Anyone looking for romance at sea should talk to Irene and Jim Manion, who celebrated their 60th birthdays on a Windstar ship cruising the Greek isles last summer. “You could reserve a table outdoors for a candlelight dinner,” says Irene Manion. “And we watched the sunset while looking out at the Greek islands. It was pretty incredible.” For many, the term “romantic cruise” conjures up cheesy 1970s visions of matchmaking shuffleboard on The Love Boat. But for those who’ve actually sought out romance on the high seas, the reality is a whole lot more alluring. In fact, cruising can create a memorable experience with your loved one. What’s not romantic about admiring the open sea and holding hands while a crew waits on you hand and foot? While romance is never guaranteed, choosing a love-inspiring cruising destination is a good first step. Going to Antarctica to ogle penguins is fine, but cruising, say, around the breathtaking volcanic peaks and crystal blue lagoons of French Polynesia on the Paul Gauguin is, well, sexier. Or go sailing in the Greek isles: whether you’re on small ships (like those of Windstar) or big vessels (like the Celebrity Equinox), it’s easy to see why these islands—with their beautiful sandy beaches, clear seas, and ancient ruins—are a favorite of die-hard romantics. Constant views and a relaxed vacation ambience only serve to enhance the romance. Whether you choose a big ship with such accoutrements as lavish casinos, theaters, and lounges, or go with a more low-key small ship is a personal choice. But to assure amore on any ship you’ll want to book the biggest cabin you can afford—you don’t want to be on top of each other at all times. Ships like the über-luxurious Seabourn Odyssey promise space with all-suite accommodations that include separate sitting areas, walk-in closets, and generous-size bathrooms. Look, too, for a cabin with a balcony, which adds a pleasant open-air retreat for private dining (and canoodling). Further impress your sweetheart on the high seas with a couples’ treatment in the spa (the Canyon Ranch spa on Queen Mary 2 is one of the best). And plan a “date night” shipboard with an intimate dinner for two at a specialty restaurant like the fancy Crown Grill steak house on the Ruby Princess. Fittingly, that’s the same ship christened by reality TV couple Trista and Ryan Sutter (of ABC’s hit television show The Bachelorette) in celebration of their fifth wedding anniversary.
Yachtsof Seabourn — Seabourn Odyssey
The Experience: Designed for the bon vivant crowd, this dazzling new 450-passenger ship is the setting for what many consider to be the finest cuisine (overseen by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer of Aureole in New York), suite accommodations, and service (the crew is near clairvoyant in knowing your needs) on the high seas.
Intimate Moment: Indulging in a couples’ massage in one of the open-air Spa Villas.
Sample Price: Weeklong Greece and Turkey; departs June 12, 2010; $3,799 to $30,200.
SeaDreamYacht Club — SeaDream 1 and 2
The Experience: Two intimate 112-passenger ships offer a casual yachtlike atmosphere but with top-flight cuisine and service. Passengers love the quiet nooks—where it’s just you, your love, and the sea.
Intimate Moment: Spending the night under the stars in a Balinese daybed for two.
Sample Price: Nine-day Caribbean (including St. Bart’s); departs Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14), 2010; $4,099 to $18,500. (The ships also cruise the Mediterranean.)
CrystalCruises — Crystal Serenity
The Experience: Extravagant penthouse suites (the largest being 1,345 square feet) with butlers who help you unpack and a fancy James Bond–worthy casino are just a few examples of over-the-top luxury on this grande dame liner.
Intimate Moment: Sampling sushi en suite by acclaimed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who has a restaurant on the ship.
Sample Price: 12-day Connoisseur Adventure, Rome to Dover (U.K.), includes a stop in Tangier and an overnight in Bordeaux; departs June 2, 2010; $4,845 to $54,390.
PrincessCruises — Ruby Princess
The Experience: The newest ship in the “Love Boat” fleet is big and bold but with intimate areas that include the hushed Crown Grill steak house and an adults-only sundeck. The captain himself oversees—and conducts—all vow renewals.
Intimate Moment: Feasting on a four-course champagne-and-lobster-tail dinner on your cabin’s private balcony.
Sample Price: 10-day Southern Caribbean Medley from Fort Lauderdale; departs March 20, 2010; from $899; mini-suites and suites $1,799 to $4,049.
WindstarCruises — Wind Surf
The Experience: Under billowing sails like ships of yore (though in this case computer-operated), passengers kick back in a friendly, upscale atmosphere. Regionally influenced cuisine (think baked snapper with niçoise olives in the Med) and outdoor spa treatments (deck-side reflexology) are just a few of the shipboard indulgences.
Intimate Moment: Tubing with your partner—it’s another way to get your blood pumping.
Sample Price: Weeklong Southern Caribbean from Barbados to the Grenadines; departs Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14), 2010; $2,349 to $4,099. (French and Italian Riviera cruises sail in summer.)
PaulGauguin Cruises — Paul Gauguin
The Experience: Newly operated by the Pacific Beachcomber resort company, this upscale ship—named for the famed French Post-Impressionist—celebrates the islands with tropical décor, French/Polynesian cuisine, and spa treatments that use local ingredients like Hei Poa, or red flowers.
Intimate Moment: Being swaddled with your loved one in a traditional cloth in a Polynesian love blessing ceremony performed by Les Gauguines (local female entertainers).
Sample Price: Weeklong Tahiti and Society Islands; year-round; $2,748 to $21,895.
SilverseaCruises — Silver Spirit
The Experience: This trendy new 540-passenger ship is made for romance, from the welcoming glass of champagne to the 100 percent goose down pillows. Five restaurants include a supper club with music and dancing. Plus, Personalized Voyages allow lovebirds to customize their own itineraries.
Intimate Moment: Getting steamy in the private hammam, beautifully decorated in mosaic tile and marble.
Sample Price: Weeklong Barcelona to Monte Carlo, with playtime in Ibiza and St. Tropez; departs July 17, 2010; $4,905 to $32,995.
Cunard — Queen Mary 2
The Experience: Nothing beats old-time, transatlantic cruising on a real ocean liner with a British pedigree, but this gracious ship also has modern touches, like a Todd English (Olives) restaurant, an excellent Canyon Ranch–operated spa, and even a planetarium. Tip: splurge on a Princess Grill or Queens Grill cabin, including the two-story, 2,249-square-foot Grand Duplex.
Intimate Moment: Ballroom dancing on formal night, complete with a big band.
Sample Price: Six-day transatlantic (westbound), Southampton, U.K., to New York; departs May 15, 2010; $1,345 to $24,595; from $3,311 for Princess Grill and Queens Grill cabins.
CelebrityCruises — Celebrity Equinox
The Experience: Sensual pleasures abound onboard: passengers can party at the Miami-chic observation lounge, walk barefoot on real grass on top of the ship, and dine at 10 restaurants, including a striking dining room with a two-deck glass wine tower.
Intimate Moment: Snuggling in a wicker bed in a hidden sunning area.
Sample Price: 10-night Italy and Greece, from Rome, including Santorini and Naples/Capri; May to August 2010; $2,199 to $9,049.
FrenchCountry Waterways — Horizon II and others
The Experience: Enjoy quiet and casual exploration of the French countryside on an intimate, 8- to 12-passenger barge. Cruise on historic canals and through locks and visit romantic châteaux, wineries, and quaint villages while sampling fine wines (like Puligny-Montrachet) and local cheeses at meals prepared onboard by a French-trained chef.
Intimate Moment: Borrowing a couple of the barge’s bikes and heading off to riverside villages to explore quiet lanes on your own.
Sample Price: Six-night Central Burgundy; departs Sept. 4, 2010; $6,095 to $6,295 (includes transportation from Paris).