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First Comes Love…

A step-by-step guide to having the best Valentine's Day ever.

New Orleans is known for many accolades: food, sports, spirits, Carnival and, now, romance. Travel + Leisure named New Orleans the fourth most romantic city in the United States. The magazine also named the Crescent City the No. 1 destination for cocktails, the singles scene and New Year’s Eve. All of these elements add to the romantic acumen of New Orleans – the history, the architecture, the decadent food, the disarming drinks – all perfect for falling in (or rekindling) love.

To take full advantage of New Orleans on this Valentine’s Day, a multi-course evening is in store. First, spend the day doing something fun. Choose an out-of-the-ordinary activity to get the date started. Next, a romantic dinner and drinks – don’t hold back. Candlelit conversation, shared plates, plenty of wine – the works. Then, hit the sweet spot with dessert – and what woman doesn’t swoon for chocolate?

The first step to a perfectly romantic Valentine’s Day is to get from point A to point B, and what better way to start the date than with a nostalgic streetcar ride into the city? It’s cheap, it’s fun and it’s classic New Orleans. Plus, no one has to worry about being the designated driver.

Stop off at the Audubon Zoo for Animal Amoré, a special adults-only Valentine’s Day event for animal-lovers. The evening includes a nighttime tour of the zoo, plus a presentation from a zoo naturalist about the mating habits of the zoos inhabitants. Couples can enjoy chocolates, spirits and various cheeses as well – think of it as an aperitif to an unconventional evening. The event is Saturday, Feb. 12, so plan ahead if you want to celebrate V-Day a little early. (Who wants to celebrate on a Monday, anyway?)

While locals might write off a riverboat ride as being too tourist-y, they’re actually missing out on a great experience and a whole different view of the city. After all, you can’t deny the romance of a moonlit cruise overlooking New Orleans, especially for Valentine’s Day. The Steamboat Natchez offers a “Romance on the River” package that’s the perfect start to the perfect Valentine’s Day date.

Now, on to dinner. Ambiance is, of course, one of the most important factors – candlelight, music, décor – but the food is just as important. Try to find a place that excels in both, and make reservations early.

Chef John Harris’ latest venture, Bouligny Tavern, offers an array of small plates – perfect for sharing – as well as vintage cocktails and a posh 1960s vibe. The little sister (and next-door neighbor) to Lilette has a sleek and dimly lit ambiance; it could belong in New York as easily as New Orleans. Menu highlights include the fried-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside Gouda Beignets and, for imbibing, a cocktail called Le Boulevardier, made of Maker’s Mark, Campari and sweet vermouth.

If you’d rather head to the French Quarter, Irene’s is a classic favorite, serving New Orleans-style Italian cuisine with a cozy, warm atmosphere. Try to sit in the dining room lined floor to ceiling with red wine bottles; you’ll feel like you’re in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Italy.

Back in Mid-City, Café Degas (which was also chosen as New Orleans Magazine’s French Restaurant of the Year in our December 2010 issue) provides authentic French cuisine with a New Orleans twist. French artist Jacques Soulas and Jerry Edgar opened the bistro in 1980, which they say makes Café Degas the longest-running French bistro in the city. For Valentine’s diners, the twinkling outdoor patio, extensive wine list and an authentic cheese plate will set the mood.

After a romantic dinner, it’s time to indulge your sweet tooth with dessert. Lolli’s Chocolates recently opened on Magazine Street and features a classically romantic treat as its top seller: chocolate-covered strawberries. They offer classic chocolate-covered strawberries as well as “fancy” varieties featuring pecans, almonds, M&Ms and sprinkles.

For a bed and breakfast experience, try the Avenue Inn Bed & Breakfast on St. Charles Avenue. The building is an 1891 Queen Anne mansion and a three-night package includes continental breakfast in the formal dining room or as breakfast in bed; a candlelit dinner at Upperline Restaurant; and RTA passes for unlimited streetcar rides.

The Inn on Bourbon offers a special performance of Opera on Tap on Valentine’s Day, featuring romantic arias and songs from the New Orleans Opera Association.

Whatever way you choose to spend your Valentine’s Day, just remember: It’s all about you and your loved one and beginning (or reigniting) romance.

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