Brides without borders
Once upon a time, couples went to a land far, far away on honeymoon. Now they're going there to get married. It's called a "destination wedding". Couples may elope alone or invite guests to a big bash overseas, as James Packer and Erica Baxter did on the French Riviera.
Holding the big day away eliminates much of the stress over guest lists, bridesmaids and seating arrangements. It's sometimes cheaper, although it does add a burden of red tape, with visa and marriage licence requirements.
"Destination weddings are a rapidly growing trend," says Victoria Black, publisher and editor-in-chief at wedding experts Wildfire Publishing, with titles including Modern Wedding magazine. Generally, she says, fewer people are invited and celebrations go on for longer.
"Modern brides and grooms want a wedding that will stand out from those of their friends," Black says.
Online guides litter the internet like confetti. Britain's weddingsabroad.com was launched in January 1999 by Karen Thornton-Brown, who lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne and was inspired to become an international wedding planner after she married at Sydney's Curzon Hall in 1998.
She has had some bizarre requests. "Once we had a client ask if we could provide penguins for a wedding in Las Vegas. As you can imagine, that did not happen," she says. A US groom-to-be once asked her to plan a surprise wedding in Florence and Thornton-Brown arranged everything from the location for the proposal to the bridal gown.
"His unsuspecting girlfriend had no idea her holiday to Italy was going to be her wedding and honeymoon," she says. "Thankfully, the big risk did pay off and the wedding was amazing."
Weddings Abroad's market research, based on couples in Britain and the US, has found about 16 per cent of first marriages take place in a far-flung destination. Include second marriages and that figure jumps to 60 per cent.
And it's a worldwide trend. The New York founder of Destination Bride.com, Lisa Light, has written a book called Destination Bride: A Complete Guide To Planning Your Wedding Anywhere In The World. She's been in the wedding industry for 16 years and planned her first destination wedding in 1997 in the Czech Republic. "Destination weddings really started exploding with the advent of the internet," she says, adding that four in every 10 US engaged couples are now planning a destination wedding.
"With the weak US dollar, destinations that are hot right now for US couples are Costa Rica, Mexico, the Grenadines and the Caribbean's Turks and Caicos islands. We also plan weddings for Australians who want to come to the US, Canada, Latin America or the Caribbean," she says.
Light's unusual tasks have included planning a wedding on top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania for keen mountaineers, who then went on a safari honeymoon.
The top 10 most popular locations for Australian couples to have a "weddingmoon" are: Queensland islands, Far North Queensland, Fiji, Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Thailand, Hawaii, Las Vegas, Disneyland-Los Angeles and Italy, according to a 2007 reader survey by Modern Wedding.
Narelle Williams, manager of Australian travel agency Global Weddings (globalweddings .com.au), says bookings for destination weddings have increased 48 per cent this year over last year and they send about 3500 people overseas for weddings a year, with an average of 30 people at each.
Global Weddings' most unusual request was a couple who wanted their dogs to be at the ceremony in Bali. "They decided not to go ahead with the dogs at the last minute as they have to stay in quarantine for six months on the return," Williams says.
For better or for worse, the destination wedding has become a runaway trend and it can only be a matter of time before entrepreneurs start shuttling tourists to the International Space Station for a ceremony that is truly out of this world. Until then, here are 12 extraordinary options.
Hot-air balloon, Kenya
In the Masai Mara, flames from the balloon burners roar through the darkness before dawn and couples rise to the occasion in a rainbow-coloured hot-air balloon. Drifting over the great plains of Africa in a basket, watching herds of elephant, antelope and wildebeest below, while wrapped in a cocoon of otherworldly stillness, scores full points for romance.
Several Masai Mara lodges offer hot-air balloon wedding packages, including the luxury-tented Little Governors' Camp (governorscamp.com). Packages include pastor and pilot, and when newlyweds come back to earth, a champagne breakfast in the bush.
Tip: Flights may be cancelled due to bad weather, so allow a few days to ensure the wedding gets off the ground. Time it to have a chance of seeing the great wildebeest migration, usually between July and October.
The trend in Las Vegas is to hold hotel weddings. Every big casino-hotel now has a wedding chapel, offering traditional and themed weddings to suit its theme. Luxor brides may come as Cleopatra; at Caesars Palace they'll don a Roman toga. But these are sanitised versions of the Vegas wedding - for true seediness, couples must hit the street. This is where the land that gave us fast food still delivers fast weddings, with the chance to take away a bride or groom at drive-through ceremonies from about $US40 ($NZ51) (must have own car).
McHappy couples will find chapels on Las Vegas Boulevard, aka The Strip. Basic deals at the Little White Wedding Chapel (littlewhitechapel.com) feature a simple ceremony, but super-size that for 12 photographs and a DVD. Considering its history - this is where Britney and Jason, Bruce and Demi, and Friends' Ross and Rachel did the deed - couples might later like to plan a trip to Reno, conveniently located in the same state, and boasting of being the divorce capital of the US.
Tip: Don't drink and drive-through.
Ice Chapel, Sweden
Brides at the Ice Chapel are almost certain to get cold feet. But grooms needn't worry - the solution is to buy her a pair of gumboots. Such practical footwear is popular beneath flowing white frocks in a church where the temperature is a constant -5 degrees. The Ice Chapel is part of the famous Ice Hotel (icehotel.com) on the shores of the Torne River in the village of Jukkasjarvi. Each year, the hotel and chapel are rebuilt from scratch, with more than 10,000 tons of ice from the river and 30,000 tons of snow used in construction.
In spring (April-May), the buildings melt and water flows back into the Torne. Ceremonies are held in an ethereally beautiful cathedral of ice, like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, with ephemeral ice sculptures carved by Swedish artists. The chapel has a new look every year - the 2007-08 design was a large, round dome.
Tip: Book far in advance as the chapel is popular and exists only a few months (usually December-April). Pack woollies - it's possibly the only time when thermal undies are a boon to romance.
Bungy, New Zealand
Take the plunge with a bungy wedding in Queenstown, New Zealand's adrenalin sports capital. After a ceremony on a platform overlooking the Kawarau River, thrill-seekers shout "I do!" and throw themselves off the suspension bridge where A.J. Hackett started commercial bungy jumping in 1988. Bound together for a seeming eternity of terror, newlyweds free-fall in love for 43 metres, before coming down to earth.
Tip: For a tandem bungy jump, the weight difference between both parties cannot be more than 30kilograms. Packages from The Wedding Company (theweddingcompany.co.nz) start at $NZ2550.
Long before Ireland was troubled by Christianity, there lived the Celts and when a Celt asked a woman to "tie the knot", he meant it. Preferably, with ribbon or cord. Remnants of the ancient custom of handfasting - in which the couple's wrists are bound together - survive in services when the minister says, "Who gives this woman to be wed?" then passes the bride's hand from father to groom. The Celtic ritual has been revived by neopagans. Those with a sense of historical correctness also hold handfasting rites in the Emerald Isle.
Today's ceremonies - often in spring and held outdoors - are physically, but usually not legally, binding. Couples legalise unions at a civil ceremony. To find a freelance Celtic priest, see irishweddingsonline.com.Tip Handfasting goes hand in hand with other odd customs. Couples may be expected to jump over a broom, a branch or a small fire together. Long skirts are not recommended.
Bridal Cave, US
There are more than 5000 caves in Missouri but the most famous is the stalactite-studded Bridal Cave in Camdenton, the "Underground Wedding Capital of the World", which has hosted about 2000 ceremonies.
Folklore says that centuries ago the Osage tribe discovered the rich honeycomb of caverns beneath Thunder Mountain. Then in the early 1800s, young braves kidnapped two maidens and hid in the caves. One girl made a fatal bid for freedom, jumping off a nearby cliff now known as Lover's Leap; the other married her true love and captor, Prince Buffalo, in the Bridal Cave.
It is with this tale in mind that today's brides promise their cavemen to always keep the fire of love alight. The rock cathedral is adorned with dripping stalactites, limestone "soda straws" and giant stone columns. Packages include pipe organ music, sparkling cider and a lifetime cave pass (bridalcave.com).
Tip: Throwing rice is discouraged as this excites the bats.
Hello Kitty, Japan
The cute cat character created by Japan's Sanrio Company in 1974 has become an Asian pop-culture icon, appearing on everything from stationery to cars. She even has a cat of her own, Charmmy Kitty.
More troubling, however, is her incarnation as Cupid. Hello Kitty and her significant other, Dear Daniel, have taken to playing bridesmaid and best man, walking couples down the aisle.
