Sure, going out for an intimate dinner à deux is pretty much everyone's default on this day for lovers. But to make Valentine's Day extra special, seek out an experience that will make it truly memorable for years to come. High and low, on land and water, laid-back and high-adrenaline; simple and elaborate; cheap and pricey - there's something here for every couple!
Go Hot-Air Ballooning: Up, Up and Away!
Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon? There's something about these majestic airborne behemoths that swells the heart - as does the sight of dramatic landscapes spread out below you. Europe offers quite a few ballooning options, but one of the continent's most dramatic venues, up in the Alps, is Switzerland's Château d’Oex east of Geneva. Though less rugged, Ireland also offers an inspiring ballooning backdrop with its lush grasslands, beautiful castles, and intriguing ancient ruins. Speaking of castles, ballooning is definitely a thing in France's Loire Valley, as well, gliding over elegant countryside, vineyards, and even more elegant grand mansions for which the valley is so famous. Spain, too, has a lot of hot air (so to speak), and among my favourite floats are those over the Guadarrama Mountains near Madrid and the rolling landscapes of Catalonia, with its mediaeval cities and dramatic rock formations such as Montserrat. Plus, lest I forget, perhaps the most otherworldly experience of all can be found amid the limestone "fairy chimneys" and cave cities of central Turkey’s Cappadocia region (above).
Across the pond, among top venues in the United States I'd definitely number California's rolling Napa Valley (with fantastic wine touring as a definite additional benefit). Ballooning is also popular over the wide open spaces of the desert Southwest, with two particular hotspots being in Arizona: Scottsdale in the Sonoran Desert and the phantasmagoric formations of Sedona's Red Rock Country.
Speaking of deserts, way down south Chile's bone-dry, starkly beautiful Atacama provides another dramatic backdrop (unparalleled stargazing up here, too!), whilst drama of another sort is achieved by drifting over the majestic ruins of Teotihuacán near Mexico City. Meanwhile, java hounds touring Colombia's Coffee Triangle north of Bogotá can get another jolt from experiencing its lush plantations from 300 to 900 metres (984-2,952 feet) up.
Finally, here's a dramatic wild card from the other side of the world: in southern China, I've been to Guilin and Yangshuo and taken the Li River cruise between them, through the breathtaking karst mountains that figure so prominently in classical Chinese paintings, so I can only imagine what it would be like to float over this ethereal landscapes. I'd call this a lovebird bucket-lister.
The most romantic dances are of course all about the couple, and there's no more sensuous example in all the world than having a go at tango in Buenos Aires (above; plenty of lessons available, too!). Not far behind when it comes to hotness quotient, you can learn/practice samba in multiple Brazilian cities, as well as salsa in Cuba and Puerto Rico - and let's not forget merengue in the Dominican Republic! And if ballroom dancing dancing appeals to you, New York City, London, Paris, and many others are home to both glamorous venues and schools offering one-off or small packages of lessons.
Cruise Through Destinations in Style
Starting out on land, in quite a few fabulous cities you can take horse-drawn-carriage rides with your dearie in quite a few cities around the world. The most classic one that jumps to many minds is clip-clopping through Manhattan's Central Park (above), but the top trio elsewhere in the USA is definitely the French Quarter of New Orleans and the colonial cores of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina.
South of the border, Mexico's top options have as backdrops the colonial elegance of Guadalajara and Mérida (Yucatán Peninsula) - not unlike the experience afforded by the jewellike UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are Cartagena, Colombia; Antigua, Guatemala; Old San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Santo Domingo.
Over Iberia's home turf, the classic Spanish experience is perhaps best encapsulated by a carriage ride through atmospheric Seville, whilst elsewhere in Europe the dreamiest destinations for it I'd have to say are Paris; Vienna; and Bruges, Belgium.
