What Does Your Vacation Smell Like?

RARELY do we go rummaging through our brain’s olfactory files for reminders of an impressive vacation. But this is a great time to give a workout to what chef Marcus Samuelsson calls our “smell muscle,” using our sense of smell to experience more of the world. You’re sure to get your heart pumping.

BRITTANY Algae, salt air and a hint of crepes on a hot pan

Photo: Shutterstock

Emerging from the cocoon we were unceremoniously stuffed into a year ago, many of us are starting to dream of returning to a favorite place—a beloved getaway spot that has been frustratingly off-limits for the past 14 months. While photos or particularly vivid TV shows might conjure the image of those out-of-reach destinations, they can’t reproduce the feeling of being there. “When we smell things we are directly experiencing little bits of that place, the materials that make up that place,” said author Harold McGee, whose most recent book, “Nose Dive: A Field Guide To The World’s Smells,” came out in the fall. The aroma of the place is perhaps the only experience we can’t transport as a souvenir.

MOROCCO’S ATLAS MOUNTAINS Fresh mint leaves and the wood smoke of a campfire.

Photo: Shutterstock

Not that it hasn’t been tried. Versions of Smell-O-Vision or Scentovision, a system that transmits smells during films or television shows, first wafted onto the scene in the 1960s after Swiss scientist Hans Laube introduced it in 1939 at the World’s Fair. “It didn’t work,” said Mr. McGee, but hold tight for another decade or so and we’ll be able to visit India and share the smell experience when we return home, he predicted. Until then, we asked Mr. McGee as well as six other professionals for whom scent plays an important role to share the aromas that evoke their strongest memories of places they’re eager to sniff once again.

NEW YORK CITY The singular, not always agreeable smell of the subway

Photo: Shutterstock

Harold McGee

Author, food scientist

“I live in San Francisco and we’ll often go on a driving trip up the coast to Mendocino. I smell the ocean and the redwoods. The redwood forests have a particular smell—moist, evergreen, woody,” said Mr. McGee, adding that the bark on the massive trees tends to be flaky, which may contribute to the aroma. Other indelible scent memories are less agreeable. “I love visiting New York, Paris and London. I think of the smell of the subways,” said Mr. McGee. “In Paris, the subways have rubber wheels, and that may be what gives it its distinct smell. The London subways are deep underground. You feel the stifle of air. In New York, walking along the streets you pass the subway grates, you smell the subway more than the street. Not always pleasant.”

Tory Burch

Executive chairman and chief creative officer of Tory Burch LLC, which includes her signature line of fragrances

Ms. Burch’s most memorable vacation smell comes from the Caribbean. “A flower called Lady of the Night blooms in the evening at our home in Antigua,” said Ms. Burch. “The scent is magnificent—a floral with tremendous depth. It travels from room to room and throughout the gardens with the wind.”

Marcus Samuelsson

Chef and owner of Red Rooster and Marcus restaurants

“Pre-pandemic I’d take my son to Ethiopia. We’d visit the markets in Addis Ababa,” said Mr. Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia. “There’s a sound in the markets, and there’s a smell….of spices, of berbere [a traditional blend of chile peppers, coriander, ginger, garlic, basil, among other spices]. In Sweden, where I grew up in a fishing village, you can smell the ocean for miles and the fish in the smokehouses. In late summer to early fall I’d go foraging with my uncles. Going into the woods and pulling up lingonberries, blueberries, mushrooms—these memories for me are all about smell.”

Denise Porcaro

Floral designer and owner of New York City’s Flower Girl

“Whenever I think of Europe I think of the lemon trees and orange blossoms,” said Ms. Porcaro. “Driving along the Amalfi coast the smell is citrusy, soft and powdery.” The fragrance is reminiscent not only of a place for her, she said, but a time: summer.

Dr. Rose Ingleton

Dermatologist and founder of Rose Ingleton M.D. skin care line

“I travel all over the world, but my mind goes to Jamaica,” said Ms. Ingleton of her birthplace. “I’m obsessed with the smell of the rain there when it is just starting. It smells of the earth, and that is comforting.”

Caroline Fabrigas

Scent creator, CEO of Scent Marketing Inc.

Years ago, on a vacation with her late husband and in-laws, Ms. Fabrigas journeyed into the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The foursome camped one night around a woodfire, where their Berber hosts served them a pungent tea. “The memory of that day diffused into this scent of fresh mint leaves, hot boiling water, the sweetness of sugar with heat and smoke,” she said.

Laurent Le Guernec

Vice president and senior perfumer, International Flavors and Fragrances

Last year, Laurent Le Guernec, who lives in Manhattan, headed to Mystic, Conn., a Covid-era substitute for his regular vacation in Brittany, the peninsula in northwest France where he grew up. To his surprise the smell of the Connecticut seaside town reminded him of summers back home. “It is the smell of the ocean there,” he said. The algae produces a distinctive smell, he believes. Mr. Le Guernec is also nostalgic for Breton crepes sold in the cafes and restaurants that dot the region. “That smell of the salted butter that melts in the pan is one of the strongest memories I have.”

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