August 29, 2014

For Romantics Only

Wise people know that romantic travel is at least 98 percent fantasy—the stuff of movies and Gothic novels. For example, when you awaken in your round turret room in a cliff-top fortress with copper-clad spires, you cannot help but become the royal count and countess, with a uniformed castle staff to do your bidding. Or, as you survey the rolling lawns and azalea gardens from the wrought-iron balcony of your 20-room, 17-bath Italian palazzo by the sea, you are a Vanderbilt, an Astor or a Morgan—at least for the moment.

Imagine the two of you sipping mint juleps together on the verandah of an antebellum plantation house in the Deep South, embraced in wicker and columns with the fragrance of magnolias wafting through the sultry air. Surely you are Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. But why stop in this hemisphere? Close your eyes, then open them in a hut in Tahiti, where the soft flickering light of tiki torches transforms you and your beloved into jungle lovers marooned in Paradise.

In this month of love, we present for your consideration all of these travel fantasies. Yours for the booking are an authentic antebellum plantation house, a French castle, an Italian palazzo, and yes, even a Tahitian hut. And not one of them requires a pedigree or a transoceanic flight. Let the fantasy begin!

Gothic Romance at Le Château Frontenac
Step back into the 1600s, when Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, was a governor of New France, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Le Château Frontenac bears his coat of arms, and liveried doormen welcome you through the arches to the opulence of the most beautiful Gothic castle in North America. The imposing stone fortress presides haughtily over Old Québec, the closest you can get to a romantic, medieval French-speaking city on this continent.
Technically, Le Château Frontenac, with its regal Old World décor, is not a castle. Built for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1892, it now is a jewel in the Fairmont crown. Alfred Hitchcock filmed here. Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and William L.M. King drafted the invasion of Normandy here. Many romantic liaisons have (discreetly) occurred here.

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi
Québec is a five-star bouillabaisse of textures and tastes, flavored with a 90-proof, breathless kind of joie de vivre. Founded in 1608, it celebrates its 400th anniversary this year, with a stunning calendar of events, including historic reenactments and tableaus involving hundreds of actors. What a time to be the Count and Countess of Le Château Frontenac!

Outside Your Turret
Take an 18th century horse-drawn calèche through Vieux-Québec (the Old City), the oldest walled city in North America. Soak in the ambience of French bistros; savor the steaming fragrance from pots of mussels steeped in garlic and wine. Try some authentic early French Canadian fare, such as caribou and stag foie gras, venison, wild goose and other local game. Pick up some just-baked baguettes from the boulangerie, to savor with fromages québécois from a local epicurean shop. Be sure to try Québec’s legendary maple-flavored crême glacée at a corner cremerie.

Descend the cobblestone steps to Basse-Ville (Lower Town) into the Quartier du Petit-Champlain, a maze of narrow, pedestrian-only streets of 17th century row houses now turned into boutiques and bistros, sidewalk cafés and museums. Explore Place Royale, where many movies have been filmed. After dark, catch the jugglers, mimes and entertainers at the nightly impromptu cirque, which begins at the bronze feet of Samuel de Champlain. The statue, complete with cherubs, a queen and the Angel Gabriel himself, is just outside the walls of Le Château Frontenac.

On Saturday night, immerse in the jazz at the legendary l’Emprise café bar in the Clarendon Hotel. On Sunday, join the traditional Sunday promenade along the Terrasse Dufferin boardwalk just below your turret window, followed by a sumptuous Sunday brunch in your own castle. Wrap up your fantasy with an afternoon drive along the St. Lawrence, to gawk at the picturesque villages and farmhouses along Old Highway 138.

Reservations: (888) 499-9899; www.fairmont.com.

Tahiti in the Keys at Little Palm Island
There’s a sexy little Tahitian-style oasis down in the Keys. It bears no resemblance to the rustic fishing communities to the north or the unbridled insanity of Key West to the south on the Overseas Highway. The fantasy island, ringed with a whiter-than-white sandbar and shaded by tropical palms, is accessible only by boat, with reservations; no children or pets allowed.

The address of Little Palm Island, appropriately, is Little Torch Key. Crushed seashell paths (extra-romantic at night with tiny torchlights) meander through the lush tropical jungle that all but conceals your stilted, thatch-roofed bungalow, draped in bougainvillea and infused with the scent of white ginger. Great white herons fish in the mangroves, and tiny Key deer, no larger than Labrador retrievers, graze at daybreak and sunset.

The discreet staff far outnumbers the guests. You rarely notice them except to fulfill your desire for a platter of crab claws and ripe strawberries when you’re feeling way too romantic to leave the bungalow. Otherwise, fresh flowers and fruit seem to appear in your room by magic, as do the scented candles and soft music that await your return from a moonlight stroll.

Inside: Sultry to the Max
Yards of gauzy mosquito netting drape your grand mahogany four-poster bed. Rich Oriental rugs, plantation shutters, potted palms, paddle fans and the softest of lamplight cast a sensuous spell. One night you may sink into your marble whirlpool bath; and the next night, go native in your private, South Pacific-style outdoor shower.

