Atlantis in Paradise Island, Bahamas
The Sure Thing
One of the biggest worries for destination brides is whether they will still have access to everything they need for their big day. This is especially true for couples who want a big wedding with all the trimmings, be it quality filet mignon for dinner, the perfect replica of a five-tier cake from a magazine or a dozen roses in the exact same hue of lavender as the 'maids gowns.
If it's a complicated vision you're trying to achieve, look to a destination that can execute it. Our five picks are classic Caribbean isles with a strong history of tourism: the places we vacation when we want a sure thing, the kinds of islands to which we'd happily send our parents and grandparents — and isn't that what we're talking about here? Yes, they have the dreamed-of brilliant bougainvillea, the palm-studded beaches, the cerulean seas — and they have good golf courses, state-of-the-art spas and fine restaurants (along with some funky ones too). Most importantly, they have well-established resorts and high-quality vendors accustomed to dealing with American brides and fully capable of operating at the same level you'd expect on your home turf.
THE BAHAMAS The beautiful thing about The Bahamas, besides its proximity to the U.S. mainland (the closest island, Grand Bahama, is only 55 miles from the Florida coast), is its variety. Its hub, Nassau and Paradise Island, offers the most choices in terms of accommodations and activities, and it has a thriving wedding industry. Atlantis, with its Vegas-worthy casino and water park, is virtually a destination unto itself, but that's only the tip of the iceberg; there are accommodations and venues to suit any event size and style. The less-populated Out Islands — such as Harbour Island and the Exumas — are easily accessible via puddle jumper and great for a wedding-honeymoon combo.
BARBADOS The British West Indies have always been among the staunchest upholders of tradition, and Barbados follows the standard, with venerable parish churches, plantation great houses and high-tea service. Platinum Coast hotels, such as celeb favorite Sandy Lane, do things on a grand scale, while multiple boutique inns provide similar services on a more intimate level. And it's not all prim and proper here — far from it! When it's time to let loose, take your party for a tasting at a rum distillery (or a shack), to a Friday-night fish fry in the town of Oistins or on a private bus tour of the island's best beaches.
GRAND CAYMAN, CAYMAN ISLANDS If you're looking for fun and something a little different, Grand Cayman has plenty to offer. The East End is laid-back and timeless; the west side is where the action is. Here you'll find one of the Caribbean's finest strands: Seven Mile Beach, lined with hotels catering to beach brides and with ballrooms for those who don't want sand in their shoes. Hotels here are top-notch, with a mix of established brands (think Westin and The Ritz-Carlton), plus a great array of private condo-style resorts like The Reef and Caribbean Club. The vendors, from florists to photographers to caterers, are some of the best in the region. Create indelible memories with a group snorkel trip to Stingray City.
JAMAICA For generations, this island has been closely tied to American visitors; its hospitality sector has grown up around how we travel. The Montego Bay area is home to one of the two international airports, plus large traditional resorts, such as Half Moon. Ocho Rios, a thriving tourist center, has easy-access all-inclusive resorts and crowd-pleasing attractions like Dunn's River Falls. But it's not all about big brands: Find Jamaican ambience (without sacrificing convenience) among the smaller properties that line the cliffs of Negril and the hip South Coast, or head inland to the Blue Mountains. No matter where you go, music is a key ingredient; start with a reggae band during cocktail hour, and transition to an American-style DJ spinning stateside hits (Lady Gaga, anyone?) for the reception.
USVI For the best of both worlds — West Indian locales with American ease of access — look to St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. No passport requirement for U.S. citizens and a variety of flights from major U.S. cities mean you can invite whomever you want. There's even a Kmart on St. Thomas for last-minute gift-bag items! St. Thomas is the hub; set up camp here for the most direct access and big-island convenience. Or go beachier in St. John's Cruz Bay, where the vibe says expat but the quality of restaurants, vendors and accommodations says home. Enchanting Christiansted will be your home base on St. Croix; gift your attendants traditional Crucian hook bracelets as an island souvenir.
View of Gustavia Harbor in St. Barts
Let's face it — this is meant to be the biggest celebration of your life. Barefoot chic certainly has its place (it's called the beach), but so does drop-dead elegance in sky-high heels. So go for it: Change your outfit five times a day, get an elaborate do, put in some serious spa time, and above all, have your wedding in a locale that makes your guests excited and everyone else envious.
We're talking about destinations with chachet, places that know what it means to throw a remarkably good-looking affair followed by fine dining, overflowing flutes of champagne, wild dancing and guests jumping in the pool with party clothes on at 3 a.m. These four destinations are Caribbean chic, offering exquisite scenery, outstanding hospitality and vendors who are used to satisfying the needs of a clientele that celebrates with flair.
