Imagine winding your way through the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Traveling on unpaved roads and wooden bridges with your significant other in search of a limestone cliff which offers a breathtaking view of a waterfall crashing into vibrant blue water. Encountering native people with a rich cultural history that surrounds you both after a mere two-hour plane ride from the continental United States. And the entire experience is shared by family and friends, creating lifelong memories. With Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south, English-speaking Belize is now a frequent hot spot for those wanting a wedding and honeymoon collaboration, or “weddingmoon.”

For Peoria native Sarah Stewart de Ramirez, the Dominican Republic—the land first explored and claimed by Christopher Columbus on his 1492 voyage—was the perfect location for her recent March wedding. For the last 10 years, Stewart has lived away from her hometown of Peoria—residing in London, Africa and currently in Boston. Her husband, Miguel Ramirez, was born and raised in Santo Domingo, the Dominican’s capital and largest city, until the age of 13—so the location seemed a perfect fit for both of them. “He has family (in the Dominican Republic) and he can visit places from when he was little,” Stewart said. “I’m now in Boston for medical school so we only have one week for spring break. With friends flying in, now they can go to a resort for their spring break the week after (the wedding).”

Leisure travel specialist Sheila Maher with Suzi Davis Travel has watched over the years as the number of destination weddings has increased. When she started her career 28 years ago, it was mostly close friends or groups who won a radio station trip who traveled together to such exotic locations. These days, she says, many resorts adapt their outdoor structures to attract aisle-bound guests. Resorts may also cater to guests by providing marriage licenses and arranging for local officials who can legally conduct a marriage ceremony. Many times, they will offer special packages such as a free wedding if a certain number of guests buy rooms and resort packages.

“Some resorts are catering to both weddings and honeymoons by putting up chapels as they do renovations. It’s a big business on Anguilla (a Caribbean island east of Puerto Rico)—my phones were ringing off the hook for (the island) a few years ago,” Maher said. “I have even heard some people say, ‘I’ve been in three destination weddings, I can’t afford another one!’”

The destination wedding hot spots are now Belize, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico, with Mexico and Jamaica being the most cost-effective of the group. “Some couples also get married at Disney World which starts at $6,000, and cruise weddings are also popular,” Maher said. With passports now required for any international travel, she strongly suggests securing paperwork—including passports, identification and marriage licenses—immediately.


Vows are exchanged in the Basilica Catedral Metropolitana Nuestra Senora de la Encarnación, a centuries-old Spanish colonial church.

The typical destination wedding is a smaller event, with between 15 and 20 close friends and family members. (About 200 people attended the Stewart–Ramirez wedding.) Many couples also choose to hold a larger reception locally after the wedding. Couples can expect the percentage of guests who do not attend a destination wedding to be much higher than the typical 15 to 20 percent attrition for a local wedding. To help make the trip easier, Stewart sent out save-the-date favors in October—small glass bottles which held a scroll detailing the wedding information and directing invitees to the couple’s website which offered information on travel accommodations and area activities. Most of the wedding guests arranged to stay at the same hotel, which helps to create a more relaxed and fun atmosphere in an unfamiliar country.

On average, U.S. couples spend $27,690 for a wedding—not including a honeymoon, engagement ring, bridal consultant or wedding planner—according to The Wedding Report, a leading provider of wedding statistics and market research for the wedding industry. Based on the report’s research, the average wedding budget for a Peoria-area wedding is $24,370.

To cut wedding costs in a foreign country, Stewart said it helps to recruit a wedding planner who is fluent in both English and the country’s native tongue. She is fluent in Spanish herself, which helped immensely during two planning trips she took last September and October. Her mother and Peoria resident Vicky Stewart recommends hiring a wedding planner in the same country as the wedding. “Initially we had a wedding planner in Boston. She had the expertise we wanted in intercultural weddings but she knew very little about the Dominican,” Vicky Stewart said. “We made the decision early in the planning to change the wedding planners and secure the services of someone in the Dominican. That has made all the difference!” For the best deals, it also helps to find someone who is familiar with area vendors, as Stewart’s wedding planner was.

Because her husband is a native to the country, Stewart was fortunate enough to have a close friend of his family—who is also a professional wedding planner—organize the multicultural event.

