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 holiday 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 an intimate 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; cosy nooks and date-night venues; and almost-private open-deck spaces for relaxing by day and stargazing by night.
Here are our favourite cruise lines 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 cosy. 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.
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' alternative 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 sushi bar. If chocolate is your aphrodisiac of choice, be sure to try the onboard cocktails and desserts created by master chocolatier Norman Love.
2. Paul Gauguin Cruises
Why: Designed, built and decorated to sail year-round in the romantic South Pacific, the intimate, 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.
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.
3. P&O Cruises
Why: P&O keeps its Arcadia and Oriana ships adults-only, meaning you can have a romantic time with your partner, sans children -- and not just your own. These vessels, carrying about 2,000 passenger each, aren't exactly small, but they do lack the gimmicky glitz of many larger ships, offering the atmosphere of a comfortable and refined country house hotel.
Onboard Romance: After a leisurely morning lie-in and room service breakfast, head to the spa to pamper yourselves with a couple's massage or a relaxing afternoon in the thermal area, which features hot tubs and heated tile loungers.
Dinner for Two: Tables for two are available, but be sure to get to the dining room early enough to snag one. Otherwise, you could be stuck chowing down with six new friends. For a more lavish option, try Marco Pierre White's extra-fee Ocean Grill, featuring modern cuisine, as well as retro English dishes with a contemporary twist. No matter where you dine, several affordably priced wine options are available, so split a bottle as you gaze into each other's eyes.
4. Fred. Olsen Cruises
Why: Fred. Olsen's ships feature a traditional British cruise atmosphere, where relaxation and the art of conversation allow couples to reconnect. Additionally, three of the lines' four ships carry fewer than 1,000 passengers, making for a more intimate experience.
Onboard Romance: Rekindle the romance by taking your significant other on a date for afternoon tea with white-glove service, or visit the onboard cafe, where coffees and snacks are available for you to enjoy as you revel in each other's company. If competitive romance is more your thing, challenge your companion to a game of deck quoits or shuffleboard.
Dinner for Two: Travelers who sail with Fred. Olsen tend to dress up for dinner, which makes dining extra-special. Book a hair and/or nail appointment, dress to the nines, and your partner won't be able to look away. Snag a table for two in the main dining room, or opt for an extra-fee restaurant experience.
5. Windstar Cruises
Why: Wind Surf is both a sailboat and cruise ship, and it features a hybrid blend of cruise traditions (such as the crew show, organised 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.
Onboard Romance: A favourite 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.
6. Norwegian Cruise Line
Why: Norwegian's "Freestyle Dining" philosophy (passengers can dine without the hassle of assigned times and tablemates at a variety of restaurants) is perfectly suited to table-for-two travellers. While the line's newest and biggest ships are full of Las Vegas flash and nonstop entertainment action, we prefer its Jewel-class for the right mix of romantic options and plentiful activities.
Onboard Romance: Active couples can play a little one-on-one basketball on the sports deck or race each other up the rock climbing wall; while those looking to relax together can snag side-by-side loungers in the spa's relaxation room or take a dip in the thalassotherapy pool. At night, snuggle up to your honey, cocktail in hand, on one of the plush seats in the Bliss Ultra Lounge and Night Club.
Dinner for Two: Try dinner at Cagney's, the dedicated steakhouse, and Le Bistro, a French eatery.
7. SeaDream Yacht Club
Why: These nearly identical 112-passenger yachts win top romantic honors for sophisticated couples who want luxury (phenomenal dining and great service) in a casual ambiance. The ships are gorgeously restored; dining is all as-you-wish; cabins, though cosy, are outfitted with everything you could possibly need; and service is outstanding, personable, attentive ... and subtle. Fares are all-inclusive, too, which means tips and most drinks are included in your fare. Choose a warm-weather itinerary if you want to spend time playing with the ship's water toys offered from its onboard marina.
Onboard Romance: Our favourite place for sunset-timed port departures was on one of the Balinese beds on the top-most deck. Tucked around the smokestack, they are built just a bit above the deck railing, which gives you a sense of floating above the water. (You can also reserve one for a night sleeping under the stars.) We also loved the Top of the Yacht bar for after-dinner drinks to a soundtrack of live music.
Dinner for Two: There are two primary venues. The Main Dining Salon (indoors) feels like a restaurant at an elegant, small boutique hotel. But our favourite spot was the Topside Restaurant; it's an open-sided outdoor eatery (covered, though, so shaded) and there are a handful of wonderful and private nooks.
8. Celebrity Cruises
Why: Celebrity's newest ships are sophisticated and hip, and cater to couples on adult getaways, rather than families on holiday. Plus, there are plenty of onboard spaces tailor-made for parties of two -- from wine bars to multiple speciality dining venues, double pool loungers and top-deck lawns perfect for picnicking.
Onboard Romance: It's easy to rekindle the romance with a picnic for two in the Lawn Club, a real grass lawn on the ships' top decks. Or hide away in a corner of the Deck 4 wine bar or martini bar, and get a little tipsy with your loved one; the aft Sunset Bar is great for views. The pool deck and adults-only Solarium also have comfy double sunbeds and hammocks for snuggling in the sun.
