In those heady early days of infatuation, romance can be found wherever you go. Love is blind to candlewick bedspreads, rude waiters and stale cigarette smoke. Indeed, in Paris these are essential ingredients for your first weekend break together.
It’s almost ironic that the honeymoon should be your ultimate romantic blow-out, at a stage when you would be happy almost anywhere. “Bed of nails,” my husband used to say – referring not, I hope, to our relationship, but to the fact that we cared not a jot where we slept on our carefree, spontaneous travels.
But the years pass, things change. People get pickier and more accustomed to ensuite bathrooms and clean (if not 300-thread count) sheets. And, let’s face it, some destinations are distinctly more conducive to amorousness than others.
Compare, for example, a road trip along the Amalfi Coast – the pastel-painted tumble of Positano, dinners of sea bream acqua pazza, and music in gardens of lemon trees strung with lanterns – to one through Serbia, and its dinners of sauerkraut and sour cheese, nights interrupted by allergies to horsehair pillows, impromptu trumpet playing and a permanently drunken B&B owner proffering shots of homemade rakija. It’s not hard to imagine which left us most enamoured.
As Valentine’s Day looms, it’s time to find out what we should we look for in a destination for that all-out romantic break. Are there certain key ingredients – great sweeping mountainscapes, dreamy desert islands, cities with heart-stirring architecture, five-star hotels – guaranteed to melt even the hardest, most time-worn hearts?
“Oh, I’m always partial to a beach – and soft sand would have to be preferable to ow-ow-ow pebbles,” says Jill Mansell, who, having sold 14 million romance novels, knows a thing or two about seductive settings. “Also, big, crashing waves are more exciting than namby-pamby rippling ones. Throw in an irresistible seaside village community and I’m in heaven.” No wonder, then, that she has set her latest book, Should I Tell You? (Headline, £14.99), in a Cornish seaside town.
Meanwhile, it is the countryside that does it for author Katie Fforde, who this year celebrates both 50 years of marriage and her 30th book. “For me, it will always be rural, because I am a country girl and I find the country more romantic than the city. I think it’s something to do with how I met my husband all those years ago, in France. We used to go for lots of walks because we didn’t have any money. I love Provence,” she says – hence the setting for her new novel, A Wedding in Provence, which is out this week.
“We also spend a lot of time in Scotland,” Fforde continues. “I like cold and rugged – trees, rivers, lochs… But then I do think things are romantic that no one else does.”
Well, quite. Don’t we all? Romance is highly personal. One woman’s endearing is another’s trite. And as for those cookie-cutter “romantic extras” some hotels are so keen on… When was the last time a towel-origami swan made you weak at the knees? Nobody wants to feel like they are on a production line, beds routinely sprinkled with scentless rose petals.
On the Kali Gandaki river in Nepal, I met a couple who had chosen to kayak through the Himalayas for their honeymoon. The setting was spectacular, the experience once-in-a-lifetime special, but, nevertheless, it was wet and cold, and I, far beyond my comfort zone, could not imagine a situation less opportune for passion. Yet for those moon-eyed newly-weds, being wet and cold and sleeping in their North Face fleeces was clearly no barrier to romance. Which just goes to show that the romance of a destination is, like love, all in the eye of the beholder.
So, how to find the perfect place that works for you? Paul C Brunson – a relationships expert on Channel 4’s Married at First Sight and E4’s Celebs Go Dating – takes a pragmatic approach.
“One crucial point is that the romantic factor has less to do with the destination than it has with the activities you do when you get there,” says the love guru, who offers free relationship tips at paulcbrunson.com/better. “First, it’s important to identify the travel type you and your partner are most compatible with, and then select your location based on the activities within your type.”
Most of us, according to Brunson, fit into one or more of the following types: adventurers, routine-loving traditional, soulful, cultural, or urbanite. “For example, for my wife and me, Bath is one of the most romantic destinations in the UK, because we are both cultural travellers and love the history of that particular region.”
He’s not the only one. “I’m besotted with Cotswold market towns and country house hotels,” says Mansell, “especially the Manor House at Castle Combe, close to where I grew up. It’s so romantic. I never tire of writing about such places.”
Because, individuality aside, some places are just lovelier than others, aren’t they? That is why you will find coachloads of tourists shuffling around Bath’s sweeping Georgian crescents – the colour of golden syrup and steeped in period drama – and none at all in Luton.
