Cruising has a lot going for it in the romance department: It involves travel, it's got that whole "romance of the sea" thing, and moonlight on a teak deck goes a long way toward turning "maybe" into "yes." If you're with the right person and in the right frame of mind, an ocean cruise can beat flowers and chocolate hands down.
But saying all cruise ships are romantic is like saying all American Idol contestants are musical geniuses, and overuse by cruise lines, travel agents, and unimaginative travel writers has sucked all life and meaning out of the phrase "romantic cruise." Google it and you get 50,500 hits -- pointing to everything from swank luxury yachts to cheesy 1980s proto-megaships to three-hour dinner cruises on the river of your choice. In truth, only a handful of these cruises is categorically, subjectively, and unquestionably romantic, and only that handful get the Frommer's Seal of Romantic Approval, or FSRA -- a coveted distinction that I only just made up, right this second. FSRA recipients have to be the best of the best, veritable floating love machines, Harlequin novels with hulls. They have to be ... these:
Sea Cloud Cruises, Sea Cloud: Really, when it comes right down to it, what setting is more movie-star romantic than a zillionaire's sailing yacht? That's what you get with Sea Cloud, a four-masted classic commissioned in 1931 by Wall Street tycoon E. F. Hutton from the Krupp family shipyard in Kiel, Germany. Outfitting of her interior was left to Hutton's wife, heiress and businesswoman Marjorie Merriweather Post, who spent two years on the task, eventually drafting a full-scale diagram showing every detail of her design, down to the placement of antiques. After the couple's divorce, Post changed the vessel's name from Hussar to Sea Cloud and sailed her to Leningrad, where second husband Joseph E. Davies was serving as U.S. ambassador. World War II saw the vessel commissioned to the U.S. Navy, which removed her masts and used her as a floating weather station. After the war, the vessel passed through numerous hands: first back to Post, then to Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Montinas, then to a number of American owners before she was finally purchased by German economist and seaman Hartmut Paschberg. A lover of great ships, Paschberg and a group of Hamburg investors put up the money for an 8-month overhaul that restored Sea Cloud's original grandeur, full of marble, gold, and mahogany detailing. Today, the ship has cabins for 64 passengers, the luckiest (and richest) of whom can stay in Post's own museum-like suite, with its Louis XIVÂ?style bed and nightstands, marble fireplace and bathroom, chandeliers, and intricate moldings -- digs that absolutely scream romance. The other original suites are similarly if less sumptuously furnished, as is also true aboard the larger, three-masted Sea Cloud II, a modern reinterpretation of the classic sailing ship, built in 2001. Top Romance Itineraries: Riviera and Italy (May), Greek Isles (June-July), Eastern Caribbean yachting ports. www.seacloud.com
Star Clippers, Royal Clipper: Another sailing ship, to which I say, "Well duh." Sailing ships are just inherently romantic. This one, a 5,000-ton, 227-passenger marvel built in 2000, is one of the largest sailing ships ever built, and beats out Star Clippers' older, smaller vessels in terms of amenities, ambiene, and just plain posh. With five masts flying 42 sails that together stretch to 56,000 square feet, Royal Clipper has both power and grace, plus some superb rooms such as the frilly multilevel dining room. Fourteen Deluxe Suites located forward on the Main Deck are exquisite, with private balconies, sitting areas, minibars, whirlpool tubs, and 24-hour butler service. Top Romance Itineraries: Caribbean Windward Islands and Grenadines itineraries (now through Mar. and Nov. 2009 to Apr. 2010), Sicily, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast (June-July). www.starclippers.com
Windstar Cruises, Wind Surf: Unlike almost any ship today, the 312-passenger Wind Surf mimics the size and flavor of some older, more intimate ocean liners, with a real seagoing feel that's rare among today's breed of cruise ships. In essence, she's in a class by herself, balancing the romance of a tall ship with the amenities of a midsize cruiser. For the former, credit the sails: more than 21,000 square feet of them, all computer-controlled so that they furl and unfurl at the touch of a button. For the latter, credit a mix of friendly lounges and bars and an even friendlier crew, many of whom have been with the ship for years. As you see a Windstar ship approaching port, with its long, graceful hull and masts the height of 20-story buildings, you'll forget all about the giant megaships moored nearby and think, "Now that's a ship." Top romantic digs are the two 500-square-foot suites on the Bridge Deck, each with a living and dining area, a separate bedroom, a walk-in closet, and a marble bathroom with a tub and separate shower. Passengers in these suites get to dine with the captain one night. Top Romance Itineraries: Caribbean Grenadines itineraries (now through Mar and Nov 2009 to Mar 2010), Riviera and Amalfi Coast (May, July, Sept.-Oct.). www.windstarcruises.com
SeaDream Yacht Club: The smallest ships in the luxury market are also the most romantic. SeaDream I and SeaDream II carry only 110 passengers apiece, and their onboard experience was created for independent-minded travelers craving high-end service and food sans formality and rigid schedules. Meticulous attention to detail and personalized service are the ships' greatest assets, along with gourmet cuisine, completely all-inclusive pricing, and itineraries that concentrate on intimate yachting ports. Queen-size sun beds line deck six, perfect for sunbathing and napping -- or even spending the night if you want: crewmembers will fit one out for you with a duvets and pillows. For a romantic dinner, you can reserve a spot in advance at one of several private alcoves on Deck 6, or even on the bridge, and a waiter will serve you course by course. Most staterooms aboard are identical, but whose wanting to go all out can book the gorgeous, 450-square-foot Owner's Suite, with its separate bedroom, living room, dining area, and oceanview shower in the bathroom. Top Romance Itineraries: Eastern Caribbean/Virgin Islands (now through April and Nov. 2009 to April 2010), Riviera and Amalfi Coast (June-July), Greek Isles (July-Sept.). www.seadreamyachtclub.com
Cunard, Queen Mary 2: Like real royalty, Queen Mary 2 was born with certain duties attendant to her station, and one of the biggest is to embody the romance of transatlantic travel and bring it into the new century. Though in many ways QM2 is reminiscent of today's megaships, she really is a different breed, built stronger, faster, and tougher to be able to provide reliable service on the North Atlantic. She also delivers on the old-time grandeur, with a real ballroom for dancing, the art-deco Chart Room for drinks before dinner, and nooks like and the forward observation deck on Deck 11, just below the bridge. You have to look for it, but it's probably the best spot aboard when sailing out of New York harbor, bound for Europe. The most over-the-top accommodations are the 1,500- to 2,200-square-foot, duplex-style Grand Suites, which let on to views of the stern through two-story walls of glass -- though you have to be a millionaire to afford one. Top Romance Itineraries: Hands down, the ship's transatlantic crossings (April-Nov.), which give you six days to get to know your valentine better. www.cunard.com