Dinner for Two: With so many top-notch speciality restaurants onboard, any table for two will do for a romantic night out. Our favourite for couples (and anyone else, for that matter) is Murano, the upscale Continental restaurant offering both tasting and a la carte menus. Treat yourself and your sweetie to luxe dishes like caviar, escargots, sweetbreads or foie gras. For dinner with a view, dine early at the back-of-the-ship Tuscan Grille, an Italian steakhouse with a wine country feel.
9. Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Why: You can't go wrong with the "Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built," an all-suite, all-balcony vessel that features personal service, gourmet cuisine and the most-inclusive cruise fares of the major luxury lines. You don't have to worry about lover's quarrels over the price of shore excursions, which pre-cruise hotel to book or how many drinks to order -- it's all covered by your cruise fare.
Onboard Romance: Head to the gorgeous spa and gym area to get a little sweaty together (personal training for two?) and then relax in the back-of-ship infinity pool or heated ceramic loungers. Or visit the Observation Lounge for 180-degree views by day and cocktails and music by night. If you like learning together, sign up for a cooking class at the Culinary Arts Kitchen.
Dinner for Two: It's easy to get a table for two on these ships, even in Compass Rose, the main dining room. And the food is superb, with no drop in quality from the speciality venues to the main dining room. For date night, try the pan-Asian Pacific Rim, modern French Chartreuse or the Prime 7 steakhouse -- you'll need to make reservations for these popular venues but there's no fee.
10. Crystal Yacht Cruises
Why: If you want to sample the high life, where days are spent lounging on a day bed in the sun with a drink in hand, swimming and snorkelling or touring the more yacht-y ports, Crystal Esprit beckons. The 62-passenger yacht is also incredibly high-tech, carrying Jet Skis and a three-person submersible; cabins loaded up with state-of-the-art technology; and even an outdoor flat-screen TV for movies under the stars.
Onboard Romance: Most passengers are splashing in the water or enjoying complimentary tours during the day. If you're onboard, you're likely to be found cuddling on a Balinese bed or dipping your toes in the plunge pool. At night, catch a flick on the outdoor screen, or get social in The Cove, the ship's living room with live music and bar service.
Dinner for Two: The elegant Yacht Club Restaurant is the only dinner venue onboard. You won't have trouble snagging a table for two and will be spoiled for choice with a regular menu and special four-course menu offered each evening. For total privacy, order room service off the Yacht Club's menu and take date night back to your cabin.
11. Azamara Club Cruises
Why: Azamara offers two twin intimate ships and a destination focus, so you can bond with your loved one over new experiences and incredible adventures ashore. The line will constantly hand you opportunities for memorable date nights with its Nights and Cool Places after-dinner excursions and complimentary, once-a-cruise AzAmazing Evening shoreside event. The onboard atmosphere is geared to adults, so your holiday-for-two won't be disrupted by unruly rug rats.
Onboard Romance: Take your partner for a whirl with ballroom dancing in the Cabaret Lounge, or look for that green flash at the Sunset Bar, cocktail in hand. For the ultimate in romance, though, book the Nights in Private Places package. For one night, you'll get the aft spa deck all to yourself. A private butler will serve a candlelit dinner, you can float in the thalassotherapy pool while gazing at the stars, and then spend the night snuggled up on the canopied daybed, done up in fine linens. Just be sure to slip your robe back on when the butler comes to serve breakfast in the morning.
Dinner for Two: Tables for two are not hard to come by in Azamara's main, open-seating restaurant, but for a more intimate repast, book into one of the alternative restaurants, the Prime C steakhouse or the Italian Aqualina. Special event meals not to miss include a jazz brunch, Officers' BBQ with suckling pig and barbecue ribs and the White Night dinner served on deck.
12. Viking Ocean Cruises
Why: With beautiful sun decks and a huge Nordic-inspired spa, Viking Ocean's four identical ships are ideal for couples who love to relax...after a hard day of touring in port. The line's destination focus includes jam-packed itineraries, late nights and overnights in port and included shore excursions. Well-appointed cabins, included Wi-Fi and wine with meals, multiple dining venues and a no-kids-under-16 policy seal the deal.
Onboard Romance: During the day, relax in the light and airy, glass-enclosed Wintergarden Conservatory and take your honey to tea for finger sandwiches and scones in the late afternoon. Or lounge by the all-weather main pool, with retractable roof, or aft infinity pool. A cool drink is never far away. At night, camp out in Torshavn, to dance, enjoy a cabaret show or sip Armagnac in a dark corner.
Dinner for Two: The mouth-watering food at Manfredi's will start your date night off right. The Italian venue is complimentary and offers an expansive Italian menu. Don't miss the daily specials and definitely save room for dessert (as difficult as that might be). If your style is more casual, check out the sushi bar in the World Cafe buffet or the cured meats and bacon-and-pea soup served faux-fireside at Mamsen's.