Months of planning, a thorny guest list, an army of bridesmaids and groomsmen, a hall filled with distant relatives, a bank-breaking taffeta gown – and a final tab the size of a townhouse down payment. It’s no wonder so many couples are opting out of a traditional wedding at home and getting hitched on foreign soil. And they’re taking friends and family along with them.
Destination weddings now account for around 20 per cent of North American nuptials. The appeal? Weddings away can cost as little as $1,000, a far cry from the average $23,330 spent in Canada (based on an annual survey conducted by Weddingbells magazine). Leaving the country to get married also keeps the guest list lean. And there’s usually less stress – the travel industry has caught on to the destination wedding trend, and couples can now sit back and rely on a travel agent, wedding planner or all-inclusive resort to take care of the details. It all adds up to a relaxing getaway that feels more like a reunion with close family and friends than a vow exchange.
With that in mind, here is a rundown of five top destination wedding spots, sure to please engaged couples and their guests to boot.
Destination: Dominican Republic
Ah, the Dominican. This Caribbean country, which shares an island with Haiti in the West Indies, has long been a favoured spot for winter-weary Canadians seeking a beach flop – Punta Cana and Puerto Plata are the two big resort areas. Hundreds of private and public beaches make up the country’s 1,288-kilometre coastline, where visitors can fish, sail, kiteboard, windsurf and surf at their leisure. For sports fanatics, there are first-rate golf courses, heralded by world golf pros such as Jack Nicklaus and Nick Price. At the Playa Grande, designed by golf legend Robert Trent Jones Sr., players tee off on emerald-topped cliffs with the glimmering Atlantic Ocean on the horizon.
Most resorts can organize day excursions to the 27 waterfalls of Damajagua, or to Duarte Peak, the highest point in the Caribbean at 3,087 metres above sea level. A sojourn to the country’s political and cultural capital, Santo Domingo, is another popular side trip for groups.
And for the big event? The Gran Bahia Principe has four all-inclusive resorts near Punta Cana (at the eastern tip, where direct flights arrive daily from Calgary and Edmonton): Esmeralda, Bávaro, Punta Cana and Ambar. Each offers a stunning view, instant access to the Caribbean Sea and superb wedding services. Prices start at US$900 (on top of the resort booking) for a basic event with a wedding planner, simple decorations, a tropical bouquet, music and professional photos. The top-shelf package, from US$2,000, includes perks such as extra floral arrangements and meals, a choice of venues, spa services, hair styling, a deluxe cake and Möet & Chandon champagne for the post-ceremony toast.
For newly engaged Albertans with room to splurge, Jamaica is a gorgeous island destination with impeccable beaches and luxurious all-inclusive resorts. And while posh amenities are the main selling point, most resorts can set up wedding-friendly group tours, such as rafting on the Rio Grande (a two-tothree-hour journey down the river with stops along the way) or touring Dunn’s River Falls, a 180-metre-tall cascade near Ocho Rios that visitors can climb in their swimsuits.
Another plus for Jamaica: non-stop flights from Calgary and Edmonton. Weddings are pricier here than in other Caribbean destinations, however. “Jamaica will cost more, but has the very high-end and very elegant weddings. So, if it’s beautiful decor you want, this is the place to be,” says Laurie Bourgeois, AMA wedding specialist.
Sandals Resorts, in partnership with Martha Stewart Weddings, have whipped up a line of wedding packages that allow couples to celebrate in Stewart’s signature style. These range in cost from US$1,600 to US$3,500 (not including the resort stay or reception dinner) and offer a choice of six tropical design schemes, from the white, aqua, coral and seashell-accented Seaside Serenade to the magenta, pink and orange Island Paradise, embellished with tropical fruit and orchids. Martha Stewart Weddings are available at all seven Sandals resorts in Jamaica.
Another lavish option is the Grand Palladium Jamaica Resort & Spa, which has an exclusive deal with Karen Bussen, a wellknown North American wedding designer who has created an exquisite line called Simple Stunning Wedding packages. Couples have their pick of five stylized wedding motifs, with packages ranging from around US$2,000 to US$4,000 (on top of the resort booking) for up to eight guests. Additional guests cost $20, while children under 12 are free.
Destination: Mayan Riviera, Mexico
Looking for white-sand beaches and turquoise waters closer to home? Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, a coastal region an hour’s drive south of Cancun, delivers, at more affordable rates than other Caribbean destinations. Travel times are quicker, too – a direct flight from Calgary or Edmonton to Cancun International Airport takes around five hours.
