Romance and cruising would seem to go hand in hand, particularly if you've spotted any of the cruise lines' glossy magazine advertisements: photos of couples admiring the bow at sunset, or sipping orange juice on their private verandah in terry clothes robes, or even -- and this one we have a hard time believing -- spending time alone on a deserted beach with their mega-ship anchored in the background.
Advertisements notwithstanding, however, cruising can be one of the most romantic vacation options, but often the onboard ambiance and lifestyle contribute more to the feeling of "amore" than an occasional sunset. Choosing the right cruise line and, even more specifically, the right ship within the fleet, can be a big challenge. You don't want that sunset marred by crowds on deck jostling for the perfect photo op, the romance of a dinner for two killed by the whiny kids at the next table, or a cozy evening in ruined by cramped cabins with minimal amenities.
In choosing our top picks, we looked at criteria that we would deem universally romantic, whether your definition of romantic is a party-all-night ship or ultimate pampering and luxury. For instance? We opted for ships that offered cabins with private balconies, great bathrooms and extra-special amenities; options for dining a deux (or at least the option to eat when and with whom you choose); cozy nooks and date-night venues; and almost-private open-deck spaces for relaxing by day and star gazing by night.
Here are our favorite ships for celebrating or rekindling romance with your sweetheart.
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Norwegian Cruise Line
SeaDream Yacht Club
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Best Ships: Crown Princess, Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess
Why: The newest of Princess' Grand-class ships -- Crown Princess, Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess -- blend big-ship options and small-ship cozy. Romance has always been the Love Boat line's focus, but the tiny, charm-less balconies and bigger size of its newer Royal-class ships mean that the elder sisters still win in this category.
Sweet Digs: Each boasts the line's traditionally high percentage of suites and mini-suites. Suites feature separate sitting areas, large balconies and walk-in closets, and come with perks like deluxe canapes, a complimentary mini-bar setup, upgraded bathroom amenities, and complimentary use of the ship's thermal suite, laundry services and Elite Lounge. But even the standard mini-suite is charming and comfortable.
Dinner for Two: Open-seating (as well as traditional) dining is available. But the most romantic option -- and unique to cruising -- is the Ultimate Balcony Dining dinner experience. For an extra fee, cruisers are treated to a lobster dinner with Champagne and course-by-course service. (Or have a romantic breakfast in your cabin with the line's Balcony Breakfast option.) Only caveat: Your cabin must have a balcony. We also love the ships' specialty restaurants. Request a banquette at Crown Grill, a steak and seafood restaurant with an open grill, or indulge in a multi-course meal at Sabatini's, the line's Italian eatery. For a more casual option, try Vines, a wine and sushi bar.
Onboard Romance: What could be more romantic than a night at "Movies Under the Stars," in which you recline on padded loungers (snuggled under wool tartan blankets) on the pool deck in cruising's version of a retro drive-in? Or for quiet tete-a-tetes with your sweetie, try Adagio, a lovely and private top-deck lounge featuring a cabaret singer. During the day, we love The Sanctuary, a (mostly) shaded retreat, complete with waiter service, spa menu and massage services (a couples' massage is available). Or, check out the spa's couple's Rasul room (it's a mud room with steam -- and more fun than it sounds!).
Downside: While the deluxe mini-suites are lovely and comfortable, the all-open-air balconies are anything but private.
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Best Ship: Paul Gauguin
Why: Designed, built and decorated to sail year-round in the romantic South Pacific, the cozy, 332-passenger Paul Gaugin offers an air of tropical festivity. Dining is restaurant-style, the staff is superb and the ship is highly inclusive (cocktails and other beverages are included in cruise fares). But it's the ship's remote and lush island destinations that really turn up the notch on the romantic nature of the trip.
Sweet Digs: You know this is a ship intended for couples when most cabins come with a queen-sized bed and only a limited number can be split apart into twins. Consistent with the decor around the ship, cabins are tropically inspired; when we embarked, our cabin attendant had showered the bathroom sink with red rose petals. Definitely book ahead so you can nab a balcony cabin. It's not a trip to the South Pacific if you're not out on your balcony, savoring coffee, as Bora Bora pulls into view. And just when life onboard couldn't be any better, suites and category A and B veranda staterooms feature butler service.
Onboard Romance: Dance cheek to cheek with your honey to the tunes of a chanteuse in the La Palette Lounge, or gaze at the sea or stars from the lounge's top-of-ship vantage point.
Dinner for Two: For such a small ship, the choice of restaurants is superb. L'Etoile, which offers French cuisine accented with Polynesian touches, serves as the main venue. Couples will appreciate plentiful tables for two and an attentive waitstaff that will keep your glasses filled with house wines and nonalcoholic beverages (included in your fare). Two casual venues offer indoor and alfresco dining, with themed, reservations-only dinners. And there's always room service for meals in bed or on your balcony.
Downside: French Polynesia is a long trip from just about anywhere, so be prepared to endure hours on a plane before you get to your luxurious destination.
Best Ship: Marina, Riviera
Why: Because of their slightly larger size Oceania's O-class ships offer just a bit more variety than their smaller fleet mates, while still maintaining an intimate feel. With several upscale restaurants, Bon Appetit Culinary Center and Artist Loft classes and evening theater and dance, there's plenty for couples to do together.
Sweet Digs: While any cabin with a balcony has the potential for romance, the eight Vista suites, 12 Oceania suites and three Owner's suites are definitely the creme de la creme. Among the many amenities included with Oceania suites is a complimentary welcome bottle of Champagne, unlimited access to Canyon Ranch SpaClub's private spa terrace, a Bulgari gift set and toiletries and cashmere lap blankets for late evenings stargazing on the balcony. To top it off, all suites feature beautiful views and indoor and outdoor whirlpool spas to share with your sweetie.
Onboard Romance: Day or night, couples looking to reconnect never have to stray far from one another onboard Marina and Riviera. Lie side-by-side during a couples massage in the Canyon Ranch SpaClub. Dab a little flour on your partner's nose during a hands-on cooking class in the Bon Appetit Culinary Center. Discover shared pleasure during a wine flite tasting in La Reserve. Re-discover your shared groove on the dance floor in Horizons Lounge.
Dinner for Two: Four complimentary specialty restaurants give couples plenty of opportunity for romantic dinners out. Couples who want to stay in can choose in-cabin dining, including course-by-course butler service for those in suites.
Downside: While Oceania cruises can come with a steep price tag, the line is not as inclusive as other premium lines. Be prepared to pony up for your drinks and tips.
Best Ship: Wind Surf
Why: Wind Surf's both a sailboat and cruise ship, and it features a hybrid blend of cruise traditions (such as the crew show, organized shore excursions and multiple eateries) and utterly romantic vistas. Carrying just 310 passengers, the ship's onboard ambience is relaxed (no set seatings at dinner) and its itineraries focus on ports in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Baltic that are often too small to appeal to massive ships.
Sweet Digs: What Windstar's cabins lack in size and variety, they make up in style. The line has spiffed up the staterooms with state-of-the-art electronics, decadently soft bedding and L'Occitane bath products. Most suites are simply two standard cabins opened up and joined together, but having two bathrooms is generally a boon for marital bliss.
Onboard Romance: A favorite spot -- and it's remarkably quiet -- is at the outside tables at Wind Surf's cigar bar; it's a great place to sit under the stars (or enjoy a quiet cocktail). If it's too chilly for sitting outdoors, head to the indoor section of the Compass Rose lounge to listen to some pre-dinner music over drinks with your sweetheart.
Dinner for Two: For casual daytime dining, the glass-walled Veranda offers seating outdoors as well as indoors. It's adjacent to the grill and features both buffet fare and choices from a menu. At night, enjoy a romantic candlelit dinner by the pool at Candles, sample French-influenced contemporary dishes at Stella Bistro, or dine in the main restaurant, AmphorA, which features local and creative cuisine.
Downside: This ship is small and cabins are close to the water, so in rough seas, you'll definitely feel the motion of the ocean and perhaps watch the waves close in over your porthole. If you're prone to seasickness, bad weather might kill the romance of a Windstar cruise.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Best Ships: Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Jade
Why: Norwegian's "Freestyle Dining" philosophy (passengers can dine without the hassle of assigned times and tablemates at a variety of restaurants) is perfectly suited to table-for-two travelers. While the line's newest and biggest ships are full of Las Vegas flash and nonstop entertainment action, we prefer its Jewel-class for the right mix of romantic options and plentiful activities.
Sweet Digs: If you can afford them, the ships' Haven suites -- Courtyard Penthouses, Owner's Suites and Garden Villas -- are tops for a romantic getaway. These suites are located away from the fray in a private-access area of the ship -- and offer a host of special perks, from access to a fabulous Asian-inspired pool area (complete with Balinese bed and hot tub) to suite-holders-only breakfast and lunch in either Cagney's Steakhouse or Moderno Churrascaria. The suites feature separate living and sleeping rooms, flat-screen televisions, butler service and, the best part: a swishy bathroom whose whirlpool tub is set into a picture window alcove.
Onboard Romance: Active couples can play a little one-on-one basketball on the sports deck; while those looking to relax together can snag side-by-side loungers in the spa's relaxation room. At night, snuggle up to your honey, cocktail in hand, on one of the canopied beds that serve as loungers in the Bliss Ultra Lounge and Night Club.
Dinner for Two: Try dinner at Cagney's, the dedicated steakhouse, and Le Bistro, a French eatery; for drinks, Cagney's adjacent lounge, located at the top of the ship, is away from the crowds.
Downside: These megaships aren't exactly intimate, and you might have to queue up for your dinner table for two if you don't eat at odd times or make reservations in advance.
