" ...the sweet tang of freshly peeled cinnamon bark and the woody whiffs of a tea plantation, the bouquets of coconut samboland the warm waft of spicy seafood curry.
What travel treasure are we looking for this week?
Actually, we aren't looking for it, we're going to sniff it out. I'd like to introduce you to a whole new way of travelling - with a smell tour to the Shangri-La of scents.
A smell tour?
Yes, think about it… In these digital days we are so bombarded with images that even the most beautiful photographs of exotic destinations can look a bit tired. Fragrances are different. You can't email, download or broadcast them (although I'm sure somebody is working on it). Smells still provide a pure interaction with the world, and have the power to transport us through time and space. The tiniest of whiffs can conjure up childhood memories, or vivid scenes of faraway places.
What are you suggesting, then - scratch-and-sniff travel brochures?
Well, that wouldn't be such a bad idea, especially for the earthly paradise of smells we are heading to.
Which is where?
Taprobane, Serendib, Ceylon - "India Lite", or, as it is now known, Sri Lanka, the tear-shaped tropical island in the Indian Ocean.
Is it safe to visit now?
Yes, post-tsunami Sri Lanka is well on the road to recovery, and many of the hotels and resorts are back in business. The benign Sri Lankans need visitors, and are keen to point out that the interior of the island - home to the majority of the country's architectural gems and magnificent wildlife - was unaffected by the tsunami.
But why go sniffing in Sri Lanka?
The island is an olfactory goldmine, home to more than 3,500 flowering plants - many with a sensational scent. It is also the traditional centre for the pungent business of spice trading, and has evolved a wonderfully aromatic cuisine along the way. It is a must for lovers of exotic smells, and a dream destination for professional perfume hunters.
Is there really such a thing as a perfume hunter?
Oh yes. Quest International, a company specialising in creating new fragrances for the perfume and food industries, recently sent a research team to Sri Lanka. Its mission was to seek out fresh Asian aromas, then capture them and bring them home.
What did they find?
They started with the deep fruity fragrance of Sri Lankan tropical flowers such as the blossoms of the Pong Pong tree…
You're making this up!
No, honestly - the Pong Pong's Latin name is Cerbera, if you want to check. They tracked down the scent of the Barringtonia, Beach Gardenia and Keora and bottled the rare aroma of the endemic Mesua. They then sniffed and snatched the island's typical scents - the sweet tang of freshly peeled cinnamon bark and the woody whiffs of a tea plantation, the bouquets of coconut sambol (spicy chutney), and the warm waft of spicy seafood curry. They even managed to bottle the heady cocktail of burning incense and floral offerings at temple celebrations. Most remarkable of all, they trapped the evocative aroma of a Sri Lankan tropical rainforest.
Their usual method was to fit a bell jar over the source of the fragrance and then extract the scent using a pump and filters. The magical molecular combinations were then analysed back in the lab and replicated using more commonly available chemicals. They create the equivalent of an aromatic photograph - and very convincing it is, too. During one Quest presentation, I had the strange experience of smelling a particular waterfall six months before actually seeing the real thing in Sri Lanka.
Intriguing. So how can we go on this smell trail?
From the moment you arrive in Sri Lanka it's hard to avoid a whole spectrum of smells - everything from the sublime frangipani blossom to the stench of dried whitebait. But to make more sense of it all, leave the petrol fumes of the capital, Colombo, and head south to the former colonial fort town of Galle. Here you'll find a calmer coastal atmosphere, and the main offices of Rainforest Rescue International.
That sounds familiar… Has it got anything to do with Thunderbirds?
No, silly - it's an environmental group that is dedicated to protecting (and, it hopes, expanding) Sri Lanka's remaining tracts of rainforest. The group helped Quest to plan its perfume expedition, and offers tailor-made eco-tours along the same lines for visitors. It provides expert local guides who can point out smells on spice safaris, as well as organise visits to forest gardens and botanical tours of the untouched Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve.
Tailor-made eco-tours, local guides? It all sounds jolly expensive.
No, like most things outside the main hotels in Sri Lanka it is very reasonable, with the tours starting at 1,000 rupees (£5) per person. You'll spot a lot more when you travel with a local naturalist - and there are also some practical advantages.
Well, when my guide pointed out the poisonous snake I was about to step on, I thought he was worth every rupee of his fee. And when he alerted me to the bloodsucking leeches heading towards my crotch, I was convinced his services were priceless.
Leeches and snakes… I hope the accommodation is safe on this smell tour?
Up in the rainforest it's basic, although good enough to protect you from creepy-crawlies. Back in Galle there's a range of great places to stay, from backpacker beach huts to high-end ultra-chic boutique hotels. To make the most of your scent safari, I recommend treating yourself to the offbeat luxury of the Illuketia Estate.
Why? Does it smell?
Only in the most pleasant way, with sweet incense, fresh fruit and a garden full of exotic blooms. It's a very sensual place - a grand country house, only a 15-minute drive from Galle, that feels as if it's the last outpost of colonial civilisation. It's surrounded by a dense, ever-approaching tropical forest and from its plush verandah you can watch iridescent birds preen and jungle monkeys play.
You can also listen to koi carp splashing in ancient ponds and enjoy the fine fragrance of the house speciality, a raft of aromatic curries, wafting out from the kitchen. It's a heady mixture, made reassuringly comfortable by the graceful style and quiet organisation of the English hostess, Nicki Harrison.
Sounds like a tropical haven.
Indeed, and for a week after the tsunami disaster it literally was a haven when guests from its sister beach hotel, Thalpe, and 50 other island visitors, took refuge at the inland Illuketia Estate.
Is it back to normal now?
Yes, and it remains the perfect base for exploring the exotic smells of southern Sri Lanka.
So what fragrances can I bring back from this tour d'odeur?
You'll be spoilt for choice. Highly recommended is a large tea plantation not far from Illuketia called Handunugoda, which offers tastings and a wide range of aromatic teas for sale. Fresh spices are available from the forest gardens - look out specially for Sri Lanka's finest, cinnamon and fresh pepper - and you can pick up the pungent oils, soaps and incense sticks in the local markets. For the more adventurous there are the curious ayurvedic medicines and all the ingredients to make a pretty powerful curry… So forget your digital camera and start putting together your own scratch-and-sniff album - it's sure to catch on.
On the scent: