What’s a Beach?



an expanse of sand or pebbles along a shore.
the part of the shore of an ocean, sea, large river, lake, etc., washed by the tide or waves.
the area adjacent to a seashore: We’re vacationing at the beach.

per dictionary.com (and pretty much every dictionary out there)

Musette sez: and if you’re just tootling along, I’ll bet the notion of beach is whatever your most prevalent experiences have been.  For me, it’s largely suntan oil, waves crashing along the Lake Michigan shoreline and, in Chicago, the smell of alewives and the weird, super-soft sand at Cal-Sag Harbor, a Calumet River shipping lane along the steel mill hubs that South Siders use as a beach — as my friend Howard says, ‘you haven’t lived until you’ve waterskied at Cal Sag.’

it’s a Chicago thang

Anyhoo, this whole post is March’s Fault (which is why we’re co-writing this post).  Awhile back she wrote a review of the new Ouai Wave Spray thingydoodle stuff and mentioned that it smelled like a beach.  I just heard ‘beach’, so I filled in my own blanks and off I went to investigate.  Boy, was I surprised!

Apparently it was a particular beach (gorgeous North Bondi, to be precise) and not the Coppertone/baby oil smell I was expecting. It’s heathery and vegetal and probably has some sharks-with-lasers in there, too!

North Bondi Beach

So that got me thinking about the notion of ‘beach’.  Is it the sand and water or is it something else associated (like suntan oil and Breck shampoo)?  My notion of ‘beach’ is shaped by my childhood freshwater beaches but it has since been kneaded and shaped throughout my adult travels.  Lido, Venice’s famous ‘beach’ island, is my literal Purple Haze beach.  I remember being on Lido, behind Hotel des Bains, looking at the purple mist across the lagoon, convinced that if only I squinted just a bit harder I could see Constantinople.  To be fair, I’d just consumed several mimosas.  I’ve only ever visited Venice in Autumn so I have no idea if it smells like suntan lotion.  To me, it smells like bergamot, bitter oranges… and mystery.

CA beaches.  I’m a West Coast beach girl, having never set foot on an East Coast beach (except for FL, which is a world unto itself).  As you head north, the smells of the beaches begin to change – Long Beach is the Cal-Sag of the LA area.  Santa Monica has a very tranquil, suntan/sea-lite smell (Now.  When I first started going to SM back in the 70s it was a lot different.  Most locals kept their shoes on to avoid stepping on drug needles – Hotel California, a funky little travelodge, is on Ocean along SM’s beach and it’s still the epitome of Coty Sand and Sable, imo, pee note and all!) As you head up Ocean the waves change just a bit and it gets a bit more seasalty- wave-crashy.  Malibu is both a wild, salty water smell and the smell of wild, salty humans who spend a lot of time in the water.  It’s a very weird and magical place and original Breck’s shampoo was the essence of that smell.   By the time you get up to San Francisco, pretty much any thought of a swimsuit has flown out the window.  I’ve never been to a NoCal beach where I didn’t feel the need for a sweater, even on the hottest days. The water is always freezing and…. it just never feels like it means it, with the heat.

I’ve visited several beaches in Africa (both fresh and salt water).  It’s funny how memories can define a place that might not really be like that.  Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean, is beautiful but the memory always conjures up the smell of my doctor’s exam room when I got the highly unpleasant cholera vaccine (good thing I got that highly unpleasant vaccine, though, as there was a highly unpleasant cholera outbreak!) – I have no perfume to match that beach, the cholera outbreak nor the doctor’s office.   Africa (I’ve only been to a few countries) is breathtakingly gorgeous but every body of water is home to things that can’t wait to kill you, painfully.  I think of the gorgeous beaches of Lake Nakuru where bazillions of flamingos roost – and then I remember the puff adders that hang out there. I’m sure there are people who hang out on these beaches – I am not those people.  But I do have a scent for them, mostly because I’d just been given a bottle:  Patou Joy parfum.  I wore it daily.  I like to think it kept the leopards and puff adders at bay.

Brittany (in Autumn), North Sea, Shetland – alladat.  Romance, in a Heathcliff and Cathy kind of way. The smell of Ambre Grisea (I Profumi di Firenzi), that salty, ambergris/heather scent, always reminds me of the whole Northern End of Europe (talk about Profilin’), with those gorgeous waves and the hint of menace.  My first trip to the Delta Project in Holland was the clue that maybe I should always have a fisherman’s sweater and a jacket … and I should probably stay the hell out of the water. The amazingly beautiful Hermes Eau de Merveilles NAILS the salty air smell of a Northern European beach in the shifting light and cooling temps of very late Summer.  Try as I might, I cannot replicate that smell – or the light – in a US beach.  It’s just… saltier!

