Why Don't We Do it on the Road? Six great romantic getaways
(MONEY Magazine) – Funny, isn't it, how some places seem to be meant for two? Certainly that's often thanks to the associations that we bring to our travels. Sometimes, though, it's the place itself--you'll catch a glimpse of a great view or look across a square at twilight and know: This was a moment to be shared.
It's a testament to how fond we are of our readers that MONEY has found six romantic getaways, just in time for Valentine's Day, but lovely any time of year. We picked destinations that are easy to reach, geographically diverse and--though you need not mention it to your companion--a great value for the buck. And with the conviction that romance isn't easily branded or mass-marketed, we've chosen one-of-a-kind, and mostly small and independent, hotels, B&Bs and inns.
The prices for accommodations that follow are winter rates, typically in effect through April. Many places, though, will have promotions and last-minute specials, so it pays to investigate. Keep in mind that at many high-end hotels, the cheapest rooms are overpriced for what you get--so it's often worth paying a little more for something truly special.
WHERE TO STAY Huntington Hotel WHERE TO EAT SoMa, or the Mission District for ethnic flavors DON'T MISS Top of the Mark
Why San Francisco? We'll leave it to Tony Bennett to explain. Suffice it to say that "romantic San Francisco" is practically redundant. The cable cars; the Painted Ladies, the row of pastel-colored Victorian houses at Alamo Square; the Golden Gate Bridge--the iconic visual cues are almost innumerable.
Ditto the itineraries. Stroll the Embarcadero, the tea shops of China-town or the elegant apartments of Nob Hill. Or leave the city altogether. Cross the Golden Gate to Marin County and Muir Woods National Monument, home of giant redwoods. Cruise Highway 1, hard up against the mountains, the Pacific on your left. The wineries of Sonoma and Napa beckon. It's all good.
SUNSET SITING Sip martinis and survey the whole Bay Area from the Top of the Mark, a swank bar that crowns the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel at Nob Hill, 19 floors up (415-392-3434).
SLEEP, EAT Among the Nob Hill grande dames, the Huntington Hotel--the first brick-and-steel high-rise west of the Mississippi--is both stately and relatively affordable. Even the least expensive rooms are spacious and have fine views (doubles from $320 a night; 800-227-4683; huntingtonhotel.com). It's folly to highlight just one restaurant in San Francisco, of all places. Head to Union Square for formal four-star dining; to SoMa (South of Market) for sleek and stylish; or to the Mission District for affordable ethnic eating.
WHERE TO STAY Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort WHERE TO EAT Cafe Poca Cosa DON'T MISS The wildflowers
It may be worth postponing Valentine's Day for a visit to the Sonoran southwest. Beneath every square mile of ground lie billions of seeds, waiting, sometimes for years, for just the right conditions to germinate. Then, beginning in March, they explode: Mexican poppies, lupine, owl clover. Desert browns and beiges give way to gold, violet and pink. After an especially rainy fall, they can cover the landscape like a luminescent carpet, stretching for miles.
For the best walk on the wildflower side, take a hike to Picacho Peak State Park, 40 miles up the road toward Phoenix. For a road show, head west on Highway 86 to the Tohono O'odham Reservation. If you can't visit on short notice (since it's impossible to time the flowers), more reliable blooms--cacti and ocotillo in red, prickly pear and brittlebush in yellow--appear in April. That's also when the wildflowers in the cooler grasslands southeast of Tucson toward Tombstone blossom. (Check for wildflower updates at desertmuseum.org.)
Because the skies over southern Arizona are among North America's clearest, several observatories scan the heavens from here. From Highway 86, make an evening detour south to the Kitt Peak National Observatory. After a brief tutorial and a light dinner, visitors stargaze to their hearts' content with two state-of-the-art telescopes capable of peering into other galaxies ($36 per person, reserve in advance; 520-318-8726; www.noao.edu/outreach/nop).
SUNSET SITING Gates Pass, at Tucson Mountain Park, 15 minutes west of town, is the place to see the sun disappear behind the vast desert--or rise over the city in the morning.
SLEEP, EAT The luxurious Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, in Tucson's northern suburban foothills, is more resort than ranch, but guests can hike or ride horseback through 36 acres of desert (doubles from $155; 800-728-6514; haciendadelsol.com). Downtown, Cafe Poca Cosa serves Mexican cuisine as you've never tasted it before. Order the Plato Poca Cosa ($20), and chef-owner Suzana Davila will choose three entrees for you to sample. Trust her judgment (dinner for two, about $46; 520-622-6400).
WHERE TO STAY Annie Wiggins Guest House WHERE TO EAT Perry Street Brasserie DON'T MISS Mississippi Palisades State Park
Mansions by turn Italianate, Greek or Gothic Revival, or Queen Anne. Antique stores, fancy boutiques, studios where artists produce paintings, pottery and stained glass. Galena's charms seem disproportionate to its size.
But Galena is one those cities that in its heyday was one of the country's biggest. The discovery of rich veins of lead in the 1830s brought thousands to this small valley in the northwest corner of Illinois--America's original mineral rush. Galena became the richest port on the Mississippi River, and a good many steamboat captains, who knew every mile of the river, also settled here. They, like the industrialists, built homes commensurate with their prosperity.
But for all the handsome houses, Galena isn't merely a parlor town. There is hiking through Apple River Canyon State Park and along the river bluffs at Mississippi Palisades State Park. Winter brings a convocation of bald eagles. Terrence Ingram has studied them for 40 years and, on some Saturdays in February and March, leads excursions to their favorite haunts ($50; 815-594-2306; eaglenature.com).
