AUSTIN -- What makes a trip romantic? Champagne? Food? Gorgeous scenery? Aquarius that I am, I always think water -- an ocean, particularly -- ups the romance quotient. So my husband and I took off for the Texas coast in search of the most romantic places to stay, eat and play alongside the Gulf of Mexico.
Best-laid romantic plans can veer off course, and, inevitably, some of ours did. But, equally inevitably, we wound up having a fabulous time in each of our coastal ventures. Romance is, after all, what you make of it.
Standing on the rooftop deck of the Tremont House hotel, champagne in hand, we watch the sun set behind the ships and rigs in Galveston Bay. This is romantic.
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The combination of historic hotels and upscale dining choices makes Galveston a good spot for a romantic retreat. We've chosen the historic but newly redecorated Tremont House, a hotel created from two buildings built in 1897 and 1901, as our base.
Our room's sloping walls (we're inside the mansard roof) cocoon us, our king bed is fluffy and the period furnishings create a romantic vibe. For those with more upscale ideas, Tremont also offers its spacious Belmont Suites, where plantation shutters and high ceilings boost the romantic ambience.
The hotel's bar is a lively spot, but its rooftop deck is even better. Drinks are served up there in summer, but until then, you're free to do as we're doing: Take your own bottle of champagne.
For a romantic cocktail, a friend has recommended a spot called 21 Wine & Martini Bar on Postoffice Street. We walk in to the strains of Bad to the Bone and the crack of a cue ball, but we do manage to find a couch on which to sit and holler sweet nothings at each other. It's not really romantic unless you consider a low bar tab -- $13 for a martini and a glass of wine -- romantic (and it is, sort of). Next time we'll check out another recommendation: Bacchus Wine Bar on the Strand.
We proceed to a restaurant called 901 Postoffice (its address) for dinner and find a convivial atmosphere in a warm, attractive old house. A woman at the next table is holding forth loudly about her hyperactive dog, but, happily, that group soon departs, leaving three tables of quiet, romantic couples.
The meats look good, but being in Galveston, we're in a seafood mood, and it's creative here. My husband chooses a grilled snapper with crab wontons and chili sauce. I opt for a succulent corn-dusted snapper on sweet-potato purée, topped with orange, jicama and radish slaw. Service is excellent but unobtrusive. What best completes the evening? A moonlight stroll along the sea wall.
There are plenty of other Galveston options. Rudy & Paco is a friendly and romantic restaurant with a wide variety of seafood and steak offerings. Hotel Galvez also offers romantic history, along with a spa and a terrific Sunday brunch.
Or check into one of the chic Club 10 Suites at the San Luis Resort, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, for a self-contained romantic trip. You'll get champagne on arrival, along with romantic CDs. Breakfast and snacks are served in the hall on this kid-free floor, and suites have plush beds and luxurious bathrooms.
Outside, relax in a cabana near an outdoor cocktail bar and sushi bar. San Luis has a good spa, and the clubby Steakhouse provides a romantic steak dinner.
With visions of strolling near the waves on Mustang Island State Park, we drive to Corpus Christi. Unfortunately, it's raining -- sideways and with a big chill. No strolling the beach -- or even the streets. So we hole up in the Omni Bayfront, which offers a lovely, large room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bay and marina.
On the top floor of the hotel, the Republic of Texas restaurant and bar have a 360-degree view of the harbor, and it's the perfect place to wait out a thunderstorm. We enjoy a glass of wine as we watch the rain lash the windows.
Our favorite Corpus restaurant, Water Street Seafood, is only blocks away, so we venture out for oysters, a highly romantic food. The atmosphere isn't especially romantic, but paying $10.10 for a dozen oysters on the half shell has a warming quality. Afterward, we scurry back to the Omni to hole up for the rest of the night. There you have it, short and sweet.
Other romantic Corpus options include V Boutique Hotel, with comfy-contemporary rooms and, upstairs, its Vietnam Restaurant, an elegant upscale and romantic spot for Vietnamese cuisine. We'd try it, but our visit falls on a Sunday, when it's closed.
If you're in the Corpus Christi area when it's not raining, do that beach stroll. It's one of my favorite things.
South Padre does a lot of things well: family vacations, party beach trips ... but not high-end romance. There's not really a luxury hotel here, although certainly the Sheraton has nice (and recently refurbished) rooms.
Romantic restaurants? Eh, they're not really here. High-end restaurants typically close in less than a year, and you're lucky if you can find a bar that has a decent glass of wine and pours it in a glass made of glass, not plastic.
That doesn't mean the island is devoid of romance. It's just, for the most part, funky-romantic. You have to like hitting beach bars and reveling in fried flounder. It works for me.
That said, I'm out to find the most traditionally romantic experience I can.
To avoid the party crowd and small children (they're nice, but not for romance), try the Redfish Inn, a bed-and-breakfast overlooking the bay. Its six rooms are nicely designed in island chic with a copper sink and Mexican-tiled bathroom in each. You need to bring your own champagne, but there's a fridge to accommodate it, and you can enjoy it on a private deck overlooking the bay at sunset, perhaps with a blue heron watching. I call that romantic.
If you want to pamper your love -- or perhaps get a couples massage -- the island's Sapphire Spa offers treatments and products on a par with those of city spas. The outdoor Ocean Terrace, on the beach but private, makes a lovely relaxation room.
In search of a romantic sunset cocktail, my husband and I head for Scampi's, across the street from the Redfish Inn. Scampi's is a popular restaurant with a bar deck overlooking the Laguna Madre and, thus, the sunset.
The view is less than it used to be. In its post-hurricane renovation, the restaurant has installed a rail that's just at my eye level, and that means I have to stand up to see the sunset. On the day we're there, the bar is out of champagne, and I'm not terrifically happy with the house chardonnay. Nothing wrong with the sunset itself, but you see what compromises are necessary here.
I like Scampi's bar because drinks come in actual glass, but you can also catch a good sunset at the nearby downscale Wahoo or Coconuts, both overlooking the bay. Don't order wine there, though; stick with beer.
For dinner, I'm keen to try a new restaurant I've heard a lot about, Gabriella's, but it's closed for an owner vacation. Wild Fork, the latest entry in South Padre fine dining, has gotten good reviews, but I'm not crazy about paying high prices in an attempt to eat a romantic meal at a place that makes me bring my own wine, which this one does.
If you can get past the lack of romantic ambience, there are plenty of places to catch a good, albeit not fancy, seafood dinner in South Padre, including Blackbeard's and Dirty Al's (actually quite a clean restaurant). My husband and I eat in those all the time, so on this occasion, we simply order a pizza from D'Pizza Joint (for my money, one of the nation's best pizzas), eat it in our room with a nice bottle of red wine, then go for a walk on the beach. A flock of laughing gulls cackles as we stroll by. Go ahead, gulls, laugh: This is, indeed, romantic.
Helen Anders writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.