What to see and what to skip in these romantic destinations around the world

Love is in the air! In fact, wedding season has just begun.

May 20, 2017, 2:27 AM
PHOTO: Santa Barbara, Calif.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
Getty Images/Tetra images RF

— -- Love is in the air! After all, June -- one of the most popular months for weddings -- is just around the corner.

Travelzoo’s Love of Travel contest is super timely, then: Our search for America’s best travel story will land one lucky twosome with a luxury getaway to Bali! (You can enter through May 26 by sharing your own travel love story using #loveoftravel and #contest on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.)

Ah, Bali. Easily a top destination for romantic escapes of all kinds, especially honeymoons.

But if you’re looking for an alternative to the world’s tried and true love-inspired getaways, here’s a list you’ll want to share with the one you love.

Skip Napa, See Santa Barbara

Sprawling wine estates and world-class dining make Napa and nearby Sonoma no-brainers for wine lovers in love. But for a more laid-back and affordable – though no less gratifying – wine country experience, look about 300 miles south to Santa Barbara. The city’s downtown is buzzing with wineries and tasting rooms, and it’s an easy 90-minute drive from L.A.

But romance-seekers will want to head a bit further north, to Santa Barbara County’s sweeping vineyards, where world class wine and food are quickly rivaling their more famous neighbors up the coast. Lovely historic towns are peppered throughout the Santa Ynez Valley; what served as stagecoach stops for weary California travelers in the pre-railroad days of the late 1800s have now become culinary havens. Inquire about behind-the-scenes winery tours at Babcock, Sanford and Fiddlehead in the buzzed-about Sta. Rita Hills – a sanctuary for pinot noir and chardonnay fans. And linger over dinner at First & Oak in Solvang and S.Y. Kitchen in Santa Ynez; in Buellton, Industrial Eats and the new Bottlest Bistro feature creative dishes with a heavy focus on regional wines.

Stay at the luxe Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos and, after strolling to taste wine at Tercero, Kaena and Epiphany, dine at the brand-new Bear and Star, where most everything on the menu is raised on and sourced from the Parker family farm. In Santa Ynez, ForFriends Inn is one of the area’s most charming B&Bs. And if you stay at the Ballard Inn in Ballard Township (where I started my own honeymoon 14 years ago this month!), the newly revamped Gathering Table features uber-regional cuisine served in shareable portions. After you sleep in, drive to Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos for some of the best chocolate croissants in the state. Want to wake up amid the vines? The wine estates at Carhartt, Koehler and Bernat offer secluded vineyard stays.

Skip Mexico, See Chile

With its beautiful beaches and free-flowing margaritas, Mexico lures lovers year-round. But for an exciting and eclectic Latin American alternative, consider Chile. You’ll find beaches here, too, of course. As the world’s longest country, Chile enjoys 2,600 miles of coastline – more than twice the West Coast of the USA.

“A three-hour drive from [the capital of] Santiago, the waves of Pichilemu draw surfers from across the world,” says Christian Alcantara, a travel expert in Travelzoo’s New York office. “If your board skills are not up to par, grab a seat on the cliffs of nearby Punta de Lobos for an incredible view of the giant waves and the surfers brave enough to conquer them.”

You’ll also love Viña del Mar, a resort town about two hours from Chile’s capital that boasts 13 white-sand beaches and a gorgeous mountain backdrop. And Valparaiso, with a hilly terrain and vibrant architectural palette that inspired Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda’s many seductive poems, is rustic and beautiful.

Santiago, itself, is cosmopolitan and rich in multicultural adventure. “Couples can stroll city neighborhoods – known as ‘barrios,’ all with a cultural diversity that reflects all sorts of culinary and architectural identities,” says my brother, Luis Saglie, a composer and conductor who lives there. “I love Barrio Italia, Barrio Brasil and the bohemian and artsy Barrio Bellavista.” Sweethearts can savor the farm-to-table regional cuisine (and a few traditional pisco sour cocktails) at Borago, considered one of the best restaurants in all of South America. For heart-thumping views, there’s Cerro Santa Lucia in Barrio Lastarria, formed by the remnants of a now-dormant volcano, and Gran Torre Santiago, the tallest skyscraper in South America.

Chile is one of the world’s largest wine producers, so, while in Santiago, take your significant other on a day trip to wine country; the appointment for a tour and tasting at famous Concha y Toro was one of the best winery experiences I’ve ever had (be sure to check out the Casillero del Diablo, a purportedly haunted underground cellar).

If adventure makes your heart grow fonder, Chile delivers. Chile’s skiing options (their winter is our summer) are among the world’s very best – check out Portillo, Valle Nevado and La Parva. To the south, Patagonia offers a ton of adrenaline-pumping action, and areas like Torres del Paine National Park, Punta Arenas and Isla Magdalena are home to everything from fjords and lakes to pumas and penguins. To the north, the Atacama Desert is the world’s driest and home to an observatory that houses the world’s largest telescope; the night sky is so crystal clear here that stargazing is simply spectacular.

Oh, and don’t forget Easter Island, one of the world’s most remote destinations, a five-hour flight from Santiago on LATAM Airlines. You can visit those famous monolithic statues there before you go biking along the coast or take the one-hour hike to the summit of the Rano Kau volcano.

