A destination wedding in Hawaii delivers it all: an exotic locale with jungled mountains and pristine beaches, plentiful accommodations ranging from family-friendly condos to luxurious hotel suites, cool activities like snorkeling, hiking and whale watching, and world-class infrastructure absent from most other island paradises. Whether it's the breezy eco-elegance of Kauai, activity-filled Maui, nightlife-packed Oahu or the wide-open lava fields of the Big Island, Hawaii has options galore for any bride-to-be. It's only five hours from the mainland, but you'll feel like you're in a different world.
Kauai's Celebrity Chic
Kauai is Hawaii in its most natural state, a tropical Eden encompassing the gaping chasm of Waimea (considered the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) and the towering sea cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. "Kauai boasts all extremes of natural settings for outdoor weddings," says Carolee Higashino, owner of A White Orchid Wedding, Inc. "A couple may select a sunny beach wedding on popular Poipu Beach, a private kayak ride up the Na Pali Coast to a remote sea cave, or a panoramic site along the breathtaking crescent-shaped vista overlooking the taro fields of Hanalei Bay."
Melissa A. Howard, president and co-owner of Mohala Weddings, agrees. "Kauai is old Hawaii, from the laid-back, friendly attitude of its people to its pristine, empty shorelines." This island gets more rain than its sister isles, which feeds lush greenery and brilliant tropical flowers, especially on the rugged north coast.
"Kauai's dramatic mountain range creates a beautiful backdrop for photography," says Susan O'Donnell of Aloha Wedding Planners. "Beach weddings are still popular here, but you're likely to see a waterfall in the background of your photos, as the mountains are closer to the ocean." Another plus: Kauai is the smallest of the major Hawaiian islands, drivable in a couple of hours, so you can stay on one side and still experience the other on excursions.
Many celebrities have tied the knot on the island, including Ben Stiller, Matt LeBlanc and Lost’s Josh Holloway. That’s what first drew Dana Olliges and her fiancé, Steve Arcana. “I saw tons of pictures of celebrity weddings,” explains Dana, “and Kauai looked absolutely gorgeous.” In a romantic coincidence, her parents had honeymooned there in the 1960s. On October 3, 2005, 80 people from across the country joined the couple for their elaborate I do’s.
On a scouting trip with her mom, Dana discovered her perfect venue in the Grand Hyatt Kauai. “The second we got there, we fell in love with it,” she says. “I bonded with the staff instantly.” Located in the sunny south shore at Poipu, the 602-room resort sits on one of the loveliest beaches and is a macadamia-nut toss from an array of accommodations, attractions and restaurants (the area is evolving as Kauai’s “restaurant row.”) On the other side of the island, brides flock to Princeville Resort, an expansive luxury retreat with two golf courses and an incredible setting overlooking Hanalei Bay.
When it comes to décor, “many Kauai brides choose something simple, such as small bouquets of cymbidium orchids or indigenous tropical flowers,” says Casey Sparks of Martin Roberts Floral Design. Not Dana. “I wanted to go absolutely crazy with flowers,” she says. Sparks responded by flying in exotic varietals of roses and orchids from around the globe, and lining the aisle with conch shells and orchid garlands. “My heart stopped when I walked out and saw the flowers,” said Dana. “Out of everything I spent money on, that was the best thing of all.”
The day culminated in a surprise performance by pop star John Waite, who flew in for the occasion. (The couple developed a “thing” for the singer after a lengthy make-out session to one of his CDs.) Befitting the island’s laid-back vibe, Waite joined the guests at their poolside martini-bikini party the night before the wedding, where everyone bonded over a luau and fire dancers. “At one point we busted out the hula hoops,” laughs Dana. The following day, after the ceremony, guests followed a candlelit pathway to a beach for the special show. It was the perfect finish to a dream weekend. “There’s just something about Kauai that makes people feel relaxed and eager to bond and have fun,” says Dana. “It all just came together and made my wedding the best day of my life.”
Maui’s Endless Options
"Everybody comes to Maui to get married," says Mark Simon, director of marketing for the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea. "Heck, even the whales come here to meet their mates!" he chuckles, referring the mating season which happens every winter off the coast. Carolee Higashino believes that variety is the draw. "Still 'country' in many ways, Maui is relaxed yet has all the elements needed to host a five-star experience," she says.
