No invitations, no menus, no guests, no hassle. Just us and paradise.
At the end of November 2014, my fiancé, Rick, and I decided a destination wedding for just us two was exactly what we needed. We had both been married before, and my first ceremony was as much my mother’s as it was mine: antique lace gown, dozens of elegant flowers, and a church where 300 invitees could witness the union. All of the usual hoopla.
This time around, 18 years after my first big to-do, Rick and I didn’t want to worry about who got excluded because of travel-limiting health issues in both families. So we excluded everyone. We thought Bora Bora would be ideal, but revised our plans when we stumbled across WedOTahiti, the website of Tahitian wedding planner and officiant Nelly Grange. We emailed her on December 12 asking if she was available to officiate on December 29. She responded within hours saying yes. The cost was 630 euros—about $712—payable through PayPal.
Nelly ordered me a traditional Tahitian head wreath and a lei (more like a lariat of local flowers) for Rick. We sought her advice on hiring a photographer. After determining we wanted more modern photos than traditional, she sent links to two photographers’ portfolios and we chose Helene Havard. The next week, Nelly sent each of us questionnaires so she could get to know us better and tailor the ceremony, making it uniquely ours. Within a few days, our wedding plan was complete.
We packed my blue silk wedding dress and Rick’s blue Robert Graham shirt and khakis, plus a bunch of swimsuits, New Year’s Eve clothes, and beach attire and we were ready for two weeks in French Polynesia. On December 28, We flew on Air Tahiti Nui from LAX to Papeete, arrived at night and took a taxi to what was at the time the Radisson Tahiti, but has since been rebranded the Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort, where Nelly said it would be simple to get married overlooking the ocean without paying the hotel for a wedding package. We bought a bottle of wine at the front desk to toast our first night in our elegantly appointed oceanfront Jacuzzi room.
Our ceremony was scheduled for the next morning. We enjoyed an American-style breakfasts at le Hiti Mahana, the resort’s open-air restaurant with ocean and pool views, then wandered the grounds searching for the perfect ceremony site, which we found near a palm tree on a grassy bluff overlooking a black sand beach. When Nelly arrived and we showed her the spot, she marked it with a heart made of rose petals. We chatted while awaiting the photographer’s arrival so the ceremony could begin. We stood inside the rose-petal heart speaking our vows, interspersed with Rumi quotes. Then we trailed with Helene all over the property—in the pool, in the ocean, in front of a vibrant graffiti-covered wall—for photos.
And after hugging Nelly goodbye, we headed back to le Hiti Mahana—still in our pool and ocean-soaked wedding clothes—for our first supper as husband and wife.
Time for the honeymoon. The next morning, we took a seven-hour flight on Air Tahiti to Bora Bora, boarding the water taxi we had arranged with the hotel ahead of time, and speeding through turquoise waters towards Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach Resort on the outskirts of Vaitape, where we had booked an astounding over-the-water bungalow. The wooden villas were clustered down wooden walkways and each featured a bathroom (with shower big enough for two, a WC, and double sinks), a king-sized bed, and a big outdoor deck outfitted with four chaise lounges and stairs leading straight into the water.
Our bungalow also came with a surprise: a friendly gecko that turned up in our room every day. Many native cultures consider geckos bearers for good luck, so I took the little lizard to represent an auspicious start to our marriage.
With breakfast included in our room rate, we dined each morning at Latitude 16°, the hotel’s al fresco restaurant featuring an enormous buffet to satisfy anyone’s food preferences. I was thrilled to see they offered gluten-free bread and a whole host of wheat- and dairy-free options to meet my restricted diet.
After breakfast we’d walk the beach and the resort, sniffing hibiscus and other tropical blossoms, spying fish in the crystalline waters, and watching birds, crabs, and lizards. We’d also stroll down the main road on which the hotel sat, stopping in to check out small clothing, convenience and sundry shops and nearby hotels and restaurants. Later in the day, we’d swim and snorkel from our villa, exploring the Sofitel-made reefs, colorful fish, and coral. In the evenings, after dressing again, we’d meander back up the street to The Lucky House or Tama’a MaiTai for strong rum-based drinks and fresh fish entrees.
One afternoon, I got a facial from the resort spa from a French woman named Marylin, who has since become a friend. Another afternoon, we wanted to explore the whole island, so we booked a tour with Natura Discovery. In a Jeep, Tamara picked us up along with two other couples and drove us to the extinct volcano between the peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Oemamu, to the Anua Cave nestled into a cliffside 1,300 above sea level, then through the towns of Maitira and Nunue. Along the way, Tamara stopped at scenic or historic spots, answering questions about the island’s history, including the U.S. military occupation during World War II, and its ancient burial sites. We learned about local fabric-dying techniques and the manufacturing of coconut-based products. At the end of nearly four hours of touring, she gifted us women with hand-dyed pareos or Tahitian sarongs.
Towards the end of our stay, we decided to visit Vaitape, the island’s largest town with a population of about 4,000. We went by taxi and had a delicious kebab lunch at Aloe’s Café, then wandered into several art galleries and jewelry stores, looking at and learning about black pearls. In Bora Home Galerie, we found a locally made carved shell ring shaped like a butterfly with a big black pearl at its center. I fell in love with this one-of-a-kind ring, so Rick bought it for me as a wedding gift.
At the end of seven days, we were sad to say goodbye to the gecko and the little doves who visited our deck every morning, but Tahiti was calling us back. We took the water taxi back to the airport, passing mountainous greenery, posh five-star resorts with oversized villas hovering atop cerulean seas, pristine beaches, and colorful fishing boats.
The Intercontinental Resort Tahiti was much larger—it spread over 30 acres—than the resort where we’d been married, and catered to a different crowd: cruise ship clientele. An open-air bus took us to our ocean-view room. After getting settled, we went in search of a late lunch at Te Tiare Restaurant, then wandered the grounds, checking out the two pools, the pier where villas perched over the water, and the sports hut, where kayaks, paddleboards, snorkel equipment and tennis was on offer. We strolled the garden, learning how vanilla grows.
We finished our day with a drink at the Tiki Bar, which looked exactly like it sounds, but bigger. And early the next morning, we relished the quiet and stillness of walking through the property before many people had stirred. (Thankfully, the cruise ship had sailed.) We ate breakfast at Te Tiare, then hit the pool with the sandy bottom that was situated between our building and the ocean. We lounged there for much of the day, alternating between shade of surrounding trees and sun, before showering in our room, dressing, and eating a magnificent late lunch at Le Lotus Restaurant. Sipping chilled wine, absorbing the breathtaking view of Moorea, 18 miles offshore, occasionally holding hands and talking about our favorite moments of the past week, future travel plans, and our families, our honeymoon felt complete.
In the evening, we returned to Tiki Bar for drinks and a light supper, and then went to bed as we had a very early flight back to Seattle via LAX. In the airport, we bought T-shirts for Rick’s adult children, as two of them were caring for the family critters—dog, cat, turtle, and snake—while we were away. His daughter, in particular, was anxious to see our wedding photos and was a bit sad she wasn’t with us for the occasion. But Rick and I returned home with no regrets about eloping. It was the ultimate luxury to make our wedding completely about us.
It’s worth mentioning that to have the U.S. recognize a French Polynesian wedding, you must hold a civil ceremony with a magistrate at a government office. So after returning home, we paid a visit to our local county courthouse to make it official. But our “real” wedding took place in Tahiti and for us, it was perfect.