By HEATHER BRAGG
Hilton Head Island has cornered the market on romance with its serene sunsets, light ocean breeze, swaying palmetto trees and miles of pristine sandy beaches. And more destination weddings are taking place on the foot-shaped island than ever before.
“Weddings have changed over the years,” said Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. “From weddings with a ceremony and reception in one night to these weeklong extravaganzas, people are looking to make the wedding a family reunion or vacation.”
Many couples choose the Hilton Head area because it lends itself to vacation weddings, said Amanda Spencer, a local wedding planner.
“Ninety percent of my weddings are vacation weddings,” Spencer said. “They come for a week before the wedding and stay through the week after the wedding. I had a bride and groom last July who cancelled their honeymoon and decided to stay here for a week. They were supposed to fly out on the Monday after their wedding, but they decided to save the honeymoon for later so they could spend time with family.”
Many of the brides Spencer has worked with chose Hilton Head over other locales because it’s where they vacationed as children, or their parents have retired on the island.
“It’s a great family vacation spot,” Spencer said. “It’s easy to get to for people coming from the Midwest and Northeast.”
Recently-wed Maggie Boyle planned her entire Hilton Head wedding around the 150 out-of-town guests, who came from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Canada. Since her wedding took place Jan. 2, several guests spent Christmas on Hilton Head.
“It feels like home when you go to Hilton Head,” Boyle said. “(Wedding guests) are leaving the resorts and going to grocery stores and cooking out. A lot of people drove. They love to relax when they get here and not worry about flying during the holiday season. This is a great location for the East Coast.”
Boyle created a wedding website with links to local resources. She provided welcome bags for all of her guests, chock full of local goodies, including Harbour Town lighthouse-shaped cookies and caramel popcorn. She also organized a weeklong itinerary of things to do, such as Savannah day trips, hotdogs on the beach and an ice cream social.
“None of this would have been possible without a wedding planner,” said Boyle. “I can’t even tell you. We had a really tough past year. My mom was diagnosed with skin cancer a year ago that spread. While she was going through that, her father got sick. We got engaged the day (my grandfather) passed away. We did have a short engagement, so we could get married on Jan. 2, his birthday.”
Boyle and her mother turned to the Yellow Pages to find their wedding planner, Amanda Spencer, because they knew they’d need help coordinating vendors and welcoming guests while they mourned the loss of their loved one.
“We didn’t know Hilton Head that well,” Boyle said. “Amanda was a blessing in disguise. We fell in love with her. She has been so incredibly helpful.”
Boyle said she recommends that destination brides avoid snafus by hiring a wedding planner. Destination brides are not only dependent upon the planner to hook them up with the
appropriate vendor, they’re also looking for area expertise.
As a Lowcountry native, wedding planner Ashley Rhodes of Beaufort knows the lay of the land better than most. For her own wedding in Beaufort, Rhodes knew immediately where she wanted the ceremony — the Old Sheldon ruins — and the reception at the Arsenal.
“Not only do I have knowledge of the geography of the area, I know where private plantations are,” Rhodes says. “I also know a lot of people.”
Wedding planners can provide recommendations for a variety of accommodations for every member of the family and every budget. In the Lowcountry, there are affordable options for those looking to get the most bang for their buck, and there are luxurious options for those wanting to pull out all the stops.
Serena Crumley, an event planner with Concierge & Co., said most of her clients, who are planning high-end weddings, save a huge piece of their budget for photography. But the secret to making your destination Hilton Head wedding extra special should be kept secret.
"An element of surprise is always good to have — something that no one is expecting," she said.
For instance, a couple whose wedding she planned hired a magician and a babysitter, where they entertained the children on the guest list in a separate room.
"The surprise doesn't have to be huge," she said. "But it should be something fun."
Not only are couples holding their wedding ceremony and reception on Hilton Head, they’re also hosting their bachelor and bachelorette parties, bridal showers and luncheons here, too, said Clark.
“In many cases, the guys get together for a golf tournament, the gals are doing bridal showers at a day spa and everyone gets together for evening events on a cocktail cruise,” she said. “We really are this destination wedding place in that it’s so easy to do all of these things. It’s compact, everything is so close together that you’re not dreading the headaches and hassles of traffic.”
One popular wedding option for tight-knit families is to rent oceanfront homes with all of the luxuries of high-class living, including hot tubs, swimming pools, fully stocked kitchen, outdoor grilling areas, spectacular views and a bike ride to amenities, said wedding planner Tricia Huddas of Tricia Huddas Co. Weddings & Events.
"In the coastal South, we deal with 90-percent destination brides," she said. "We definitely do not fit the national average that only 20 to 30 percent of wedding guests come to the wedding."