When I was young there was a movie in which the principals, a boy and a girl, ran off together to an incredibly romantic village that became the scene of a steamy yet poignant romance. It was one of those whipped-cream episodes that tug at the heart and make for misty-eyed audiences. It slips my mind whether the story took place in Italy or France or some other dreamy destination, but I do recall that in the end, alas, the couple went their separate ways. This was the way films were made when I was young: Love stories had bittersweet endings.
Since I'm a sentimentalist, the intensity of this particular affair stuck in my mind, so that when I set out to discover the rest of the world, I began compiling a list of my favorite romantic destinations. Because the list is long, I have narrowed it to an even dozen choices, and surely St. Jean-Cap Ferrat belongs on the list. A small gem on the French Riviera, it was a favorite of David Niven, the late actor. Cap Ferrat is a village that rises at water's edge, and I recall how my window in the Hotel de la Voile de'Or framed the entire scene: the harbor, the buildings with their red tile roofs and yellow shutters, and geraniums flowing from window boxes. Set serenely in the corner of Cap Ferrat is a square with half a dozen oleander trees and benches where romantics gather while shadows fall. It is a scene that stirs the heart, particularly at sunset, a time of twilight contentment.
Mornings are another matter in Cap Ferrat. In the early hours, residents of this village near Nice are awakened by church bells (the clock tower on the church tells the time and the bells ring as a reminder, on the hour and the half hour). Couples stroll beside the water while others take their places at sidewalk cafes to study the small fishing boats and handsome yachts that crowd the harbor. An old flower peddler tends her stall, and the salt air is redolent with heavenly aromas drifting from a bakery along the quay. Certain places should never be visited alone, and surely Cap Ferrat is a destination to be shared.
Then there comes to mind the village of Barbizon, which is set in a corner of the forest of Fontainebleau, 35 miles southwest of Paris. It is a gentle place where visitors take up residence in cheery inns and walk in the footsteps of such masters as Millet, Corot and Henri and Theodore Rousseau. With a population of barely 1,000, Barbizon is a favorite haunt of visitors, who drive down from Paris to dine in its inns and to picnic in the forest of Fontainebleau.
The village is particularly crowded on Sundays and especially so in summertime when the air is fragrant with flowers. Of the inns in Barbizon, the most celebrated is the Bas Breau, where Robert Louis Stevenson took up residence briefly. Even for France, the Bas Breau is something special. Rooms once occupied by artists provide shelter for the weary in a garden setting that would inspire Millet to seek out his easel and capture the scene on canvas.
Surrounded by trees and flowers, the Bas Breau is a poem, a joyous place with a garden that provides fresh vegetables for the table and flowers for the lounge. Guests dine on quail eggs, veal, lamb and Charolais beef that's served in a truffle sauce. In autumn, the menu lists venison, wild boar, woodcock, pheasant, partridge and snipe. So popular is the Bas Breau that the proprietor frequently turns away guests. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a regular during his reign as Supreme Commander at SHAEF Headquarters in Fontainebleau; Princess Grace was another.
Across the road is another inn of great warmth, Les Pleiades, which film maker Stanley Kramer described once as "one of the most beautiful restaurants in France." Its small bar is the perfect choice for a rainy evening. When a chill settles over Barbizon, a wood fire crackles pleasantly in one corner of the room; there is the scent of flowers and the luxury of deep sofas and the relaxing notes of classical melodies that entertain guests in a dining room with walls that are hung with the paintings of Barbizon's artists. In summer, weather permitting, luncheon is served outdoors beneath a huge chestnut tree. Les Pleiades is a place to choose, cherie , only when accompanied by someone special.
Before taking leave of France, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a magnificent castle that welcomes romantics in the little village of St. Symphorien, which is only a short journey from Paris. It is there that entrepreneur Rene Traversac turned an ancient castle into a plush residence for discerning guests. Chateau d'Esclimont (circa 1543) takes in a dungeon, which has been converted into guest rooms. In a single year, Traversac spent 20 million francs repairing and remodeling Chateau d'Esclimont until now, once again, it is regarded as a showplace on the road between Rambouillet and Chartres, with a feudal presence that draws guests from every corner of the world.
