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Honeymoon ideas

By USA specialist Carl

The United States offers a lot of choice when it comes to planning a honeymoon. City breaks combine easily with getting away from it all on the coast and some time spent exploring the American outdoors, all within the space of a two-week trip.

Here, I've selected various experiences that I feel would suit honeymooners, from urban exploration and ideas for self-driving to national park wilderness adventures and wildlife watching. Given the USA’s vastness and diversity, this is by no means an exhaustive list. It will, I hope, give couples some sense of the United States’ many-sided character and its scope as a honeymoon destination.

Honeymoon experiences in the USA

Explore the hills and heritage of San Francisco

San Francisco's Chinatown

San Francisco's Chinatown

The hub of the 1849 Gold Rush, the birthplace of the Beat poets and a modern-day cradle for disruptive technologies, San Francisco is a seductive mix of the historical and the innovative. It makes a great city to visit for a few days on honeymoon, perhaps as the start or end point of a relaxed road trip around California.

I recommend getting your bearings at Union Square, the modern downtown heart of the city, where you'll be surrounded by world-class restaurants and shopping opportunities. You'll also be near the start of the historic cable car system (construction was completed in 1890). It can take you up over some of the city's famously steep hills and, in the opposite direction, down to buzzy Fisherman's Wharf and the bay area.

It's a surprisingly walkable city, made even easier to cover by the cable cars. You can spend a pleasant afternoon or two pottering around its many characterful districts, from the mansions of Nob Hill to the perennially crowded blocks of Chinatown.

Hyde Street cable car

Hyde Street cable car

For a taste of the city's latter-day hippy culture, head to the Haight-Ashbury area, where the ghosts of former inhabitants Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix live on in spite of the area's gentrification. Expect buskers on street corners and shops selling vintage clothes and records.

As a would-be aficionado of Mexican food, whenever I'm in the city I like to make a pilgrimage to Taquería la Cumbre in the Mission district to sample its bumper burrito. A concoction of rice, meat and several kinds of vegetables, it was invented here in the 1960s to provide a balanced meal for local construction workers.

Cycle around San Francisco

Sausalito waterfront

Sausalito waterfront

I think one of the best things to do in San Francisco is to cycle around its periphery. The most picturesque route takes you downhill from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf and then over the Golden Gate Bridge, which is often shrouded in fog.

Once you've reached the other side of the bay, the cycle path hugs the coast until you reach Sausalito. It's a delightful antithesis to the city, a little town that wouldn't look out of place on the French or Italian Riviera, with its painted houses tumbling down the hillside to the waterfront.

You can wander around its art galleries and cafés before catching the ferry back across the bay and dropping your bicycle off at Fisherman's Wharf. En route you'll get an excellent view of Alcatraz Island, or The Rock, with its rusting water tower and vast slab of what was once the penitentiary.

Sausalito is also a good place to base yourself while you're exploring San Francisco. I like the boutique property Casa Madrona, which dates from the 1800s. Many of its rooms have views of the city skyline across the bay.

San Francisco can be easily combined with a trip to Yosemite National Park. It is also a good starting point for exploring the Californian coastline, notably the Pacific Coast Highway, that lies to the south of the city.

Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

Highway 1, near Monterey Bay

Highway 1, near Monterey Bay

I'd describe this route as one of the definitive American road trips, and it's best suited to couples who want to travel under their own steam. With the top down, you can explore the Californian coast in depth, while also glimpsing some classic Americana.

I advise heading from north to south so that you drive alongside the ocean and can pull in at whim to admire the coastal scenery.

Take your time with the drive (allow at least five days), drinking in the laid-back Californian lifestyle: where else would you see locals parked on the roadside by small coves, surfing in their lunch breaks? I recommend stopping at one of the chintzy roadside diner-style cafés for a pot of coffee and endless refills.

There are many places to visit on the Pacific Coast Highway, from Mexican-influenced Santa Barbara to relaxed city-on-the-beach San Diego. Look out for people posing at the end of Santa Monica pier, the finishing point for Route 66.