Lazing in the sun will no doubt appeal to some guests, but there are also plenty of diversions here for the action-inclined. Great Maya Reef, the second-largest coral reef in the world, is a playground for divers and snorkellers, who will get a thrill exploring sunken caves or, as locals call them, cenotes. Those with a ken for culture might enjoy a visit to the nearby Mayan ruins at El Ray, Xcaret, Xel Há, Tulum or Coba. Resorts and local tour operators can organize group tours.
While there is an abundance of hotels to choose from, all-inclusive stays such as the Dreams Resort (in Tulum, Puerto Aventuras and Cancun) and Barceló Maya Beach are worthwhile options. All boast a delectable beach scene, gourmet restaurants raved about by repeat visitors, fullservice spas (couples’ massages are popular before the big day) and customizable wedding packages.
At Dreams Resort Tulum, weddings cost between US$949 and US$2,999. The basic package, free with a seven-night honeymoon suite booking, includes a wedding planner, an officiant, a bouquet and boutonnière, a basic ceremony, a cake and sparkling wine. The highest-end scheme ups the ante with a choice of beach setting or traditional Spanish chapel, a dinner party, live mariachi music, a keepsake photo album and a dressing assistant, among other luxuries.
With natural wonders ranging from coral reefs to rainforests, and a cultural mélange of Caribbean, Spanish and African influences, there are settings to suit every matrimonial taste in Cuba. Baracoa, in the southeast, is known for its abundant tropical forests, while Varadero, at the top of the island, boasts an iconic 21-kilometre beach. And then there is Havana, the city frozen in time, where Spanish colonial buildings, streets lined with classic American cars (leftovers from prerevolution Cuba) and vibrant murals make a colourful backdrop for a wedding – not to mention wedding photos.
When it comes to planning an itinerary, a visit to the lush tobacco plantations of Pinar del Río (famous for those world-renowned Cuban cigars) or an excursion to Villa Clara, a province with links to offshore islands that have recently opened their beaches to the public, would work well for a group.
“Cuba is one of the most budget-friendly and safest wedding destinations,” says Bourgeois, when asked why Cuba is popular among Albertans.
Cuba teems with all-inclusive resorts, but Sirenis La Salina in Varadero, the landing spot for non-stop flights from Calgary and Edmonton, is a tempting choice for couples looking to exchange vows on a pristine beach without having to travel too far. The main wedding package at Sirenis covers a basic ceremony with a notary and translator, decorations, music and a cake for a reasonable $610.
Meliá Cuba has 25 all-inclusive locations in Cuba, 15 of which cater to destination weddings, offering them free if the bride and groom are accompanied by a certain number of guests who book for a minimum stay. The packages vary, but generally include an onsite co-ordinator, notary service, invitations, decorations, a cake, flowers, recorded music, a choice of ceremony locations, a reception dinner and cava (Spanish sparkling wine) for toasting.
Consisting of six main islands – Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai and Hawaii (also known as the Big Island) – Hawaii has all the attributes of an exotic sun destination, but with the familiar currency and consumer comforts of a U.S. state. Because all-inclusive resorts are rare here, Albertans looking to get married in Hawaii should hire a local planner to oversee and fine tune the details.
As for location, the best place to celebrate is, hands down, Maui. “This area has a bit of everything for family and friends and also has wonderful wedding locations, which are easy to get to,” explains Carolee Higashino, owner of White Orchid Wedding, a Hawaii consultancy that oversees 400 weddings a year.
Wherever the couple chooses to say “I do,” guests are guaranteed a front-row seat to a gorgeous coastline. The wedding itself could be anything from a quiet service at a private beach house overlooking a lava cove in Makena to a swanky, modern soiree at Spago restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel at Wailea.
When it comes to entertaining guests, start with one of the most obvious activities: surfing. The gentle waves of Launiupoko Beach Park and Kihei, on the western side of Maui, are perfect proving grounds for amateurs. Another idea: take in a breathtaking sunrise over a rippled volcanic landscape at the 2,969-metre-high summit of Haleakala National Park, at the southeastern corner of the island.
Expect to dole out a hefty amount for a wedding in Hawaii. “For a wedding and reception for around 50 guests I would suggest you’d expect to spend $35,000 [not including accommodation], more or less, depending on your expectations,” says Higashino.
Many couples choose to rent a house or a villa to cut costs and establish a home base for the ceremony and vacation. This can cost anywhere from US$1,000 to US$10,000 a night, depending on the size of the home and the season.
Those looking to rent a house for a wedding should keep in mind that they (or their wedding planner) will have to arrange for decorations, catering, flowers, chairs – all the things that a couple would have to organize for a wedding at home.