Thomasin McCuaig hunts down the best destinations for your first romantic getaway with your partner.
Calling all loved-up explorers: why not be spontaneous and do the unexpected with your partner, by venturing on your first holiday as a couple to a unique destination that will forever hold a special place in your heart? Whether it is rediscovering the medieval cottages and towns in the Cotswolds, trailing through the clifftops of the Cinque Terre or stepping back in time in South Carolina, we have you covered. Although this trip is not a honeymoon, there is no reason why you shouldn’t treat it like one.
No matter what the season, Bruges is renowned for its romantic atmosphere and charm. From the swans on the canals to the cobblestoned lanes, Bruges will transport you into a fairytale world. Although a popular tourist spot, this city has a way of making you feel as though you and your partner are the only two people in the world.
Do: Take a romantic carriage ride through Bruges, making a pit stop to indulge in Belgian chocolate from Mary Chocolatier, or walk on the quaint Lovers Bridge over Minnewater – the ‘Lake of Love’ – for a quiet, intimate moment. If you prefer to go on the water, you can cruise the canals on a jaunty skipper. End the day by visiting the gorgeous Belfry in Markt Square, climbing the 366 steps for panoramic views of the city in the Rapunzel-esque tower, which dates back to the 1200s.
Stay: Relais & Chateaux Hotel Heritage is an idyllic accommodation for those who are planning an escape for two. Bathed in history, Hotel Heritage was elected the world’s most romantic hotel in the World Luxury Hotel Awards in 2019. The restored building is located in the heart of the medieval city and sits right beside the gorgeous canals. The rooms blend comfort and elegance and, if you want to surprise your partner, you can add chocolates, roses and champagne to your stay.
Eat: If you and your partner are feeling like a night in, yet want to experience refined dining, the hotel’s restaurant, Le Mystique, offers fine cuisine in a stylish atmosphere. For a night out, dine at the three Michelin-starred Hertog Jan, which is nestled in a large farm just 15 minutes outside Bruges.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Coastal towns, scenic views, scattered pastel-coloured buildings overlooking the Mediterranean Sea; the Cinque Terre is all ready and waiting for you to make it your next romantic getaway.
Do: An essential activity to do while visiting the Cinque Terre is the walking trail where you can leisurely make your way to each of the five towns by foot. As you tread through winding paths and climb stone stairs, you will enjoy some of Italy’s most stunning vistas. If hiking is not your cup of tea, hop on board the Cinque Terre Express – which snakes along the precarious coastline – for a train ride like none other. Once you’ve chosen a town to relax in, take a dip in the crystal-clear sea.
Stay: Nestled in the village of Monterosso and overlooking the dazzling bay, Hotel Porto Roca is a full-service hotel in the heart of UNESCO heritage. Suspended on the edge of a clifftop, this opulent accommodation offers spectacular views that give the impression of sailing above the sea. The Garden Suite is the top pick, with a balcony that provides sweeping vistas of the Mediterranean Sea below. For an early morning swim, make your way to the sea-view infinity pool, where you and your partner will be surrounded by greenery and vineyards.
Eat: The number one romantic spot in Vernazza, Belforte Restaurant is carved out of an old stone fortress and perched against the cliff ledge. Book a table on one of the three outdoor terraces during sunset and look out at the magnificent sea view as you drink wine and treat your taste buds to Ligurian recipes and local products, including spaghetti ‘Bruno,’ a seafood dish and customer favourite.
Charleston, South Carolina
Vibrant coloured terraces, wraparound porches, lush oak-lined walkways and antebellum architecture; Charleston, South Carolina is the stuff of movie magic. Step into a Nicholas Sparks novel and visit this romance-filled city.
Do: In this old-fashioned city full of southern charm, take a private ride on a romantic Palmetto Carriage, where a guide will recount the vibrant narrative of Charleston’s elegant 300-year history. To add an extra layer of romance, visit the Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens, which was the iconic backdrop in The Notebook. Afterwards, stroll through a wide network of Charleston Art Galleries, including the Gibbes Museum of Art, or appreciate nature’s artwork by lying under the majestic 400-year-old Angel Oak Tree.
Stay: Voted in the top 25 romantic hotels in the US by the 2019 TripAdvisor Traveller’s Choice Awards, Wentworth Mansion is Charleston’s grandest. Town history meets Southern hospitality at this circa 1886 landmark, located within minutes of the city’s most important attractions. The ornate Second Empire showplace has soaring ceilings, Tiffany windows, marble fireplaces, crystal chandeliers and a picturesque rooftop cupola.
