With Valentine’s Day just a few weeks away, our luxury travel writer Jill Starley-Grainger is wondering what really makes for a romantic travel experience? You could try a bath butler, a trip to a cat café or even a Hitchcock-themed tour of San Francisco.
As commissioning editor for The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Jill Starley-Grainger spends much of her time travelling the globe sampling the finer things in life. This month, she's feeling a little romantic.
“Let there be wind, occasional rain, chilli con carne, sparkling champagne...’ As Nat King Cole clearly demonstrates in ‘Let There Be Love’, everybody’s idea of romance is different. Mine certainly doesn’t involve wind, rain – or chilli con carne.
But if you ask the travel industry, romance can be carefully manufactured with paid-for ready-made experiences – and in my last-minute panic for an anniversary / birthday / Valentine’s present, I’ve tried quite a few.
There was the time I arranged a surprise tandem bungee jump in New Zealand – for the boyfriend I didn’t know was petrified of heights. Once I reserved a private dinner on the beach in the Caribbean. We were whipped into a frenzy, sure enough – by an incoming tropical storm that tossed our bread rolls around like a footballer playing keepy-uppy.
On a recent trip to Italy, I booked a hotel’s 'romance package' for its inclusive meals and spa treatments. It also included the services of a 'bath butler'. Nope, I had no idea what that would entail either.
After a lengthy dinner in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, we returned to our room to find we’d been unexpectedly buttled. The bed was strewn with rose petals and topped with a pair of swans made from towels. Dozens of scented candles surrounded the bathtub, which was frothy with bubbles – topped with yet more rose petals.
The perfect stage for romance?
Neither of us had any desire for a bath – we’d showered just before dinner – and the scented candles were making me sneeze. I flung myself onto the bed and struck a come-hither pose – only to notice the petals staining the white duvet. So instead of stumbling straight from our hotel room door onto the bed, as we’d intended, we spent 15 minutes tidying up.
It turns out I’m not the only one who’s experienced #RomanceFails on the road either. In a straw poll of fellow travel journalists, they reported finding these travel-industry clichés the seductive equivalent of having your gran sleeping in the adjacent room:
- Couples massage: why is it sexy to get rubbed by a stranger while lying two metres away from your partner?
- Heart-shaped hot tubs – nasty.
- Violinist playing at our table ‘just for us’ (and everyone in the restaurant staring at us), then presenting me with a red rose – vom.
- We booked a 'romantic' hot-air balloon flight – only to discover the balloons take off at sunrise, so we were both grumpy from lack of sleep and food.
Despite all these experiences, travel can be undeniably romantic. For some couples, it’s simply the chance to relax together, away from the usual responsibilities. For others, it’s the opportunity to get the blood pumping and brain cells working with shared heart-stopping activities or mind-expanding experiences.
Luxury travel agent Kuoni surveyed 2,000 Brits last year and found that it’s often all three: 'The dream honeymoon involves four days lying in the sun, two books and three adrenaline-fuelled activities.'
Sometimes the most romantic moments are the ones travel enables, rather than manufactures: a sunset stroll along the balmy Indian Ocean shores in South Africa; the shared discovery of a favourite new cocktail at a backstreet bar in Bangkok; a simple backpack picnic by a waterfall crashing into a Norwegian fjord.
But what I find even more heart-warming than those spontaneous, money-can’t-buy moments are tailormade-for-me treats. On a recent trip to Tokyo, my husband surprised me with a visit to a cat café. A café full of cats might not sound the most amorous of locations, but we aren’t allowed pets in our flat and I adore animals; so it was a subtle seduction tactic worthy of Casanova.
In an effort to match his thoughtfulness, I called upon the services of private concierge service Quintessentially (other good ones are Bon Vivant and Ten Group, and the new ‘social concierge’ app Lime & Tonic). I told them my husband loves Hitchcock films, so on our trip to San Francisco, they found a local company to create a bespoke experience.
As we breakfasted at the Fairmont, whose exterior was used in scenes from Vertigo, I presented him with a scavenger hunt. We spent the day exploring Hitchcock’s San Francisco, which ended with a drive over Golden Gate Bridge to the town where The Birds was filmed.
Golden Gate Bridge © Visit California
Taking a look back at my many #RomanceFails on holiday, I realise the rare #RomanceWin, like San Francisco, is when I’ve remembered that the person whose interest I want to pique isn’t my own, but my partner’s. Then again, perhaps I should listen to the experts. Next time, maybe I’ll try following Nat’s advice and ask the bath butler to fill our tub with chilli con carne. If that doesn’t get my husband hot and bothered, at least we’ll have dinner sorted.