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Destination weddings beckon more brides, grooms

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The turquoise lagoons and misty mountains of Bora-Bora have always enchanted bride-to-be Maja Sakowsky. She's so enamored of the fabled South Pacific island, in fact, that she has delayed her wedding for more than a year so that she can legally wed there.

In May, Sakowsky and her groom, Zach Hosford, plan to say their vows while standing on a spit of land overlooking one of those turquoise lagoons, taking advantage of a change in French Polynesian law that simplifies the marriage of foreign visitors in Bora-Bora and the other islands of Tahiti.

"I just know it will be perfect," said Sakowsky, a Baltimore resident.

The couple will join a growing number of brides and grooms who are forgoing hometown ceremonies for destination weddings, sometimes in such locales as Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii, at other times in vacation regions closer to home, such as California's Napa Valley or Sierra.

We're not talking about eloping: We're talking about elaborate, well-planned, white-gown weddings with a passel of guests, flowers and all the other trappings of a Big Wedding.

So why leave home to do it?

Basically, to avoid the hassle of a hometown wedding, say bridal planners. Tying the knot while on vacation is a vacation.

"It's hard to limit your guest list if you marry at home," said Los Angeles event and wedding planner Evette Knight.

Limiting the guest list is easier when the wedding is far away, she said. "Even if you do invite a lot of people, many won't come," she said. "And the people who do come really want to be there. It's a much more intimate feeling."

Another advantage: The couple typically feels much more relaxed. "The atmosphere is better," Knight said.

"Instead of rushing around before the wedding, the couple arrives a few days in advance; they're pampered and their guests are pampered."

Couples in their 20s and 30s are more likely to choose domestic resort locations for destination weddings, according to Brides Magazine. "The trend is really hitting this age group," said Jacqui Gifford, travel editor for Brides.

"Before, a small group would fly out to a beach resort, spend a couple nights, fly home. Now, we're seeing people ask their guests to travel a little closer to home," she said, using as an example a San Francisco couple who might wed in the Napa Valley.

But, she added, exotic locations still draw many brides and grooms — and the weddings often become weeklong parties.

"The top, classic destination wedding markets (Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean) are seeing guests stay longer, sometimes up to five nights," Gifford said. "The couple has events planned for each evening. From the guests' perspective, it's a built-in vacation. From the couple's perspective, [it's] an easy way to spend more time with their friends."

Los Angeles resident Felicia Midrahi agrees. She married her husband, Guy, in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, attended by 100 guests; they chose a south-of-the-border wedding "because we're selfish," she said. "There was no other way we'd ever have been able to spend so much time with the people we're closest to. We were able to have an extended vacation with them."

Everything went as planned. "The scenery was beautiful and the wedding perfect," she said.

That's what most brides want, of course, and Sakowsky has been willing to wait to make her Tahiti wedding work out. Bora-Bora and the other islands of Tahiti formerly required non-French nationals to stay within French Polynesia for 30 days before marrying there. When Sakowsky heard that a proposed law that wouldn't require 30-day residence was pending, she put her plans on hold for more than a year until the French Parliament approved the change.

French Polynesia may be late to the destinations wedding party, but the hoteliers there — just like bride-to-be Sakowsky — have been planning.

Luxury hotels such as the St. Regis Bora Bora, Hilton Bora Bora Nui and Four Seasons Bora Bora have their own wedding chapels, some built over lagoons so the wedding party can see fish swimming below glass panels in the floor. Many other resorts conduct lagoon-side weddings, with the couple arriving by outrigger canoe dressed as Tahitian princesses and chiefs. Wedding packages abound: spa treatments, traditional Polynesian feasts, honeymoons on desert isles.

But marrying in French Polynesia still isn't easy. Couples have to plan — as they do in many overseas locations — on providing paperwork and documents as much as three months in advance. And they must be officially married in the local mayor's office before the lagoon or chapel ceremony.

"We suggest you start planning at least 45 days prior to the ceremony," said Jonathon Reap, communications director of Tahiti Tourisme (, the L.A.-based Tahitian tourism bureau. The organization also recommends working with a travel agent who specializes in French Polynesian weddings or with an event planner who specializes in destination weddings.

"Getting married in Bora-Bora will still be a lot of trouble," Sakowsky said, "but I think every wedding is a lot of trouble. And mine will be worth it: I'll be getting married on a blue lagoon in Bora-Bora."

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