My honeymoon two years ago had all the elements I deem essential for romance and relaxation: cozy accommodations in a knockout location. We chose a place that guaranteed little fuss but plenty of outdoor activities -- but none of which required our participation if we chose instead to stay in and nuzzle.

Our seaside condo on North Carolina's dunesy Outer Banks meant freedom from hotel and restaurant formalities. We just picked up our key at the rental office and were left blissfully on our own. We could eat out, carry in, or even do a little cooking if the mood struck.

Our timing -- midweek and off-season -- meant no crowds. And though hiking, kayaking, hang gliding and other intriguing activities were at our disposal, we made no commitments beforehand -- except a prenuptial agreement to just go with the flow.

Certainly, honeymoon tastes are as diverse as other vacation preferences, but the stress that often accompanies planning a wedding makes choosing a no-hassle getaway especially important. A postnuptial trip (or any romantic journey) is, after all, an attempt to unwind and share precious time with the love of your life; it should not come encumbered with the pressures you left home to escape.

Over the years I've developed a list of favorite places around the country for romantic, adventurous escapes -- from isolated inns on quiet cliffs to haute hotels that sizzle to a city beat, modern condos with extensive spa and sports facilities, and love nests with heart-shaped tubs and mirrored headboards. Each captivated in a different way, making for a spicy gumbo of romantic memories.

Palm Island Resort, Cape Haze, Fla. -- The launch ride from the registration office at Cape Haze to Palm Island Resort is a mere 10 minutes, but we left more than our car and credit card imprint behind on the mainland. Snuggling close against a chilly afternoon breeze, we felt a warm calm set in and the tensions of real life ease out.

Occupying 2 miles at the northern tip of a 7-mile stretch of three barrier islands on western Florida's Gulf Coast, Palm Island Resort is a romantic retreat not just because it's an island but because it is mostly devoid of distractions. True, our sprawling condo overlooking the wispy dunes and gently foaming sea had a television and phone, but we agreed to make believe they weren't there unless an emergency struck -- and it never did.

Our days soon took on an easy pattern: morning beach strolls, afternoon canoe excursions into the cool mangrove swamp, sunset walks along the tide line, and evening lounging, two to a chaise, on our screened-in-terrace as we listened to the surf and the squawk of shorebirds.

For sustenance, we survived on oatmeal breakfasts and soup-and-sandwich lunches prepared in our kitchen. At the dinner hour we hopped on our trusty golf cart (no cars are allowed on the island) and drove to the pier-side Rum Bay Restaurant for Cajun grouper, grilled salmon or spicy ribs.

When our island time was up, we boarded the hotel launch back to the mainland. We held hands throughout the crossing and during most of the flight home.

"Honeymooners," the smiles of strangers seemed to say. Actually, we had been married two years by then!

Stanford Inn by the Sea, Mendocino, Calif. -- Perched on a heather-covered headland 150 miles north of San Francisco, Mendocino is Northern California's arty-est ocean-side enclave. The wild seascapes and rugged cliffs resemble coastal Maine -- except for the much milder weather and the roadside llama farms.

You'll find quality art galleries on every block, innovative restaurants and cozy bed-and-breakfast inns. This is the perfect place to come for hiking, canoeing and mountain biking, and you can take weekend art classes year-round at the Mendocino Arts Center.

My favorite place to stay is Stanford Inn by the Sea, about a five-minute drive from downtown. Rooms have working fireplaces, refrigerators, coffee makers, and redwood decks that overlook the inn's llama ranch, organic vegetable garden and, beyond, the Pacific Ocean and Mendocino village.

There's a champagne Continental breakfast every morning and wine and cheese every afternoon. Rent bikes or canoes from the inn (a canoe trail starts right off the premises) or hike the rugged Mendocino coast or inland redwood forest.

Caesar's Pocono Palace Resort, Marshalls Creek, Pa. -- Yes, this is the land of heart-shaped tubs and giant round beds with mirrored headboards. You can even choose a room with a two-story whirlpool tub shaped like a champagne glass. What, you're snickering? Trust me, you'll get caught up in the seductiveness of the theme, surrendering to the fantasy. Besides, the sports and outdoor activities are fabulous, and you might catch Jay Leno, David Brenner or Dana Carvey as a headliner at the resort theater.

Once open only to bona-fide honeymooners, Pocono Palace now welcomes couples of all ages and at any stage of courtship. When you're not soaking in bubble bath, you can take advantage of the resort's new 32,000-square-foot sports and recreation facility, free water-skiing (including lessons) on the resort's lake, speedboating, tennis, golf, horseback riding and endless hiking in the outlying woods and mountains.

