Words: Matthew Brace
Australia is finally opening up to the world again and we are eagerly starting to plan trips of a lifetime. Award-winning travel writer and regular Holidays for Couples contributor Matt Brace suggests some ultra-romantic post-COVID destinations.
Just imagine how amazing that first romantic post-COVID overseas trip is going to be. Champagne before take-off. Holding hands as you cruise through the stratosphere at 38,000ft. Dining on pecorino fondue and a bottle of ruby-red sangiovese in a sleepy Tuscan vineyard or sipping limoncello while gazing at an Amalfi coast sunset.
Taking a husky ride for two through the snow under the Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland or a thrilling walking safari in the Okavango Delta.
Sipping cocktails under New Zealand star-scapes, midnight skinny-dipping under a Balinese moon or enjoying an intimate, restorative few days in a Japanese ryokan.
That wonderful world out there is luring us back. We’ve hand-picked six ultra-romantic destinations and 18 hotels to rekindle your global wanderlust.
Tuscany and Campania, Italy
The hiss of cicadas, the distant call of a honey buzzard echoing across the wide valley and the satisfying pop of a cork from a bottle of local Sassicaia wine. These are the sounds of rural Tuscany, where tree-lined, white-gravel roads wind up gentle slopes to tranquil, terracotta-roofed villas and hill towns. In summer, spend your days sipping wine and taking lazy romantic strolls through vineyards and olive groves before dining under the stars as the warm evening envelopes you. In truffle season (October and November) you can join the Lagotto Romagnolo truffle dogs on the hunt for the elusive and highly prized fungi.
Meanwhile, down south in Campania, cruise the glittering Amalfi coast. Start your days with a swim in the Mediterranean, take lunch in a charming cliffside town, then at dusk sip negronis as you watch the sun dip into the sea.
Borgo Santo Pietro is a 5-star boutique hotel in a lavishly converted 800-year-old farmhouse, nestled in a 300-acre estate in Tuscany. The hotel has a luxurious spa, its very own Michelin-starred restaurant and views for miles over the market gardens, nut fields, herb gardens, vineyards and forests of the organically cultivated estate. The hotel offers gourmet picnics with seasonal hampers and a bottle of wine. Choose a spot within the grounds or down by the river and the hotel will do the rest. If you fancy something more active, the hotel can organise a pair of Vespas for you with a pre-programmed satnav so you won’t get lost… even if you want to.
The Borgo Santo Pietro’s 20 rooms and suites are individually decorated and adorned with open fires and fresh flowers picked just metres away in the gardens. One of them, the Il Vecchio Forno suite, is a super-cosy and romantic space inhabiting an 800-year-old, stone-walled bread kitchen. The oven is now a working fireplace, ideal for romantic evenings in with a bottle of Prosecco and a plate of antipasto. If you’re really pushing the boat out on a summer trip, go for one of the two sumptuous private estate pool houses.
AdAstra is a small, delightfully romantic, 14-room boutique hotel in Florence where you can live in style in an Italian nobleman’s villa. It’s perfect for couples. AdAstra is in the Oltrarno quarter, a short walk from the Ponte Vecchio and the city’s historic centre. Some rooms look onto one of the largest private gardens in Europe. Although the garden is out of bounds you can gaze on it for as long as you like, starting at breakfast, which, in summer, is served on a beautiful wrap-around terrace. The garden has a 19th century tower built by the original marquis to stargaze from – hence the name AdAstra, which is Latin for ‘towards the stars’. The current marquis lives on the ground floor, while AdAstra guests inhabit the upper floors in individually decorated rooms with original Italian design items, furniture and artwork. Each room has a rolltop bath, which is ideal for a romantic evening in.
At Casa Angelina, wake under soft sheets and take a moment to let your eyes adjust to the opalescent light filling your room. Throw back the curtains and there lies one of the most romantic and breathtaking views in Europe: the glittering Mediterranean calling you in for a dip. The immaculately designed rooms and suites are Arctic-white cocoons furnished with designer chairs, unique sculptures and thankfully not much else. This makes them relaxing and uncluttered, and the perfect frames for the fabulous sea portraits outside your window. Some have balconies while others have 30sqm sun terraces but if you can drag yourself away from your private temple to Hollywood chic, head for the cool, blue-tiled pool, whose southern end is shaded by fragrant lemon trees. Post-swim, you can dry off with fluffy towels, order a negroni and start thinking about what you want for supper up at the rooftop restaurant.
