When we think of romantic getaways, we’re a bit stuck on the obvious—Paris, Rome, Bora Bora. So with Valentine’s Day coming up, we turned to Patricia Schultz, author of 1,000 Places To See Before You Die, for some fresh ideas. Here are a few of her favorite romantic destinations in the world, excerpted from her perennial bestseller.
Cong, County Mayo, Ireland
Ireland has no shortage of dreamy castle hotels, but Ashford Castle—an imposing flight of fancy reflected in Ireland’s second largest lake, Lough Corrib—stands alone. Think turrets, drawbridge, and battlements, coupled with gracious service, canopied four-poster beds, armor-lined corridors, and crackling fires in richly paneled drawing rooms. Dating to the 13th century and enjoying a stunning top-to-toe restoration completed last year, the world-famous hotel served as the Guinness brewing family’s private residence for almost 100 years, beginning in 1852. Imagine an evening of elegant dining, replete with vast windows-with-a-view, Waterford crystal engraved with Ashford’s crest, and custom-made Wedgwood place settings. Activities on the idyllic 300-acre grounds include lake fishing and cruises, golf, and falconry lessons; they are open to non-guests as well. In 1952, when John Ford filmed scenes of the silver-screen classic The Quiet Man (with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara) on Ashford’s grounds and in the neighboring village of Cong, the cast called the flamboyant castle home.
There is plenty to explore during day trips in and around scenic County Mayo. A bronze memorial dedicated to the victims of the Famine stands at the base of Mayo’s sacred mountain, Croagh Patrick, hallowed since the era of the Celts. Originally called Croagh Aigh, it was renamed after the saint who fasted there for 40 days in the year 441. From his post there, St. Patrick reputedly banished “the snakes” from Ireland, likely a euphemism for eradicating much of Celtic religion and introducing Christianity.
Mayo’s history goes back even further—over 5,000 years—at the Ceide Fields, the world’s most extensive Stone Age site. Perched at the ocean’s edge, Ceide’s farming settlement has the oldest-known walled fields, preserved over the millennia by the bog.
These days, Mayo enjoys a solid reputation for the brown trout that thrive in the waters of Lough Conn. To angle on the lake, visit Cloonamoyne Fishery, on the grounds of Enniscoe House, the 17th-century ancestral home of Susan Kellett and her son DJ, who open its rooms and those of their farmhouses to overnight guests. Wrap up the day at Matt Molloy’s pub in the popular and picturesque town of Westport. Owned by flutist Matt Molloy from the world-renowned trad band the Chieftains, the pub has a back room that is alive with music every night of the week.
Neighboring Costa Rica has long been a favorite Central American destination. But Nicaragua deserves equal attention, particularly the elegant and captivating colonial city of Granada that sits on the western shores of Lake Cocibolca (also called Lake Nicaragua), the largest freshwater lake in Central America. Today the heart of the city is still the lively tree-lined Parque Central (also known as Parque Colón), dominated by the magnificent yellow Cathedral of Granada. Enjoy the view from the polished-wood balconies of Hotel Plaza Colón, an exquisitely restored 27-room colonial mansion overlooking the park. Three blocks away is Central America’s oldest church, the massive, sky-blue San Francisco with its attached convent (now a museum); it’s home to a display of towering black basalt statues, carved about 1,000 years ago and discovered in the 1880s on the ancient ceremonial island of Zapatera. Stroll to nearby El Zaguan for some of the best dining in town. The courtyard restaurant serves succulent fire-grilled meats, fresh rainbow bass from the lake, and sea bass from the Pacific.
Just offshore from Granada are some 365 diminutive islands called Las Isletas, formed 20,000 years ago by an eruption of the now dormant Volcán Mombacho. Many of the islands are privately owned, including the one where you’ll find the luxurious Jicaro Island Ecolodge, with nine sleek, two-story casitas that look across the water to the volcano.
So wide is Lake Nicaragua that it takes 4 hours by boat to reach Ometepe, the exquisitely beautiful, twin-peaked island formed by two volcanoes. Ometepe is a mosaic of small farms producing plantains, corn, avocados, and coffee, and home to two lazy commercial centers, Moyogalpa and Altagracia. In addition to climbing the volcanoes, visiting secluded beaches, and hiking trails that wind among trees ruled by monkeys, you can view more than 70 ancient petroglyph sites and numerous stone idols scattered across the island.
A perfect day trip from Granada is to Masaya, long a center of art and culture and well known for its market; this is the place to find handmade hammocks, intricate pottery, wood carvings, and leather goods. Not much farther is Masaya Volcano National Park, where a road and trails lead directly to the most accessible live volcano in Nicaragua and, some say, the world. This low, gaping, gas-belching volcano and its fiery eruptions inspired the Spanish to call it the Gates of Hell.
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017—so join the festivities and head to Quebec City and its charming old-world enclave Vieux-Quebec, where a year full of special events awaits. Once the capital of New France, Quebec City is one of the oldest European settlements in North America and the continent’s only walled city north of Mexico. Perched on Cap Diamant, a rocky promontory above the St. Lawrence River, it was established in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain. The walls of Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec) didn’t stop the British from taking the city in 1759, ending France’s colonial aspirations in eastern North America. Spend some time here and you’ll wonder if the French ever got the memo.