ANGUILLA Despite an alarming rash of Paris Hilton appearances of late, Anguilla isn't that kind of A-list island. Here, celebrities are allowed to fly under the radar and enjoy the island's great beaches and casual-but-classy hospitality scene. Known for outstanding villas and a few small five-star resort hotels with Mediterranean overtones, Anguilla has recently expanded its menu with the swank Viceroy Anguilla, designed in high modern style by the fab Kelly Wearstler. Anguilla boasts exceptional dining, state-of-the-art spas (at places like CuisinArt and Malliouhana), easy logistics and a circuit of local musicians who can add a steamy calypso/soca bounce to your event.
ST. BARTS Anyone who laments the demise of the so-called beautiful people hasn't been to St. Barts in high season recently. Fashionistas and their ilk adopted the French isle as their Caribbean St-Tropez long ago, and they keep coming back for more of its fine beaches, beautiful buildings and superb food — all of which add up to an ambience that says the great life. That life is lived in elaborate villas and small hotels with swank names like Eden Rock and Le Toiny, at trendy watering holes, and in the boutiques and byways of Gustavia, the picturesque capital. A long residency requirement for official weddings precludes legally getting married in St. Barts, but there's no shortage of stunning settings for a ceremonial vow exchange in the Caribbean's capital of chic.
SAINT LUCIA This Windward Island's volcanic profile has been rising higher and higher in recent years, thanks to a deluge of new boutique hotels with a massive wow factor. Leading the way was Jade Mountain, a spectacular wing of the venerable Anse Chastanet, and neighboring Ladera, which just built an outdoor venue specifically for weddings (see more on page 35). The southern Soufriere area is quieter and less developed. For more in the way of restaurants, nightlife and accommodations suitable for bigger parties, stay up north, where chic check-ins include three Sandals resorts and Cap Maison, seen on the finale of The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love. Saint Lucia is one of the Caribbean's prettiest destinations; for a day-after photo shoot, rent a car and make the most of it.
TURKS AND CAICOS The financial capital island of Providenciales is home to luxe small hotels striving to outdo one another for a discerning, free-spending clientele. Many of these properties straddle 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach — one of the Caribbean's finest shorelines, with bone-white sand, brilliant turquoise water and several variations on the theme of glamour. Go for South Beach style at Gansevoort, adults-only ambience at Grace Bay Club or customized service at Seven Stars. Organize a day trip to pristine North Caicos for some of the best snorkeling and diving on the planet. Bonus: Direct-flight service from Miami and New York means Provo's a cinch to reach.
El Morro Castle in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Easy and Affordable
The dream of a tropical wedding is too much to resist — but what if the price tag and logistical hurdles end up being too great for you and your party? Here's great news: Several easily accessible Caribbean destinations are standing by to work with you on creating the wedding of your dreams — within your budget.
In certain Caribbean locales, the dollar goes further, especially when you incorporate locally produced food, drink, flowers and music that infuse your celebration with a charming sense of place. Destinations with direct air service from multiple U.S. airports offer a savings on airfare, not to mention less travel time and hassles. And locales with a wide selection of accommodations — including great all-inclusive resorts (which make budgeting easier for your loved ones) — mean guests can find deals at various price points. Our picks have all this to offer and more.
ARUBA This Dutch island is a tourism favorite and gets lots of repeat visitors — a sure sign it's doing something right. Located far south of the hurricane belt, Aruba is an American-friendly, safe island with a highly developed tourism infrastructure. Most visitors stay on the northwest shore, home to eight miles of stellar beach. Palm Beach, aka high-rise beach, has larger resort hotels with familiar brand names like Hilton, Hyatt, Westin and Renaissance; just south is quieter Eagle Beach, with privately owned boutique hotels like Bucuti and Manchebo. Aruba is fun: It offers choices for both casual and fine dining, lots of lively bars and an inexpensive, tourist-friendly local bus service.
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC The D.R. is huge and varied, but for the purposes of an affordable Caribbean wedding, most plane rides lead to Punta Cana and Cap Cana, on the east coast. There you'll find endless stretches of palm-lined beaches that host an array of all-inclusive resorts, each virtually a destination itself, thanks to multiple pools, bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and sports facilities. Different brands cater to every style and budget, sometimes within the same property; for instance, at the sweeping Paradisus Palma Real, guests can either stay in the main hotel or upgrade to the Reserve next door, with luxe extras like private concierge service and Reserve-only restaurants. Best of all, these well-run complexes offer an array of wedding packages, planners and other onsite vendors to help you easily pull the whole thing off.