With Maui's mega menu of world-class hotels, charming chapels, beach houses and luxury estates, selecting a wedding location can be tough. You can wed in the ruins of an old sugar mill, on a private nine-hole golf course or atop Haleakala, a dormant volcano and the island's highest point. Higashino's favorite spot is the White Orchid Beach House. "It's nestled along the majestic Makena coastline just above its own private white-sand beach," she says. "Surrounding its shoreline is the famous Ahihi Kinau Bay and Nature Preserve, so you can see giant green sea turtles, humpback whales and spinner dolphins from the lawn."
Maui is Hawaii’s second largest island, but each area has a singular appeal for the right couple. Sun-seekers love the consistent sunshine and elegant resorts of Wailea. Kaanapali is very accessible, with lots of high-rise hotels, condos and eateries spread along a three-mile stretch of white sand. Privacy-seekers can fly directly into secluded Hana, where a jagged coast serves up stunning waterfalls and beautiful botanical gardens, or head to upcountry towns like Makawao, where the cowboy life is alive and kicking. Hop a ferry to Lanai, an ex-pineapple plantation, and you’ll find two luxe Four Seasons resorts – and not much else.
“Maui had the options we were looking for,” explains Holly Lee, who wed Sean Zawyer on July 8, 2005. “Great hotels, quiet but not too quiet, and lots of activities. But we could not choose – at one point we had reservations at four hotels!” To narrow things down, Holly enlisted the help of Vanessa Ghantous of McCoy Travel on Maui. “She was very honest and gave us recommendations based on our needs,” says Holly, who ended up bringing her 40 guests to the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.
The couple wanted everything to be as easy as possible for their guests, so they created a 17-page itinerary of options, including nearby hotel choices in varying price ranges and a laundry list of potential excursions. “We knew we couldn’t get 40 people to agree on every activity,” explains Holly. “So we simply decided what we wanted to do and made a group reservation. If someone wanted to join, all they had to do was call so the outfitter could get the proper head count.” The group played golf at the Kapalua Golf Club, rode horses through the pineapple fields and spent a night feasting, drinking and dancing at the Old Lahaina Luau. “It worked out perfectly,” says Holly.
Holly found an unexpected benefit to planning her wedding in Hawaii. “Because of the time difference I could work all day, come home and finesse details with the wedding planner in Hawaii until midnight my time.” The extra effort paid off in the end. As she walked down the aisle on her big day, a conch blower stood at the chapel entrance to perform a Hawaiian dressing. “After the wedding,” says Holly “everyone commented that the sound was so beautiful, it gave them chills. It made the ceremony extra-special and blessed it with the magic of Hawaii.”
Oahu’s Urban Appeal
It was four weeks after New Orleans natives Lori Landry and fiancé Erwin Deiparine closed on their new house when Hurricane Katrina struck. "The storm was coming and all I could think about was my wedding dress," recalls Lori, who was in San Francisco at the time. "I called my aunt and asked her to rescue it." After the storm she considered canceling her Oahu nuptials, but guests assured her that they welcomed the positive diversion. So in November 2005, 30 people left waterlogged Louisiana for sunny Hawaii. "Oahu was convenient," says Lori. "You fly directly into the Honolulu airport, with no interisland flights. I didn't want any of my guests to have to fly an additional leg."
Sandra Williams, owner of Finishing Touch on Oahu, has a lot of experience with out-of-town events. She coordinates weddings ranging from intimate two-person ceremonies to extravagant 600-guest blowouts. "The size of destination weddings is going up," says Williams. "Often, couples are surprised by how many guests will actually take a vacation to attend the wedding." Another trend? "More and more couples are choosing to have their weddings at private estates or some unique outdoor location. In Hawaii, guests definitely appreciate every opportunity to be outdoors and in an unusual setting."
On Oahu in particular, there are many things for guests to do. “You can learn to surf, kayak or snorkel, or visit a museum,” says Susan O’Donnell of Aloha Wedding Planners. “You can dine in award-winning restaurants, attend a concert or even bring a blanket to watch movies on the beach.”
For their home base, Lori and Erwin chose the Halekulani, an elegant hotel in the heart of bustling Waikiki. “The foodies walked to nearby restaurants; other guests had spa services or just lounged by the pool,” says Lori about the convenient local amenities. In addition to Halekulani, Waikiki boasts a number of excellent hotels in different price ranges, including the all-pink Royal Hawaiian and the historic Sheraton Moana Surfrider down the beach. If you want a less cosmopolitan setting, it’s only an hour’s drive to the North Shore’s acclaimed Turtle Bay Resort.
