- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2005

TULUM, Mexico — I was never someone who dreamed of a big wedding — or any wedding, for that matter. My motto: Give me the honeymoon, and spare me the frothy white dress.

So when my husband proposed, I said yes — on the condition that we spend an afternoon with a judge and just a few close friends, then run off for a week at the beach.

He wanted something a little more formal.

In the end, we compromised. We got married at the beach, with 70 or so guests, in an event that ended up being cheaper and easier than a traditional wedding but still unforgettable — with fireworks, mariachis, even a cake fight.

Two years later — as my husband and I traveled to Tulum, south of Cancun, to witness as two friends tied the knot on a secluded strip of white sand — I realized I was attending more and more weddings that felt like vacations.



Ten percent of the 2 million American couples who marry each year plan so-called ‘destination weddings’ — a 200 percent increase in the past decade — according to Conde Nast’s Bridal Group Infobank and Modern Bride magazine.

I can understand the trend. Watching the sun set on the no-fuss ceremony in Tulum — carried out by one of the couple’s close friends — I realized there is no better vacation than watching two persons start a life together, then celebrating in a setting so spectacular you don’t even need to decorate.

I thought my wedding was memorable only to me, but friends and family who attended still talk about the weekend at the cliff-top Hotel Los Flamingos in Acapulco, where we watched whales swim out to sea over breakfast, then spent the reception dancing on a terrace overlooking the Pacific.

After attending the Tulum wedding as a guest, I realized that a ‘destination wedding’ can be a gift for those invited.

We used our friends’ celebration as an excuse to piece together a much-needed vacation, and the weekend at the Maya Tulum Wellness Retreat and Spa, where the wedding was held, turned out to be much more enjoyable than the following rain-soaked week in Belize. (We drove there after the ceremony).

Between a welcome barbecue and the reception, we snorkeled, napped on the beach and mingled with other guests. Toward the end of the reception, with everyone sweaty from dancing, several guests went for a midnight swim in the ocean.

That’s the great thing about weddings in unexpected places: Unexpected things happen.

At our wedding, a Mexican tradition of having the guest of honor take a bite directly from the cake, usually ending up with a face full of frosting, became an excuse to begin hurling bits of chocolate on the dance floor.

I left the party for a few minutes to wash my face and returned to find most of the guests covered in cake and heading to the pool to both cool off and wash up. (A waiter was able to save what remained of the cake, which we devoured the next night.)

Though some people might be mortified by the thought of a food fight at a wedding, it was clear from the beginning of our ceremony ? when I walked down the aisle to Elvis Presley’s ‘It’s Now or Never’ — that our wedding wasn’t exactly traditional.

Which brings me to the next benefit of marrying in an unusual setting: It’s easier to get away with doing things your way. The event we attended in Tulum was the first big wedding the resort had hosted, and the staff was more than willing, at the request of the couple, to cater a vegetarian buffet and even arrange yoga classes between events.

In both my wedding and friends’, acquaintances performed the ceremonies, which made the events both casual and personal.

Someone who knows you personally can speak from the heart. A member of the clergy hired for the occasion or a justice of the peace coming in for an hour may barely remember your name.

The drawback in having a friend officiate was that Mexican law only recognizes civil wedding ceremonies; I ended up getting my afternoon with a judge after all.

The other advantage of a ‘destination wedding’ is that requiring the wedding party to fly to another country will likely trim your guest list to the friends and family you really want to invite ? as opposed to your father’s former co-workers.

Also, you get to spend a long weekend — not just an evening or afternoon — catching up with the people you love most.

Many hotels will plan the entire event for you — right down to music and food. Some even will give you a weekend free to come down and discuss plans. We spent about two hours giving instructions to our hotel, then spent the rest of our free weekend reading in a hammock.

In Mexico, especially if you stick to the smaller hotels, you can put together a spectacular wedding — one that would cost tens of thousands of dollars in the United States or Europe — for less than $5,000.

Your guests pay for airfare and their rooms. You pay for food, drinks, music and decorations. I went down to the local flower market a few hours before the ceremony and spent $20 on flowers.

The hotel usually throws in a few extras and gives your guests a good rate.

In our case, in exchange for filling Los Flamingos’ rooms for a weekend during the slow season, hotel management didn’t charge us for use of the terrace where we held the ceremony and even threw in the so-called ‘honeymoon suite,’ actor John Wayne’s old room at the hotel.

I initially felt bad about asking people to fly down to Mexico. However, I sent out e-mails with suggested vacations that they could tack on before or after the wedding, and everyone seemed happy to have an excuse to come down to the beach for a long weekend in November.

The best part was that, blaming the warm beach climate, I got away with wearing a simple evening dress instead of a frothy white gown. I didn’t even have to wear shoes.

DESTINATION WEDDING TIPS:

• Try to fill the hotel. It will help you negotiate better rates, and you won’t have other guests complaining about the loud late-night reception. In Mexico, you’ll get cheaper rates May to November ? but you risk rainy weather.

• Check local marriage laws. In Mexico, you aren’t legally married until you visit a judge, so many Mexicans have two weddings, one religious, one civil. Some hotels can arrange for a judge, and most foreigners can have a Mexican marriage certificate authenticated for use in their home country. However, it may be easier just to get married again at home by a local judge. Using a translated foreign marriage certificate might work at embassies, but you’ll get blank looks from most other government officials.

• Consider alternatives to the beach. A friend was married at a small hotel outside of Guanajuato in central Mexico. The nearby artists enclave of San Miguel de Allende also would be great for a ceremony. Haciendas, with their sprawling grounds and crumbling stone buildings, also make good settings. Though it’s easy to move around in small towns, they may be more of a trek to reach. It’s easy to fly into big cities, such as Mexico City, but they may be more expensive and can overwhelm novice travelers.

• • •

Hotel Los Flamingos: In Acapulco; www.flamingosacapulco.com or 52-744/482-0690. Regular (non-group) rates start at $50 a night, Dec. 15 to April 15 (otherwise $65).

Maya Tulum Resort: Near Cancun; www.mayatulum.com or 888/515-4580. From the Web site, click on Packages for wedding services. Regular (non-group) rates start at $85 a night, June through September ($115 a night October through May).

Resources: Many hotel chains, large resorts and some convention and visitors bureaus have on-staff wedding planners; small hotels often assign a staff member to help you. A new quarterly magazine called Destination Weddings & Honeymoons ? www.destinationwh.com ? offers advice and ideas. For a searchable directory of potential wedding locations, from hotels to gardens, visit www.weddinglocation.com or call 800/933-3434.

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