MEXICAN CARIBBEAN After flying into the Cancun airport, you can go a number of ways. For a glam, urban-style experience on a well-developed beach, stay put; Cancun's resort strip is famous for high-rise hotels and a vast collection of restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Driving south along the Riviera Maya, you have a selection of all-inclusive options, including Palace, Secrets and Grand Velas, plus charming boutique-size ones too. Playa del Carmen is a thriving beach city that's a low-rise, culturally minded alternative to Cancun. Tulum, an off-the-grid beach town, has a boho vibe and a handful of eco-resorts. Finally, offshore islands like Isla Mujeres and Cozumel offer a relaxed atmosphere and first-rate diving. Whatever you choose, the region is safe, friendly and loaded with cultural flavor. And there's no shortage of activities: You've got primo beaches, Maya ruins and natural water parks. To stock your welcome bags, hit the local markets for fun and affordable Mexican keepsakes.
PUERTO RICO Not only is San Juan the main airline hub in the Caribbean, with direct flights from many American airports, but P.R. is also a U.S. territory, so no passports are required and there are fewer international tariffs (so you can ship in wedding supplies more easily). San Juan offers myriad choices between the snazzy beachfront hotels of Isla Verde and Condado and the cinematic Old San Juan historic district, home to the circa-1654 Hotel El Convento. But it's not just about the city. The west coast is home to funky surf towns like Rincon, easily accessible via Aguadilla airport, which also gets nonstop service from the U.S. Charming Ponce, on the south coast, blends 19th-century historic sights with stellar beaches, while the east coast boasts classic resorts like El Conquistador, rainforest excursions in El Yunque and ferry access to hip Vieques, home to the splashy new W Retreat & Spa.
View of the Caribbean Sea in Belize
The Caribbean has much more to offer than typical fun-in-the-sun celebration. The region is endowed with an incredibly rich bounty of nature — lush rainforests, mountainous lookouts and inland lakes — along with historical and cultural elements. Think of these destinations as roads less traveled — and filled with surprises.
For a wedding here, think small. You're more likely to find historic inns, boutique hotels or eco-resorts than big resort chains, which makes it tougher to accommodate larger groups. Nightlife is minimal too; instead of late-night clubbing, plan group activities that tap into other strengths — touring, hiking, snorkeling and rubbing shoulders with friendly locals.
BELIZE In this small Central American country, English is the official language, and the coastal towns and offshore cayes are infused with a decidedly Caribbean vibe. You can explore Maya sites and visit a jaguar reserve in the jungle, as well as snorkel, dive and fish on the second-largest barrier reef in the world. If the latter spot holds the most appeal, Ambergris Caye has all the isla bonita allure you're looking for, with a selection of well-honed small hotels (we love Victoria House) and a lively strip of beach bars. On the mainland, it's easy to enjoy both sand and land by staying at a boutique lodge like Robert's Grove or Turtle Inn, both in Placencia. Or forgo the beach altogether and settle into an inland eco-lodge like Ka'ana or Chaa Creek, where your wedding-week activities include wildlife viewing, zip-line tours and cenote-tubing trips.
GRENADA You have to go the extra mile to reach Grenada, but visitors unanimously agree that it's worth it. What you'll find is a traditional British West Indies island with a mature hospitality sector that operates at a high standard, with a small footprint. Pretty hotels like LaLuna and Spice Island Beach Resort cluster in the south, near St. George's and Grand Anse Beach, leaving the rest of the island for exploration. Go on jungle walks in the mountainous interior, jump into waterfalls, go tubing down a river, or visit a local market to learn why Grenada is called the Spice Island.
NEVIS Crowned by Mount Nevis, this island is steeped in the history of the plantation era. The great houses of sugar estates have been repurposed as quaint inns, its sugar mills as dining rooms, its ruins as romantic settings for events and photographs. Choose a hillside hideaway like Montpelier Plantation or The Hermitage, or go beachfront at Nisbet Plantation, where the great house dates to 1778. Your group can take hikes with colorful naturalist guides and ride mahogany Creole carriages through lush plantation grounds. No party is complete without a visit to Sunshine's, one of the region's most famous beach bars.
TOBAGO This little-sister isle to Trinidad is the Caribbean in microcosm: a small rural
island with just enough big-island energy and amenities. Blessed with a variety of beaches and stellar snorkeling spots, Tobago is perhaps most well-known for its 14,000-acre tropical forest reserve that's a magnet for bird-watchers. Stay in boutique-size hotels, or take over the very affordable Villas at Stonehaven, which is a member of the Leading Small Hotels of the World. Treat your guests to authentic Caribbean fare, and let your party come alive with the sounds of old-school calypso and high-energy soca.