From sunsets across snowy landscapes to post-dinner tipples gazing across moonlit lakes, everyone’s idea of romance is different. With Valentine’s Day in mind, our writers share their most memorable travel experiences à deux
A long-awaited pilgrimage to the world’s most romantic gardens
Destination Gardens of Ninfa, Italy
Relationship stage Ten-year anniversary
We first saw it on a documentary, and fell hard. Ninfa is a ruin of an Italian medieval town, its streets and churches then deserted and overgrown, before being landscaped: roses, hydrangeas and jasmine allowed to spread across the stone walls; oaks, cypresses and poplars encouraged to reach their branches across the river; its grassy meadows left to morph into orchards of cherry and citrus groves.
Like every paradise, getting there took time. It’s open to the public rarely throughout the year, with few tour operators. Factor in two toddlers and two demanding careers, and it seemed impossible. It took a 10-year wedding anniversary to finally make it happen on our own. That is, not just without children, but without anyone else at all. Our pre-booked tour was cancelled, but by a once-in-a-lifetime quirk, we were granted permission to make our own way. After a guided tour, we wandered along pathways alone, breathed in the fragranced air, and drank from the freshwater pool. We picked an orange and shared it, backs leaning against an ancient oak, feet dangling in the cool water and bathed in Ninfa’s magic.
Make it happen See Rome and Ninfa with Brightwater Holidays on a four-day trip from £1,295pp (brightwaterholidays.com).
Italian Lakes via classical villas and palace hotels
Destination Lake Como, Maggiore and more
Relationship stage Tried and tested
“The Italian lakes set the standard by which all other landscapes should be judged.”
“Who said that?” she asked.
“I did,” I said. “I thought you would have recognised me.”
We’d been married for decades. She usually recognises me. Anyway, I was right. The lakes – Como, Maggiore and the rest – offer the planet’s most sensational arrangement of mountains and water. Humanity has responded with villages and villas adding grace to natural splendour.
We did the Como villas, lingered in the Monastero gardens at Varenna and ended up at Bellagio’s Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. It’s an arrangement of grounds, salons, chandeliers and a string quartet at dinner. We dined, then sat on the moonlit terrace, overlooking the lake. A waiter talked us through the cognac choices. My wife chose the last one, assuming it would be the cheapest. It wasn’t. It was a Hennessy XO costing approximately as much per glass as all the other drinks we’d ever drunk anywhere, all added together. Lovely, though, what with moonlit, lake, serenity and all.
“Beautiful,” she said.
“Anything for you,” I said. Then I spotted the waiter returning. “Though we could maybe skip a second cognac.”
Make it happen Fly to Milan-Bergamo with Rynair from £54. Doubles at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni Bellagio from £359 (villaserbelloni.com).
On the road in the wild west with a new flame
Destination West Texas
Relationship stage Holiday fling
Last summer, I met a handsome musician from Nashville. For our third date I flew into Austin to meet him at Hotel San José, where we ticked off a few essentials: a luxurious dip in Barton Springs Pool, and tacos at Veracruz, before waking up early the next morning to drive out into Texas’s wild west.
Road trips don’t get much more romantic than here. The scenery is fittingly cinematic, the historic hotels (like The Paisano in Marfa and The Gage in Marathon) are atmospheric, and our entire trip was soundtracked by music at independent festivals like Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love.
My personal version of romance has never had anything to do with flowers, champagne and fussy hotels. To my mind, romance blooms to rock music, on dramatic hikes, or over that third bourbon at a locals’ dive bar. What made it even more special was that this felt like a decadent borrowed week, as I knew from the start I was unlikely to see Jimmy again. For that week in West Texas, we drove a borrowed car, through a borrowed landscape and slept in borrowed hotel rooms with our borrowed lovers.
A minimoon lost in the snow of deepest, darkest Finland
Destination Finnish Lapland
Relationship stage Just married
We were not completely, send-up-the-flares lost, but we did not know where we were either.
I scanned the clearing before us. The white of the land, dusted in snow, roughly framed by a fuzzy green treeline bled into a platinum sky. It was beautiful; a monochromatic masterpiece, as still as it was cold (very). But it was a total nightmare in which to navigate.
Portia and I were on honeymoon in Iso-Syote in Finnish Lapland on the hunt for a cabin in the woods.
The upside of there being only four hours of daylight this far north was spending the other 20 luxuriating in our bridal suite, soaking in our in-room hot tub, simmering in the sauna, and generally drenched in marital bliss. The downside was we now had just three hours to find the hut, build a fire, cook our lunch and get back to the hotel before death do us part. Let’s arc left, we agreed.