Now, over to March for thoughts on the East Coast of the U.S.

March sez:  At their core, East Coast beaches are tragedies waiting to happen.  They’re suffused with menace– mostly unseen, often quiet, sometimes standing right there in front of you in an I’m With Stoopid tee shirt and holding a beer.  Let’s start at the southern end, at Florida.

The Florida coast, the Keys, the Gulf Coast (aka Redneck Riviera) and nearby environs are in their own heavyweight, no-place-else-on-Earth league.  Scarface is a fine way to get to know Florida’s ambience near Miami’s beaches.  I once spent several days further south with my then-boyfriend, visiting some ne’er-do-well college friend of his who’d opened up his own “charter boat” business on Key Largo, which we figured out shortly after arriving was really for running drugs.  (Also see: Key Largo, fine film noir starring Bogie and Bacall and various shady characters.)  I spent that vacation trying to find a quiet spot with decent reading light while everyone around me tanked up on cocaine, weed and alcohol from the moment they came to (at noon) until passing out again around dawn (I demurred, explaining things were surreal enough for me already, abstemious little bitch that I was.) There was a parrot, and a constant influx of strangers.  There were guns everywhere, big pistols and semiautomatics, which they’d shoot off into the swampy jungle around us, high as kites.  We were in the middle of nowhere and I was hugely annoyed to be stuck there, and too young and naive to recognize the danger.  Every night I slept in a catboat on the mooring to get away from the carousing, maybe that would have saved me if the wrong people showed up to party.  Anyway.  When I thought about “perfumes for Florida beaches” I instantly thought of Versace, all Miami-Beach flash and bling… and then instantly remembered Gianni Versace was shot and killed outside his oceanfront mansion, by some nutjob, after returning from a pleasant morning walk on the beach.  So… pick any Versace, I guess? Sorry.

At the opposite end of the coast lies Maine, with its rocky shores and idyllic forests serving as the long-time inspiration for horror writer Stephen King.  The water off Maine’s coast is cold enough to incapacitate you in approximately ten minutes (thank you, google) if the shock of accidentally falling in doesn’t kill you by knocking you unconscious – it is, quite literally, breathtaking.  Maine’s rocky shoreline is not to be trifled with, either. One gorgeous August day many years ago, at the end of a long, solo bike ride, as the late afternoon shadows turned the coastal boulders red-bronze, I climbed down to the water’s edge on a whim just to admire it.  After about ten minutes I realized I’d underestimated how quickly the tide was coming in, and how hard it was to see a way back up the rocks to the road thirty feet above me. As I gazed up in terror toward what had apparently become a sheer rock wall, I knew if I didn’t find my way quickly I was going to die, leaving my four young children in the hands of a man who still looked back fondly on that Key Largo vacation with his college buddy.  Obviously I made it – I don’t remember the climb, just collapsing afterwards, shaking and jelly-kneed, in the dirt road.  Scents: this one was tough for me. I need mineral and aquatic without smelling straight-up synthetic – more petrichor, less petrochemical. I’m not a huge aromatic-fougere fan… Arquiste’s Sydney Rock Pool, maybe?  I sat here for awhile trying to remember a particular scent I own and had worn recently that makes me think of the salty-mossy-mineral smell of those massive boulders and, oddly, it’s Chanel 19 Poudree.  Woody, aromatic, and slightly green.

Next we have the beaches of New England, best exemplified by Jaws (I spent a few summers on Nantucket, neighbor to Martha’s Vineyard, the movie’s fictive ‘Amity Island.’).  Here I recommend Azuree Soleil layered with vintage Azuree, for that ineffable quality of tanning oil, fancy gin and cigarettes.

“Hey, March! C’mon in!” xoxoxo Musette

Finally, we arrive back at the mid-Atlantic, the beach of my youth.  My memories revolve around the crushed-glass quality of the beach sand which would leave you with road rash on your face or behind, whichever got pummeled into the sand by that rogue wave you failed to notice.  Lots of jellyfish.  We’d stay for a few days until I got sun poisoning despite my mother’s best efforts to protect me with zinc oxide and a tee shirt, and then head back home to the Washington, DC suburbs, me lobster-red in the back seat and covered in a fine paste of calamine lotion and baking soda, stoned on Benadryl.  I think that’s why I love Sand & Sable so much, to me it is the mid-Atlantic ur-beach, everything from tanning oil to the spot you sat down to pee in the sand.

Well, that was quite the ramble!  In case I’ve given you the wrong impression, and I’m almost sure I have — I love the beach, and the ocean beyond.  I’m just not under the illusion it loves me back.

