The perfect honeymoon takes as many shapes as the perfect honey.
Almost every lodging in the world offers some sort of romantic package or can invent one at a moment's notice with a quick call to the florist. In general, amenities range from "Just Married" T-shirts and a bottle of bubbly to moonlight sails (common in Florida and the Caribbean) and heart-shaped beds or tubs (a trademark of the Poconos and Niagara Falls).
Geri Bain, travel editor of Modern Bride magazine, says the weddings-away business is "growing really fast." She attributes it to a desire for more privacy and less hoopla by older first-time marrieds, as well as to the greater acceptability of such weddings. Reader polls showed destination weddings rising from 2 percent to 4.3 percent between 1991 and 1995, she says. At Walt Disney World in Florida, such ceremonies were up more than 20 percent last year.
Tropical retreats have raised honeymoon planning to a fine art, often making the wedding itself part of all-inclusive deals (Sandals resorts in the Caribbean and Bahamas call them "WeddingMoons"). Many Caribbean islands have streamlined marriage laws for foreigners and lay on a variety of extra perks; Aruba has decorated taxis available to honeymooners throughout their stay.
For the best price, try to schedule your wedding trip off-season - winter in Europe, summer in Hawaii, Mexico or the Caribbean. Some resorts also offer promotional discounts if you pay with one specific credit card or another. Take time to comparison-shop carefully - by viewing videos when possible and asking lots of questions, particularly to determine what each all-inclusive resort means by "all." Beware of expensive, hidden extras such as taxes and service charges, airport transfers and activity fees.
Here are some ideas (rates may vary by season and accommodations). Travel agents can help with arrangements and suggest countless more.
* America's No. 1 honeymoon destination is also its favorite family vacation spot: Disney World. If Mickey and Minnie ever decide to tie the knot at the Orlando theme park they call home, they'll have to wait in a long line of prospective brides and grooms. More than 2,300 couples a year marry there. Prices start at $3,300 for an intimate gathering for two; an average wedding for 100 people is about $20,000.
Just want a honeymoon? Three-night stays range from the "Honeymoon Escape" - accommodations at a value resort hotel from $970 - to the "Honeymoon Grand Plan" - accommodations at a deluxe resort hotel including unlimited admission to theme park attractions and recreational activities, three meals daily at your choice of Disney dining locations, private golf and tennis lessons, use of bikes and boats at selected hotels, tickets to Cirque du Soleil and a 50-minute spa treatment, fireworks cruise, guided tours and seminars. Call 407-W-DISNEY.
In trendy Miami Beach, the Eden Roc Resort has "Spa Honeymoon" packages, including numerous personal treatments at the oceanfront Spa of Eden. Rates run from $1,809 to $2,160 per couple for three nights (two spa meals daily), $4,050 to $5,055 for seven nights (three spa meals daily). Call 800-327-8337.
When it opened 40 years ago, Mexico's Las Brisas was the most romantic resort in one of the most exotic honeymoon destinations: Acapulco. Individual "casitas," most of which come with a pink-and-white Jeep and a private pool that's sprinkled with fresh flowers each morning, are terraced into a hillside offering spectacular bay and ocean views. Romance packages, including a private-pool casita, Jeep with gas and unlimited mileage, daily breakfast, a dinner for two, daytime tennis, bottle of champagne, temporary membership at a private beach club, gratuities and other gifts run from $810 to $1,200 per couple for three nights and from $1,620 to $2,400 per couple for six nights (depending on type of room). Call Westin Hotels & Resorts at 800-228-3000.
Up the coast in Baja, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts' deluxe all-suite Las Ventanas al Paraiso, opened in April 1997 in Carretere Transpeninsular. A "Pure Romance" package at this five-star resort is $5,800 per couple for seven nights in an oceanview junior suite. It includes champagne on arrival, full breakfast and lunch daily, dinner five nights, 50-minute massage for each person and other amenities. Call 888-525-0483.
You can run away to French Polynesia for seven nights for less than $3,000 per couple - including round-trip airfare. The Blue Lagoon package with New Frontiers includes two nights in Moorea, two nights in Huahine, two nights in Bora-Bora and one night in Tahiti. Some meals and airport transfers included. Call 800-366-6387.
It's getting easier every day to be married in the Caribbean, as many island nations and territories ease waiting-period requirements. Tourists can get hitched the day they step off the plane in Puerto Rico, Barbados, the Cayman Islands and the Dominican Republic (these islands do require ID and usually some preliminary correspondence). For a complete list of requirements in the Caribbean Tourism Organization's more than two dozen island groups and Mexico, call 212-635-9530.
American Airlines now offers discounts to groups of 10 or more wedding guests traveling to the same destination within the United States, Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas, U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. Travelers may originate their flights in different cities within the United States and Canada. Discounts are up to 10 percent. For details, call 800-545-8193 or visit http://www.aafirstcall.com.
A new bargain in the pricey Caribbean is Cooper Island Beach Club on a private island in the British Virgins. It consists of a dozen waterfront cottages and a restaurant/bar popular with the yachting crowd. The island has no roads, one cellular phone and a freshwater supply that comes from the sky. There are a dive center, water sports and boat charters but little else to do but enjoy the beach and watch the sun set over nearby Tortola (the club's boat makes the five-mile run there three times a week for shopping). Daily rates are $95 to $155 a couple, depending on the season; a seven-night honeymoon package with all meals is $929 in winter, $639 (with two meals daily) in summer. Call 800-542-4624. www.cooper-island.com
The Southampton Princess offers a three-night "Royal Dolphin Romance" package that includes interaction with dolphins at the hotel's beach, balconied room, horse-drawn carriage ride with champagne, special-occasion cake, social activities and other perks starting at $950 a couple; subject to availability. Call 800-223-1818.