As reward for achieving our aim the setting sun rallied enough strength to puncture the slate sky and sear the horizon a burnt pink. The dying of the light cast a shimmer across the endless Arctic landscape, before we retreated indoors to tackle another six hours of languishing before dinner.
Make it happen Best Served offer trips in the region from £815pp (best-served.co.uk).
A haze of boozed-up bliss in Californian vineyards
Destination Montecito, California
Relationship stage Up-and-coming vintage
Sat in the warm shade of California’s Montecito foothills, my new girlfriend and I were two thirds of our way through a bottle of delicate pinot noir and already eyeing a second. Behind us, the mountains basked in a chequered patchwork of light and gloom, but away to the north-west, whitewashed Santa Barbara beamed beside the matte North Pacific.
We’d fallen for each other in dreary London, but the effervescence of wine country made our new love even more exciting. With her, chenin blanc tasted deliciously drier, while fresh mussels, oysters and langoustines took on an even sweeter disposition.
Each morning we’d embark on a two-hour hike from San Ysidro Ranch into the Santa Ynez Mountains, before spending our afternoons bumbling between tasting rooms. Even hangovers were more fun with her, eating dark chocolate in the bed of our riverside cottage.
Three years on, we own a flat together and enjoy nothing more than supping good wines in the sunshine. When in doubt, we agree that life is short, and that it’s always worth opening that second bottle.
Make it happen Fly to LA via British Airways for £289 return. Doubles at San Ysidro Ranch start from £685 a night (sanysidroranch.com).
An interrailing adventure from Paris to Vienna
Destination The highlights of Europe
Relationship stage First flushes of love
I qualified as a journalist at the same time my girlfriend of about a year was finishing her degree. To celebrate, we booked our first proper holiday together: a two-week Interrail trip through Europe. I have many happy memories from that fortnight: larking about in the Louvre, swimming in Lake Geneva, watching the sunset over the Grand Canal in Venice. In Rome we traced the footsteps of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, virtually penniless but finding pleasure in each other’s company
That said, what mainly springs to mind is the blazing arguments: the one in the middle of Zurich’s Red Light District when we find ourselves locked out of our apartment; another on the steps of Venezia Santa Lucia station (I think it was something about a map). Then there was the time my easily disorientated companion, returning from an early morning trip to the bathroom at our bland Paris hostel, burst into the wrong room, prompting our swift exit. To my dismay, she then did the same thing again on the night train to Vienna. We stuck together though, and five years later we were packing our bags for our honeymoon.
Make it happen Fifteen-day Global Pass from €332 (£281) (interrail.eu).
Bidding farewell to baby-free holidays on a far-flung island
Relationship stage A baby girl on the way
It’s only when you return home and life moves on, you realise just how special a babymoon was.
They offer one last chance to laze in bed undisturbed, to read a book uninterrupted, to enjoy indulgent meals where you don’t have to coax a baby to eat as your own food grows cold. Lux Grand Gaube in Mauritius gave us all of that and more. It was enough of a splurge to feel special but not so much that we felt guilty.
Our ground-floor room was separated from the beach by a lawn dotted with hammocks. We read, swam and snoozed. We walked everywhere holding hands. We lingered over every dinner, batting around baby names and trying to picture how life would be with three. We could’ve done an island tour but the furthest we ventured was on a double kayak into the bay.
Hidden in the tropical gardens was a tree of wishes and we added ours to the collection of tags tied on with string. Our wish came true and we wouldn’t change her for the world. But if I could go back in time to relive that carefree holiday one more time, I would wish for that too.
Make it happen From £1,099pp for seven nights’ B&B at Lux Grand Gaube, including direct BA flights (travelbag.co.uk).
A summer staycation fringed with Aperols and swimming
Destination Bristol and the Brecon Beacons
Relationship stage New beginnings
My first trip away with my now-girlfriend came rather early in our relationship – a week, as we’d been friends before, and it had been arranged for months – a long weekend, first in Bristol, and then at a women’s adventure sports festival in the Brecon Beacons.
Setting off, we were giddy with excitement. It was one of those times when everything conspired to be perfect. Our Airbnb was an attic with beamed ceilings and original windows overlooking the city. We swam in the Lido, surrounded by blooming flowers, before drinking Aperol spritzes at the bar. That night we ate at The Kensington Arms, a low-key, lovely pub.
Things took a turn in Wales when I came down with a virus. But while shivering with fever in a tent was not how I’d envisaged the trip, being taken care of made me feel lucky – and I have done ever since.
Make it happen One-bedroom Airbnb in Clifton from £58.
Playing house in a fisherman’s cottage by the sea
Destination St Ives, Cornwall
Relationship stage Young love
Our winter break to St Ives wasn’t the first time Adam and I had been away together, but it was after this trip that I hoped that he was the person I would always holiday with. We saved up to have dinner in the Pullman Carriage on the train down from London and felt giddy tucking into dressed crab, Devon scallops and serviceable sauvignon blanc with the countryside rolling by.