Infinity pool at the Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur

Infinity pool at the Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur

Stretches of golden sand beach give way to sheer cliffs wreathed in summertime mists around Big Sur, a region south of Carmel that has some of the wildest, most undeveloped coast in the country. Huge waves crash against the base of the cliffs, and there are numerous vantage points you can stop off at to admire the views.

I stopped to go whale watching in Monterey Bay, a nursing ground for grey, minke and even blue whales. If you're lucky, you may be able to observe a pod of humpback whales breaching for several minutes.

There are many accommodation choices along the Pacific Coast Highway, but the Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, tops my list. An adults-only hotel, its restaurant offers sophisticated Californian fusion food, but the real treat are the infinity pools perched on the clifftops, overlooking the ocean.

It's also worth noting that places to stay book up quickly in this part of the US. I advise making your honeymoon arrangements a good 6 to 12 months in advance.

Snorkel with manta rays in Hawaii

Manta ray

Manta ray

Hawaii's beaches are ideal for a more conventionally relaxing honeymoon. For me, Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu is the best place to kick back under swaying palms for a few days, and perhaps watch some of its resident wave riders in action.

The Hawaiian Islands have an astonishing diversity of scenery. Kauai, for example, is covered in wild jungle vegetation, while the eponymous Hawaii Island – known as Big Island – has effusively erupting shield volcanoes. There are plenty of ways to make an entire trip out of exploring the islands.

One of the things I enjoy most is snorkeling in the calmer waters of the pristine bays. There are numerous excellent snorkeling locations throughout the archipelago, such as the Molokini Crater just off the coast of Maui, for couples who want to witness the exotic marine life found in this part of the world. You may see creatures like green sea turtles, and many varieties of butterfly fish.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Hawaii (Big Island)

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Hawaii (Big Island)

One night on the western side of Big Island, I heard of a spot where the manta rays have come to associate light with food. After a 15 minute boat ride from the shore, my guide strung out lighted floats into the water. I jumped in and, after a few moments, a dozen manta rays, their wingspan reaching up to 3m (10ft), started to come swooping out of the darkness.

They would loop gracefully in an arc and come to feed with their ghostly white underbellies touching the surface, their mouths gaping open to swallow the plankton floating there. They seemed completely unperturbed by my presence, and although touching the rays isn't permitted, they would brush against me as they glided through the water.

Big Island has one of Hawaii's best hotels, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. All rooms have private balconies and I had great fun at the twice-weekly luau, a traditional Hawaiian feast of fresh fish, barbecued meats and tropical fruits, accompanied by hula and fire dancing.

Learn to cook Cajun-style in New Orleans

Shrimp gumbo

Shrimp gumbo

New Orleans is renowned for many reasons – its setting on the gargantuan Mississippi, the ornate balustrades of the colonial-era buildings in its French Quarter, and the live jazz band clubs of Bourbon Street. I like staying in the heart of it all at the French Quarter's Hotel Monteleone. It has a heated rooftop pool and a celebrated bar, the Carousel, where Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway were regulars.

But one of the things I love most about the city is its cuisine. Epicurean couples can have a lot of fun here, sampling the local hearty, heady Cajun and Creole dishes, and perhaps take part in a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking.

My top Louisianan meal has to be gumbo, a hodge podge of rice, peppers, spices and seafood – it's like a risotto with a kick that hits you at the back of the throat. Then there are po'boys: huge baguette-like sandwiches spilling over with fried seafood (usually shrimps, softshell crabs, and catfish) or any number of meaty ingredients like spicy sausage or drippy roast beef and hot mustard.

You should also try freshly shucked southern-style oysters, with the obligatory hot pepper sauce. I'm always tickled to see that New Orleans has whole shops dedicated to hot sauce, and the bottles have the most crazily decorated labels.

Take a swamp tour in Louisiana

Alligator in Louisiana's swampland

Alligator in Louisiana's swampland

Admittedly, this isn't a conventional honeymoon experience, but it combines well with a visit to New Orleans (you can visit on a day trip from the city) and provides another way of experiencing America's Deep South. It's a fascinating trip for couples interested in sighting some of the USA's most famous wildlife – alligators – and discovering first-hand the otherworldly swamplands. 

In Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, you board a traditional flatboat and start to motor your way through the park's bayous, the man-made channels through the swamp. You survey the landscape on what is effectively a floating platform, hovering almost at eye-level with the vegetation that starts to close in on you as you venture deeper into the swamps, passing the odd eerily dilapidated, abandoned wooden shack.

You might spot what appears to be nothing but a floating log – until it starts swimming. I was struck by how still and well camouflaged the alligators could be. I remember seeing one perched on a rock, without even a flicker of movement.

Guides will point out nesting grounds, and explain the on-going work in Jean Lafitte to rehabilitate gators who have been sold as pets. You may also catch sight of snakes sinuously winding through the murky water, or birdlife such as great egrets and great blue herons.

Stay on a ranch

Horse riding at the Goosewing Ranch

Horse riding at the Goosewing Ranch

If you're a honeymoon couple looking for activity, but also escape, I'd suggest spending some time on a ranch.

The beauty of most ranches is their remoteness from everyday urban stresses and strains, and also the fact that you can participate in the outdoors rancher life as much or as little as you wish. Ranches usually offer guests a multitude of outdoor pursuits, such as horse riding, quad biking, rafting, fly-fishing, and trail walking, as well as the chance to participate in everyday ranch activities – yes, you could find yourself rounding up cattle.

The greatest range of ranches tends to be in the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, but they can be found all over western USA. Those in the Rockies usually have mountain backdrops. You can choose from a rustic working ranch, where you could be in the saddle for most of the day, working with the cowboys on their daily tasks, or a guest ranch, which often offer a variety of guest activities.

Brush Creek Ranch

Brush Creek Ranch

At Diamond 7 Bar Ranch in Wyoming you can take part in specific ranching activities, such as branding and penning cattle, and even the annual roundup. Goosewing Ranch, also in Wyoming, offers a variety of day and multi-day trail horseback rides. Some involve camping overnight in the Gros Ventre mountains.

Brush Creek Ranch offers a sophisticated experience, with a spa to complement the more strenuous activities available, such as hiking and trail-running.

Honeymooners can stay in the cabin suites – traditional log cabins with potbelly stoves or fireplaces and plush furnishings – or the lodge rooms, which have panoramic views of the Medicine Bow Mountains. Food is fresh and locally sourced, and staff will pack gourmet picnics for you to take to a nearby ridge or mountaintop.

Get off the beaten track in the Olympic Peninsula

Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park

Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park

The Pacific Northwest is one of the lesser-known corners of the USA, and as such it’s ideal to go off grid for a few days. Olympic National Park is a backwoods area of lakes, primeval rainforests, mountain tops and windswept beaches. It's a dramatic contrast to the nearby metropolis of Seattle, which lies just across Puget Sound to the east. When I first visited, I was initially struck by how verdant this national park is.

Your first introduction to the park may come in the shape of the ring of quirky coastal towns around it. Some, like Poulsbo, have Scandinavian influences.

As you head further inland, the coastal plains give way to mountains. Drive up to Hurricane Ridge for a panoramic view over cascading green foothills and valleys.

I recommend visiting the temperate Hoh Rainforest and its Hall of Mosses, south of Lake Crescent and a two-hour drive from Port Angeles. Its trees are carpeted with mosses and ferns; there are hardly any areas of bark not covered in lichens. Walking through the dripping, dense understorey is like entering a surreal, underwater landscape.

View from Hurricane Ridge

View from Hurricane Ridge

The rugged beaches west of Lake Quinault are the peninsula's most special feature, in my opinion. Wide expanses pounded by spume and strewn with boulders, they're no place for sunbathers. But, you'll see the odd family roasting marshmallows over a driftwood fire or splashing in the mouths of creeks that pour into the ocean. I've enjoyed several blustery walks along Ruby Beach, which is bordered by the Haystacks, wave-battered rocky monoliths that lie just offshore.

Accommodation is, admittedly, limited in the Olympic Peninsula, so be prepared to book ahead. The best options are the homespun, rustic lodges, which were originally built around the time the USA's National Park Service was founded. I like Lake Quinault Lodge for its simple wooden cabin decor and taxidermy-studded lobby with an open fire, as well as its tranquil setting on the lake's edge.

Best time to honeymoon in the USA

Being such a large country, the USA can be visited year round depending on which part of the country you are visiting.

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