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Thinking outside the box (of chocolates) 

New ways to plan for fun on Valentine's Day

You've decided to take your significant other out for Valentine's Day. But due to the thousands of other drivers on the road with the same idea, you're late for your reservation to the hot new chi-chi restaurant. No matter, they've truncated their menu and crammed twice the number of two-seater tables in the dining room. You're elbow-to-elbow with tense couples on either side, ordering the same prix fixe special that overworked servers are slinging like hash. How romantic!

This year, we have a better idea: Lock yourselves in a box. Grab some ammo. And make it through the night alive. Nothing warms the heart or gets your lover's pulse racing the way it did when you first met like a surge of adrenaline.

So, we've hunted down a few local options that go beyond the restaurant hassle — or flowers and candy again — for a more intense Valentine's Day. Trust us, you'll thank us in the morning.

Mylene Labrie and her husband, Jay, are into puzzles. Like, really into puzzles. But not the 1,000-piece, grandma kind. The owners of Exit Strategy create themed escape-the-room games, where people are locked into a room and have 60 minutes to figure their way out, using clues that are hidden in strategic locations around the room.

The two discovered the trend, which is very popular in Asia and Europe, while traveling. "He knew I loved puzzles, so he went on Trip Advisor and found a company that did it," she says.

They loved it so much, the former teacher opened their own location in August, just past the edge of South End. Exit Strategy currently has two themed rooms: That '70s Room and Cabin in the Woods. They're adding two more rooms, Murder Mystery Motel and Lost in Space, come mid-February.

Each set is an immersive experience. The '70s Room is like stepping into a time capsule from a perfectly preserved, kitschy party den circa 1973. It's bright and cheerful, and reminiscent of vintage Brady Bunch or Doctor Who. You can almost hear the music.

Clues can be just about anywhere and like the era it's based on, clues in the '70s Room are free-form. They aren't sequential, and can be audio or visual. You and your partner(s) find them and figure out how they fit together in order to crack the lock and break free.

The Cabin in the Woods Room goes in another direction. "Some people think it'll be scary, but we're going for more of a creepy feel," Mylene says. Mission accomplished. The room, which is suitable for patrons as young as 7 and old as 85, is hella creepy. Still, "we have to make sure no one will freak out or have a heart attack in there."

Without giving it all away, the experience begins with total black-out goggles. The sensory deprivation is disorienting, but it heightens your sensitivity to temperature, sounds — clues. When you're finally granted some limited vision, what you see is enough to make fans of Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow or the occult mystery genre in general pee their pants a little, in the good way.

It's fun, especially for couples with a darker sense of humor. But is it romantic? "Escaping requires teamwork. Me and my husband love this type of thing because it allows you to see your partner in a different way. Maybe they analyze a clue in a totally unexpected way and it springs you free," Mylene says.

The activity is also ripe for role-play. Maybe you're the genius sociopath detective, or the innocent babe with a streak of iron in her blood. Dress the part and get into the scene, unraveling the clues as you tease each other. But don't go further than that. You are being watched — and laughed at — on camera.

They've had couples bond on a first date, and many celebrate anniversaries and birthdays with them. One man staged his proposal and had them hide the ring in the room. While 10:30 p.m. is the last possible booking time on weekends, Mylene says it's good to schedule a meal after the activity if it's a dinner date.

"It's not a static event, like a movie where you can give your opinion on the ride home. When it's over, people want to talk about what they did. Sometimes they hang out in the parking lot, talking about the room and how they figured it out," she says. Or you could, you know, get to the more amorous part of the evening.

For a more sportive significant other, Valentine's shoots are flourishing. The psycho-sexual correlation between firing a weapon and sexual climax is icky, but undeniable. Something about squeezing a trigger gets us all hot and bothered. Carolina Sporting Arms is one of the first gun ranges in Charlotte to exploit this peculiarity, with specials designed to get ladies to grip some steel on the holiday. Their shoot is advertised on Facebook with the tagline "You could buy her flowers on Valentine's Day or you could buy her bullets!" Nothing says love quite like a bullet-riddled pink or purple heart-shaped target. You're welcome.

But the best Valentine's Days are arranged with a little help. Concierge Wade Perrault, of the new Le Meridien Hotel, is the one to call when money is no object, or even if it is. He's been arranging romantic weekends for couples for years, and is a treasure trove of out-of-the-box Valentine's Day ideas.

Are you and your beau vintage jewelry fanatics on a beer budget? He'll arrange a private tour of the Mint Museum Randolph's Fashion Collection, with its fab costume jewelry. Love gore? Be an extra in a horror film shoot.

"I don't provide the services, but I know who to call for that. Want box tickets to Cher? That can be done. Or FIFA, that can be done. Dinner with an opera singer, I can arrange that," Wade says.

He isn't bragging: the former private service butler and nonprofit fundraiser maintains a huge rolodex of contacts, service providers and suppliers to help him fulfill clients' wildest dreams. He's almost like an event planner.

A wife came to him wanting to surprise her husband by going jewelry shopping. Wade learned the husband's tastes and her timeline, then he went to work. He called a top jewelry boutique, pre-selected pieces the husband would like, arranged a limousine to pick the couple up, and had the shop shut down to the public. While perusing the gold and silver baubles, they sipped on champagne.

The trick, Wade says, lies in making sure everything flows absolutely perfectly, but invisibly: he makes sure the limo is on time and is there to usher the couple into it; he alerts the boutique of their arrival so the champagne is freshly poured and ready.

"I don't want them to see what's behind the curtain, because that ruins it for them," he says. "All they should know is I'm there to usher them into the limo, the champagne is freshly poured, and he loves the jewelry."

These dates can take weeks to put together, but the bonus is how customized they can be, down to private menus with specific flavor profiles arranged by the chef. So long as it's legal, there's not much that Wade can't make happen. "There's no such thing as unusual. There's no request I haven't received," Wade says. "All it takes is a phone call and to ask. Will you allow me to create this at your location?"

The service is not just for out-of-towners. "I love helping guests to really discover their own town, especially on weekends," Wade says. Money is no object—literally.

"I don't mention money," the concierge says. "If you want a romantic dinner, you're looking at the atmosphere, not what you're eating. Money's not the end-all be-all ... It's the together time."

The Mint Museum couple got to ooh and ahh over vintage costume jewelry. Though they couldn't buy anything, they still got the same level of romantic experience as the couple in the jewelry store, Wade points out. "It's never about the money," Wade says. "Creativity doesn't have a minimum price tag."

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