How to Travel by Scent

We tend to privilege our sense of sight, but why not be led by your nose?

This dizzying crowd of Douglas fir trees gives off a refreshing scent. (Terry W. Eggers/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

You have about 350 different kinds of odor receptors in your nose, and with them you can identify and remember about 10,000 different scents. Scent helps us avoid danger (sour milk, poison, leaking gas) and also gives us pleasure, like when you smell your favorite flower—or favorite person.

And although scientists, like the rest of us, know the rush of memories that comes after sniffing a certain hallway or perfume or home-cooked meal, it wasn’t until 2004 that researchers truly began to understand how the olfactory sense works. That year, Linda B. Buck and Richard Axel won the Nobel Prize for their work decoding what the Nobel Assembly called “the most enigmatic of our senses.” And there’s still a lot to learn. Turns out, odor receptors are also in your liver, heart, lungs and even skin, among other places, and may even help our various organs and muscles heal from trauma.

When scent can bring such pleasure, let alone health, why not indulge on your next trip? Read on for some of the world’s most alluring fragrances—and the places you can visit to breathe them in.

Comoro Islands

The ylang-ylang trees of the Comoro Islands, off the eastern coast of Africa, often leave visitors intoxicated. According to the BBC, the Comoros export a full 80 percent of the world’s supply of ylang-ylang essence, a scent used in many perfumes and soaps. The plant, which is originally from the Philippines, can also be found in parts of Costa Rica. You might recognize its sultry fragrance—and you might even see a perfume researcher taking a whiff of the air nearby.

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