Puroland, a huge Hello Kitty park near Tokyo, has long offered themed nuptials and in 2005 Japanese hotel chain Daiichi Hanyu introduced professionally styled "Princess Kitty Weddings", branded right down to the rings, presented on Hello Kitty pillows.
Last year, on Valentine's Day, a couple sealed their love at Hong Kong Station in the city's first legal Hello Kitty wedding with two felines and thousands of commuters in attendance (sanriotown.com/kt-wedding).
Tip: Those with cat or cuteness allergies need not attend.
Castles, Czech Republic
Fly into Prague, the medieval "city of 100 spires" in the region of Bohemia (something which allows wedding planners to promise the affianced a "Bohemian rhapsody").
Most castles are an hour or two's drive away and are romantic venues at reasonable prices. For a castle. Packages at historic edifices such as the gothic fairytale castle Hluboka, stately Karlstejn and medieval Krivoklat (one-time seat of Bohemian kings, later a prison) are about $NZ6100 for a small ceremony.
Fuelled by the influx of foreign brides, wedding planning has become big business in the Czech Republic over the past decade, reports a recent Czech Business Weekly article, titled "Agencies Say 'We Will"'. Agencies include PragueWeddings.com, the White Agency and L'Armonia.
Tip: Eastern Europe is a treasure trove of medieval castles. Shop around for even better deals in Hungary and Poland.
The Beach, Thailand
Moviegoers will recognise the turquoise waters, white sands and jagged cliffs of Koh Phi Phi from 2000's Hollywood blockbuster The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. (Ironically, when DiCaprio filmed there, controversy erupted over environmental damage done by moviemakers; more recently he's been on a mission to save the planet in the eco doco The 11th Hour.)
The beach was devastated in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, but resorts and livelihoods have been rebuilt and locals are welcoming tourists back to the islands. Several resorts have wedding packages (phuket-discovery.com, phiphi-palmbeach.com and ppisland.com). On offer are secular or religious weddings. Services are held on the beach, followed by sunset cocktails and dancing on the moonlit sands.
Tip: No cleavage, please, for brides paying respects to Buddha at a Thai wedding. Legs and shoulders should also be covered.
Weddings at sea
Hello, sailors. Nautical nuptials are increasingly popular, says the Cruise Lines International Association, with most major lines providing wedding packages, plus built-in honeymoons. Couples can sail off into the sunset alone or invite their guests - the big floating hotels-cum-shopping malls have a shipload of activities, from ballroom dancing to spa sessions, to keep families entertained.
Princess Cruises' 109,000-tonne Grand Princess has its own chapel and the captain is authorised to carry out marriages at sea. Disney Cruise Line passengers may swear eternal devotion on the line's private island, Castaway Cay. Royal Caribbean International has exotic options ashore - from ceremonies atop glaciers to intimate assignations on a beach in Barbados. Vow renewals are also popular.
Tip: Saying "I do" on the high seas sounds romantic but will be considerably less so if the wedding party suffers from sea sickness. Take motion sickness medication.
In the Red Centre, sweethearts say their vows on a sand dune with a view of Uluru at luxury wilderness camp Longitude 131. Then they may nip off on a helicopter or Harley ride, or take it slow on a sunset camel safari. The exclusive resort near the border of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park caters to just 30 guests and is camping deluxe, with white-domed roofs and fabric artfully draped to create the illusion of a tent.
The luxury rooms, reminiscent of colonial Africa, are perched amid dunes and each has a glass front, so lovers can lie in their king-sized bed and star-gaze on dark desert nights or watch the sun rise over the Rock.
Prices start at $A2500 ($NZ3000); see voyages.com.au. There are also Outback wedding packages at Alice Springs Resort, Kings Canyon Resort and Wrotham Park Lodge.
Tip: Avoid travelling in summer; extreme heat and flies are mood killers.
Finally, princesses who simply must have a fairytale wedding will find that their dreams come true at Disneyland, California (disneyland.disney.go.com). Before you can say Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, the theme park will supply a "fairy godplanner" to conjure up a magical event that could have brides pulling up to Sleeping Beauty's castle in Cinderella's coach. After vows exchanged beneath the stars, couples dance the night away at one of the park's ballrooms.
Visit disneybridal.com to find strapless Cinders ballgowns made of silk tulle and duchess satin. And, if you've ever wished upon a star, makes no difference who you are as, after an outcry in 2007, Disneyland now welcomes gay couples.
Tip: BYO Prince Charming and Ugly Sisters.
Sydney Morning Herald