It was pitch black when we arrived at our tiny fisherman’s cottage. Inside it was like a stylish dolls’ house, with whitewashed walls and stairs you have to clamber up due to low ceilings. The next morning we picked up fresh eggs and Cornish butter for breakfast – I remember being excited to “play house”, which is funny given how we lazily bicker about domestic life now.
Days were spent meandering between pubs, burning our tongues on hot pasties, playing air hockey in the neon-lit arcades and going for blustery beach walks. We’ve had holidays halfway around the world since, but in moments of malaise my mind always drifts back to St Ives.
Make it happen Mains from £20 on-board Great Western’s Pullman Carriage (gwr.com). Sand and Stone Escapes’ Blue Moon cottage from £108 per night (sandandstoneescapes.com).
Holed up in a cosy lodge in the Rocky Mountains
Destination Banff, Canada
Relationship stage Meet the family
I’ve never been one for Romance with a capital R. The first real date I went on with my now husband, Cameron, wasn’t intended to be a hearts-and-flowers candle-lit dinner for two, but to my horror the restaurant was so charming it ended up feeling like one. I had a panic attack halfway through the starter and we bailed. That’s the lore that relationships are built on.
A couple of years later, we went on our first big holiday together, to Alberta, Canada to meet Cam’s family. The introductions went smoothly, and we decided to take some time to ourselves with a trip into the nearby Rocky Mountains. I remember the beauty of the scenery, the scent of the pine trees and the huge armoured waste bins that were designed to keep bears out. Big bears. We checked into a hotel called Buffalo Mountain Lodge that had chandeliers made of antlers and moose heads on the wall, like something straight out of Twin Peaks. Our room had a fireplace with two comfortable chairs in front of it. I’ll always remember Cam and I, sitting in our chairs in front of that fire, drinking hot chocolate, and reading. That’s my idea of romance.
Make it happen Fly to Calgary via Air Canada from CAD$750 (£435). Double rooms from CAD$209 (£121) (crmr.com/buffalo).
Drinking frozen cocktails on a deserted Caribbean beach
Relationship stage Itching to propose
A few years ago my now wife and I spent three days on a superyacht in the Caribbean. There was one experience in particular that stood out and it wasn’t reliant on having a boat that costs upwards of £500,000 a week to charter.
We were taken to a cay off the coast of Anguilla called Sandy Island, where the Eighties Bounty bar advert was filmed. There was nobody there except for a guy selling frozen piña coladas from a rum shack among palm trees. At the time we weren’t engaged, but had one of us proposed, there couldn’t have been a better place. We strolled, picking up shells, and wondering how life became so perfect.
Make it happen Fly to Anguilla via Norwegian from £640 return. Take the sea shuttle from Sandy Ground Beach for US$10pp return (mysandyisland.com).
Illicit encounters afloat in the Antarctic Ocean
Relationship stage Forbidden fling
It was strictly off-limits – how could it not be romantic? We met on-board a cruise ship, bound for Antarctica. He – tall, dashing, kind, Canadian – was in charge of the kayak expeditions. I was a solo passenger with a freshly broken heart and a lost faith in humanity. Much of the cold continent’s appeal for me at the time was its absence of people, and the solitude of a journey spent alone in a cabin.
It took two days for him to strike up a conversation with me, right around the time we crossed the Drake Passage, the world’s most tumultuous ocean corridor. It took one conversation, and we were besotted. Things would be far from easy; he was banned from fraternising. Unsurprisingly, there’s no phone signal in Antarctica – coordinating meetings would be tricky. And so we resorted to furtive glances amid icebergs, notes passed discreetly, and clandestine corridor creeping.
Those midnight hours spent at sea in his cabin, exchanging life stories, forged memories I’ll smile at on my deathbed. Faith in humanity restored.
Make it happen Abercrombie & Kent offers itineraries starting at £9,123 for a 10-night cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula (abercrombiekent.co.uk).
Sleeping side by side on a remote beach
Destination Butterfly Valley, Turkey
Relationship status First summer holiday
My husband and I had been dating for nearly a year when we planned our first summer holiday together. In love, invincible and ignoring the fact that our meagre bank accounts rendered the entire point moot, we declared we would save infinity pools for the future, when we were more irritable with each other. Why waste them now, when we could happily sleep rough on a beach as long as we had each other?