Skip Paris, See Quebec
The City of Lights is, no doubt, a city for lovers. Americans will find a ton of French charm in Quebec, though, as well as a shorter commute and – with a very favorable exchange rate – more value. This is one of the oldest European settlements in North America, and fortress walls and cobblestone streets ooze romance and nostalgia.

Dining here is French-inspired to be sure, with romantic hot spots like Le Café du Monde and Aux Anciens Canadiens; but don’t miss a few culturally minded dinners-for-two at restaurants that feature First Nations cuisine (traditional foods of Canada’s aboriginal people), like NEK8ARRE on the Huron Traditional Site and La Traite. For dessert, check out Quebec’s many chocolatiers, like Erico, complete with a chocolate museum, and Chocolaterie de l'Île d'Orléans, set inside a 200-year-old ancestral home.

A hand-in-hand stroll is always good for romance, so walk the 3 miles of walls that surround Old Quebec; this is North America’s only fortified city north of Mexico, after all, and these dramatic fortifications built under French and British regimes offer both a dose of history as well as beautiful views of the city and the river. Steal a kiss under the Montmorency Falls, which beat their Niagara counterparts by a whopping 100 feet!

And when it comes time to call it a day, luxuriate at Fairmont’s Le Chateau Frontenac, a luxury property so dazzling, it’s known as the most photographed hotel in the world. A winter visit, though, might require a stay at the famous Hotel de Glace, 15 minutes outside Quebec City, which is built from 30,000 tons of snow and stays up only January through March; there are only about 50 beds here, and although you do get mattresses and sleeping bags atop your ice bed, let’s be honest – romance is the best way to stay warm.

Skip Hawaii, See the Azores
Many of my own most romantic escapes have been to Hawaii; for me, the landscapes and amenities on Maui and the Big Island, in particular, create a playground for travelers in love. But for a totally different island experience, check out the Azores, an archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic, a little less than a thousand miles off Portugal’s coast. It’s not a tropical destination, but it’s a wonderfully remote one. Landscapes are green and lush, with flowers pretty much everywhere.

“There is something here for all types of honeymooners,” says Christie McConnell, Travelzoo’s New York-based marketing director, who visited the island of Terceira for the first time last year. “It can be a laid-back vacation – relax in spas and sip wine at the cafes – or adventurous.”

McConnell and her husband, Bruce, rented a car for three days “and saw every piece of the island,” including the lava pools in Biscoitos and Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site “full of beautiful architecture, cobblestone streets and lovely restaurants – think Florence meets Spain.”

The Azores can be a bargain destination, thanks to a strong U.S. dollar and Portugal’s reputation as the least expensive country in Western Europe.

“You can get a bottle of wine at the store – and it’s pretty good Portuguese wine – for two euros,” says McConnell.

She does point out some potential drawbacks to an Azores vacation, like the fact you can only fly there out of Boston and that, due to oft-unpredictable weather, flights can be less than reliable. But isn’t it vacation’s curve balls that bring people closer together? And isn’t that good for romance? Outdoor fun prevails throughout the Azores and accommodations range from upscale hotels (McConnell says Hotel do Caracol and Terceira Mar are among the best on Terceira) to camping parks.

Skip Australia, See New Zealand
For adrenaline junkies in love and looking for adventure Down Under, Australia never disappoints, with its plethora of remarkable raw, natural wonders. But New Zealand has suddenly become more attainable for American travelers (the number of airline seats out of the U.S. doubled in 2017, bringing flight and vacation package prices down). The adventure is no less titillating here.

Queensland, on the South Island, is considered New Zealand’s adventure capital; go jet boating and sky diving before you take a 140-foot bungee jump off Kawarau Bridge. The South Island also offers flightseeing adventures – combining sightseeing by plane with on-the-ground explorations – as well as glacier skiing and daytrips to fjords. Stays range from upscale hotels to farms. And world-famous Marlborough wine country in here; rent bikes and discover some of the world’s best sauvignon blanc. If the one you love is a movie buff, impress them by visiting filming locales for some of their favorites, like the “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies and the “Chronicles of Narnia” adaptations.

For a city fix, Auckland buzzes with an ethnically diverse food scene and a bevy of colorful suburban neighborhoods teeming with unique shopping and culinary options. Take your sweetheart’s hand and walk to the top of Mt. Eden, one of 48 volcanoes in this region, for sweeping 360-degree views of what is New Zealand’s largest city. Any of the three City Heritage Walks is a great way to uncover Auckland’s cultural and historical diversity, too.

After your romantic sail along Waitemata Harbour to scope out the yachts (Auckland is home to more yachts per capita than any other city in the world, so you can’t miss them), jump into it! Bungee jumps off the Auckland Bridge come with water-touch options. And for a more tucked-away experience, visit any of several islets in the protected Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, just across the harbor; go hiking on Rangitoto Island and visit New Zealand’s oldest working lighthouse (it dates back to 1864) on Tiritiri Matangi.

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on vacations to all of these destinations at www.travelzoo.com. Have your own favorite romantic spot? Let him know: @gabesaglie.