When it comes to travel -- the nose knows. It's the sense of smell that stimulates your olfactory nerves, sending messages to your brain. Take Hawaii, for instance. From the minute you step off the plane, the perfumed scent of gardenias seduces you. The nose tells your brain this is a pleasing fragrance -- perhaps one you already recognize. If so, it's even more enjoyable.
Apply the same principles to Bay Area travel and you'll find yourself drawn to certain places, based on smell. Nosing around, here are five of my local favorites:
No. 1: San Francisco's North Beach. It's ironic, when you think about it, that garlic has the power to both seduce and repel. But vampires aside, most people are drawn to the heady aroma of basil and Roma tomatoes that comes from an authentic Italian kitchen. It's not just the simmering sauce on the stove, but the fragrance of fresh baked bread. And garlic -- even a whiff -- can increase circulation, which, in turn, puts a bounce in your step. Block by block, from the Stinking Rose to the North Beach Restaurant, the romance of Italy enters your psyche through your sense of smell.
No. 2: Sonoma and Napa wine regions. The first thing you notice is the clean, country air laced with the scent of wildflowers growing at the heels of old vines. Inside the wineries, the intoxicating aroma of aged oak barrels and yeast fills your senses. Wine country, by its very nature, is a celebration of earth's abundance. From Yountville to Sonoma, restaurants turn food into an art form and the air into their signature bouquet.
No. 3: The coast. From Jack London Square to Pacifica -- gentle sea breezes remind us of paradise. The salty air tickles our nostrils and opens our eyes to the rustling palms and undulating waves that lap gently on shore. Salt air also makes us thirsty, employing our sense of taste. Taste and smell -- like a margarita with fresh-squeezed lime -- seem to go together.
No. 4: Gardens. Walt Whitman once wrote: "Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed." The Bay Area is a garden lover's delight with its many microclimates. To the south, there's Filoli in Woodside. To the north, Luther Burbank Gardens in Santa Rosa. Golden Gate Park has its Japanese Tea Gardens and Strybing Arboretum and the East Bay boasts the UC Botanical Gardens and Oakland's own Rose Garden. Each blooming plant beckons us to bend down and thrust our nose into its fragrant petals. Even the rotting flesh smell of the Amorphophallus titanium leaves a lasting impression.
No. 5: Old buildings. This can be anything from an historical hotel like the St. Francis to the crumbling walls of our most notorious prison. Inside Alcatraz, the smell of despair fills the air, mixed with cold steel and seeping cement walls. History has a smell. Time leaves its mark on a place, whether it's a century-old brick building that was once a speak easy and still smells of gin and debauchery, or a sacred space like a church, perfumed with incense and candle wax. Let your nose lead you to new discoveries and your other senses will be heightened as well.