Certain landscapes lend themselves to love. Mountains and lakes have inspired poetry since time began. Islands, by their very nature, are romantic, whether windswept or the kind of tropical idylls that make quintessential honeymoon destinations; indeed, Turquoise Holidays even has a “Maldives hotline”.
“That Robinson Crusoe, toes-in-the-sand experience is key for couples, who are initially drawn by images of overwater villas, swaying palms and bright blue skies, and a cocktail on the beach. “What could be more romantic?” says James Bell, Turquoise’s MD, who has arranged thousands of honeymoons over the past 20 years. “This leads them to the South Pacific or the Maldives.”
Then there are those cities we will forever associate with romance: Paris, the City of Love (an accolade awarded, naturellement, by the French); serene, floating Udaipur; blushing Marrakech; brooding, Byronic Edinburgh.
And one cannot talk about romance without mentioning its birthplace: Italy. Tuscany in all its rolling gorgeousness; the Riviera’s candy-coloured villages; the wistful lakes; the world’s most beautiful and enduring cities.
“Oh, I absolutely love Italy!” says Fforde. “The language, the food, the Amalfi Coast. It makes me think of Audrey Hepburn driving along in a convertible.”
Mansell, too, will step outside her usual comfort zone of Britain for Italy. “I fell madly in love with Venice on my first visit, years ago – I couldn’t believe how magical it was,” she recalls.
Even while such iconic spots have become victims of their own appeal – the world and his new wife jostling for space on the Spanish Steps or the Bridge of Sighs – Italy’s romance endures.
The elegance of the architecture, the history and passion in the food, the art, the language. Away from the big sights there is always a stradina tranquilla, a shared gelato in the sunshine, a moment of wonder that feels like yours and your lover’s alone. Surrounded by all that beauty, it remains impossible not to be moved. And that, truly, is amore.
To experience that feeling for yourself, here is our selection of unforgettable holidays in 10 of the the world’s most romantic destinations.
For classic Italian romance away from the crowds, fixer Merrion Charles (who has arranged trips to Italy’s best-kept secrets for clients including Bear Grylls and Jude Law) suggests a mix of coastal and inland Tuscany in the Maremma. “The coast of Maremma has long, sandy beaches lined with umbrella pines, and no built-up resorts. Combine a villa on the island of Ponza with a boutique hotel such as Conti di San Bonifacio – a wine estate just behind the coast that feels like a private home, with seven rooms and long-stretching views across the vines and olive groves. Then maybe finish in a boutique hotel in Florence.”
How to do it
Merrion Charles can arrange holidays in the Maremma from £5,182 per couple for eight nights (merrioncharles.com).
Arrivals in Italy must fill in a passenger locator form and provide proof of a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of entry or a negative antigen test within 24 hours. There are restrictions on travel within Italy for those without proof of full vaccination.
For drama, only New Zealand can rival Scotland’s wild and rugged Highlands, where the skies can change mood in a heartbeat, all gathering turbulence one moment and then, when the light breaks through – as it always does, even here – it is like a bolt from heaven. Why fly around the world when you can hop on the sleeper train and wake up sliding through purple heather and pine forest? For romance it’s hard to beat the Isle of Skye and the scenery that inspired Turner, Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott.
How to do it
For seclusion, check out the black-larch Sunrise Cabin, on Skye’s west coast; from £250 (kiphideaways.com). For great food try Kinloch lodge, overlooking the jagged peaks of the Cuillins; dinner and B&B from £180pp (kinloch-lodge.co.uk).
Doubles on the Caledonian Sleeper, London-Fort William, from £405 (sleeper.scot).
After two years, Morocco has reopened its intricately embellished doors – an absence that has made us yearn more for the exotic allure of Marrakech. “Morocco conjures up romance at every turn,” says Alex Wix, founder of Wix Squared, which specialises in bespoke holidays and honeymoons; “be it sleeping under the stars in the Sahara Desert, having a private picnic in the Atlas Mountains or exploring Marrakech by horse and cart.”
How to do it
Wix Squared offers four nights in Morocco for £900pp, including three nights in a junior suite at Le Farnatchi (lefarnatchi.com), Marrakech, and one at Count Fabrizio Ruspoli’s new hotel Olinto in the Atlas foothills, plus flights, transfers and driver (wixsquared.com).