Eat: If you are hungry, yet feel like snuggling in for the night at your hotel, look no further than just a few steps from your room. Wentworth Mansion includes the highly acclaimed Circa 1886 Restaurant. Evoking the romance of historic downtown Charleston, the restaurant delights you with a combination of modern-day cuisine and rich history. If you feel like having a night out on the town, step into the award-winning Charleston Grill, where you are greeted by the sounds of jazz before enjoying a night of modern gastronomy. The menu is split into four categories – Social & Shared, Roots & Sterns, Waves & March and Field & Pasture – and guests are served up dishes such as king trumpet au poivre, Colorado lamb, East Coast oysters and ahi tuna aguachile.
Beguiling its visitors with medieval remains, narrow streets bursting with aromatic food, squares with exquisite fountains and rooftops showcasing the city’s sea of minarets, Fes is a go-to romantic destination.
Do: Imagine this: dunes up to 50 metres high that extend eastward all the way to the Algerian Sahara. Now imagine travelling through the shifting sands on a 90-minute camel trek into the Moroccan sunset, before arriving at a traditional Berber desert encampment to spend the night in an enchanting tent. Fes Desert Trips can make this dream a reality, on a two-day desert trip that will be nothing short of incredible. Back in Morocco, you and your partner can also take photos of the Royal Gates at the Royal Palace or feel like an ancient scholar while visiting the University of Al-Karaouine, the oldest university in the world. If you don’t feel like hunting down attractions, immerse yourself in the lively streets of Fes, where you will be in awe of the tile work and wood carvings of buildings that date back to the 14th century.
Stay: Be mesmerised by the richness of Moroccan architecture during your stay at the Riad Fes Maya Suites and Spa. Situated in a great location in the heart of this dream-like city, this riad has a mosaic courtyard with a beautiful fountain, nine rooms and suites, a Moroccan restaurant and spa, and a terrace that offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the city. Staying here, you are guaranteed to feel like royalty.
Eat: When in Morocco, enjoy an exquisite dining experience at Nur Restaurant. The dining room has a chic, contemporary feel, yet the design elements date back to Byzantine times, creating both a sanctuary and time capsule. Chef Najat Kaanache invites you to try 10 creations that are sourced from within the Medina and include both seasonal seafood and local protein offerings.
Cobblestones and quaint cottages will never get too old when it comes to a romantic holiday with a little bit of bygone history thrown in. If antiquated villages, filled with local shops that emanate countryside charm and charisma are your cup of tea, then look no further than the cosy Cotswolds.
Do: Visit the Cotswolds’ highest castle, Broadway Tower. Built in the late 18th century by Lady Coventry, the tower stands 18 metres high and offers expansive views over 16 counties. For a romantic night out, book a ticket to see a play at the 200-seat Barn Theatre in Cirencester to get lost in a live, fictional world.
Stay: Live a British fairytale fantasy and make Barnsley House in Cirencester your lodging during your stay. You and your partner can stroll around the stunning gardens and relax in the graceful rooms, reminiscent of pictures from a storybook, like a Jane Austen heroine. Spend your days indulging in some R&R at the hideaway spa or catching a movie at Barnsley House cinema.
Dine: If you want relaxed fine dining in the Cotswolds, head to the Purslane Restaurant in Cheltenham, acclaimed for its delicious and sustainably caught seafood. The chef and his team bring out the best in every ingredient by using an array of techniques from salt-baking to sous vide. If you are more in the mood for a classic pub dining experience, The Wild Rabbit in Kingham is the perfect place. Set in a stone-built 18th-century property, this upscale pub serves locally sourced, seasonal food in a warm and welcoming environment. With a fork in hand and a fireplace nearby, this pub will make you feel right at home.
Home to famous American writer, Ernest Hemingway, Cuba is a place that is fuelled by creativity. Within this city of spice, history, culture, music and vitality, there are countless romantic activities to do.
Do: Step back in time and enjoy an intimate evening with your partner as you stroll around Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, which dates back to 1559. If you are both in the mood for entertainment, buy a ticket at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, home to the Cuban National Ballet. Renowned for its Neo-Baroque architecture, the frontage features four sculptures in white marble, each representing charity, education, music and theatre.
Stay: When travelling to Havana, you must stay at Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Those who don’t stay, always visit. Constructed in 1930, the hotel is considered a symbol of history, culture and Cuban identity, and was inscribed in the World Memory Register. Located in the middle of Vedado, it stands on a hill that offers a spectacular view of the Havana Harbour and sea wall. Among those who have stayed here during their travels are Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.
Eat: Respecting roots, while reinterpreting them, La Guarida is pure value. If you want to get to know the real Cuba and lose yourself in the culture and traditions, then this is the place for you and your partner. Set in a building constructed in the early 20th century, over the past 25 years this world-class restaurant has become a reference for new Cuban cuisine.
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Lead image © Jan D’Hondt/Toerisme Brugge