Surrounding the castle is a moat, and beyond the moat is a lake with swans. Beyond the lake a river pours forth, complete with fish for the angler. This miniature Versailles plays host to French ministers, foreign ambassadors, international travelers--yes, and lovers seeking a temporary return to a period of gracious French living.
A couple of years ago, a guest booked a room for a night, succumbed to the castle's charms and remained for five weeks. Such is the lure of Chateau d'Esclimont. With more than 60 rooms and apartments, Traversac's castle-hotel features hand-hewn beams and handcrafted chandeliers, Persian rugs and priceless antiques. And while the proprietor believed that Chateau d'Esclimont could do without stables, Beethoven and Brahms were something else. As a result, the stables were converted to a music room.
An earlier occupant of Chateau d'Esclimont left his motto engraved on ceilings throughout the 400-year-old estate. It reads, " C'est mon Plaisir" (it is my pleasure). And indeed it is. What pair of lovers could be anything but content in a castle that features elegant apartments along with park-like grounds that unfold to infinity? And what of the harpist who plucks away for guests during candlelight dinners? C'est mon plaisir? Mais oui.
I have also fond memories of days spent in the Italian village of Cortina d'Ampezzeo, and particularly the inn of Antonio Piovesan. Las Capannina is a gem of this Alpine region, with a ceiling from a 15th-Century estate in Padua, gilt-edged Venetian mirrors, a 17th-Century Moorish door, wrought-iron grillwork and antiques from a dozen palaces throughout Europe. Tucked into a corner is a tiny lounge with a tiny bar and only two stools, the perfect spot for a couple of lovers.
Cortina d'Ampezzeo is surrounded by the Dolomites, those rocky Alpine peaks that remain hidden in the folds of billowing clouds. Wildflowers carpet meadows in springtime, and in autumn the valley turns scarlet and gold. Waterfalls spill furiously, swelling rivers and lakes, and in the golden season of summer the high meadows are yellow with buttercups and blue with forget-me-nots and columbine. For nearly 1,000 years, residents of Cortina have worshiped the soil and flowers of springtime and the woods that surround their village. Even to this day, it is not possible to build a house in a meadow. During the Winter Olympics of 1956, cars were stopped outside town, and, because the residents refused to build more hotels, visitors found it necessary to commute to neighboring villages. A few lucky souls found shelter in the cheery Hotel de la Poste (circa 1802) with its grandfather clock, window boxes ablaze with geraniums and a cozy lounge that once served as the village post office.
Winging off to the Caribbean, other romantics settle in at Port Antonio in Jamaica, which poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox had described as "the most exquisite spot on earth." Its Blue Lagoon is fed by underwater streams; coconut palms and breadfruit trees line the narrow road that skirts the sea, and waterfalls cascade from its mountains. Romantics with a desire for elegance check in at the Trident, a resort that rises beside the sea, a sybarite's retreat with suites and villas, and candlelight dinners served by white-gloved waiters. Few resorts in the entire Caribbean offer a more dramatic setting. Sea water rushes through grottoes just outside one's door, providing a steady musical note that lulls guests to sleep.
Jamaican Glaister Scott recalls how Port Antonio was a favorite destination of actor Errol Flynn. Legions of others have left their hearts in Port Antonio.
Just as they have in Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. In Acapulco, romantics check in at Las Brisas. Lynda Bird Johnson chose the resort for her honeymoon. Thousands of other newlyweds have tuned into romance at Las Brisas where hibiscus petals are sprinkled fresh daily on the individual swimming pools. Altogether, 300 casitas and 250 pools are strung across the hillside overlooking the bay, and each morning before dawn, room-service waiters in pink-striped jeeps slip by with hot rolls and thermoses of coffee so that breakfast is waiting when one awakens.
