Romance and cruising would seem to go hand in hand, particularly if you’ve spotted any of the cruise lines’ advertisements showing photos of couples snuggling at the bow at sunset, or sipping orange juice on their private veranda in bathrobes, 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, cruising can be one of the most romantic vacation options, but choosing the right cruise line and, even more specifically, the right ship within the fleet, can be a challenge. You don’t want that sunset marred by crowds on deck, the romance of a dinner for two killed by the whiny kids at the next table or a cozy evening ruined by cramped cabins with minimal amenities.
For our top picks, we looked at criteria that we would deem universally romantic: ships that offer cabins with private balconies, great bathrooms and extra-special amenities; options for dining a deux; cozy nooks and date-night venues; and almost-private open-deck spaces for relaxing by day and stargazing by night.
Here are our favorite ships for celebrating or rekindling romance with your sweetheart.
1. Princess Cruises
Why: The youngest of Princess’ Grand-class ships — Crown Princess, Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess — blend big-ship options and small-ship cozy. Romance has always been the Love Boat line’s focus, but the tiny, charmless balconies and bigger size of its newer Royal-class ships mean that the elder sisters still win in this category.
Sweet Digs: Each boasts the line’s traditionally high percentage of suites and mini-suites. Suites feature separate sitting areas, large balconies and walk-in closets, and come with perks like evening canapes, a complimentary mini-bar setup, laundry services, use of the ship’s thermal suite and complimentary dinner in a specialty restaurant on embarkation night. But even the standard mini-suite is charming and comfortable — thanks to a fleetwide rollout of its new Princess Luxury Bed in all cabins. With pillow-top mattresses, Jacquard-woven cotton bed linens and fluffy duvets, you might be inspired to snuggle in bed a bit longer.
Onboard Romance: What could be more romantic than a night at “Movies Under the Stars,” reclining on padded loungers while snuggled under wool tartan blankets on the pool deck? Or for quiet tete-a-tetes with your sweetie, try Adagio, a lovely and private top-deck lounge. During the day, we love The Sanctuary, a (mostly) shaded retreat, complete with waiter service, spa menu and massage services (a couples’ massage is available).
Dinner for Two: Open-seating (as well as traditional) dining is available. But the most romantic option is the Ultimate Balcony Dining dinner experience. For an extra fee, cruisers are treated to a lobster dinner with Champagne and course-by-course service. (Or have a romantic breakfast in your cabin with the line’s Balcony Breakfast option.) Only caveat: Your cabin must have a balcony. We also love the ships’ specialty restaurants. Request a banquette at Crown Grill, a steak and seafood restaurant with an open grill; indulge in a multicourse meal at the Italian Sabatini’s; or share dishes with your sweetie at Share by Curtis Stone or The Salty Dog Gastropub. For a more casual option, try Vines, a wine and tapas bar. If chocolate is your aphrodisiac of choice, be sure to try the onboard cocktails and desserts created by master chocolatier Norman Love.
Downside: While the deluxe mini-suites are lovely and comfortable, the all-open-air balconies are anything but private.
2. Paul Gauguin Cruises
Why: Designed, built and decorated to sail year-round in the romantic South Pacific, the cozy, 332-passenger Paul Gauguin offers an air of tropical festivity. Dining is restaurant-style, the staff is superb and the ship is highly inclusive (cocktails and other beverages are included in cruise fares). But it’s the ship’s remote and lush island destinations that really turn up the notch on the romantic nature of the trip.
Sweet Digs: You know this is a ship intended for couples when most cabins come with a queen-sized bed and only a limited number can be split apart into twins. Consistent with the decor around the ship, cabins are tropically inspired. When you embark, you might find that your cabin attendant has showered the bathroom sink with red rose petals. Definitely book ahead so you can nab a balcony cabin. It’s not a trip to the South Pacific if you’re not out on your balcony, savoring coffee, as Bora Bora pulls into view. And just when life onboard couldn’t be any better, suites and category A and B veranda staterooms feature butler service.
Onboard Romance: Dance cheek to cheek with your honey to the tunes of a chanteuse in La Palette Lounge, or gaze at the sea or stars from the lounge’s top-of-ship vantage point.
Dinner for Two: For such a small ship, the choice of restaurants is superb. L’Etoile, which offers French cuisine accented with Polynesian touches, serves as the main venue. Couples will appreciate plentiful tables for two and an attentive wait staff that will keep your glasses filled with house wines and nonalcoholic beverages. Two casual venues offer indoor and alfresco dining, with reservations-only dinners. And there’s always room service for meals in bed or on your balcony.
Downside: French Polynesia is a long trip from just about anywhere, so be prepared to endure hours on a plane before you get to your luxurious destination.
3. Windstar Cruises
Why: Wind Surf’s both a sailboat and cruise ship, and it features a hybrid blend of cruise traditions (such as the crew show, organized shore excursions and multiple eateries) and utterly romantic vistas. Carrying just 310 passengers, the ship’s onboard ambience is relaxed (no set seatings at dinner) and its itineraries focus on ports in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Baltic that are often too small to appeal to massive ships.
Sweet Digs: What Windstar’s cabins lack in size and variety, they make up in style. The staterooms offer decadently soft bedding, L’Occitane bath products and flat-screen TVs with DVD players. Most suites are simply two standard cabins opened up and joined together, but having two bathrooms is generally a boon for marital bliss. For a special occasion splurge, book one of two Bridge Suites, which feature separate living rooms and bedrooms, a whirlpool tub and a massaging shower.
Onboard Romance: A favorite spot — and it’s remarkably quiet — is at the outside tables at Wind Surf’s cigar bar; it’s a great place to sit under the stars (or enjoy a quiet cocktail). If it’s too chilly for sitting outdoors, head to the indoor section of the Compass Rose lounge to listen to some pre-dinner music over drinks with your sweetheart.
Dinner for Two: For casual daytime dining, the glass-walled Veranda offers seating outdoors as well as indoors. It’s adjacent to the grill and features both buffet fare and choices from a menu. At night, enjoy a romantic candlelit dinner by the pool at Candles, sample French-influenced contemporary dishes at Stella Bistro or dine in the main restaurant, AmphorA, which features local and creative cuisine.
Downside: This ship is small and cabins are close to the water, so in rough seas, you’ll definitely feel the motion of the ocean and perhaps watch the waves close in over your porthole. If you’re prone to seasickness, bad weather might kill the romance of a Windstar cruise.