Lifestyle

Best Caribbean Places To Elope

Sunday, December 08, 2013    

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America's best-read daily, USA Today, recently profiled the best places to elope in the Caribbean and, to no surprise, The Rock made the cut. The gorgeous Sandals Royal Plantation in Ocho Rios and scenic Hammerstein Highland House villa in Montego Bay were spotlighted as locales deemed ideal for the bethrothed to make it official. SO shares USA Today's preferred top-10 eloping spots as determined by reporter Steve Blount.

Jamaica

"The final retreat for Hollywood swashbuckler Errol Flynn and the birthplace of character James Bond, Jamaica's North Coast has intrigued visitors for centuries. The island's central mountain range — the Blue Mountains — edge up close to the coast, creating ridge tops with scenic vistas of lush green forest that melt into an impossibly blue sea. Known for rum, reggae, Rastafarians and Red Stripe beer, Jamaica is indelibly romantic. Choosing among the dozen great hotels along the coast is hard, but couples with a small party might consider the Hammerstein Highland House villa. This was the home of Broadway legend Oscar Hammerstein, and it's easy to see the inspiration for his lyrics for The Sound of Music. The hills are indeed alive, and from this perch overlooking Montego Bay, you get a sweeping vista of mountains and the sea. The house is available with four to six bedrooms and comes with a butler, cook and gardener, so you won't be wasting any needed energy on housework. If you're more a hotel type, the Sandals Royal Plantation just up the coast in Ocho Rios offers not only full wedding services, but an all-inclusive luxury rate that includes, well, everything, plus a butler. All of the rooms are oceanfront suites, the grounds are jaw-dropping and you can say "I do" in a gazebo built out over the ocean.

US Virgin Islands

Of the three islands, St Thomas is the hub and home to the capital, Charlotte Amalie. The island is hilly, the result of its birth as a heap of ash from volcanoes on nearby Puerto Rico. Magen's Bay — frequently named to Top 10 Beaches lists — is on the north side and a popular site for wedding ceremonies. There's also Smith Bay Park, which has neighbouring St John as a backdrop and turquoise water so intense that it doesn't look real. Pretty Klip Point, a rocky promontory overlooking Sapphire Beach with a row of palm trees, is "just perfect" as an aisle for the bride.

After the ceremony, St Thomas and St John have all manner of accommodations, from a Ritz-Carlton to B&Bs. There are also dozens of grand, private villas for rent, such as Outrigger, which has a nice poolside area for your ceremony and incredible views down the mountainside to the water. And, for you hit-and-run romantics, you can even get married during a port call from a cruise ship. The USVI impose no mandatory "residence" period. Paperwork is easy, a simple application that can be filled out and submitted online, then signed at the time of the ceremony. There is a US$200 fee for the licence, and you'll need proof of a divorce or death certificate if you were previously married.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico enjoys many of the same advantages as the US Virgin Islands. There are daily flights to the capital, San Juan, and even a few weekly flights to Mayagüez on the wild western side of the island. Compared to many of the other islands, Puerto Rico feels like a continent, with continental diversity. There's a rainforest (one of just two real rainforests managed by the US National Park Service), endless beaches and even caves for spelunking, along with the cosmopolitan pleasures of urban San Juan — nightclubs, casinos, a first-class art museum and a wonderfully restored historic district. A gem in the middle of it all is the El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan. Unlike nouveau-hype hotels who adopt old-sounding names, the El Convento was in fact built as a convent for Carmelite nuns in 1646. The columned facade is guarded by the convent's original iron gates, and inside, there's a beautiful open-air courtyard perfect for a small ceremony. A complete opposite in every respect except luxury is the Horned Dorset Primavera, in Rincón on Puerto Rico's west coast. Secluded on a cliff overlooking a private beach, the Horned Dorset is a perennial fixture on the Condé Nast list of the best resorts in the world. The architecture is Old-World gorgeous, a mix of the Spanish-Arab Mudéjar structure and lavish Turkish tilework and rugs. Puerto Rico doesn't have a residency requirement, but it does have some paperwork: You'll need a recently issued medical certificate, divorce papers, an application and a US$20 fee.