Other lovers settle for villas scattered across a hillside at Garza Blanca in Puerto Vallarta. Reached by twisting cobblestone streets, the whitewashed casitas appear like pearls in an Andalusian village along the Costa del Sol--villas graced with stained-glass windows, wrought-iron chandeliers, native furnishings and private swimming pools. Of an evening, couples dine at El Set, the renowned seaside restaurant with a logo that announces: "Another lousy sunset in paradise." Contrarily, sunsets seen from tables terraced above the sea at El Set tend to haunt the soul.
Countless other honeymooners choose the Hotel Bora Bora, with its over-water bungalows in French Polynesia. At Hotel Bora Bora, visitors can pore over a menu listing curried island crab, grilled mahi-mahi , oysters on the half shell, Camembert and escargots delivered from France, lamb flown in from New Zealand and papaya that hangs in fat clumps outside one's door. Guests are provided with face masks, fins and snorkel gear for exploring the lagoon, as well as with bicycles for circling the island. Immense breakers pound the reef, as they have for an eternity. Without question, the lagoon at Bora Bora is the most beautiful on earth.
One could do worse than choose Beachcomber Island in Fiji for a honeymoon--or for a place to fall in love. On Beachcomber Island no one hurries. On the entire island there is not a single car. Instead, outriggers are used to get around this speck of sand with its umbrella of palms and endless summer days. When I visited Beachcomber several years ago, the high priest was Dan Costello, an Irishman and former cattle rancher who chose the island as a place to escape with his family. Only he had too many friends, so he kept building thatched cottages until one day he found himself in the resort business. On Beachcomber, days become lost to time. Lovers of all ages and persuasions flock there: Australians, Americans, Britons, New Zealanders.
Others with a penchant for a similar low-key vacation / honeymoon need look no farther than to a few peaceful days on the Big Island of Hawaii or heavenly Hana on Maui. Few destinations provide a lovelier setting. I recall driving to Hana once in a pink-striped jeep over a path that made the Burma Road seem like Wilshire Boulevard by comparison. The road has been improved, and now Hotel Hana-Maui is undergoing a multimillion-dollar face lift. The setting, though, is Hana's attraction. It is here that romantics escape from crowds and high-rises, and where the air is rich with plumeria and ginger. Just down the road, couples sunbathe on one of the Pacific's storied black sand beaches while others run off to explore Hana's Seven Sacred Pools and visit the peaceful spot where Charles Lindbergh spent his final days.
The pages of our Lover's Guide grow thinner. Of a dozen destinations, there remain only Soniat House in New Orleans, Petite Auberge in San Francisco and La Mancha in Palm Springs. The latter, with its push-button fireplaces and private swimming pools, was designed for lovers of all ages. Indeed, it is the choice of countless honeymooners--a popular retreat for discerning travelers and Hollywood film stars.
Soniat House, hidden away in a quiet corner of New Orleans' French Quarter, is old with the comforting charm of an earlier century. Guest rooms are filled with French and English antiques, including wonderful old four-posters and elaborate tables. No two of the rooms are alike. A spiral staircase curls upstairs to a porch where guests peer at gas lamps that flicker on at dusk. At the same time, the houseman places candles along the bricked courtyard with its fountain, water lilies, potted plants and carriage lamps.
Other French-style warmth pours forth from the fairest of San Francisco inns, Petite Auberge. Barely 2 1/2 blocks off Union Square, Petite Auberge simply glows. No one I have recommended it to has registered a single complaint--not a single squawk, which should tell you something about this marvelous inn with its individual fireplaces and beds that are graced with lace pillows and satin bows. Brass fixtures sparkle at the doors, and there are the rich tones of burnished wood. At this inn on Bush Street, flowers, rather than mints, are placed on the pillows at night. Shoes are shined, books are free and TVs are hidden discreetly in handsome armoires. After all, if one is in congenial company, is there a need for Dan Rather or Barbara Walters?