Casa Angelina is movie-star cool and highly recommended by Italy travel specialist Lulu’s Luxury Lifestyle as the go-to spot on the Amalfi coast.
Botswana and Namibia
Have you spent the pandemic fantasising about a romantic safari, longing to wake to the sound of trumpeting elephants, take breakfast with lions and spend the day on a canoe paddling the wetlands looking for hyenas and hippos? The safari is apparently on-trend for 2022 but where to go? Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa may all spring to mind. Zambia and Zimbabwe too. However, another two thrilling destinations are Botswana and Namibia. They have some of the best safari lodges in Africa and while Botswana offers the glories of the lush Okavango Delta and its fabulous wildlife, Namibia offers dramatic desert landscapes and safaris with a difference. Also, they are neighbours so if you’re making the long-haul trek to this neck of the woods, you may as well see both.
Stanley’s Camp on the Okavango Delta in Botswana is magical and memorable, partly because it is an unfenced camp. It’s a thrill to know you are sharing this land with the animals you have come to see. Local guides are on hand to ensure you and the beasts don’t get too close; they escort you along the short path between your luxury, permanent and fully self-contained tent (one of only 10) and the camp’s communal area.
On our first morning, our guide showed us lion tracks in the sand on the path, which confirmed the source of the roars and grunts we had heard the night before. That evening a hyena sloped onto the wooden deck outside our tent as I was writing and having a nightcap on the other side of the thankfully sturdy mesh tent door. For just a few seconds our eyes met before it went on its way – the most exhilarating wildlife close encounter I could have hoped for.
The Okavango is alive with game, especially once the water table rises: day-drives will get you close to lions and cheetahs, while night-drives will find wide-eyed bush babies and maybe an elusive leopard. Walking safaris should deliver zebras and giraffes and a very different and liberating African experience, while a mokoro canoe trip (in wet season) will take you close to hippos and buffalos.
Xigera Safari Lodge is a recent addition to Botswana’s Okavango Delta. It opened in early 2021, offering 12 luxurious suites raised on stilts so in the wet season you feel like you’re floating on the floodwaters. For a romantic night to remember, you can sleep out under the stars in a three-storey steel baobab tree 1km from the camp. The lodge is also awash with bespoke pieces of African art from more than 80 artists and makers, possibly the most dramatic of which are human-sized nest chairs by South African designer Porky Hefer. There’s a cool spa overlooking the floodplains, a gym and pool, daily yoga and visiting wellness practitioners. Also, the lodge has been designed to be as sustainable as possible; it has removed all unnecessary single-use plastics, and 95% of the electricity is from an on-site solar power station.
The &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge on the edge of the Namib desert in Namibia has to be seen to be believed. It looks more like a set from a sci-fi movie, with 10 stunning stone and glass suites etched into a rocky escarpment. The central ‘house’ has floor-to-ceiling windows and a cool pool, perfect for a refreshing dip after a day on a desert safari drive. The main natural attraction is the series of spectacular pumpkin-coloured dunes at Sossusvlei, which are millions of years old and, at around 230 metres, among the highest in the world. The lodge organises safaris on foot and quad bike. Despite the aridity and barrenness of this landscape, it hosts a remarkable array of flora and fauna including quiver trees, Welwitschia plants, zebra, antelope, hairy-footed gerbils, barking geckos and more than 114 bird species. If you think the days are thrilling, wait for dusk. Sossusvlei area is one of the world’s few Dark Sky Reserves, meaning it has some of the darkest and clearest skies in the world. The lodge has its own small observatory and resident astronomer so you get a NASA-standard stargazing experience.
Auckland, Northland and Southern Alps, New Zealand
Once the trans-Tasman travel bubble re-opens, we’ll be heading east to the Land of the Long White Cloud. Auckland is buzzing, as always – the big, bright-light city of the South Pacific – while the stunning, sunny vistas of Northland are high on 2022 bucket lists. For a truly romantic and extravagant Kiwi retreat, head for one of the luxury lodges on the South Island. There are lots to choose from but we’re featuring the newest kid on the block, The Lindis. It’s hard to imagine anything more romantic in southern NZ than checking into one of their pods and taking a starry night walk under some of the clearest skies in the world.
