A Much-needed Vacation

The annual migration is upon us; spring break is here at last! It is time to break out of the ice-bound house or apartment and head for warmer climes. The tantalizing benefits of soft outdoor air and ample sunshine make traveling to the beach or the desert a ritual not to be taken lightly. One of my favorite recreations during the spring break is simply to lay around, soaking up the rays. I like the concept of lounging in the sun, far from my usual home so much that I have taken it into my residential design practice, and offer it as another sort of outdoor room.

We need our outdoor kitchens and entertainment areas, of course, yet we also need our quiet time and quiet areas. The vacation room is a resting place removed from the house by some distance, and separated by landscape beds and other screening elements. It might be called a “secret garden,” because its sole purpose is to separate us from the home and the activities around the home.

Don’t get me wrong, the home is where the heart is, and I know that. However, there is much to gain by sometimes stepping away from our outdoor kitchens and swimming pools, and retreating to a quieter area where we have the opportunity to look from a distance back to our home. I am advocating for design attention to focus on “back property line appeal,” because to reap full benefit of one’s property, appreciation of the view to one’s house is as important as the view from it.

Imagine the value of providing the opportunity to take 30 minutes of vacation time by simply walking to a well designed relaxation area that is completely separate from the house and its attendant entertaining areas. For the most relaxing effect, the surrounding landscape that defines the space should be low maintenance. It would not be a vacation if you were distracted by nagging weeds or peeling paint The extreme relaxation room can be compared to the den of a house, with the recliner in front of the television. The purpose here is to do nothing — to lie still.

Secluded locales

An example of a more active vacation room is a space designed for multiple seats and dining. The photo of a private gathering space at Chanticleer Garden near Gettysburg, Pa. depicts a flexible space defined by a stone retaining wall at the rear, and the stone floor (see photo 1). The arbor overhead creates the feeling of enclosure and privacy. It is easy to imagine a picnic here, where the activity is centered not on the preparation of food, but on its consumption and its function as an aid to conversation. This room is far removed from the house on the grounds, and its primary focal point is a large, quiet pond. Although this room is a part of a large estate, the concept of creating the private and passive dinning room can be taken back to smaller residential or corporate projects. A space used as a retreat, in this part of the country, will not be used as often as the entertainment areas near the house. In the same way that we take vacations less often than we live at home, this area should be less costly to construct and maintain.

Photo 1

Regardless of a client’s taste in furnishings for the outdoor rooms attached to the house, I like rustic elements in the vacation room. Two reasons for my opinion are practical: rustic furnishings and construction materials look fine when aged naturally, and they generally cost less than refined materials. A more esoteric reason is for the ambience that simple lines and natural materials give a space. I am trying to create a retreat to nature, a place that removes the client from the high-tech house and the friendly neighbors. I believe that the “camping out” feeling is essential to the space, and that it is best expressed with rough stone and thick wood.

Photo 2 was made at Yew Dell, near Louisville, Ky., a botanical garden with lovely collections of many fine sculptures and beautiful garden settings. The building in the background is not actually a house, but a chapel. This room is floored with fine gravel. In place of manmade chairs, the seating is the low rocks. The dense canopy of tree branches slopes nearly to the ground, creating not only a roof, but walls too. The feeling of the space is secluded, romantic and intensely private. The intended function is more to provide an outdoor room for the gathering of feelings, rather than to gather friends.

Photo 2

Photo 3 demonstrates the differences between my vacation room theme and a rather typical seating arrangement for an outdoor dining area. The space is adjacent to an outdoor range and fireplace that you cannot see in this photo. Our view is directed out away from the house to the landscape beyond, and the feeling of the seating area is quicker paced. It serves more as a command center than a space to “get away from it all”. You need to be able to design this type of outdoor room, as most clients think of it first when investing in their landscapes, yet there is more to develop on most properties than just a base camp.

Photo 3


Go way outside the box, away from the crowded patio to the property’s edge. Envision the house and attached landscape as the mainland, and invent an island for lounging and retreating from the crowd. That is where the vacation really takes hold.

Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at lnrmarkle@yahoo.com

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