You’re lying on a beach, eyes closed. There’s a tang of salt in the air, a whiff of some tropical bloom. There’s the sand, which smells distinct and nothing like soil; the breeze, thick with ozone (a word, incidentally, which comes from the Greek ozein, meaning “to smell”). This is the scent of relaxation, of vacation, of the specific stretch of beach on which you’ve chosen to place your towel—and if you ever encounter that combination of fragrances again, you will likely be instantly transported back, even if you’re in an Idaho snowstorm.
This is the phenomenon which inspires perfumers to spike their fragrances with certain notes, whether it be the watermelon in Lily Pulitzer’s Palm Beach inspired Beachy or the hibiscus and passion flower in Michael Kors’ Bermuda: They are trying conjure a specific place, and take us there. “As a child my family would spend summers in Hawaii,” says Gaye Straza Rappaport, founder of Kai fragrance, a white floral bouquet characterized by a strong hit of intoxicating gardenia. “There’s nothing like the scent of exotic flowers, and plumeria, pikake, gardenia, and jasmine seemed to grow everywhere. Every time I smell one of those flowers I’m instantly back on the islands surrounded by loved ones.” Perfume is like a time portal—one whiff of Chanel No. 5, for example, and you’re a child at your mother’s vanity table—and a sort of teleportation mechanism to places you’ve visited throughout your life, thanks to simple biology: The part of the brain that recognizes and processes odors is right next to the region that stores our memories. It’s like a little switch gets thrown between the two and a door is flung open; what our nose knows is the key.
Everyone has a strong scent memory—not all of them bottle-able: One of my ELLE colleagues is reminded of holidays not by tropical delights, but by the oaky scent of wood smoke (she’s a mountain cabin fan); I get such a strong sense of London every time I catch a whiff of a certain asphalt-and-diesel-fuel combo that I’m practically standing in front of Big Ben for a few seconds like I’ve achieved a quantum leap. But, thankfully, the most potent instant-vacation scent I’ve ever encountered is a, pleasant, and b, one that I can enjoy at home: Tahitian monoï.
Monoï (translated as “perfumed oil” or “sacred oil”) is a swoon-inducingly fragrant concoction made from soaking tiare flowers, the local variety of gardenia, in coconut oil sourced from coral atolls. The resulting oil (used in Tahiti for everything from massaging babies to repelling mosquitos) is a specifically French Polynesian delight—not only do tiare flowers grow only in Tahiti (on bushy plants with green waxy leaves that bloom year-round, dotting the islands like so many white stars), monoï is protected by an Appelation D’Origin trademark ensuring that it can only be produced in the South Pacific. The scent is so seductive it’s practically narcotic: it’s floral, but voluptuous and warm—the scent of the sun and the ocean, of paradise itself. Following my first trip to Tahiti in 2005, I rationed the bottles I brought home like a crazed war bride because I knew the aroma was as good as a one-way ticket on Air Tahiti Nui: a splash of the stuff in my bath and I would boomerang right back to the aquamarine-and-emerald-hued lagoons of Bora Bora.
I’m not the only one to have fallen hard for the seductive scent of monoï—the oil has been cropping up in everything from hair products, such as Carol’s Daughter Monoi Repairing collection, to moisturizers, and the tiare flower note blooms in such perfumes as Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria Tiare Mimosa and Chantecaille’s Tiare. One monoï pioneer was the founder and creative director of Nars Cosmetics, François Nars, who, after visiting Tahiti in the ’90s, was so besotted with the region’s exotic charms that, in 1998, he introduced Nars Body Glow, a shimmer-infused monoï-based head-to-toe moisturizer. (He also bought his own island near Bora Bora.) For Nars, it wasn’t just the “soothing, moisturizing, and protective benefits of the oil, all of which I love,” he says; it was the fact that its scent reminded him so vividly of his home away from home. “I have 60 or 70 tiare bushes in my garden, and the smell of the flowers follows you as you walk along the beach at night. It’s just incredible.”
There have been perfumes inspired by locales all over the world, from Tokyo (Guerlain) to Timbuktu (L’Artisan Parfumeur). Some rely on flower and wood notes indigenous to certain spots—the cypress and bitter almond in Dior’s Escale a Portofino, the Calabrian jasmine flower in Acqua di Parma Gelsomino Nobile, or the lotus and green mango in Hermes’ Un Jardin sur Le Nil, for example—while others take a more abstract approach, such as the smoky, leathery notes in Chanel’s Cuir de Russie that evoke the upholstered tea-rooms of Moscow or the cocoa and espresso notes in Bond No. 9 So New York that allude to the metropolis’s caffeinated buzz.
But for many people I know, it doesn’t take a site-specific eau that to remind them of places they’ve been: A perfume itself can be strongly associated with a place. Maybe violets don’t remind you of Paris (more likely the scent of freshly baked baquettes), for instance, but the violent-scented Parisienne by YSL may very well conjure the City of Light if you bought it or wore it there. A friend of mine buys a perfume in every city that she visits, collecting them like scent-souvenirs: An Honoré des Prés from Colette in Paris; an available-only-in-Japan Shiseido spritz in Tokyo. One of the great pleasures of travel is acquiring memories, rewiring the brain to embrace the new and the unusual—and if you can flip through those moments and experiences as easily as you can a photo album, well… inhale.