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 it's the tangibles — onboard ambiance and lifestyle — that are more likely to contribute 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.
In researching our top picks, we primarily called on our own experiences of romantic voyages. Whether your definition of romantic is a party-all-night ship or ultimate pampering and luxury, you'll identify with the criteria we have used in evaluating the best choices. For instance? A cozy cabin with a great bathroom — and a private verandah — is an absolute necessity. We prefer dining a deux (or at least the option to eat when and with whom we choose). Lounges with soft lighting are nice. And one more? Almost-private open-deck spaces for star gazing.
Why: While we like any of Princess' Grand Class vessels for their blend of big ship options and small ship cozy, Crown Princess and Emerald Princess, the fleet's newest, offer some first-time-ever features.
Stay here: Both boast the line's traditionally high percentage of suites and mini-suites (which means booking a bigger cabin may not be too much of a splurge). The "piece de resistance" is the Grand Suite, which features separate sitting area, balcony that stretches between living room and bedroom, and a fabulous whirlpool tub. But even the standard mini-suite is charming and comfortable.
Out on deck: What could be more romantic than a night at "Movies Under the Stars," a retro drive-in where you recline on padded loungers (you can snuggle under the wool tartan blankets)? During the day we love The Sanctuary. A completely new invention, The Sanctuary is a (mostly) shaded Zen-like retreat, complete with waiter service, spa menu and massage services (a couples' massage is available).
Indoor romance: Check out the spa's couple's Rasul room (it's a mud room with steam — and it's more fun than it sounds!). Adagio, a new concept lounge featuring a cabaret singer, is lovely and private — way up on one of the top decks.
Dining: 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 $100 per couple, cruisers are treated to a lobster dinner with champagne and course-by-course service. Only caveat: Your cabin must have a balcony. We also love the ship's two specialty restaurants. Request a banquette at Crown Grill, a steak and seafood restaurant with an open grill; Sabatini's, the line's Italian eatery, should not be missed. Another favorite is Vines, the ship's wine and sushi bar.
Downside? While the ship's deluxe mini-suites are lovely and comfortable, the all-open-air balconies (applies to any cabin on Dolphin deck) are anything but private.
Special events: All of the Grand class ships are premier options for onboard weddings. Both have dedicated wedding chapels and captains empowered to perform ceremonies — and friends at home can watch live via Web cams!
Best ship: Arcadia
Why: P&O Cruises appears to be really targeting the family market with its latest ship, Ventura, but it hasn't forgotten the all-important couples market with its two adults-only ships — older-style Artemis and the newer, stylish Arcadia. With its upscale dining restaurant and wedding packages, Arcadia is a great pick, particularly for British couples.
Stay here: Arcadia has suites, mini-suites, and outside and inside staterooms. A nice plus: 685 of 984 have a balcony. Added touches in mini-suites (and up) include his-and-hers Molton Brown toiletry sets.
Out on deck: Head to the Aquarius pool on the Lido Deck for relaxation and sunning!
Indoor romance: The Orchid Bar, adjacent to the Orchid restaurant on Deck 11 is a great place to enjoy a sundowner (that's British for an evening cocktail!). With its warm terracotta, rust, chocolate and cream decor, it would also make a lovely venue for a reception following a wedding in the Viceroy Room.
Dining: Try celebrity chef Gary Rhodes' restaurant, Arcadian Rhodes, for top-notch British cuisine. At £15 per person, it is worth a treat, particularly if it is a special occasion.
Downside: Getting a two-top could be a problem in the main dining area due to the lack of smaller tables.
Special events: Thanks to its Bermuda registry, the captain can marry people at sea. Wedding packages range from the low key affair to the full works. You can also have anything from a champagne reception through to a group dinner in Arcadian Rhodes.
Best ship: Crystal Serenity
Why: In general, Crystal is the best choice for folks who want big-ship features and small-ship luxury. In particular, while this newer ship offers many of the same features as Crystal Symphony does, the penthouse suites, the most romantic accommodations, are more plentiful.
Stay here: The aforementioned penthouse suites, which come in three categories. All have verandahs, butler service and marble baths with Jacuzzi tubs (not to mention state-of-the-art tech toys), and are roomy enough for in-room massages. Another plus? Passengers in these staterooms can order off the menu from Crystal Serenity's fabulous specialty restaurants.
Out on deck: Head for any of the terraced decks on the back of the ship.