SeaDream Yacht Club
Best Ship: SeaDream I and SeaDream II
Why: These nearly identical 112-passenger yachts win top romantic honors for sophisticated couples who want luxury (phenomenal dining and great service) amidst a casual ambiance. The ships are gorgeously restored; dining is all as-you-wish; cabins, though cozy, are outfitted with state-of-the-art accoutrements; and service is outstanding, personable, attentive ... and subtle. Fares are all-inclusive, too, which means tips and most drinks are included in your fare.
Sweet Digs: There are only four types of stateroom. The most romantic is, of course, the Owner's Suite (with a fabulous windowed bathroom); the Admiral Suite has similar amenities but is somewhat smaller. The Commodore Suites are basically two standard cabins put together -- we actually preferred our standard accommodations. The 195-square-foot standard cabins feature separate seating areas and bedrooms, with a small but exquisitely outfitted bathroom (huge shower-for-two with three shower heads). Add to that fine linens and great mattresses on the bed, high-tech flat-screen televisions, DVD and CD players, and plenty of storage space.
Onboard Romance: Our favorite place for sunset-timed port departures was on one of the Balinese beds on the top-most deck. Tucked around the smokestack, they are built just a bit above the deck railing, which gives you a sense of floating above the water. (You can also reserve one for a night sleeping under the stars.) We also loved the Top of the Yacht bar for after-dinner drinks to a soundtrack of live music.
For that special occasion when guests wish to dine privately, there are intimate alcoves.
Dinner for Two: There are two primary venues. The Main Dining Salon (indoors) feels like a restaurant at an elegant, small boutique hotel. But our favorite spot was the Topside Restaurant; it's an open-sided outdoor eatery (covered, though, so shaded) and there are a handful of wonderful and private nooks.
Downside: There are no cabins with balconies (but the open decks were so expansive and there were so many lovely nooks that we never missed them).
Best Ship: Celebrity Solstice, Equinox, Eclipse, Silhouette and Reflection
Why: Celebrity's newest ships are sophisticated and hip, and cater to couples on adult getaways, rather than families on holiday. Plus, there are plenty of onboard spaces tailor-made for parties of two -- from wine bars to multiple specialty dining venues, double pool loungers and top-deck lawns perfect for picnicking.
Sweet Digs: For a true splurge, suites range in size from 300 to 1,636 square feet, with amenities such as separate living room/dining room areas, baby grand pianos, whirlpool tubs and large balconies. For couples who enjoy the spa experience, Celebrity's AquaClass cabins and suites create an oasis of calm on the bustling ships with massaging showerheads, complimentary spa-oriented bath and body products, and upgraded bed linens. Plus, couples can seek further R&R with complimentary use of the AquaSpa Relaxation Room and Persian Garden and exclusive specialty restaurant, Blu. There's also good news for pairs looking for a private retreat without breaking the bank -- 85 percent of all cabins feature private balconies.
Onboard Romance: It's easy to rekindle the romance with a picnic for two in the Lawn Club, a real grass lawn on the ships' top decks. Or hide away in a corner of the Deck 4 wine bar or martini bar, and get a little tipsy with your loved one. The pool deck and adults-only Solarium also have cozy double sunbeds and hammocks for snuggling in the sun.
Dinner for Two: With so many top-notch specialty restaurants onboard, any table for two will do for a romantic night out. Our favorite for couples (and anyone else, for that matter) is Murano, the upscale Continental restaurant offering both tasting and a la carte menus. Treat yourself and your sweetie to luxe dishes like caviar, escargots, sweetbreads or foie gras. For dinner with a view, dine early at the back-of-the-ship Tuscan Grille, an Italian steakhouse with a wine country feel.
Downside: Onboard dates don't come cheap, whether you're shelling out for glasses of wine or fabulous cocktail creations, splurging on a specialty restaurant meal (Murano charges $45 per person), or booking upper-class cabins.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Best Ship: Seven Seas Mariner and Voyager
Why: You can't go wrong with an all-suite, all-balcony ship that features personal service, gourmet cuisine and the most-inclusive cruise fares of the major luxury lines. You don't have to worry about lover's quarrels over the price of shore excursions, which pre-cruise hotel to book or how many drinks to order -- it's all covered by your cruise fare.
Sweet Digs: Take your pick! The smallest cabin on Mariner is a 301-square-foot suite with an extra-large teak balcony, walk-in closet and marble bathroom. The largest is a whopping 2,002 square feet and would leave Manhattan apartment owners drooling. If you really want to spoil yourself, book one of the top seven cabin categories, which include butler service.
Onboard Romance: Head to the Observation Lounge for 180-degree views by day and cocktails and live music by night. You can even enjoy a lie in the sun on the pool deck without being hassled by chair hogs and blaring music.
Dinner for Two: It's easy to get a table for two on these ships, even in Compass Rose, the main dining room. And the food is superb, with no drop in quality from the specialty venues to the main dining room. For date night, try Signatures, the only Cordon Bleu restaurants at sea, or the Prime 7 Steakhouse -- you'll need to make reservations for these popular venues but there's no fee.
Downside: Because its fares include nearly everything, Regent Seven Seas Cruises has some of the highest cruise fares in the industry.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor