Why settle for a card and flowers for this Valentine's Day? Travel, dang it! If you're thinking of venturing out, here are six ideas you probably hadn't considered. Best of all, Valentine's Day is on a Thursday this year, meaning you expect some extra savings on mid-week deals in most places.
1. Go medieval in Canterbury
Valentine’s Day roots took a turn as a special day for lovers when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote ‘Parlement of Foules’ – a dreamy 700-line poem with its narrator visiting Venus’s temple and a ‘parliament’ where birds choose their mates, on Valentine’s Day. Cute.
Of course Chaucer’s most famous destination, from Canterbury Tales, is Canterbury itself, a medieval hotspot in southeastern England, with one of the country’s finest cathedrals, great pubs and theaters, and a superb five-mile walk on North Downs Way to the 12th-century castle in the wee medieval village of Chilham.
Valentines should opt for top-tier ‘fabulous’ rooms at the boutique hotel Abode Canterbury, a meal at Deeson’s (25-27 Sun St), and a local ale at Parrot (1-9 Church St), a wood-beamed pub founded in 1370.
2. Enjoy wine and coast at Mendocino, California
One of the California’s great secrets is a coastal ride north of San Francisco from Sonoma County to Mendocino’s rugged peninsula. It’s almost completely undeveloped with no stoplights to break up the bliss.
Mendocino is the place to base yourself for a couple days any time of year. The luxury B&B MacCallum House (www.maccallumhouse.com), with a mix of historic cottages and homes to book, has rooms starting around the $230 mark. Spend days walking along the shore, eating at the North Coast foodie-haven Café Beaujolais (www.cafebeaujolais.com), or detouring to small-scale, family-run wineries and breweries nearby.
3. Get romantic in Panama and Colombia
Cartagena, Colombia – where Gabriel García Márquez supposedly based Love in the Time of Cholera (the town is never explicitly named in the book) – is one of the most romantic cities in the Americas. A Caribbean town with cobbled alleys and horse carts to ride, good food, flowers hanging from balconies and dance clubs exuding joy of the lively local ‘folk’ music vallenato – seriously, you won’t be able to just sit and watch. The lushly colonial Alfiz Boutique Hotel (www.alfizhotel.com) is a ideal spot, and you can plan a daytrip to snorkel nearby islands or go spa au naturel at a mud volcano where everyone gets dirty.
A good way to take in Cartagena, and get more, is winter package deals from Latin Destinations (www.latindestinations.com), who offer six-night trips to Panama City – Central America’s finest city – and Cartagena, from $1607 including hotel and flight.
4. Take the love train to Churchill, Manitoba
Don’t overlook the north for romance. Your chances of seeing the otherworldly Northern Lights are the best they’ve been in 50 years. Across Canada and Alaska, near-nightly shows of neon green, red and blue smear across the black skies, created as solar particles collide with earth’s magnetic field. Everyone truly needs to see it once.
Many go to Alaska for it, but the emerging Northern Lights destination is the wee town of Churchill, famous for its summer polar bears. There’s a new viewing dome, and local astronomers offer stargazing study trips for five nights from C$1045 (www.churchillscience.com). Go by train: the two-day trip up from Winnipeg is nicknamed the ‘love train’ by some, as it’s particularly popular with Japanese couples who believe the Northern Lights help with fertility.
5. Celebrate winter in Iceland
The East Coast of the US can reach Reykjavik, Iceland in shorter time than jetting west to San Francisco or LA, and it's a mere three-hour hop from London. Iceland Air (www.icelandair.is) offers two-night packages (including flight, hotel and city tour). And Iceland celebrates its winter - Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss chases down the world’s happiest places – and discovers how the Icelandic cherish the winter months, sometimes with poetry. Plus there’s good Northern Lights viewing and unreal geothermal pools to soak in.
Plus, Reykjavik is now home to this rather infamous museum.
6. Get friendly in Valentine, Nebraska
Remember in Yes Man when Jim Carrey, who says ‘yes’ to every offer, spontaneously takes the first available flight for a quick getaway with Zooey Deschanel and ends up in Lincoln, Nebraska? They make it great – seeing museums, football games, dodging rain on a country walk, before, um, getting arrested. So don’t laugh at Nebraska, even if ‘Valentine’ seems like a cheap shot for this list.
This fun town, actually named for a congressman in the 1800s, is near the Niobrara River Valley and north of the (underrated) Sand Hills. Come early for the annual Bull Bash (February 9) where local cattlemen compare bulls, then spend a day or two ice fishing, seeing concerts, going to a ball and partaking in the February 14 coronation of the King and Queen of Hearts. It’s a friendly spot – diner waitresses tend to sit at your table over coffee to chat a bit. And speaking of long-lasting love, I’m still wearing the pair of Wranglers I got in a Main Street shop.
Robert Reid, Lonely Planet's US Travel Editor, believes that travel is the greatest love of all.
This article was first published in January 2012 and was refreshed in January 2013.