SUNSET SITING Lookout Point at Mississippi Palisades State Park, about 30 minutes south of Galena
SLEEP, EAT The seven rooms at Annie Wiggins Guest House kill softly with fine linens, extra pillows and pillowtop queen beds so high they often require a step; some feature a fireplace or oversize soaking tub. Proprietor Wendy Heiken leads ghost tours through town and gossip soirees in the parlor ($95 to $175; 815-777-0336; anniewiggins.com). Tiny Perry Street Brasserie prepares delicious, seasonal meals every day, often with local ingredients (dinner for two, $80; 815-777-3773; perrystreetbrasserie.com).
WHERE TO STAY Ballastone Inn WHERE TO EAT Elizabeth on 37th DON'T MISS An evening carriage ride
At twilight, the stately antebellum mansions bathe in the glow of street lamps and lawn lights. The squares, under a canopy of expansive live oak and Spanish moss, turn ghostly. This is the perfect time for a drive--when the clip-clop of horseshoe on pavement resonates on empty streets.
Anywhere else an interlude in a horse-drawn carriage would be just a tourist contrivance, but few American cities live so rapturously in a languorous past as does Savannah. One imagines the rules of polite society are still enforced behind old oak doors flanked by Greek columns. Public squares, 21 of them, interrupt the avenues every few blocks, but few people seem to mind decelerated driving. Indeed, though Starbucks and other trappings of our big-bandwidth culture have made inroads, life in Savannah moves at a leisurely pace. Enjoy it, then, as a native might. Leave the rental car at the airport. You could spend days touring all the old houses, the art museum and the redeveloped shopping streets, but don't over-schedule. Pack a picnic lunch and linger in the shade of a square on Bull Street or by the fountain at Forsyth Park. And one night, when it's time to go to dinner, don't call a cab--hire a carriage.
SLEEP, EAT More than 40 of Savannah's old mansions have been turned into inns or B&Bs, with rates for good rooms from $150. (Avoid the cheapest, typically dark and cramped, "garden-level" accommodations.) The Ballastone Inn, an Italianate mansion dating from 1838, is the most opulent of the lot. Its 16 guest rooms are lavishly furnished--fireplaces and four-poster or canopy beds are de rigueur (double rooms from $215; 800-822-4553; ballastone.com). Reserve a month in advance for dinner at Elizabeth on 37th, a Gothic Revival mansion in the Victorian district where southern classics like okra, crab and black-eyed peas get gourmet treatment (dinner for two, $100; 912-236-5547; elizabethon37th.com).
WHERE TO STAY Idle Awhile or The Caves WHERE TO EAT The Caves DON'T MISS Rick's Cafe on the West End
Even the name Jamaica itself sounds sensual, but it takes a hopeless romantic to feel the love in the beachfront towers and all-inclusive hotels that scar the north coast. Instead, head to Negril, which, though growing popular, still feels less bustling than the other big resorts. Here, on the island's western tip, seven miles of bleached-white sand share the shoreline with ragged cliffs hiding intimate and inviting coves. A local ordinance limits buildings to the height of the tallest palm tree, and most hotels have fewer than 40 rooms. And the nearby attractions feel less like tourist traps. Follow the coast south 90 minutes, and you'll discover the Y.S. Falls, a series of pools cascading out of the rain forest, with vines overhead seemingly made for swinging.
SUNSET SITING A late afternoon stop at Rick's Cafe on the West End is almost an obligation. Guests from the big all-inclusives come by the busload to drink Red Stripe and jump from the cliffs to the water below. For a more mellow sunset, head up the coast to Pirate's Cave, another cove-side bar.
SLEEP, EAT Right on the beach, Idle Awhile promises tranquility in 13 colorful, Deco- and minimalist-inspired rooms, many looking out on sapphire waters (doubles, $170 to $275; 877-243-5352; idleawhile .com). Up in the cliffs, The Caves is a hotel designed to make you think you're a hermit. Ensconced in one of 10 suites and cottages, with all the extras you would expect at a high-end place, you'll hardly notice the other guests, except perhaps on the way to the saltwater swimming pool or at mealtime. But ask to have dinner in a private cave, lit by candles, the sea lapping at the entrance (doubles, food and drinks included, $575; 800-688-7678; thecavesresort.com).
WHERE TO STAY Le Château Frontenac WHERE TO EAT À la Bastille chez Bahüaud DON'T MISS A stroll along Terrasse Dufferin
In Québec City, one finds all the fine things we associate with France: the language, imposing buildings fronting stone streets too narrow for cars, a propensity to linger over extraordinary cuisine and wine. Better still, all this costs a fraction of a vacation in the States, let alone a trip to Europe.
Perched mostly on a cliff above the St. Lawrence River and hemmed in by high walls, Old Québec seems almost medieval. The walls enclose a star-shaped citadel designed to repel enemy attack. Down along the river lies the port and the oldest part of one of the oldest cities in North America, an artisanal neighborhood clustered around pedestrian lanes. There is simply no other place like it on our continent.
Of course, there is no escaping that it's cold here now--better to embrace it. Take a few turns at Carré d'Youville, a square just outside the old city that does winter duty as a skating rink. Or shoot the ice-slicked toboggan runs along the Terrasse Dufferin at cliff's edge.
SLEEP, EAT Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1893, Fairmont's Le Château Frontenac is one of Canada's most luxurious and deservedly famous hotels--it appears in nearly every photo of the city, towering over the town like a castle on steroids (double rooms from $147; 800-441-1414; fairmont.com). Nearby, Hôtel Cap Diamant is really more of a B&B, in a house built in 1826. The nine rooms are uniquely appointed, six with old stone fireplaces; some have city views (doubles, about $80 to $110; 418-694-0313; hcapdiamant.qc.ca). À la Bastille chez Bahüaud serves sumptuous French food with fresh Québecois ingredients in a sweet old Victorian house. A three-course, prix fixe menu costs just $23 per person (418-692-2544).