When it comes to romance there's little that compares to the allure of fireplaces. Whether they actually provide heat is pretty much irrelevant; it's the fantasy that counts.

Where else can you make like Katharine Hepburn, bony elbow poised on the mantel as you toss back a cognac and exchange witty repartee with your Cary Grant-equivalent.

Where better to read Poe on a frosty evening when the gnarled branches of the old oak tree scrape against the windowpanes like devilish claws?

How else would Santa arrive?

Although sometimes installing a wood-burning unit is impractical, or impossible, you can still have a fireplace in just about any room in a house or condo. And it will still warm the cockles of your heart, whatever those are.

At the most elemental level, you can always break out the champagne, cuddle up in front of your TV set and slip "Virtual Flames" into the DVD. Available for around 12 bucks, the video has won good reviews from at least a few people. One of Target's Web customers gave it five stars and said, "Everything I expected from a video showing a fireplace."

Something more realistic?

Cecile Weich likes fireplaces, "There's something so calming, so romantic about them," she said. "My husband teases me that I even run it in the summer." The flamboyant family lawyer, who floats about draped in white with her fingers looped in rings the size of doorknobs, always has them, even when she doesn't.

Her recently sold pied-a-terre at the Residences at Market Square in downtown Washington had three fireplaces reflecting off the mirrored walls, ceilings and piano -- yes, a mirrored piano -- and none of them required a stick of wood, a whiff of gas or an ignition switch.

Weich installed steel boxes that hold ceramic logs. They don't need to be vented because they burn cans of nontoxic ethanol alcohol gel. Still, the flames leap and twinkle and even crackle merrily, if pricily -- a dozen cans (and you usually need three per fire for the best effect) go for about $30. Each will burn for a few hours.

There's no soot, no fumes and, depending on the amount of fuel used and the sophistication of the unit, it's said these fires can produce 5,000 to 20,000 BTUs per hour, enough to gently toast the bones.

Gel-fueled fireplaces have been around for more than 20 years, said Gloria Hilker of La Flame Industries Inc. in Minnesota. Hilker, who claims to hold the original patent, came up with the idea when an ice storm hit, knocking out her electricity for several days, leaving little to do but tinker . . . with cans of Sterno. Eureka!

La Flame and its many Internet-hawked competitors sell everything from a basic fire box and log set, which requires trimming out by a contractor, to complete fireplaces including mantels in a variety of contemporary and traditional styles. Prices range from a few hundred dollars for a box and logs to a few thousand for a complete fireplace.

And when you move? They can come along.

If the idea of an electric fireplace conjures Miss Marple crocheting an afghan in a frumpy chintz chair in St. Mary Mead, think again. "Electric fireplaces are really big in apartment buildings where gas is not allowed," said Mike Taylor, vice president of Acme Stove Co., one of a number of traditional fireplace dealers that have added these units to their showroom floors.

Do they look real? "They've come a long way since the light bulb behind the turning red gel. A long way," he said. "Though they haven't perfected the snap, crackle, pop."

The Reflections model from Lennox International Inc. comes close, though. Using the same holographic technology used in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Walt Disney World, the flames appear to hover on and around the logs. Play the accompanying CD of a genuine red oak fire that's been stoked for over an hour and all you need is a spritz of Pine-Sol to evoke Christmas in Vermont.

And these fireplaces will knock the chill off a room. "It's like an electric space heater with the aesthetic value of a fireplace," said Taylor, who has stores in Rockville and Springfield.

Complete packages, including mantels and doors, start at about $1,800 and can go to $2,800 or more depending on how fancy you get with accessories. For considerably less, from $650 to $1,000, you can buy a basic unit and create your own contemporary or traditional enclosure.

Cheaper electric models are available at many home improvement centers, but look and listen before you leap. They may not snap, crackle and pop, but some do produce some very unfirelike flapping and groaning.

