What does the Vineyard smell like?

Taking an olfactory odyssey of the Island.

— Tara Reynolds

Recently I was thinking about Diane Ackerman’s marvelous book, “A Natural History of the Senses.” The book takes each of the five senses individually, and explores it in scientific, poetic, and metaphysical terms.

But the sense that I seem most fascinated by, the one, as Ackerman says, that is the most evocative sense of all, is the sense of smell. “There is no sense more intimate, or more complex,” Ackerman writes, ”which is why recalling your own personal smell memories can be so precise, vivid, and even emotional. Your recollections might be one day, or several decades, old, but that smell was once a part of you.”

I recently saw an advertisement for a bath salt that claimed to “smell like Nantucket.” It made me stop and think about what kind of infusion you would put in a bath salt to make it smell like Martha’s Vineyard.

Given that, as Ackerman says, our smell memories are highly personal, it made me embark on a trip down olfactory memory lane and think about the smell impressions the Vineyard has made on me.

I first came to the Island as a boy in the ’50s, and upon walking down to the ferry in Woods Hole, I was immediately engulfed in a symphony of exotic aromas. There was the acrid smell of coal smoke belching out of the ferry Nobska, the tarry smell of the creosote-drenched pilings, and the briny smell of the ocean, which as a 10-year-old boy, smelled like adventure.

But once on the Island, over the years there have been so many signature smells that define places and events that it’s hard to even begin to catalogue them.

Thinking about the back streets of Edgartown, it’s easy to envision postcard images of stately mansions and picket fences, but postcards can’t convey the smell of honeysuckle that engulfs you as you walk along the sidewalks.

The old Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven was a treat to the eyes and the ears of moviegoers, but when the film broke, as it often did, it gave one a chance, while sitting in the dark, to concentrate on the buttery smell of popcorn as it wafted over the crowd, and the musty smell of ancient chairs and carpets. And maybe for those with especially keen sniffers, a little whiff of Juicy Fruit gum that was stuck to the bottom of your chair.

Murdick’s Fudge occupies a special place in the pantheon of Vineyard aromas. Walking into one of their stores, you are hit with an olfactory explosion that is not so much a scent you feel in your nose, it’s a scent that cradles you in its arms and comforts you.

Stepping into the the Flying Horses carousel in Oak Bluffs, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the jangly music and bobbing horses, but take a minute to breathe in the subtle smell of varnished horses intermingled with the aroma of popcorn and the gaudy smell of cotton candy.

I recently went to the Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown, and the pungent smell of gunpowder filled the air just as fully as the slam-bang blasts of the shotguns. A trip to the Ag Fair can put all your senses on high alert, and the sense of smell is no exception. Stroll through the food court, and it’s like you’re surfing on a wave of barbecue sauce and the aroma of Firemen’s Burgers. Back in livestock pens, the air is infused with straw, wood chips, and, well — livestock.

I don’t have to go that far afield to draw on my bank of smell memories. Our house was post-and-beam construction, and one thing you noticed, in addition to the elegant timbers, was the smell of pine that permeated the building. Over time your nostrils got used to the smell, and you would scarcely notice it, but after leaving for a few days and returning home you were immediately embraced by that piney smell. It was our house’s way of saying, “Welcome back.”

Stepping outside our front door in the spring, the yard was drenched with the fragrance of lavender, mint, scented geraniums, and the empress of aroma, the lilac.

I should note that in the spring, one also encountered the antichrist of beautiful fragrances — Bobbex. Bobbex, which my wife sprayed liberally on our shrubs to keep deer away, has a particularly noxious odor. I found it described on the internet as “a blend of a dead cat, covered in feces, left in the heat under piles of garbage.”

Stepping outside our front door in the winter after a snowfall had its own particular bouquet. The air was crisp, clean, invigorating — it smelled like snow.

When a storm comes in off the Sound on the Island, you’ll notice the breeze picks up and the temperature drops, but in addition you may detect a sweet, pungent zing in your nostrils. That’s the sharp, fresh aroma of ozone.

When the rains arrive and strike the ground, you’ll notice a pleasant, earthy scent unleashed by the downpour. There’s even a word for that smell — petrichor — used to describe the earthy smell associated with rain.

There’s really no end to the cavalcade of smell memories I can associate with the Island.

Fallen leaves, bonfires at the beach, the smell of skin after coming out of the sea, hitchhiking on the sun-baked North Road as a kid, a wet dog, the smell of the spaghetti sauce my wife makes religiously every Sunday afternoon.

Now granted, it may be tough to work all these aromas into a bath salt, but if it’s going to smell like Martha’s Vineyard, that’s what it has to smell like for me.



  1. When I first saw the question “what does the vineyard smell like?” The first word out of my mouth was “home.” When we drive over the Aquinnah town line my husband will always slow down and open the window and say “smell that?”
    The actual smell kinda evades me but if I had to put it in words I would say “they smell of clothes just off the clothes line mixed with fog and my grandma hoops kitchen.”

  2. wow!! Geoff I feel like you’ve taken me for a ride through a dream. I haven’t been to MV for several years, but was married there and spent my first night as a “wife” under those very elegant pine beams that made up your home. I love the way you have captured something rather impossible to capture, smells of the island that need to be experienced to truly understand, but somehow you have managed to just that in this lovely article that reads more like a poem. Oh & boy do we miss that sauce your talented wife is so famous for. xoxoxox

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