The Luxe Life



May 8, 2003 -- Now that Iraq is on the rocky road to democracy, can we talk about making love instead of making war? Just for a minute? Because the war was far more telegenic than the aftermath is going to be, and, sooner or later, you're going to want to escape from this Middle East remake of Birth of a Nation--and with your significant other. Maybe not tomorrow but soon. To a place where night goes with cap, not vision goggles.

Which is why I've put together this list of eight romantic places. They're your targeting options. How do I know they're romantic? Because I've been to most of them alone--that's one definition of a travel writer--and they still worked their magic.

California: Villa Sureau This two-bedroom villa, richly furnished in Empire style, is part of the 10-room Château du Sureau, in northern California. The villa comes with its own 24-hour butler staff--and almost with its own national park: Yosemite is just 17 miles up the road. Plus the hotel restaurant is first rate if you tire of being waited on hand and foot. Nightly rate: $2,800; telephone: 559-683-6860.

Mexico: Villas de Careyes This notch in Mexico's Pacific coast is an inter-national playground, the country's Positano. The seven architectural-statement villas are the stages for an endless round of house parties in season (Novem-ber through March). But the Villas de Careyes are also the last word in baronial privacy, each one perched on the cliffs above the bay. They share a common architectural style: a four-story, open-air, palapa-roofed living-and-dining area; lots of all-white bedrooms with fabulous sea views; and large, built-in pools. Perfect for the two of you and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Including staff, nightly rates range from $1,200 to $4,500 per villa in high season; telephone: 011-52-315-3510-320.

Italy: Il Pellicano The hotel was born out of a torrid love affair between American socialite Patsy Daszel and British aviator Michael Graham, who found this site on the Tuscan coast near Porto Ercole and impulsively decided to build a hotel. The reason? The spot reminded them of Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, California, where they had fallen in love while watching the sunset. No longer owned by the couple, Il Pelicano today is a case study in simplicity, Italian-style: Think grilled fish and white wine, rather than culinary fireworks, breezily decorated rooms and sunbathing in rocky niches above the sea. From $325 a night; telephone: 011-39-0564-858-111.

Provence: La Bastide de Marie La Bastide de Marie is the Provençal farm-house you would do if only you had the time, the money and the designer's eye. In the heart of the Vaucluse (a.k.a. Peter Mayle country). From $400 to $640 a night; telephone: 011-33-490-72-30-20.

South Africa: Royal Malewane The animal in both of you will have a lot of company here, perhaps the most luxurious game lodge in South Africa. Royal Malewane lies in the 28,420-acre Thornybush Game Reserve (near Kruger National Park), which has some of the region's best game viewing, particularly of big cats. The lodge is done in an unabashedly romantic bush style. The seven suites, all palatial, have private plunge pools, a private gazebo, fire-places (it gets chilly in the evenings) and indoor and outdoor showers. In the dry season, July through September--the best time to visit--you may even see the Big Five on your first day. From $465 to $3,290 a night, including meals and game drives; telephone: 011-27-15-793-0150.

Seychelles: Cousine Island Lodge The farthest flung of our romantic picks, Cousine Island is a 62-acre paradise, a nature preserve full of species--noddies, terns, white-tailed tropical birds, giant Aldabra tortoises--that have little or no fear of people. Why should they? Cousine Island Lodge has only four large French-colonial-style villas, set just back from the beach, so there are far more of them than of you. Resort revenue is used to ensure that the island retains its pristine state. You have only two decisions to make each day: when to dine (no set meal times) and what to have. Talk about minimum daily requirements! The nightly rate is $1,400, including meals and drinks, except wine; telephone: 011-248-321-107.

Australia: Lizard Island Founded as a fishing camp, the Lizard Island Resort was given a much-needed face-lift three years ago by owner P&O Australian Resorts, which wisely kept the low-key style. Think light wood and waffle cotton rather than marble and silk. The island is rugged--a humpback of granite fringed by 24 beaches. It has two fabulous amenities: One is God-given, the Great Barrier Reef, just 30 minutes away by boat; the other is man-made, a small fleet of complimentary dinghies that guests can take out into the Blue Lagoon. This essence-of-azure body of water is accessible only at high tide: In effect, you maroon yourself here for a half-day, with a picnic from the resort. With the tide out, the lagoon becomes your private aquarium: The floor is a vast coral infield--thickets of staghorn coral and brain coral the size of beanbag chairs--that shelters constellations of fish. As for the resort itself, the food is good, the service chipper, the rooms sleek and functional. Best rooms: Anchor Bay Suites. Best season: June through September. From $350 to $570 a night; telephone: 800-225-9849.

The Grenadines: Mustique This is the Caribbean's Capri, an island of architectural-statement villas, many owned by the world's A-list. It's also unique in being managed by a corporation, The Mustique Company, which oversees the island and maintains and rents the villas--officially known as The Villas of Mustique--for the often-absent owners. Every villa comes with a cook, who does the shopping and prepares and serves meals, and a golf cart for intra-island rambles. Many of them have their own pool. The island has exquisite beaches (the ones on the east side are best suited to Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr scenes; one bar, Basil's, a Caribbean institution; and one conventional hotel, the Cotton House, whose dining room more than fulfills the candlelight-romance quota. And here's one tip: Rent a villa on a hillside, not down on the beach. It's much cooler up there and much less buggy. Villas range from $6,000 to $30,000 a week; telephone: 800-225-4255.

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