Because the package price (which includes breakfast, hors d'oeuvres and dinner daily) also allows you to use the facilities at three other nearby Caesar's resorts, you'll be hard-pressed to run out of things to do.

Rusty Parrot Lodge, Jackson, Wyo. -- Grab your pointy-toed boots, practice your country two-step, and live out your wildest-West fantasies in this little community ringed by mountains and just a short hop from Grand Teton and Yellowstone National parks. Jackson is both low-key and highbrow, with gourmet restaurants and country-western dives, snooty little boutiques and wide open spaces for hiking and cycling.

President Clinton spent two weeks here last August, relaxing with rich pals and doing some family camping with Hillary and Chelsea. With 70 restaurants and 34 art galleries around town, Jackson is more hip than hick -- no matter how down-home the mood at the neon Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where big-bellied guys in faded jeans and suspenders twirl their big-haired partners to live country swing, and the bar stools have saddles for seats.

Top pick for lodging is the pinewood and glass Rusty Parrot Lodge, just two blocks from the town square. Rooms have

handcrafted furniture, down comforters and oversized baths. The big open lounge/breakfast room serves made-to-order breakfast specials (included in the room price) and baked goodies and coffees in the afternoon. A new addition this year: a spa with a variety of health and beauty treatments, including massages for couples.

Great spots for dinner: the snazzy Snake River Grill, or Bubba's Bar-B-Que, where millionaires wait half an hour for the baby back ribs.

One outing worth hitching up with: the Great Plains Wildlife Institute's van safaris to see moose, eagles, coyotes and bighorn sheep.

Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, Washington, D.C. -- Just two blocks from the White House and within walking distance of the museums on the Mall, the venerable Willard is both elegant and intimate, a place where generations of Washingtonians have come to celebrate special events and gawk at world leaders and other movers and shakers who want their lodgings as close to the ear of the president as possible. Extensively renovated 10 years ago, the Willard gleams with dramatic marble, crystal and polished oak panels. The bridal (Jenny Lind) suite at the top of the hotel is a split-level affair overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, with a kitchenette, large marble bath and an oval bedroom with a canopy bed.

You can go the usual cultural route, exploring the monuments and museums, or, for a more active trip, walk the miles of paths along the Potomac River, perhaps renting a pedal boat at the Tidal Basin. Or, hop a bus to Georgetown, and rent bikes along the canal-side towpath that takes you out to Great Falls, Va., where, hiking through the woods, you'll feel a world away from civilization.

A car will give you access to some of Virginia's trendy little towns, such as Alexandria's colonial Old Town section, or the wooded hills around Potomac, Md. Most romantic dinner spot if you can get out to Potomac is the Old Angler's Inn, where you'll have your drinks and order your meal while sitting on a love seat in the candle-lit lounge, then move on to the little dining room upstairs when dinner's ready.

Mansion del Rio, San Antonio, Texas -- San Antonio would easily rank as one of my top five favorite walking towns. Few places are as user-friendly to pedestrians as the River Walk, a winding, 2.8-mile cobblestone path alongside the San Antonio River. River Walk passes many of downtown's most popular cafes and hotels -- including the Mediterranean-style Mansion del Rio, my top choice for lodging in San Antonio.

Mansion del Rio is known for its dramatic arched entranceways, whitewashed facade and red tile roof -- a unique San Antonio style. Some of the rooms have balconies overlooking the river. If you get one, you can feast on the passing scene from your own little table for two.

Take a riverboat tour at sunset, feast on great Tex-Mex food, make a pilgrimage to the Alamo, and take in the sweeping views of the city and surroundings from the observation deck of the 750-foot-high Tower of the Americas.

For a distinct treat, don't miss the noontime Sunday Mariachi Mass at the San Jose Mission (a short cab ride away), where guitars embellish the prayers and participants dress in traditional Mexican costume, and perform cultural dances after Mass. This is as much a cultural event as a religious service.

The Paramount Hotel, New York, N.Y. -- No place sizzles with excitement like New York City. On a recent summertime sojourn to the Big Apple we feasted under the stars at the American Festival Cafe at Rockefeller Center, swaying in our seats to live music from the '50s and '60s. We picnicked under a shade tree in Central Park as an Ecuadorean combo played sweet flute tunes to one side of us and a lone saxophonist wailed the blues on the other. We set off in a riverboat from the South Street Seaport and boogied to a New Orleans rhythm band as we glided past the Statue of Liberty.

Finally, we had a late, lovely brunch at the River Cafe on the Brooklyn waterfront, where we sighed at the pianist's mellow tones and the view of yachts and tugboats gliding by the knock 'em dead Manhattan skyline.

Classy lodgings are legion in New York, but I particularly like the TTC Paramount Hotel, set smack in the heart of the theater district. The atmosphere is what its public-relations people accurately characterize as "theater in the theater district; a hotel as entertainment."