Most Hawaii brides marry outdoors, but Lori and Erwin wanted a religious ceremony. On a pre-wedding scouting trip they discovered St. Augustine, a Catholic church in Waikiki. “The priest was great,” recalls Lori. “He embodied the spirit of the islands: warm, funny, welcoming, relaxed.”
Though it’s not the most common request, some brides do want a Hawaiian church wedding. “Catholic weddings need lead time,” warns Higashino, “and there are some hoops to go through, but it is very possible. Another option is a Hawaiian congregational church or other chapel, with a reception following at a restaurant or resort.”
Lori and Erwin held their reception on Halekulani’s Hau Terrace, with a traditional Hawaiian trio providing the music. “The whole reception was set up via e-mail and phone,” explains Lori. “[Catering manager Joel Nishimoto] was just what I needed at that time. We were in the stage of finalizing things just after the hurricane and it was hard for me to think of anything other than what had happened, but Joel kept me focused and offered many suggestions. He even sent pictures when he could, and he recommended a great florist.”
But how did Halekulani score the biggest points? “I forgot to order flowers for my hair,” recalls Lori. “I remembered while I was having it done in the room. I called the concierge desk to ask for fresh flowers, and within 30 minutes I received a whole variety. There was no charge, and the flowers were absolutely beautiful. It made my day.”
Hawaii’s Natural Grace
From the plane, Hawaii's Big Island looks lunar. A vast expanse of black lava coats the ground, flanked by a sparkling sea and lush green mountains and punctuated by bursts of orange, red, white and pink bougainvillea. It's an island of wide-open spaces and low-key lifestyles. On September 10, 2005, Dorena Chan and husband-to-be Michael Chin landed in Kona for their 70-person event, with some guests hailing from as far as Boston and Miami.
"We didn't want to have our actual ceremony at a hotel," explains Dorena. "So we researched on the Web and found some locations that were unique." The couple chose the intimacy of Honualai, a private estate, for the ceremony and cocktails. The ceremony was followed by dinner and dancing at The Fairmont Orchid hotel. "The estate was a beautiful setting for the wedding," recalls Dorena, "right on the water."
Located on the Kohala Coast, the six-bedroom estate comes complete with formal dining room, private pool and expansive lanai that can accommodate wedding groups up to 100. Fairmont took care of all of the arrangements, including catering the cocktail hour and hiring minibuses to transport guests between venues. “They were with us all day,” says Dorena, “assisting with anything we needed. I was able to concentrate on the wedding itself and enjoy the day.”
Another great Big Island resort is the 62-acre Hilton Waikoloa Village. Situated along the sunny Kohala Coast, it’s a carnival in a resort’s body, where mahogany boats meander through waterways surrounding the property and Lagoon. For sheer luxury, the Four Seasons Hanalei is unbeatable with its striking décor, sexy outdoor showers and prime beachfront locale. Adults and kids alike love snorkeling in King’s Pond, a manmade pool stocked with hundreds of brilliant fish and rays.
Unlike Holly, Sean and their 17-page itinerary, Dorena and Michael made no plans beyond a golf tournament at neighboring Mauna Lani and a hotel brunch the day after the wedding. Beyond that, guests explored the Big Island at their leisure. It’s that kind of place – you can slip on some sturdy shoes and visit Kilauea volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, go horseback riding at Parker Ranch (a favorite trip includes a picnic lunch by a stunning waterfall) or drive above the cloud line to stargaze with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures.
Whichever island you choose, don’t be afraid to think outside the box for group events. One of Higashino’s favorite ideas is surf lessons and lunch from a fish-taco cart. “We pick up the guests in a trolley and bring them to a popular surf spot. Along with instruction, guests receive beach bags filled with sunscreen, snacks and monogrammed beach towels. You can also incorporate shaved-ice cocktails, ukulele lessons and lei stringing.”
For Dorena, the joy was in the simple things. “My favorite memory is of the view as I walked down the aisle,” she says. “I could see Michael waiting for me, but I could also see my closest friends and family, all together in such a beautiful setting. A destination wedding is really more like a great vacation in which all of your favorite people are with you.”
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