Vieux-Québec is divided into the Haute-Ville and Basse-Ville (Upper and Lower Towns), designations that are now simply geographic but were once economic and strategic. Haute-Ville is the fortified city that occupies the crest of Cap Diamant. Brimming with atmosphere, it is best explored on foot. Winding, hilly streets lined by vintage stone houses and chic boutiques lead to leafy public squares, with glimpses of the St. Lawrence in the distance. Constructed by the British to defend against U.S. invasion during the War of 1812 and occupying the highest crag of Cap Diamant, the Citadel is still a military fortification. At the center of Haute-Ville, the Auberge Place d’Armes bridges history by occupying two buildings—one from the 1640s, the other from 1853. The lovingly restored inn balances the genuinely old—antique stone walls and one-of-a-kind period details, such as furnishings from Versailles—with every modern comfort. A few steps down Rue St-Louis is Aux Anciens Canadiens, a venerable restaurant in a 1677 structure known for its home-style Quebecois fare, such as savory meat pies, maple-glazed duck, and platters of local cheese.
From the Terrasse Dufferin viewpoint, take the Escalier Casse-Cou (the aptly named Breakneck Stairs) or the funicular to Basse-Ville, the old port district at the base of Cap Diamant. The heart of Basse-Ville is Place Royale, the city’s public market area in the 17th century, now a charming cobblestone plaza flanked by stone houses, cafés, and the Église Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, dating from 1688. Amid the historic shops, galleries, and flower-bedecked squares of Basse-Ville is an updated gem, the Hôtel Le Germain-Dominion, whose vintage stone façade masks a stylish, contemporary boutique hotel. Formerly a warehouse, it has been transformed into a strikingly attractive place, the rooms all appointed with quiet good taste. An equally stylish experience awaits just around the corner at Laurie Raphaël Restaurant, where chef Daniel Vézina charts the frontiers of modern French-Canadian cooking, with bold flavors and exuberant presentations that are excitingly new yet grounded in Quebec’s hearty terroir.
Towering above all of Vieux-Québec with green-copper turrets, and in many ways the symbol of the city, is the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. Designed in the style of a Loire Valley château, it was built in 1893 on the highest point in town. Book an odd-numbered room in the main tower for a view of the St. Lawrence River, or an even-numbered room for a panorama of the city’s rooftops—probably the most European vista this side of Paris.
“Your visit to Venice becomes a perpetual love affair,” wrote Henry James, a quote that still resonates today regardless of the time of year you visit the city known as the Queen of the Adriatic.
The off-season months might not be considered an optimal time to visit, but many find its cold and grey days, when a light mist settles on the lagoon, almost mystical—and gloriously void of crowds. Unless you arrive during Venice’s Carnevale season that is, which generally takes place during the otherwise dormant month of February. Those long ago times of unbridled and hedonistic festivities expired along with the rest of the Republic with the arrival of Napoleon in 1797. But local tourism authorities resuscitated Carnevale in 1980, complete with rich damasks, cascades of lace, powdered wigs, elaborate costumes, and everywhere the characters and masks from Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte. Wintertime Carnevale and its impressive roster of concerts and special events—light years away from Rio de Janeiro and its pulsating samba bands—unfold across this “city built on water” for two weeks culminating in Shrove Tuesday (February 28, 2017) before the somber pre-Easter period of Lent.
Venice confuses and enchants year round, a unique and fragile world built on 118 small islands well over a thousand years ago in the northeast corner of the Italian peninsula. It invites you to toss the map and let yourself wander its car-free alleys and open “campi” (squares), among Byzantine domes, palazzos, and canal-front merchants’ homes in various degrees of magnificence and neglect.
Time travel like this transports you back to a time when Venice ruled much of the Mediterranean and beyond, and when native son Marco Polo set sail for the distant corners of the world and faraway Cathay. Visit one of the many centuries-old palaces that line the Grand Canal—Venice’s watery main boulevard—and imagine the sumptuous life of the courtesans and doges, and Cassanova, that famous man about town, on his way to a nocturnal assignation.
The Taj Mahal
Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India
Nothing can adequately prepare the visitor for his or her first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. It may be a visual cliché, the Niagara Falls of architecture, but it’s also the embodiment of grace and romance, of balance and symmetry, an architectural icon revered for three and a half centuries as one of the most beautiful and dazzlingly constructed buildings in the world.
The fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, built the Taj as a tomb to honor his third and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal (Chosen One of the Palace), who died giving birth to their 14th child in 19 years. It took 22 years and 20,000 laborers to build the white-marble mausoleum, completed in 1653, and costing the equivalent in today’s currency of $340 million.
It was an extravagance that moved one of Jahan’s sons to eventually depose and imprison him in the nearby Agra Fort. Long considered the “architect” of the powerful Mughal dynasty, Shah Jahan had renovated the fortified red sandstone fort/palace that now served as his jail. It had been built by his grandfather Akbar—the third and greatest of the Mughal emperors—over 8 years and completed in 1573. From his chambers, Shah Jahan would gaze at the Taj Mahal downriver, mourning the loss of his wife and his empire, until his death in 1658.
Akbar’s other landmark fort, Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory), is worth a visit to understand the legacy of the Mughal dynasty, as is the elegant Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah, a precursor to—and likely inspiration for—the Taj Mahal.
Although there are plenty of hotel options to accommodate the crowds, many visitors experience Agra as a day trip from Delhi. But thanks to the Oberoi Amarvilas (Sanskrit for “eternal haven”), there’s now an irresistible reason to linger overnight in this otherwise unlovely city. The Moorish- and Mughul-inspired palace hotel boasts terraced gardens, bubbling fountains, a marble pool, the fine Esphahan restaurant, and the Oberoi spa. It and every one of the hotel’s 100-plus rooms afford an unobstructed view of India’s most beloved national monument, a mere 650 yards away. A less extravagant interpretation of the Amarvilas is the new Orient Taj resort (no relation to the Taj hotels), where the welcome is no less grand. If you plan your visit to fall on the night of the full moon or within two nights before or after, you’ll find the Taj Mahal grounds open for viewing.
The world is calling. Time to answer.