The lobby is gorgeous, with subtle recessed lighting and easy chairs upholstered in soothing shades of coral, sea green and royal blue. From the lobby you can look up at diners in the glassed-in mezzanine restaurant, their faces softly illuminated by tiny, colorful table lamps. Even the elevators are dramatic; step inside and you'll be bathed in a green, red, blue, purple or orange-yellow glow.

The cheapest rooms are minuscule, but funky design touches, such as art deco-inspired furniture in the bedrooms and a mod, cone-shaped stainless-steel sink in the bathroom, make them kind of fun. There's a well-equipped gym and a branch of the posh Dean & DeLuca specialty food store on the premises.

Shelburne Inn, Seaview, Wash. -- We discovered the Victorian Shelburne Inn on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula at the end of a lengthy driving trip up the Pacific coast. We were tired and hungry and looking for a cozy place off the beaten tourist path. After crossing the Astoria Bridge over the mouth of the Columbia River, just north of the Oregon border, we veered west and then north up Long Beach Peninsula, a 28-mile finger of surf-lined sand, tidal pools and coastal pine forests punctuated by tiny communities.

Seaview, quietly nestled between Ilwaca, popular for its fishing charters, and Long Beach, a cluttered resort town, was just the kind of sleepy place we were looking for. And the Shelburne Inn, engulfed in brilliant shades of wildflowers and smelling of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies (which we were handed at check-in), was the perfect sanctuary within that haven.

The 15 guest rooms are furnished with antiques and fresh flowers, and chocolate truffles appear daily. The inn's Showlwater Restaurant, which consistently wins national awards, lived up to its reputation with juicy crab cakes and fresh oysters over Thai noodles.

We had great fun exploring the marsh- and dune-lined back roads of the peninsula, which separates the Pacific Ocean from Willapa Bay. Our favorite hike was a long beach walk alongside the grassy tidelands of Leadbetter Point at the northern tip of the peninsula.

Sanibel Harbor Resort and Spa, Fort Myers, Fla. -- The blood-orange sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico are enough to provoke an instant cuddle. And there's plenty of space to do so in the huge two-bedroom condos that are my favorite accommodations at this sprawling resort just off the causeway leading to Sanibel Island. Book a corner unit in the 12-story Bayview Tower and from your wraparound balcony you'll get sweeping views of Sanibel and Captiva islands on one side and wild mangrove islets on the other.

The resort has a full-fledged spa with an extensive array of exercise classes, massages and beauty treatments, a top-notch tennis school, hiking through a wilderness path, and canoeing and kayaking off the beach or along a watery nature trail. At sunset, relax on your terrace or catch the spectacular color show from the Islaverde lounge in a Victorian-style wing of the main hotel building.

The resort is a good base for exploring the shell-filled beaches of Sanibel and Captiva islands, just a five-minute drive across the causeway. Drive, cycle or walk the circular loop around Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, rent a canoe at Captiva's 'Tween Waters Inn and paddle alongside the island's snazzy ocean-front cottages and mangrove trails, or take your taste buds to one of the islands' numerous trendy cafes -- I like Windows on the Water at the Sundial Beach Resort on Sanibel.

Booking a Romantic Retreat

Caesar's Pocono Palace Resort, Marshalls Creek, Pa., (800) 233-4141. Packages run $390-$720 for two nights; $850-$1,637 for five nights. The higher price gets the champagne-glass whirlpool suites.

Mansion del Rio, San Antonio, Texas, (800) 292-7300. River-view rooms with balconies, from $230.

North Carolina's Outer Banks. Seaside Realty, (800) 395-2525, rents condos and cottages throughout the Outer Banks. The price for a huge condo like ours ranges from $1,375 per week in high season (June through August) to $625 per week in low season (September through May).

Palm Island Resort, Cape Haze, Fla., (800) 824-5412. Two-night package prices start at $265 for a one-bedroom condo. Special honeymoon packages also are available.

The Paramount Hotel, New York, N.Y., (800) 225-7474. Rates from $125.

Rusty Parrot Lodge, Jackson, Wyo., (800) 458-2004. Rates from $200, including breakfast.

Sanibel Harbor Resort and Spa, Fort Myers, Fla., (800) 767-7777. Rooms from $120; condos from $160. Honeymoon and spa packages available.

Shelburne Inn, P.O. Box 250, Seaview, Wash. 98644, (360) 642-2442. Rates from $100.

Stanford Inn by the Sea, Mendocino, Calif., (800) 331-8884. Rates from $175. Fireplace suites, about $275.

Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, Washington, D.C. (800) 327-0200. Rooms from $265 (although often offered at half price). Honeymoon suite is $800 per night.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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