Cayo Espanto, Belize

If your Caribbean wedding fantasy involves extreme seclusion and servants, Cayo Espanto may be your place. It's expensive — nearly US$2,000 a night — but you'd be hard pressed to argue against the value. There are exactly seven private villas ringing the four-acre islet. The villas have mahogany-panelled interiors, luxurious island-style furnishings and your own designated butler. One of the villas, Casa Ventana, is built out over the translucent pale-blue water at the end of a 150-foot dock. The hotel staff will help make arrangements for you to be married on the island, or, if you prefer, make a quick trip to a Maya site on the mainland and get married in the shadow of a 1,000-year-old pyramid. Belize does require an approved licence application (US$100) and you must be in the country for three days before being married. You can apply in advance and get a fax of the approved application before travelling. If you want to get married in an archaeological site, apply to the Commissioner of Archaeology in Belize City by fax at least a week before your planned ceremony.

Kamalame Cay, Bahamas

If the private-island thing appeals but Belize seems kind of far, consider Kamalame Cay in the Bahamas. The Cay is a 96-acre private island with just 19 seaside rooms and villas, the property of developers Brian and Jennifer Hew. The Jamaican couple did a long stint enduring the corporate life in South Florida before founding their own island paradise. Kamalame Cay is just a few hundred yards off the northeast coast of Andros, the largest — and one of the least populous — of the Bahamas. It's just 150 miles from Miami, but literally a world away. There are three miles of deserted, white sand beach that front acres of khaki brown sand flats covered with a thin sheet of transparent water and strewn with thousands of pure white sand dollars. The food is stellar; if you like, the staff will sneak into your villa while you're away and leave fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. The villas, designed by Brian and Jennifer, are perfect island-style getaways, with high, wood-lined ceilings, cool tile floors and freestanding Jacuzzi tubs. If you tire of gazing into each other's eyes over a fruity adult beverage on the beach, there's a freshwater spring (blue hole) in the ocean, world-class bonefishing, kayaking, a rope swing and torchlit beach barbecues enlivened by bands belting out the local "rake 'n' scrape" island music. The Hews and their staff will help you navigate the few formalities: You'll need a licence ($100) and can apply only after being in the Bahamas for a day. You'll need photo IDs, a valid passport, birth certificate and evidence of the end of previous marriages.

St. Lucia

Green, mountainous and surrounded by a deep blue sea, St Lucia offers both luxury and solitude. The island's Pitons — twin mountain spires — are iconic symbols of St Lucia's adventurous side. There are mountain-biking trails, excellent snorkelling and diving and even a drive-in volcano, La Soufriere. Of course, you may never want to actually leave the resort if you land at Ladera. Perched on a hillside overlooking the Pitons and Pitons Bay, Ladera pioneered the "missing fourth wall," with rooms and suites open to the stunning view. Be aware Ladera is not a beachfront resort; there is a beach down the hill, but with your own plunge pool and that view, you probably won't care. Nearby Anse Chastenet does have a beach — two of them actually, on 600 forested acres — and a similar open-air feel as Ladera. Either resort can make all the arrangements you need to get married. Official fees run less than US$200 and St Lucia requires you to be on island for two days before applying for a marriage licence, so figure you'll be there a week — though once you see the island, you won't want to leave.

Nassau, Bahamas

The Bahamas earns two entries on the list — and truthfully, you could make a list entirely of places in the Bahamas to elope to. If you're impatient and ill-prepared, Nassau could be your best bet. First, it's easy to get to. Really easy. There are direct flights from many US cities; it's only two hours by air from New York. Second, you won't need any more documents than you would at your local courthouse (passport, birth certificate, evidence of the end of previous marriages). And third, the island is home to a broad variety of resorts, from basic B&Bs to over-the-top super-luxe.