“You try to use the Internet, but if you want to have a (big) wedding like in the states, it’s going to be much harder,” Stewart said. “It’s much easier to communicate back and forth (with a wedding planner) and she knew all the vendors and…was able to bargain with them.” In an afternoon, the couple was able to use their time efficiently and meet with five photographers who had been preselected by their wedding coordinator. “Once vendors are hired it’s much easier to (plan) over the phone,” Stewart said.

Another bonus was that the wedding planner was able to sort out any financial snafus couples frequently run into when trying to plan a destination wedding budget. The budget spreadsheets mapped out by the wedding planner revolved around the country’s 26 percent tax rate and the exchange rates—which can fluctuate— and were a lifesaver, Stewart said. “We gave her a (budget) number and we knew if we went over in one area we’d have to (spend less) in another area,” Stewart said. “She also budgeted over on purpose so we wouldn’t be stressing over it.”

Stewart and her mother decided on wedding music over the phone and frequently used Skype, an Internet software program which allows users to make free international calls. “It would have been helpful to have more than eight months to plan the wedding. Also, it was a challenge with the wedding in one location and the bride and (myself) in two different locations,” Vicky Stewart said. “We would have made fewer mistakes if we had been able to spend more time together in the Dominican prior to the wedding.”

She advises future destination wedding mothers and brides to plan as far ahead as possible for the wedding and to make at least two trips to the country in advance of the wedding. “Use a wedding planner at the location of the wedding and plan to communicate a lot through the Internet,” Vicky Stewart said. Patience was also a must for the mother of the bride, who had to help secure outdoor tents for the reception area to prepare for possible bad weather and adapt the ceremony to last-minute changes. What brides and grooms remember most from their destination weddings are the little things that wouldn’t ordinarily happen during a traditional wedding. “I attended a wedding in Mexico and a bride said she couldn’t forget the red ants crawling under her dress (during the ceremony),” Maher said. “There’s a million different things to remember.”


Guests shower the newlyweds with tiny hearts.

A partner of the wedding planner, the wedding designer for the Stewart-Ramirez wedding oversaw fabric choices, decoration colors and the overall theme of the wedding. Because he only asked for preferences on particular items, many of the wedding decorations were a welcome surprise for the bride, groom and wedding party. The bridal attendants’ coral-colored dresses and Vicky Stewart’s dress were fashioned in the Dominican. For the reception, he contrasted the stone of a Spanish colonial building—said to have Christopher Columbus as a frequent guest—against bright colors and flat-screen televisions, creating a clean modern line but also highlighting the building’s history. “I trusted him completely,” Stewart said of her wedding designer. “We had good chemistry and I was just excited to see what he would do.”

Sarah and Miguel originally chose to host their rehearsal dinner on the beach, which offers a fantastic view of the sunset; but Mother Nature had other plans and eventually sent the guests running for cover from sheets of rain. Luckily, the storm came at the end of the evening. And despite the lack of air-conditioning in the centuries-old, open-air Spanish colonial church where the wedding was held, guests were cooled in the 80-degree weather by fans. Traditionally, native couples beat the heat by holding late evening weddings and even later receptions. But Sarah and Miguel chose an afternoon wedding to accommodate some of their 200 attendees who may not have wanted to celebrate into the early morning hours. Small cultural differences, like wedding times, can make a big difference, so it’s important to research thoroughly to effectively plan a ceremony.

Because their wedding was also a multicultural celebration, Sarah and Miguel chose to reflect each of their heritages throughout the celebration. For their vows, she spoke hers in Spanish and he spoke his in English. Between the sets of a salsa band at the reception, a DJ laid down American tracks for guests to dance to as well. And in lieu of party favors, Sarah and Miguel chose to make contributions in honor of their guests to Casa Rosada, a home in the Dominican Republic for children living with HIV/AIDS. Destination wedding couples have the unique option of choosing traditional American customs, the native country’s customs or incorporating a mixture of both.

“You feel like you’re in another world and like a princess. It’s like a fairy tale place, it’s so beautiful and there’s so much history,” Stewart said. “I was just really excited to go on a vacation like this with family and friends, it’s really amazing.” a&s