The Hotel Britomart is new and already winning awards. It has all the style and elegance of an uber-luxe Scandinavian lodge. Walls and floors are lined with responsibly sourced oak and there are cute window sofas from where you can admire the views over downtown Auckland. Everything is so tactile, designed to be touched as well as seen.
The 99 rooms and five Landing Suites are full of thoughtful touches such as organic cotton sheets, ceramics made by local artists and selections of New Zealand books. Some rooms look out over sparkling Waitemata Harbour and to North Shore beyond.
Three suites are on the top floor, with two more located in a glass pavilion on the roof of an adjacent building. The Wairoa Suite and Rangihoua Suite each have an outdoor terrace, great spots for sunbathing in summer and snuggling up in front of the fireplace in winter. The Poraenui Suite has a cute outdoor garden, perfect for a romantic breakfast or candlelit dinner.
The Hotel Britomart is also New Zealand’s first 5 Green Star hotel and its most eco-friendly accommodation. The hotel had to score highly across a range of categories, from using eco-friendly materials in construction, having double-glazing, good insulation, water, energy and waste management systems, and offering facilities such as bicycle parking. The eco-ethic filters through to the hotel’s kingi restaurant, which advocates for sustainable fishery and works with fishermen and women who share these values. Check out the hotel’s romantic Taste of Luxury special.
Fancy a place made just for two with spectacular views, tonnes of wildlife and the greenest of credentials? Look no further than Kokohuia Lodge in the Hokianga region of Northland. It’s going to be just you two, snuggled into a private, beautifully designed eco-B&B nest with a hectare of native bush around you.
Wake in the morning to birdsong and gaze over the treetops to Hokianga Harbour and its sand dunes as you devour organic, free-range eggs with smoked salmon delivered by the friendly owners. In the late afternoon, as the sun streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows, indulge in a bubble bath in the large tub, knowing only the birds can see you.
The lodge’s sustainability checklist shows the lengths to which the owners have gone to merge luxury with sustainability. Among many examples, the place is solar-powered and off-grid, the king bed was made from sustainably sourced native timber, the glassware produced using energy-efficient processes and environmentally friendly components, and almost everything was made by NZ firms and with local products. You drink filtered rainwater, dine on food that comes mainly from the lodge’s organic garden and orchards, and drink wine from local Northland wineries, which reduces the carbon footprint even further. It’s all good at Kokohuia.
The Lindis is the newest luxury lodge on the South Island. The existing lodges are world-class and tough to beat yet this one, remarkably, seems to have upped the game. From certain viewpoints in the Ahuriri Valley, on the edge of the Southern Alps, the Lindis is all but invisible. Its organic shape and undulating roof help it tuck into the folds of the landscape. This harmony with the land continues inside, where walls are panelled with Spotted Gum and Bluestone, reflecting the native geography, and floor-to-ceiling windows let guests gaze out over the valley whatever the weather.
There are two master suites and three lodge suites but possibly the most romantic spots are the three pods. They have double-glazed glass walls on three sides so you can snuggle up in bed and stare out at the Southern Alps. This part of the South Island has some of the darkest skies in the world so take your loved one by the hand and together stare up at truly breathtaking night skies. If you’re in one of the pods, you can do this from the comfort of your private outdoor hot tub – how romantic is that!
Bali and Lombok, Indonesia
So close yet it has seemed so far away during the pandemic. We’re still not sure when Indonesia will re-open to the world but Bali is certainly a firm favourite on our post-COVID romantic list. Zooming about Canggu on mopeds, hitting the beaches, taking Insta-fabulous shots in rice fields, dining by candlelight and meeting the wonderfully warm Balinese people – all musts for any romantic couple. Depending on when you can go, you might be among the first guests at a brand new and super-luxurious five-star resort on neighbouring Lombok too.
Samata Sanur is a luxury Balinese resort with a difference. It’s especially for couples who spend a good amount of time exercising even when they’re on holiday. The fitness centre is almost certainly the best on the island and there are personal trainers on hand whether you’re pumping iron, blitzing a cardio workout or chilling out at dawn yoga. There’s a tennis court, even a boxing ring and not one but three pools, which work equally well for lazy floaters and serious swimmers.