Outside: Rituals and Rendezvous
Book a sensuous spa ritual for two at one of the secluded outdoor Balinese pavilions at the luxe SpaTerre. Arrange a private dive trip or backcountry fishing expedition. Sail, canoe or choose a hammock-for-two strung between the palms. Dress up to dine in candlelit romance in the Little Palm Island Dining Room, named Florida’s No. 1 hotel restaurant last year by Zagat. On beautiful nights, the walls vanish. Do indulge in the island’s signature bittersweet chocolate soufflé with dark chocolate raspberry sauce.

Five Nights of Romance
Your fantasy package includes pickup at the Key West airport and luxury motor yacht transport to the island, your bungalow suite, champagne and strawberries, turndown service with candles and a rose petal bath. The tariff of about $7,300 includes all meals, a $200 spa credit and a snorkel trip to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. For a mere $1,000 more, you can add swoon to your most special night with La Crème de la Crème, the ultimate turndown service in which the rose petals start at the foot of your stairway to heaven. Chocolate truffles, signature robes and slippers, and SpaTerre products are added to the mix. The crème de la crème part is most evident in the champagne upgrade from Taittinger to a sensuous Cristal Rose.

Reservations: (800) 3-GET-LOST; www.littlepalmisland.com.


Bath Cottage at Jekyll Island Club
The driftwood-strewn beaches, golden salt marshes and abundant hunting and fishing around Georgia’s Jekyll Island first lured the aristocratic French DuBignon family in the 1700s. A century later, it was discovered by America’s royalty—the Rockefellers, Astors, Pulitzers, Goodyears, Macys, Fields, Vanderbilts and the rest, who built their summer "cottages" and formed the most exclusive social club in the United States. Plumbing magnate Richard Teller Crane and his wife admired a little palazzo during their travels in Italy, so they built their cottage in its image. At 20 rooms (not counting the 17 baths), the Italian Renaissance mansion was the most extravagant on the oak-lined avenue called Millionaire’s Row. Now, as part of the Jekyll Island Club, it can be your little love nest for a romantic getaway. During the winter seasons of the Gilded Age, high society members indulged in teas and dances, yacht trips and fishing, croquet and golf, and carriage rides beneath the ancient moss-draped oaks. The Jekyll Island Club has done an exquisite job in re-creating the ambience of the era with turn-of-the-century décor and events.

Jekyll Island: The Millionaire’s Island
The 5,700-acre island—the smallest of Georgia’s Golden Isles—lies between St. Simons and Cumberland Islands, which also have long histories as refuges of the rich and famous. The island is managed by the Jekyll Island Authority, appointed by the governor of Georgia. Bring your clubs if you must—the island boasts four top-rated golf courses. Brand new this year is the $3 million Georgia Sea Turtle Center. The nearest airports are in Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga.

Aristocratic Romance
The club’s Romantic Fantasy Package includes two nights’ sumptuous accommodations, gourmet chocolates, bicycle rentals for two and a picnic lunch, a long-stemmed rose at turndown, full breakfasts in the Grand Dining Room and a keepsake photograph, ranging from $699-$799. An upgrade to a suite in the Crane Cottage, subject to availability, costs about $25 more.

Reservations: (800) 535-9547; www.jekyllclub.com.

Amorous Antebellum Accommodations at Rhett House Inn
Beaufort, "Queen of the South Carolina Sea Islands," is drenched in Deep South ambience and history. The first secession meeting of the Confederacy was held in one of its mansions, and dozens of its grand antebellum homes escaped destruction during the "War of Northern Aggression." Beaufort’s walled gardens, centuries-old magnolia trees and cobblestone streets have been featured in several blockbuster movies, including Forrest Gump, The Prince of Tides, The Big Chill and The Great Santini. Early spring is an especially romantic time to visit Beaufort, just as the jasmine vines snake around trellises, the camellias are still in flower and the spectacular Formosa azaleas begin to open their showy blooms. Nearby are the Gullah community and shrimping industry of St. Helena Island, the lighthouse and endless beaches of Hunting Island State Park, old tabby ruins, centuries-old churches and cemeteries, and the 134,000-acre Ace Basin, one of the largest and most beautiful preserved ecosystems in the Lowcountry.

600 Thread-Count Luxury
The Rhett House Inn was not named for Mr. Butler, but for Thomas Rhett and his wife, Caroline Barnwell, the Charleston plantation owners who built it as their summer house in 1820. The verandahs catch the breezes from the nearby Beaufort Marina, and the entire historic district of Beaufort is within strolling distance. Appointments include period furnishings and art and profusions of potted orchids. Cotton no longer grows on the island, but its presence is honored in the inn’s 600 thread-count linens. Should you and your sweetheart yearn for a Rhett-and-Scarlett romantic getaway, you would be in good company. Prior guests have included Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid, Gwyneth Paltrow and Nick Nolte, Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, Barbra Streisand and Ben Affleck—not, alas, in any of the combinations mentioned here.

Romance in the Lowcountry
Be sure to ask for a room with a whirlpool tub. For extra privacy, there’s the two-story cottage behind the Great House. The Rhett House Inn offers lovers two nights in a Superior room, chocolate and champagne upon arrival, a horse-and-buggy tour, rose-petal turndown service, a fine, full Southern breakfast including the inn’s own recipe for true Southern grits; afternoon wine and cheeses, late-night home-baked indulgences, and the real deal in gracious Southern hospitality. Including taxes and service charges, it’s around $750.

Reservations: (888) 480-9530; www.rhetthouseinn.com.

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