Butterfly Valley is located on Turkey’s famous Lycian Way. You can only reach it by boat, typically from Oludeniz, 5km north, where hoards of British tourists eat greasy breakfasts and fry their skin. In sharp contrast, Butterfly Valley was declared an area of special preservation in 1987. Around 100 species of butterfly live there. Pomegranates, apricots and walnuts thrive. A waterfall cascades down 350m canyon walls. There are no hotels, no real buildings. Just a few shacks, hammocks and thatched roofs.
Over the week, this romantic cliché was attacked from every angle. Renting a rickety platform, perched in a tree, we were polkadotted with mosquito bites, slicked in sweat and serenaded all night long by aging hippies. Boat trips regularly disgorged sunburnt tourists, spoiling the beautiful beach. We noticed none of it.
Make it happen British Airways flies to Dalaman from £188 return.
The perfect place to declare your love, if only…
Relationship stage Ready to pop the question
It was New Year’s Eve, 2001, and my girlfriend and I were standing on Elizabeth Street Pier in Hobart harbour, having just spent Christmas with her family in Melbourne. There had been several aunts present at the festivities, all of whom were aware that their niece’s romantic life was at a delicate stage. “You’ve been together for seven years!” I was reminded repeatedly. “Are you going to propose? Are you going to propose IN TASMANIA?”
Well the answer was that I had been going to, but now I wasn’t, simply because they’d asked and I thought it would look like I’d been pushed into it. Which was bloody-minded of me. We were 10,000 miles from our “real” lives. We’d had a last-night-of-the-year dinner on the harbour, Tasmanian wines with every course. There were fireworks at midnight, and the Sydney to Hobart boat race was coming to an end, which meant that everyone in town was in a state of revelry. I nearly asked. And I wish I had, because in the end I did the job in a no-more-than-adequate vegetarian restaurant in Brighton a month later. It wasn’t the same.
Make it happen Wexas Travel offers an 11-day Tasmania’s Food and Wine Trail self-drive holiday from £2,575pp including flights (wexas.com).
Wild camping among Scottish lochs
Destination Scottish Highlands
Relationship stage First years of married life
“Do I look as bad as you do?” he asked. I touched my hair self-consciously – we’d been camping for a week by then, in fields of wild irises and showering under waterfalls, studying his dad’s dog-eared Ordnance Survey map. He shook his head; pointed at my legs, covered – like my face – in bites. The midges, guardians of the Scottish Highlands, had finally reported for duty.
Ever solicitous, he took me to the nearest village doctor and checked us into a hotel, but the luxury was marred by the presence of other people, so we went back to our two-man tent, this time sticking to coastal lochs where sea breezes kept the midges at bay. I didn’t know then that soon I’d spend the next 20 years reviewing some of the world’s most luxurious hotels, but still nothing compares to being alone in the wilderness with the man I love, working as a team to create an ad hoc meal, a temporary home, and a newly laid bed.
Make it happen It is legal to camp wild in Scotland. Camp 100yd from the road. Don’t camp in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals.
Pippa de Bruyn
Bohemian quandary in Paris
Relationship stage Enduring love
I thought I was being romantic when I agreed on a honeymoon. I had managed to fight all the nonsense down to a registry office and a snack with a few mates but my agent booked me a hotel in Paris. He wasn’t paying for it. Le Warwick was ruinously expensive. On the second day I said: “We have to leave.”
We got in a taxi. “Take us to the Rue de Seine.” The driver was a picture of disgust all the way to the hotel we’d found on the Left Bank. Bliss. We were bohemians. But that was 39 years ago. I doubt if anyone could do it now. We tried – on our 25th anniversary, we checked into the Crillon. We ate three stars, and the following night, for old time’s sake, moved to a cheap hotel on the Left Bank. I found I loved the luxury of super-rich Paris more. Whatever happened to that bohemian couple?
Make it happen Eurostar to Paris from £58 return. Doubles at Hotel Le Crillon from €970/£817 (rosewoodhotels.com).
Griff Rhys Jones
Exploring a new city hand in hand
Destination Porto, Portugal
Relationship stage Trial run
I travelled to Porto with my boyfriend, Joe, after we’ve been dating for three months. The city certainly ticked the boxes for an amorous getaway because of its spectacular setting on the Douro River, easy day trips to wineries, and intimate family-owned restaurants dotting the blue-tiled streets.
But it was the last day in situ when I felt like we had reached a new phase in our relationship. We still had 10 or so restaurants, shops and sights left on our list. It had been raining all day, blanketing the city in a dreamy mist. Rather than letting the bad weather deter us, we took the rain – and the slippery, hilly landscape – in our stride and trekked all over hand in hand. Seeing how we were perfectly in sync with each other on where we wanted to go in less-than-ideal circumstances reassured me that we’d be great for each other long-term. And I was right.
Make it happen Return flights to Porto with Easyjet from £57. Get Your Guide offers many day trips to the Douro Valley (getyourguide.com)
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