The meals are health-conscious too, with calorie counts and lots of superfoods – all part of the resort’s health-through-harmony mantra. Ask the chefs to organise a romantic starlit dinner on the lawn, just for you. Of course, you could laze by the pool and consume wine, beer, chips and cake all week if you want too but for those who take their fitness seriously while on holiday, this is the place.
Legian Sire is the newest hotel on Bali’s neighbouring island Lombok and sister hotel to the famous and fabulous Legian Seminyak. When it opens in 2022, it will be the most luxurious and fabulous resort on the island. All suites are 111m² and face the ocean, and there are two sumptuous infinity pools and views of sacred Mount Rinjani and the Gili Islands. Take a dive trip over to the Gilis or just nip over there on a boat for a barefoot lunch on the beach.
The Legian Sire’s three dining venues include a vegetarian restaurant, which uses fresh, organic fruit and vegetables straight from the hotel gardens. For absolute privacy, check into the Club by The Legian Sire, a collection of divine, private villas, each nestled within its own walled tropical garden. Choose a pool villa, a beachfront villa or the beach house. Each villa comes with its own personal butler; they are locals trained by the Guild of Professional English Butlers and their attention to detail is astounding. Club guests get full access to the hotel as well if they can tear themselves away from their little romantic holiday kingdoms.
Amankila is the spectacular, super-luxe Bali five-star to pick if money is no object. The palatial, all-suite resort clings dramatically to a hillside on Bali’s south east coast, with unspoilt views over the Indian Ocean. Even the smallest Garden and Ocean Suites are big (94m2) while the Pool Suites are more than twice that (204m2). The property covers a large area, its suites connected by white-stone, frangipani-draped walkways, allowing you to stroll through the tree tops.
From the main dining terrace you can see for miles out over the Lombok Strait. A meal for two here under a big Balinese moon is one of the most romantic things couples can do on the Island of the Gods. Three divine infinity pools step down the hillside, inviting you to plunge into each. Then, at the base of the hill is the palm-fringed Beach Club, where you’ll find yet another pool, a spa and a private, black-sand beach. Luxury personified.
To guarantee a white Christmas in Europe, you need to head north, way north. Snow is rare in the UK and Western Europe until mid-January but one spot that gets blanketed before Christmas is Finnish Lapland. This is the most northerly part of Finland and a lot of it is inside the Arctic Circle. Take husky rides through winter wonderland forests, skate over frozen lakes, get cosy in saunas and marvel at the Northern Lights shimmering in the long polar night.
Or head for the charming Åland Islands, in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden, for a few romantic days living at the edge of the ocean. Whatever Finland destination you choose, make time for a stopover in the capital, Helsinki. This city is a gem in all seasons but winter is possibly the most romantic. Despite the limited daylight and the biting cold, the days are often sunny. The Baltic can freeze hard, so you can join the Finns on skis or skates, or take a sea-hike over the ice. If you’re planning on proposing, getting down on one knee on a frozen sea is a pretty cool spot to do it.
When in Helsinki, make the Hotel Fabian your base. The hotel is small and the rooms are designed with black-and-white harlequin floor tiles and lovely touches such as mini-ladder bedside tables. In winter, you can rug up together in a charcoal faux-fur blanket and watch the snow falling over the Helsinki rooftops.
It’s perfectly located on the edge of the Design District, so after a huge breakfast topped off with a bowl of delicious local berries, you can hit the streets to check out the galleries, jewellers and fashion and design boutiques on your doorstep.
You can also easily walk (or cycle – the hotel rents bikes) into the city centre or down to the Baltic Sea waterfront. For a great first-day walk, start at the Hernesaari peninsula and stroll back along the sea’s edge to the main harbour. In winter when the Baltic freezes, join the locals out on the ice. After a quick dip at the heated, outdoor Allas Sea Pool, it’s back to the welcoming Fabian to relax in the lobby library with a glass of glühwein (glögi in Finnish).
