BAZAAR, IRAN

Shiraz's covered 18th-century bazaar glows with faded glory and filtered light, glittering dresses and sacks of spice. Metalworkers tap, old men suck tea through sugar cubes, ladies chatter. The air smells of carpet wool and dust, freshly baked flatbread and sugared dates. The bazaar's rambling passageways will have you spellbound, all senses engaged. See iraniantourism.com

VARANASI, INDIA

The whole of India assaults the sense, but nowhere more than in Varanasi on the holy Ganges River, with its many-armed gods, energy lines and eccentric religious devotees. Brace yourself for riverside cremations, wandering lepers and sadhus, religious fanatics with skewered cheeks, street vendors, garish temples and the timeless beauty of Hindu devotions at sunrise. See uptourism.gov.in

AROMA THERAPY: FIVE CITIES WITH DISTINCTIVE SMELLS

AMSTERDAM

It's hard to escape the pungency of the legally consumed marijuana that billows from the open doors of Amsterdam's infamous coffee shops. A researcher also recently pinpointed cheese, sausages, waffles, beer and coffee as typical Amsterdam smells. See iamsterdam.com

NEW YORK

When summer heat hits the Big Apple the city's 12,000 daily tonnes of waste gently steam, and it isn't sweet. Hot metal and vapour from subway grates, corner hotdog and souvlaki stands, and a million sweaty commuters add to the distinctive street smell. See nycgo.com

MARRAKESH

Plunge into Marrakesh's labyrinthine souk and a rich aroma assaults your nose from sacks of chilli, cumin, ginger and black pepper. You'll also sniff leather, soldered metal, textile dyes and perfumed oils infused with orange blossom or rose petals. See marrakech.travel

BUENOS AIRES

Argentines love barbecues, and the aroma of sizzling meat over hot charcoal wafts from a thousand parillas or steakhouses, in which shanks of beef turn on ogre-sized spits. Perfumed roses from ubiquitous corner flower kiosks provide a pretty, contrasting counterpart. See turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar

LONDON, UK

Nothing smells like the Underground, once uncharitably described as the "armpit of the Earth". It provides a distinctive blend of perspiration, train engines, mouse droppings and hot recycled air. Above ground, London smells of parks, beer and iron railings. See visitlondon.com

NOW HEAR THIS: SOUNDS THAT DEFINE NATIONS

YODELLING, SWITZERLAND

Devised as a way of communicating across valleys and often associated overseas with cheesy variety performances, this rapid high-low singing is taken seriously at Swiss festivals. Aficionados recognise different styles of yodelling in different regions.

PACHINKO MACHINES, JAPAN

The Japanese are obsessed with these pinball-gambling gadgets. Walk along an urban street and, when a pachinko parlour's glass doors slide open, you're assaulted by a cacophony of tumbling steel balls, tinny music, sirens and chimes.

BAGPIPES, SCOTLAND

Though bagpipes are played in places as diverse as Spain, the Balkans and Middle East, for most this droning, wailing instrument provides the quintessential sound of Scotland, whether played by massed military bands or street buskers.

VUVUZELAS, SOUTH AFRICA

Thank heavens this long, single-noted plastic horn hasn't caught on elsewhere. Originating in kudu horns used to summon villagers, vuvuzelas are commonly used at soccer matches and can collectively produce sound levels above the pain threshold.

CASTANETS, SPAIN

These clicking, clacking finger instruments originated in the Middle East but are the classic sound of Spain. They're played by singers and dancers though not, traditionally, by flamenco dancers, even if Bizet makes good use of them in Carmen.

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