My nose was on a mission: to sniff out home.
At Kringle Candle in western Massachusetts, I lifted dozens of lids in search of a scent redolent of the warmth, comfort and co-dependence of my childhood.
I breathed in the sweet fumes of Vanilla Bean and Sugar Plum and the piquant smells of Cayenne Pepper and Balsam Fir. And I dined calorie-free on Brownie Cheesecake, Pancake Breakfast and Banana Cream Pie.
Despite all my inhalations, I failed to nail down the defining scent of my youth: a mixture of coffee, pipe tobacco and Siberian husky fur.
"Fragrance is the longest tie to memory," said Michael "Mick" Kittredge III, who owns the candle company with his father, Michael "Mike" Kittredge. "Something as simple as a candle can evoke an emotion."
Scented wax courses through 21-year-old Mick's veins: His father was the founder of Yankee Candle, a company he sold in 1998 for millions. It also streams through western Massachusetts, home to at least three candle emporiums: Yankee Candle and New England Candle in South Deerfield, and Kringle, 15 miles north in Bernardston.
Many local shops, such as the gift shop at Historic Deerfield, a collective of museum houses, also carry the mood lights. The store stocks fingerlike tapers and beeswax candles in the shape of a hive, complete with resident bug. Not quite a period piece, but truer to the 18th century than, say, a flashlight.
Of the three emporiums, Kringle is the baby at 16 months old, and Yankee is the papa bear, at fortysomething. (New England is like the third cousin who's never invited to reunions.) Yankee's flagship store, which also features a Christmas village, a DIY workshop, a museum and a restaurant, is the state's second-most popular attraction, after the Freedom Trail in Boston.
Kittredge pere made his first candle, a holiday gift for his mother, in 1969. The then-16-year-old used crayons for color, a shoelace for a wick and his grandmother's Queen Atlantic stove for the goopy experiment. (The hulking appliance now greets visitors to Kringle.)
"It truly was horrible," Kittredge said of his creation of more than four decades ago. But he stuck with the craft, driven by a dream: "I wanted to make enough money to buy a sports car." He succeeded (Jaguar XKE) and then some (assorted Ferraris and classic cars, plus a 200-foot yacht).
Kringle is a departure from Yankee. The most obvious change is the color of the candles. The 92 fragrances in the 10,000-square-foot showroom all share the same tasteful palette: the crisp white of sheets and fresh snow.
"An orange candle does not go in a blue room," Mick said. "It clashes with the decor." In addition to aiding with interior harmony, the white candles glow more brightly and throw more light. Art and science unite in a glass jar, or a ramekin, if that's more your style.
Like Yankee Candle, Kringle is more than just a retailer; it's a theme park for the senses. In addition to taking your nose on a trip, you can light up your eyes with the sparkle of Christmas, which at Kringle is a four-season affair.
"Even if you're not buying ornaments," Mick said, "you still want that feeling of Christmas."
For some visitors, the event that's always in fashion is mealtime. The faux food smells trigger your appetite, and the Kittredges will feed you. Their chocolate shop in the town's oldest building (1760) sells cocoa bites from 13 nations, and the Farm Table serves lunch, dinner and mini-meals for those in-between hours. The restaurant inhabits a renovated 1800s Georgian Colonial-style farmhouse originally owned by the Hale family, whose black-and-white photos of fields and horses adorn the walls. Executive chef Brent Menke pays homage to the land beneath his feet, sourcing ingredients from within 100 miles of Bernardston. The Kittredges hope to shorten the trip from farm to table even more by planting crops on the property's 200-acre field.
In all frankness, I didn't reserve a seat at the Farm Table strictly to eat; I went to spy. In the candle store, I'd picked up a tips sheet on repurposing the candle vessels, which include lidded glassware and crockery. The ideas included using them as button sorters, aspic molds or plant starters and for paint mixing. I wanted to witness the staff's level of MacGyver-ness.
Apparently they'd read their own list of suggestions. The butter, jam and ketchup containers all fell under the "condiments" recommendation. The glass jars held our beverages. And the glowing candle on our table was a Kringle, but fragrance-free, to avoid competing with the aroma of the food (in our case, artisan flatbread pizza).
Not wanting a scentless existence myself, I decided after lunch to commit to a candle. I searched the shelves for one that would take me to a calm mental place from my past.
Back home, I lit the wick of my Coconut Pineapple candle and let my mind drift back to Kringle and western Massachusetts. Then my memories hopped onto a plane and flew down to the Caribbean, where they grabbed a beach chair and ordered a pina colada.
If you go:
*Where to stay: The Inn at Crumpin-Fox, 71 Northfield Road, Bernardston (413-648-9131; www.crumpinfoxinn.com). A 29-room property on 20 acres of wooded land near the candle stores. Rates from $88, including breakfast.
*Where to eat: The Farm Table, 219 South St., Bernardston (413-648-5200; www.kringlefarmtable.com). Fine rustic cuisine served in the Kringle Candle complex. Many gluten-free and organic options. Lunch entrees from $10.
Chandler's Restaurant, 25 Greenfield Road, South Deerfield (413-665-1277; www.yankeecandle.com). Hearty, homey meals (meatloaf, mac and cheese, etc.) in the Yankee Candle flagship store. Sandwiches from $9; lunch entrees from $9.50.
*What to do: Kringle Candle, 220 South St., Bernardston (413-648-3077; www.kringlecandle.com). Candles everywhere, plus a Christmas store, a chocolate shop and an outdoor fire pit. Daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Yankee Candle, 25 Greenfield Road, South Deerfield (413-665-2929; www.yankeecandle.com). Village crammed with candles and a museum. Dip candles or mix your own jars. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday.
Historic Deerfield, 80 Old Main St., Deerfield (413-775-7214; www.historic-deerfield.org). Consortium of historic homes and the Flynt Center of Early New England Life. Houses reopen in April or by appointment. Flynt Center winter hours: open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends. Winter admission $7.