How to Travel by Scent

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

young douglas fir trees.jpg
This dizzying crowd of Douglas fir trees gives off a refreshing scent. Terry W. Eggers/CORBIS

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.

Provence, France

If you’re a fan of lavender, head to France. Purple fields in Provence are filled with the flower, which gives off a very recognizable smell. Lavender is known to be soothing—and research shows that breathing it in can truly help you feel calm. To savor it stateside, try Washington State, where places like the George Washington Inn & Estate host a smaller, 10-acre lavender farm.

South Africa

Maybe sweet perfume isn't a favorite. How about a flower that smells like rotting flesh? If that's more your thing, take a walk near a stream in South Africa, where the orchid Satyrium pumilum lets out its stink to attract certain flies. The scent is realistic enough that female flesh flies will sometimes even deposit their larvae on the orchid instead of in a dead animal.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Carcass isn’t for everyone, but if you’re intrigued by other strong natural scents, check out California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. There, be awed by thumping mud pots and boiling sulfur pools that smell refreshingly like rotten egg—flowery bath products and eau de parfum be damned.

Bedgebury National Pinetum, Britain

For a palate cleanser, travel to Bedgebury National Pinetum in Goudhurst, Britain, the world’s most complete collection of conifers. Especially in summer, there is a “dry, resinous tang to the air providing a distinctly Mediterranean feeling.” The Douglas fir tree also emits an orange fragrance, and if you go in autumn, you may smell caramel. A tree with heart-shaped leaves of pink, orange and yellow, called the Katsura tree, provides the delightful scent.

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