In winter, Finnish Lapland’s long polar nights and high-pressure systems (which create clearer skies) increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Over the past few years lots of hotels and lodges have sprung up. One of the most spectacular is the Northern Lights Ranch, 200km inside the Arctic Circle. It has 16 Sky Cabins, which are nestled among the pine trees and have heated glass windows and roofs. So, not only are you in prime Northern Lights territory but you can view the phenomenon while curled up together in bed. One cabin has a sauna, while another has an outdoor hot tub. If that isn’t enough romance for you, how about taking a husky sled ride through the winter wonderland or skating together under the Northern Lights on the ranch’s very own heart-shaped ice rink? Many couples get married here, arriving by reindeer sleigh, walking through a tunnel of fairy lights and tying the knot at a candle-lit altar.
On the Åland Islands, in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden, the ocean is everywhere. The archipelago boasts thousands of islands and islets, some of which are little more than large rocks poking above the high-tide line. The Havsvidden Hotel sits at the water’s edge on red granite outcrops on the north coast of the main island. As well as rooms and mini-suites, the hotel has a series of one-, two- and three-bedroom cliff houses. Each is individually furnished and has fabulous seascapes looking north. In summer you can sit outside and clink glasses with your loved one while watching the midsummer sun set in the far north west at about 10pm. In winter you can warm up with a sauna or a dip in the indoor pool and then rug up with polar fleeces and blankets and watch for the Northern Lights reflecting in the icy Baltic Sea waters. The hotel also has a small restaurant serving such local delights as locally caught herring, Åland roast beef with parmesan and pine nuts, and Skagen toast with crayfish tails and trout roe.
Flushed with the success of staging the ‘un-stageable’ Olympics and Paralympics, Japan is in focus for 2022 travel. One of the country’s most romantic destinations is Kyoto, considered by many as the cultural capital. Here you can stroll hand-in-hand through Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and some of the most celebrated Zen gardens in Japan. In spring, the streets and gardens are a blizzard of cherry blossom while in autumn they are on fire with the crimson leaves of thousands of Japanese maples.
In the heart of Kyoto is a hotel as graceful as this city’s many traditional gardens and as peaceful as its temples. Every space in the Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto – from the rooms and suites to the lobby, spa, courtyard and restaurants – has been immaculately designed following the ancient concept of teioku ichinyo, the harmony between structures and gardens.
Some rooms and suites have garden views while others look over the adjacent Nijo-jo Castle, which was built in 1603 to safeguard the Imperial Court. The modern hotel has incorporated into its design several relics from the private residence that once stood on this site. Most striking of all is the Kajiimiya Gate by the entrance, which dates back 300 years and is closely associated with the Mitsui family. Some suites offer access to a shared natural thermal spring bathing house (or onsen), with water flowing from an on-site spring. For total romantic luxury, the hotel offers the 101m2 Onsen Suite, which has its own private outdoor onsen.
Just beyond the western edge of Kyoto is a place of complete relaxation. The Hoshinoya Kyoto is a traditional Japanese guesthouse, or ryokan, next to the Oi river as it meanders through a tranquil, green valley. You arrive by boat and stroll along rhododendron-lined paths to the guesthouse. The guest pavilions overlook the river and are so intertwined with the landscape that you can reach out of the windows and touch nature. This is particularly stunning in autumn when the leaves of the Japanese maples are vivid red and orange. At the far end of the property, beyond the Zen garden, is the elder of them all – a 400-year-old maple. Pavilion bedroom walls are lined with karakami wallpaper, whose delicate gold patterns change subtly depending on the light, while traditional shoji paper sliding doors and subdued lighting add to the mood of utter tranquillity. This is Zen x 10.
As their die-hard fans – the Aman junkies – will know, Aman properties specialise in serenity and space. Big rooms, even bigger suites and enough public space to write the rule book on hotel social distancing. The Aman Kyoto takes it all one step further. This palatial property is situated in a forest. Couples can walk along moss-covered stone paths and lose (or find) themselves among the Japanese cedars, andromeda and wood ferns, and truly experience shinrin-yoku —the therapy of being immersed in a forest. They can also luxuriate in private, steaming onsens, gazing out on the verdant woodlands. They can learn the art of miniature gardening with the hotel’s resident gardener and practice meditation with Buddhist monks. That’s before visiting the 17 (yes, 17) Unesco World Heritage sites nearby, including the golden Kinkaku-ji Temple.