Arrivals in Morocco must present a valid vaccine pass (except under-18s) plus proof of a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of travel (under-sixes exempt). All must download and complete a passenger health form before arrival.
For all the clichés – palm-fringed beaches, powdery white sand, over-water villas, infinity pools, underwater restaurants and sandbar dinners – the reality of the Maldives still takes you by surprise: especially being truly off-grid on a dot of sand mid-Indian Ocean.
How to do it
Turquoise Holidays is offering seven nights at Como Cocoa Island from £3,099pp half-board, including flights (turquoiseholidays.co.uk).
Visitors (under-ones exempt) must present evidence of a negative PCR test on arrival, taken within 96 hours of flying, and complete a Traveller Health Declaration 48 hours prior to departure.
The Greek Islands
Greece’s romance has seduced us for millennia. Its love stories are the oldest in the universe: Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche, Hero and Leander. For crowd-free romance, head for harder-to-reach islands such as Symi, with its pastel-painted port of neoclassical mansions; car-free Spetses; Milos for beaches and seafood; and Ithaca, which, besides a few bars, has changed little since Odysseus was born.
How to do it
Arrivals must complete a passenger locator form. Only unvaccinated travellers need provide evidence of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival, or a negative antigen test within 24 hours.
If long-term commitment is what you seek, head to Provence with all its dreaminess: the lavender fields of Gordes, vibrato with bees; the hilltop villages of the Luberon; the Vaucluse’s shuttered manoirs set in impressionist landscapes. Two dreamy hotels are here: Crillon Le Brave and the newly revamped Airelles Gordes, La Bastide.
How to do it
Over-12s must provide proof of full vaccination and a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 48 hours of travel, plus a sworn statement saying they are symptom-free. Unvaccinated travellers must quarantine.
In 1985 Meryl Streep and Robert Redford brought the romance of Kenya’s savannahs to the silver screen in Out of Africa. Bathing outdoors, wearing matching safari suits, picnicking on remote escarpments overlooking the Maasai Mara… Now that Kenya has reopened, with its bounty of luxury lodges and wildlife, the time feels ripe for a widescreen African romance.
How to do it
Ker & Downey’s nine-day Out of Africa Safari is set around the film’s locations, from £6,000pp (kerdowney.com).
Proof of full vaccination for over-18s. Evidence of negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of travel or recovery from Covid (except under-fives) uploaded before departure.
This island has its own unique magic: temples where couples can receive blessings, classes in its aromatic cuisine, colourful markets, surf-pounded sandy beaches and wildlife-rich rainforested hills. Tanya Dalton, an expert on the subcontinent, says: “You’ll find a mix of historic cities, elegant beach resorts, and beguiling little boutique boltholes in the misty tea plantations.”
How to do it
Greaves’s 12-night Boutique Sri Lanka trip costs £3,550pp (greavesindia.co.uk).
Proof of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of entry, plus a completed online pre-travel health registration form. Covid travel insurance is mandatory. Restrictions apply for the unvaccinated and children. See gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice for full details.
Bath and the Cotswolds
“Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?” wrote Jane Austen, whose romcoms played out in the spa city and the stately homes of the surrounding shires. The Cotswolds’ gentle prettiness is unrivalled, all honeystone villages and thatched cottages with rambling roses – and a plethora of stylish inns and country-house hotels, from boutique intimate to period-drama grand.
How to do it
Stay at Barnsley House, with enchanting gardens by Rosemary Verey (garden designer to Prince Charles and Elton John), a restaurant and a spa. Best room is the Secret Garden Suite, with its four-poster bed and outdoor hot tub. Doubles from £399 (barnsleyhouse.com).
Most people are familiar with Napa Valley, but there are more than 100 other wine regions in California. In recent years, some have carved out reputations for their culinary offerings – notably Sonoma, with its farm-to-fork vibe, boutique vineyards and hip digs like the Farmhouse Inn with its Michelin-starred restaurant, spa and pool. Explore them via the Pacific Coast Highway, from San Francisco to LA – one of the world’s most breathtaking drives.
How to do it
Audley’s nine-day self-drive journey through the wine regions includes Sonoma, Carmel and Santa Barbara, from £5,800pp including flights, hire car and hotels (audleytravel.com/usa).
Proof of full vaccination, plus negative PCR or lateral flow test taken within 24 hours of travel (except under-twos).