Compass Point has the corner on fun and funky. Accommodations are in multi-coloured "huts" fronting a soft, white sand beach lapped by turquoise water. If you're over funky and are looking for luxe, you could try the Bridge Suite at Atlantis which has hosted the likes of Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. But before you spend that kind of money, take a close look at the Graycliff. The 18th-century mansion was reputedly built by a notorious pirate, John Graysmith, and was later owned by an associate of Al Capone. The interior and grounds are well-manicured and loaded with hand-carved antique furnishings. The Graycliff itself is not just a hotel, it's a brand, with its own line of super-luxe cigars and pricey Swiss chronographs.

There are plenty of places to get married on the island, from the grounds of your hotel to a deserted beach on one of the offshore islets to the grounds of Fort Fincastle overlooking the capital city.

Tobago

Tobago is almost as far south as you can go in the Caribbean; only its sister island Trinidad is closer to South America. Although English-speaking, it's also one of the most diverse islands, celebrating marriages for not only Christians and Jews, but also Muslims and Hindus, courtesy of its heritage of immigrants from South Asia. Neighbouring Trinidad is highly industrialised — calypso and the steel drum, made from oil drums discarded by the island's numerous refineries, were born there — while Tobago bills itself as "the natural choice", a reference to its rolling hills covered in tropical foliage. There's an annual mid-summer festival devoted to marriage, the Tobago Ole Time Wedding Festival. Men dressed in swallow-tail coats and ladies dressed in satin gowns form a procession that meanders through the village of Moriah. Every year, a few newly married visitors join in. The Blue Waters Inn, located on the island's northeast tip, has both a wedding planner and scenic venues for your vows: a pristine sand beach or poolside overlooking the turquoise water with a backdrop of Batteaux Bay and the mountainous spine of Little Tobago.

Paperwork is minimal; you'll need to be in Tobago for three days, bring notarised copies of any previous divorces plus a photo ID (passport) and apply for a licence (about US$55).

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Embraced on one side by Maya ruins and on the other by the clear, blue Caribbean, Playa del Carmen is Cancún's younger — but more sophisticated — sibling. Located south of the ultimate spring break spot and north of the border with Belize, PDC is the main anchor of the Riviera Maya. Playa del Carmen has an incredible range of hotels from funky beachfront B&Bs to some of the finest luxury hotels in the world. Check out the Rosewood Mayakoba, with its mile of white sand beach and ultra-luxe suites built around lagoons and saltwater pools. Wedding coordinators are on-site to handle the details, and the backgrounds and reception facilities are as upscale as the hotel. If you're bringing an entourage, Esencia is a 50-acre private estate that once belonged to an Italian duchess. With 29 rooms, suites and cottages and it's own private beach, you can get as crazy as you want. The Fairmont Mayakoba is a less expensive choice — as are the all-inclusive Allegro, the Iberostar Gran Hotel Paraiso or the smaller La Pasion Hotel – but all have access to the great beaches and the great inland adventure available on the Riviera.

Bequia, St Vincent & The Grenadines

If you want to get lost — really lost — in the tropics, this is the place. St Vincent, with its volcanic black-sand beaches and towering rainforest, is exotic enough. But just a bit south lie The Grenadines: Mustique, favoured by royalty and rockstars for decades; Canouan, a throwback to the Old Caribbean; Young Island and Palm Island; and then there's Bequia (beck-wee). It's big enough to have an airport and isolated enough to feel like the old Caribbean, when travellers arrived by private yacht and cruise ships were plying the North Atlantic. The formalities here are pretty simple and everything's in English, but you will have to make a stop in St Vincent nine miles away to acquire the marriage licence (bring your passport and any divorce decrees or death certificates). Firefly Plantation really is a former 18th-century plantation, and it cascades down the face of a steep hill with the Caribbean visible in the distance. It's utterly charming and you will definitely know you're not in Kansas anymore; creole dishes, curried goat, vegetables straight from the garden and fresh seafood along with more traditional fare. Check out the Plantation Cottage, a great hideaway bungalow atop the hill. If you want to be on the water, try Sugar Reef. It has rooms directly on the beach and up on the hill, like Firefly. The upper rooms are airy and breezy — the Master Suite is big, furnished with a heavy carved four-poster and fronts an enormous balcony — and though the Mistress's Cottage is both secluded and serene, it may not be the most aptly named accommodation for honeymooners.

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