Here, too, there's a wild card, and it's Havana, Cuba, with its unique-in-the-world chance to cruise through the faded elegance of yesteryear in tarted-up, brightly coloured Chevrolets, Cadillacs, and Oldsmobiles - many of them convertibles - from the 1950s and even 40s.
And wait, I'm actually not quite done yet. You can of course take to the water in most cities that are on a river, lake, or sea coast. But apart from the long-clichéd gondolas in Venice, in my book the most romantic waterborne experiences would have to be private river cruises on the Seine, Prague's Moldau River, and New York Harbour (though I'm also quite partial to private sunset cruises on Guatemala's lovely Lake Atitlán and jaunts to Capri and the Blue Grotto from Naples or Sorrento). Perhaps the most ambitious of all, though, is to charter your own sailboat - with or without skipper - in the islands of Greece or off the Adriatic coast of Croatia.
Ride Off Into the Sunset
You and your honey horsebacking amidst gorgeous scenery is another surefire memory maker. The best known options include myriad guest ranches throughout the United States (mostly out West, of course) as well as in South Africa, along with the classic traditional estancias of Argentina's and Uruguay's pampas.
And in Europe, while nearly every non-urban destination offers its own equine options, my particular favourites include the rolling Chianti region of Tuscany; England's lovely Lake District; and the forests, marshes, and dunes of Spain's very own seaside Doñana National Park, mostly in the Andalusian province of Huelva. And once again, Cappadoccia provides an exotic backdrop for rides through bucolic countryside and age-old village, as does the Loire Valley amidst its grandiose estates.
On the other side of the pond, for romance nothing beats a beach ride in any Latin American country with a coastline, but inland standouts include Chile's spectacularly rugged Torres del Paine National Park; the crisp Alpine scenery of southern Brazil's Serra Gaúcha (bastion of this country's very own homegrown gaucho cowboys, with some wonderful wine country right nearby, along with Latin America's "Christmas capital"); and the route in the Andes of Peru from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, through Incan villages and ancient ruins.
Take a Tent for Two
Lovers who are also eco-lovers can snuggle in luxury (or rough it) in private safari accommodations in Kruger National Park or more than two dozen other game reserves in South Africa. The "Big Five" by day, champagne and chocolate by night - sweet, no? Or farther up the continent of Africa, go all Lawrence of Arabia, riding camels in the Morocco's Sahara Desert and canoodling over couscous après-expedition. Ah, romance amid nature...
Enjoy a Sensuous Soak
There's nothing more relaxing - and, yes, romantic - than immersing yourselves in one of the world's many hot springs amidst lovely surroundings (although heads up: almost never will you get to have the waters to just the two of you). One of my own favourites is the exquisitely, tropically landscaped volcano-fed springs of Arenal, Costa Rica. But other dramatic spots, depending on your tastes, include Calistoga in California's Napa Valley (soaking after ballooning and wining!); Tuscany's Terme di Saturnia (dating back to the Roman Empire); another ancient-Roman-founded classic, Thermae Bath Spa in the English city of Bath; the eight-pool Termas de Puritama at the bottom of a canyon in Chile's Atacama Desert; the mediaeval Turkish baths of Budapest such as Rudás; and heading to Turkey itself, the 17 tiered, white-limestone pools of Pamukkale (I also highly recommend, by the way, the historic hammams of Istanbul).
In addition, this being the blog of the airline of Spain, special mention is also due several of this country's own thermal baths, such as As Burgas in Ourense, Galicia; ancient Alhama de Granada, halfway between Granada city and Málaga; and Montanejos near Valencia (you can find more here).
And sloshing over to Asia, bathing-mad Japan is a hot-springs wonderland amid lush scenery, with top spots including Takaragawa Onsen, Kinugawa Onsen, and Zao Onsen, all north of Tokyo and easily accessible by train. China sports its own fair share, the most prominent of which are Huaqing near Xi'an; Mount Huangshan, roughly halfway between Shanghai and Beijing; and glacier-surrounded Hailuogou in Sichuan province.