So!  If any of you made it to the end of this endless post, there is a SURPRISE! tucked away here – I ordered a set of Beach scent samples from Surrender to Chance, including CB I Hate Perfume’s GLORIOUS ‘Mr Hulot’s Holiday’ – if you’ve never seen the film, I highly recommend it (you can read the late Roger Ebert’s lyrical review here).  Anyhoo – drop a comment here, give me a beach memory (real or imagined) – you know The Girl is just achin’ to poke a pawnail !  She’ll pull a winner for the lovely sample set!


  • Tara+Mc says:

    March, that is the most Florida memory of all time. I love any and all beaches, no matter how wretched. From the forbidding coastlines of Maine and Nova Scotia to the highly engineered Yucatan. I snuck away from a travel group in Sydney just so I could stick my feet in the sand at Manley Beach and say I did. Love the water, very aware it doesn’t give two figs for me.

  • SpringPansy says:

    So many beaches have been in my life. I’ve only rarely been a beach person though – I don’t hang out and lie in the sun.
    Pacific NW beaches – growing up. More for walking on than swimming (brrrr)
    San Diego – when we visited grandparents and cousins, fun in the sun
    Kenya – Musette, I’ve also been to Mombasa (and Malindi and Lamu) on an interesting trip way back in the early 80s – we should chat sometime. I never thought of them as beach towns, but they are.
    The Algarve, Portugal – same trip but later on – Eurailpass, backpack, living on $5/day in Albufeira.

    They all smell different and to my nose, impossible to replicate in a perfume.

  • Portia says:

    Hey March & Musette,
    I’m not a beach person, AT ALL. Even though I have spent my fair share of time on and in them. Even North Bondi which mostly smells like salt, steroids and gays & friends of a particular TV serial-perfect look.
    TBH I’m scared shitless of sharks. Looking like a walrus, or on a good day a seal, in an ocean fished almost clean of food for said sharks…. You get my drift.
    I’ve been in the sea once this century at Mystery Island, Vanuatu. The water is so shallow and there were dozens of people out further than me so I felt safe.
    Give me a swimming pool any day.
    Portia xx

  • Maggiecat says:

    I loved reading your post! My favorite beach memory involves a lake surrounded by lines where my family vacationed many years ago. The scents were as lovely as the sights.

  • Patty says:

    Beach, I am all about the beach scents, and I love them all because they are different. I loved this post!

  • Sarah says:

    My weirdest beach memory is northern shores of Lake Michigan, and seeing all the cigarette butts people had collected–some were left on display to show how such a small piece of litter was a cumulative disaster. I was really mad, to see the giant pile, and then see people pitching their butts like it didn’t matter.

  • grizzlesnort says:

    When I close my eyes and try to conjure the beach I feel the burning hot sand, the meat tenderizer we used to ease the pain of jellyfish poison, the feel of drying sun n sunburnt skin; I see the milky way over the water and the hear the sound of crashing waves at night and during the day, the glare reflecting on the oiled and preening bodies. and that was my youth in S Texas. Now in the Pacific NW I relish the tide pools, the gray light and mysterious Asian jetsam found on the sand. And technical beach clothes with hoods and grommets. I need a fragrance for all these. Please enter me in your draw.

    • Musette says:

      that sounds like several fragrances! and ooh! I’d nearly forgotten about the meat tenderizer for jellyfish stings – my mom used that on my brother when he got whipped-up BAD on jellyfish parts down in Florida. A lot of folks don’t realize that cut up jellyfish tentacles are still very, very painful. My brother learned – the hard way ! xoxoxo

  • VerbenaLuvvr says:

    That sounds like quite an adventure! I have only been to the beach once, while visiting my husband’s family on the east coast while on a work trip, and managed to dip my foot into the Atlantic just to be able to say that I did. I want to go again and take the children this time.

  • Janet in California says:

    That was the most terrifying beach read ever. It did make me long for Breck shampoo though.
    Please enter me in the draw, it seems more safe than the actual beach. ?

    • Musette says:

      I know! Re-reading the post, I realized that both March and I love the idea (and the look) of beaches – but have a very healthy pov as to our place in those ecosystems. xoxoxo

  • Eldarwen22 says:

    Lake Erie’s beaches were a little goofy growing up. They had this whole sandy, rocky thing going on with a slight seafood smell to it. Went to a beach in Virginia but don’t remember anything about it. I remember going to Hawaii and their beaches are totally different depending on which part of the island you are one. Some are the stereotypical beach. You know, really blue water and white sand. Where my sister was on base, it was totally different. The ocean was dark grey, the sand was very different and a little more rocky.

    • Musette says:

      Hawai’i is yet another place (only Oahu) I’ve visited where it’s gorgeous… but I’m happy enough to stay on the lanai and look at it! xoxoxo

  • MMKinPA says:

    My first experience with a “beach” was the trucked in sand at a small lake near my home in Iowa. Lots of Coppertone, but that “lake smell” – trees, vegetation, green cloudy water. We visited Virginia Beach which was my first sight of an ocean. But it was cold so I didn’t experience the water until much later. Also spent time in Michigan and the sand dunes – more lake, although Lake Michigan around Traverse City (from a pontoon boat) had Caribbean vibes – clear water, shallows, plus of course the cocktails on the boat – I was a college student at the time. As an adult I have many more beach memories, both coasts, Florida, the Caribbean and Maui. Each one has a different scent memory.

    • Musette says:

      I spent several year’s at a boyfriend’s parent’s lake house in the Traverse Bay (Spider Lake) – and all of those beaches have a different vibe. Petosky, with its grand waterfront mansions, the smaller lakes (and rivers) with their fab orchards and ‘cabins’ – that’s a magical area! xoxoxoxo

  • Dina C. says:

    I miss the beach so badly. The one I’m talking about is the Outer Banks of North Carolina, fondly known as OBX. Haven’t been since 2013. Other beaches I’ve been to: Ogunquit, Maine in my growing up years, where my grandparents met; South Padre Island, Texas once as a kid; the Black Sea coast, Mediterranean coast, and the Aegean Sea coast of Turkey where we lived for a couple years in the 70s (military family); beaches along New England shores which always look beautiful but are freezing cold even in the summer; a trip to Cape Cod, Mass in 2015 where the beach itself was the most disappointing part. For me, beach scents are a mix of salt spray, vegetal seaweed on the shore, driftwood, warm skin, and various sunscreens.

  • Tara C says:

    Right now my beach scent is Rose Atlantic, because it really does smell like the Atlantic coast with wild rose bushes growing on the bluffs of Gaspésie, Québec. I spend the winters in San Diego, CA, where the beach nearest my house smells like salt and rotting kelp. Northern California beaches are wild and cold and windy. Next spring we are moving to Vancouver Island where I hope to find a beach that has decent sand and doesn’t smell like bird shit and rotting seaweed. (yes I’m feeling cranky today – tired of packing boxes)

  • Cinnamon says:

    Sigh, beach. I’m having holiday cravings. So, beaches. Probably four that had real impacts. Number 1 would be Hampton Beach on the 30 miles of New Hampshire’s Atlantic Coast. My parents lived there (I just visited from uni). Only time you could go in the water was August and you still turned blue. Beach shack had the best onion rings evvvvverrrr. So smell of freshly fried food. Number 2 a beach on Sanibel Island off the west coast of Florida. Long time ago. Don’t recall the smells, only the huge amount of shells. Number 3 Holkham in Norfolk UK where the final scene in Shakespeare in Love was filmed. Really want to go back there. It really does look like that. And number 4. Two summers ago now (including this past one) we went to a Maldives island 50km north of the equator. Absolutely extraordinary place. Sitting on the deck early morning drinking English Breakfast tea before the day got going. So, black tea, salt, suncream (as even early in the shade you still needed high factor SPF). Thanks for the stroll, Musette and March.

  • Neva says:

    OMG, this post is beautiful! I went through it in one breath and realized once again how much I love the sea. Having watched many movies, I feel like I’ve been visiting all the beaches you’ve mentioned…well, a few of them I’ve actually seen.
    The beaches in my country, Croatia, are mostly rocky, pebbly and rarely sandy. As much as I love the feeling of sand underneath my feet, my favourite beaches are rocky – off-white panels from which you can jump straight into the sea and climb up like spiderman. My beach smells salty, like freshly caught fish garnished with immortelle and rosemary growing next to it with a touch of motor oil from the fisherboats passing by at sunset. I haven’t encountered such a smell in a bottle so feel free to recommend me something.

  • filomena813 says:

    I really enjoyed this post as I always loved the beach but rarely go since I’ve gotten older. I did visit some lovely ones two years ago in Italy and Sicily (Ischia, Cefalu’, Taormina, Capri and Positano). I have always enjoyed beach perfumes and own quite a few. In the dead of winter I love to smell them and it takes away some of the winter blahs, even if only for a moment.

    • Musette says:

      I wear Bobbi Brown ‘Beach’ in Winter, just for that purpose! and I LOVE Positano. So pretty (and such amazing food) xoxoxo

  • Pam says:

    Thank you both for this wonderful journey to beaches around the world and your memories of them. My beach memories are primarily of Atlantic beaches (think Myrtle Beach). Coppertone, seaweed, salt spray, Solarcaine. A different experience is the Florida Keys. A lot less sand, plenty of breeze and mangroves. Can’t say that there is a perfume I’ve found to capture any of it.

    • Musette says:

      I’ve never been to the Keys, Pam, but am longing to go. A gardening colleague just moved to Key West and his photos of the local flora are magical! xoxoxo