Marriage Made Easy

Here’s how to make your destination wedding go off without a hitch — right from home

A few years ago, my two older sisters were married seven months apart. While both occasions were picture-perfect—traditional Catholic ceremonies followed by traditional country club receptions—I couldn’t help but envision exchanging my vows on a sandy beach, barefoot, at sunset, with a tropical flower tucked into my hair.

So once my now-husband proposed on New Year’s Eve 2004,

A few years ago, my two older sisters were married seven months apart. While both occasions were picture-perfect — traditional Catholic ceremonies followed by traditional country club receptions — I couldn’t help but envision exchanging my vows on a sandy beach, barefoot, at sunset, with a tropical flower tucked into my hair.

So once my now-husband proposed on New Year’s Eve 2004, I embarked on my mission to plan a destination wedding. I’ll admit, the thought of planning a wedding, let alone one 1,000 miles away from home, was overwhelming. Where will it be? Who will you invite? How do you know what vendors to use? And who’s going to help?

What you might not know is that planning a wedding in Hawaii, Nevis, Toronto or Italy is not much different from planning a traditional wedding in your hometown. Really.

What it comes down to are three key points (coupled with lots of bits of advice I wish someone had told me before tackling my own destination wedding). Things like:

• Pick a destination and venue that suits your and your fiance’s visions for the Big Day, and do it early.

• Contact vendors at your site, using either a wedding planner near you or the resort’s wedding coordinator.

• Coordinate travel for you and your fiance, look into package deals for your guests and try to keep within your budget. Sounds simple, and it is.

Plan Away (and Early)
Planning ahead and booking early — more than a year in advance —
is a necessity. It ensures you the venue you want, and it gives your guests
time to plan for the occasion.

Months before our engagement, my fiance, Brent, and I already discussed where we wanted to get married — Key West, Florida. Like Cape May and Las Vegas, Key West is one of the most popular choices in the United States for destination weddings, which account for almost 20 percent of all weddings.

Early on, Brent and I laid out our priorities — we wanted a spot that offered more than just beach activities, but also had nightlife, shopping and oodles of restaurant options; we wanted a beach, not a church, wedding; we wanted a sunset ceremony; we wanted a few days of events and lying on the beach leading up to the Big Day; and we wanted something small, with only a handful of our closest friends and family.

Brent and I called hotels, we called local and Key West wedding planners, we called travel agents, we surfed chat­rooms. After much research, we discovered that the only venue on Key West that offered a private-island sunset ceremony was the Sunset Key Guest Cottages at Hilton Key West Resort & Marina (now owned by Westin), a private island about eight minutes from Key West. Our decision was made.

Our vision was a simple, no-frills ceremony. “If you want a Manhattan-style, black-tie formal affair,” says Steven Spooner, director of catering for the Hilton Key West Resort & Marina and the Sunset Key Guest Cottages, “then a destination wedding really isn’t what you want. Throw tradition out the window and embrace the locale.” And that we did.

Planners: To Have or Not?
When we began planning, I spoke with wedding planners and brides who had planned destination weddings. One bride, who held hers in St. Thomas, was adamant that you don’t need a wedding planner for a destination wedding. But when I spoke to a Philly-based coordinator, he suggested I look into finding one. “It really eases your concerns about vendors, timing, everything,” he said.

“Your hotel coordinator is certainly helpful,” says Sarah Doheny, owner of Sarah’s Events and Bridal in Media, who has planned weddings in St. Thomas and St. Martin. “But he or she won’t hold your hand when you’re freaking out, making sure everyone is in place, the flowers are perfect. A wedding planner is your liaison at your destination. We work for you, not the hotel.”

“I’ll tell you right now, you don’t need a wedding planner,” counters the Hilton’s Spooner. “Nearly every reputable resort or hotel has a wedding coordinator on site. We help with everything from coordinating flowers and music to planning your menu and wine list.”

In the end, we decided to leave some of the planning to the Hilton staff (who, for a fee, will coordinate every last detail of your occasion), and do the rest ourselves. The Hilton, like most destination venues, provided a list of vendors they’ve worked with. I called our harpist, Steven Allerton, and he played Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” — my wedding march — for me over the phone. My florist, An Island Florist, sent me photos of sample wedding bouquets via e-mail.

But while Brent and I felt comfortable planning the wedding without a Philadelphia-based coordinator, other couples might not have the inclination or the time. Use your instincts — only if you’ve chosen a venue that you feel you can trust should you consider skipping the planner and create your Big Day alone over the phone and the web.

There is one thing that’s certain — a trip to your destination before the Big Day is a big must. “Don’t just pick an island because it looks lovely online,” says Doheny. “You need to go there and see it for yourself. You need to be comfortable with that setting and know your surroundings. The ceremony site could be next to a high-traffic road for all you know.”

Cheap Tickets
Our first concern when we decided on a destination wedding was finding accommodations that suited everyone’s budgets. Of course, we wanted the very best for our wedding — but that meant a huge expense for our guests. So we compromised.

We met with two Center City-based travel agents who suggested some accommodations, and found that word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family — as well as our own research online through reputable travel magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler — helped us make up our minds.

We ended up blocking group rates at a resort a mile and a half (by water) from Sunset Key. Southernmost Hotel & Resorts is at the end of Duval Street, a block from the southernmost point in the United States, and offers four choices of accommodations at various prices. We worked through a group sales coordinator to get our rate.

But booking a hotel on Key West proper led to our biggest snafu: The night before our wedding, we realized we had no transportation for the bridal party and guests to and from Southernmost and Sunset Key. The lesson here is to think through every last detail, and realize that, if you plan alone, you might miss a few things here and there.

Tips From Local Planners
“Shop around for deals, book the wedding in the off-season, consider the Continental U.S. as a locale instead of the Caribbean,” says Sherri Williams, owner of Williams-Sossen Events, based in Philadelphia and New York, who has planned weddings in the Yucatán area of Mexico. “Keep in mind, destination weddings aren’t just ‘island weddings,’ they’re weekend getaways for you and your guests. So any group rates you can find are a plus.”

Similar to booking your venue, finding airline deals early is a must. “Warm destinations fluctuate in prices, so try to book your flights in the off-season,” says Williams. Discounts for group travel are often available direct from the airlines with groups of 20 or more, a bargain you can’t beat on Expedia. Unfortunately, our group (about 15 traveling by plane) wasn’t large enough for me to obtain a discount on my own.

Bring It Home
After the private beach ceremony for us and our immediate families, we threw a 130-person reception at Washington Crossing Inn in Washington Crossing when we returned. There, we danced the night away with DJs from Best of Both Worlds, nibbled on our chocolate-chip wedding cake from Cramer’s Bakery in Yardley, decorated with gorgeous floral centerpieces by Kenmac Flowers in Collingswood and handed out tropical-inspired favors — delicious sugar cookies by

If you do choose to celebrate with a reception when you return, treat it as a “real” wedding — we sent out save-the-dates, blocked hotel rooms and organized transportation for our guests six months ahead of time.

While there are some things you’ll miss if you have a destination wedding — the traditional church ceremony and reception, and possibly piles of gifts (see the “Destination Etiquette” sidebar) — the truth is, destination weddings are, above all, extremely intimate. “This is a time where you can spend quality time — not just six hours — with your closest friends and family on one of the most important occasions in your life,” says Williams. “Who wouldn’t want that?”