Indoor romance: Head for a private corner of the Sunset Bar (at the forward end of the Palm Court) — it's a great spot for sunset-watching. We also love the clubby-pubby Avenue Saloon.
Dining: Try any (or all) of Crystal Serenity's specialty restaurants, such as the Northern Italian Prego and the Asian Silk Road. Or indulge in course-by-course room service on your verandah.
Downside: Crystal still maintains a set-time, assigned-tablemates scheme in its main dining rooms.
Special events: No weddings but the ship does offer vow renewals.
Best ship: The Calypso
Why: British Tour operator Thomson is geared toward Brits looking for a relatively low-priced traditional cruise experience. The line's smallest ship, at 11,162 tons, the Calypso offers small-ship feel and is Thomson's one adults-only ship. It's a good choice if you are looking at the lower-end of the price scale for a cozy, unpretentious ambience.
Stay here: Although this ship caters to fewer than 500 passengers, it still has a variety of cabins — 4 suites, 7 semi-deluxe staterooms, 147 outside view cabins and 85 interiors.
Out on deck: The wooden promenade deck is great for walking or watching the world go by.
Indoor romance: For meeting like-minded couples and enjoying your time on the ship, check out the show lounge — which features cabaret, comedians and magic acts.
Dining: L'Orhcidee, the main dining room, is located at the aft of the ship, and although tables are mostly on a bigger scale, it is again a great place to meet other couples. Wine prices are reasonable here, too.
Downside: If you are looking for a more formal experience, Thomson may not be for you — the Calypso's dress code is relaxed, as is the atmosphere.
Special events: We are not aware of any wedding programs.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Best ships: Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl
Why: First and foremost, NCL'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. A close second are the ships' Courtyard Villas. The relatively new concept (and, as such, only found on NCL's newest ships) is aimed at creating a small, boutique-style hotel within the framework of a larger resort. The villas are located away from the so-called fray — 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 at Cagney's.
Stay here: The aforementioned Courtyard Villas feature separate living and sleeping rooms (there's the master bedroom and also a smaller, window-less room with bunks), flat-screen television, butler service and, the best part: a swishy bathroom whose whirlpool tub is set into a picture window alcove.
Indoor romance: Try dinner at Cagney's, the ship's steakhouse and Le Bistro, a French eatery; for drinks, the Star Bar (Norwegian Jade) and the Plantation Club (Norwegian Jewel) are tops.
Onshore: Itinerary-wise, Norwegian Pearl, with its romantic spring and summer Alaska sailings, wins by a nose over its fleetmates' Europe and Caribbean routes.
SeaDream Yacht Club
Best ship: Either of its two nearly identical 4,260-ton, 110-passenger yachts (SeaDream I and SeaDream II)
Why: These ships 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 accouterments; and last but by no means least, service is outstanding, personable, attentive ... and subtle. They're all-inclusive, too, which means tips and all drinks (not to mention unlimited caviar) are included in your fare.
Stay here: There are only three types of stateroom. The most romantic is, of course, the owner's suite (with a fabulous windowed bathroom). The Commodore Club suite is basically two standard cabins put together — we actually preferred our standard accommodations. These 195-square-ft. staterooms 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 MP3 players, and plenty of storage space.
Out on deck: 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. We also loved the Top of the Yacht bar.
Dining: 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, and most meals, from breakfast to dinner, were offered here; 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 it).
Carnival Cruise Line
Best ships: Spirit-class vessels, including Carnival Pride, Carnival Legend and Carnival Miracle
Why: At 88,500 tons and with 2,124 passenger capacities, these ships are big enough to offer plenty of onboard variety — but not so huge that they feel impersonal. Plus, because these ships have a high balcony ratio, it's easy — and not at all expensive — to nab a cabin with your own verandah. The ships are, for the exuberantly-designed Carnival, the fleet's most elegant, featuring an Art Deco scheme.
Stay here: If you're splurging, the "penthouse suite" comes with a huge balcony and elaborate bathroom. The more affordable standard verandah cabins are pleasant, though.
Out on deck: Go forward on Atlantic deck to the enclosed portion of the ship's exterior promenade.
Indoor romance: Try a couples' massage at Spa Carnival. The foyer lounge and the cigar bar are the most intimate drink spots.
Dining: Bypass Carnival's assigned dining scheme at its main restaurants and head to the Spirit-class ships' reservations-only supper clubs.
Special events: Spirit-class ships have wedding chapels (though captains are not allowed to perform ceremonies), and staffers will help arrange weddings and vow renewals.