Tony Bennett is hardly the only romantic who left his heart in San Francisco. With its vintage cable cars and cosmopolitan restaurants, the city is brimming with urbane sophistication. The luxury downtown Clift Hotel - whose famed Redwood Room is repeatedly voted the city's most romantic spot for cocktails - has a "Romance" package from $350 to $850 daily. Couples will enjoy a dozen roses, champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries and full breakfast. In the Grand Suite, matching terry-cloth robes are also included. Call 800-65-CLIFT.
Los Angeles' Hotel Inter-Continental offers an unusual perspective. At $1,300 a couple, the one-night "Cloud Nine Romance" package includes champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries and limousine transfers; lodging in the five-room presidential suite with whirlpool spa and grand piano; a three-course dinner; breakfast in bed and more. Call 213-617-3300.
For only $5,500, you can go from bride to golf widow on the same day. Or maybe you and your new husband can just share your mutual passion - for the links, that is.
We're talking about the new Wedding on the Green deal at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on Maui, Hawaii, one of the more unusual among the scores of packages pitched by resorts hoping to land the increasingly lucrative "destination wedding" business (in which couples marry at hotels, and often dozens of wedding guests stay there too).
At the Ritz-Carlton, the package includes two days of golf for two, a room for three nights, a three-course dinner, massage for two, daily breakfasts and a wedding ceremony at the fifth tee overlooking Oneloa Bay with wedding cake, solo guitarist and flowers for the bride and groom. Call 800-262-8440.
Europe offers countless stately homes and ancient castles that ooze romantic charm (and occasional drops of rain). Scotland seems to be taking a major initiative in marketing romance, with many tour operators offering wedding packages. The Gaela Weddings division of Virginia-based Alkar Travel has a six-night Iona Wedding/Honeymoon Package that starts at $5,950 (kilt rental is an additional $148, piper in full regalia $250). The package includes the wedding in a country house (registrar's and clergy fees, bride's bouquet, champagne), car rental, accommodations in country houses or manors and full breakfast and dinner daily. Visit www.alkartravel.com for information. Call 804-346-8714.
In the Utah Rockies, you can snuggle by the fire at Sundance, the arts and recreational community founded 25 years ago by Robert Redford (who makes rare appearances). No more than 1,000 skiers are allowed on the mountain at any one time - assuring everyone access to uncrowded slopes that weave through 6,000 acres of powder. Winter rates run $195 to $395 daily in cottage suites that include stone fireplaces ($165 to $250 after April 1). Call 800-892-1600.
Las Vegas' busiest wedding period is around Valentine's Day. During that weekend in 1996, Clark County issued 3,021 wedding licenses. The county gets so many requests for wedding information that it has added marriage and wedding information to its Web site http://www.co.clark. nv.us.
This sampling of all-inclusive resorts offers packages that can be tailored to embrace everything from the marriage license to the honeymoon; some resorts offer a complimentary, basic wedding ceremony. Rates shown are per couple for a honeymoon stay, including lodging, meals, entertainment, activities; wedding ceremonies add anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars more, depending on the frills and the number of guests.
Sandals (10 resorts in Jamaica, Antigua, St. Lucia and the Bahamas), $1,280 to $4,440 for three nights, $2,600 to $9,000 for seven nights, 800-SANDALS.
Couples (Ochos Rios, Jamaica), starting rates are $2,800 to $3,220 for seven nights, 800-COUPLES.
Biras Creek (Virgin Gorda), $4,275 to $5,000 for a seven-night "Sailaway" (five nights at the resort and two nights on a private yacht), 800-223-1108.
Marriott's Frenchman's Reef (St. Thomas), three-night honeymoon stays range from $680 to $899 a couple, depending on type of package and time of year, 800-524-2000 (honeymoons) or 800-FOR-LOVE (weddings).
Sunswept Resorts (St. Lucia), daily rates $340 to $485 a couple, 800-544-2883.
Radisson's Ciboney (Jamaica), complimentary wedding (with photos, cake, flowers) when couples book a Honeymoon Villa Suite for at least seven nights ($5,320 to 5,600 a couple depending on time of travel); three-night honeymoons start at $1,200 in a standard room, 800-333-3333.
Wire services contributed to this report.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Resources for booking a honeymoon
"Caribbean for Lovers" is a paperback guide by Paris Permenter and John Bigley, who provide the lowdown on 21 islands; $15.
"100 Best Honeymoon Resorts of the World" by Katharine D. Dyson, $18.85, offers detailed assessments of solid favorites.
"Modern Bride Honeymoons and Weddings Away" by Geri Bain, the magazine's travel editor, $14.95. The subtitle says it all: "The complete guide to planning your most romantic trip ever." This large paperback includes advice on destination weddings as well as picks for top honeymoon spots (but not specific resorts).
Hideaways International specializes in off-the-beaten path villa and resort vacations and yacht charters, starting at about $1,000 a week. About 25,000 Hideaways members pay $99 a year for semi-annual catalogs of properties and prices, as well as quarterly newsletters. Call 888-843-4433 or visit www.hideaways.com.