Hands down, the most popular fireplace units on the market today are gas, "either direct vent or vent-free, literally requiring no vents," said Richard Cartlidge, president of Bromwell's, a fireplace dealer with showrooms in Falls Church and Rockville. With gas, "you can put a fireplace just about anyplace."

Plus there's no schlepping and storing logs, cleaning ash or fussing with kindling.

If you don't have an available outside wall or are prohibited from poking holes in your building by your homeowners association, vent-free fireplaces can be the solution. However, because the byproducts of combustion remain in the room, those with allergies or respiratory problems should avoid them. Those with sensitive noses might also beware; to some, the faint odor the units emit is objectionable.

Cartlidge prefers direct-vent models, which exhaust through an existing chimney or out through a wall. Not only are these units easy to install, they yield a higher, more realistic flame while providing an efficient, thermostatically controlled heat source, he said. "They're basically furnaces that happen to look like fireplaces."

That factor has made them increasingly popular as a zoned heating source -- and with fuel costs skyrocketing, that's particularly attractive. Gas fireplaces "will actually reduce the heating bill of the customer," said Cartlidge. "You're heating the area that you use on a regular basis, in an efficient manner, rather than [the entire] 5,000-square-foot house. Bedrooms don't need to be kept as warm as a family room does."

Even those who already have perfectly good real fireplaces are attracted to that aspect of the gas burners. Kathy Tresnak rarely used the masonry fireplace in her 1933 house in Alexandria. "Our biggest problem with it was it draws too well. It would suck all of the warm air out of the house," she said. And because the flu couldn't be closed until the fire had burned out, the house would be frigid by morning.

For a bit less than $1,400, Tresnak hired a plumber to run her gas line to the existing fireplace and installed a gas unit, venting it directly out the chimney. "Now the gas one is on a remote control," she said. "With a flick of a button it comes on and a flick it goes off. We use it a lot."

Wood-burning masonry fireplaces "are about 10 percent efficient, said Cartlidge. "Inserts [either wood burning or gas] convert an otherwise inefficient fireplace to an extremely efficient -- 70-plus percent efficient -- appliance."

While most Washington area residents have a preference for the look of the traditional fireplace and mantel, there are some imaginative souls who are taking advantage of the flexibility of gas technology to flamboyant effect.

Greg Horan, an architect with 3DG-District Design Development Group LLC, is in the vanguard, with plans to install a stainless steel Vision fireplace from European Home in Melrose, Mass., as part of his "minimalist" transformation of a 15-foot wide Capitol Hill townhouse.

The clients already have an "old-fashioned masonry fireplace that we're removing completely," Horan said. "It's too bulky, sticking out two feet into the space."

The Vision, which uses technology that's new in this country, is only 16 inches deep, he said, "and really slick." Flames leap from a bed of stones instead of the usual set of ceramic logs and reflect against the shiny steel walls of the fire box.

Neither will it be installed in ordinary fashion. Set midway up a wall, the Vision will "look like it's sitting on a credenza, with shelves underneath."

Gas fireplaces are widely available in plenty of other adventurous models. There are two-sided units that can be set into a wall between a living room and dining room or a master bedroom and bath, giving each room the pleasure of a fireplace; three-sided "peninsulas" for use as room dividers; and tiny units that can fit in a foyer or the curve of staircase.

Taylor of Acme Stove recently installed 13 gas fireplaces, each of them different, in a bed and breakfast in Dupont Circle. "One room has a 'Cyclone,' literally a finger of twisting flame brought up through a glass tube," he said. "Another has an 'Everest,' a European look, taller than it is wide, with a herringbone brick pattern inside."

Very cool.

"No!" Taylor corrects. "What we say is hot!

A direct-vent, gas-powered fireplace can be far more efficient than old-fashioned firesides.The "Virtual Flames" DVD markets fireplace ambiance without the fire. The Vision gas fireplace from European Home uses a bed of stones rather than ceramic logs and reflects against steel walls.