By:  Mary Young
Oahu Island News

It’s hard to imagine a more romantic wedding location than a beach in Hawaii. Thousands of couples come to the islands each year to begin married life in paradise. For those traveling from the mainland, Hawaii ranks among the most popular wedding destinations, along with Europe, Florida and the Caribbean.

Last year, 448,879 visitors came to Hawaii to get married, according to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Over 40 percent of those weddings are performed in Honolulu, and many of them are visitor weddings.

Bob Belcher is a 30-year veteran of Oahu’s wedding industry. His company, Island Disco, provides entertainment packages for special events, including about 200 wedding receptions a year. “[The wedding business] is a huge business here, and it’s invisible until you’re getting married,” he said.

Island visitors get married year-around, seven days a week, with the number declining slightly after the holiday season. Wedding professionals rely largely on Web sales, said Roger Parsons, a Honolulu photographer and wedding planner. “All of us have seen our business going upward because more and more people are on the Internet, and more and more people are comfortable buying through the Internet,” he said. Parsons had a busy photography studio beginning in the 1970s. But in recent years, he dropped other projects to specialize in visitor weddings. He gets as much work as he wants. “And I’m one of the smaller companies here,” he said.

Weddings for every budget
A destination wedding on Oahu is actually an economical way to tie the knot, especially for those traveling from the West Coast, Parsons said. ”If you get married back home, you’re spending eight, ten, twelve thousand dollars or more – way more – on a ceremony, a church, and a reception.”

“When you consider a wedding reception and honeymoon, it’s a lot cheaper over here, because they’re already on the honeymoon,” said Parsons. “What many couples do is they come over here and get married and have their honeymoon, go back home and have a small reception with family and friends and show the DVD of their wedding over here.”

A mainland couple shopping online for a wedding planner can find options in every price range. (Advertising focuses on the visitor market; kamaaina rates are available, but local couples usually make their own arrangements.)

A basic wedding package starts at around $100 for a brief ceremony on a beach in or near Waikiki. The price typically includes the ceremony performed by a non-denominational minister, filing of the marriage license with the Department of Health and personalized copies of the wedding vows and marriage certificate.

The next price level might include add-ons such as a photographer, leis, travel time to more distant locations and champagne.

The sky’s the limit, of course. The Monarch Elite Package, offered by Affordable Weddings of Hawaii for $3,495, includes consulting services, flowers, Hawaiian song and hula performances, super-stretch limo service, multiple-location photographic tour, wedding cake, fully edited video, massages and candlelight dinner for the couple, and more. Whatever the package, most planners will customize it by adding options a la carte.

“This is their dream, and we have the ability to give them their dream,” said the Rev. Karen Russ of Affordable Weddings of Hawaii. “We have pretty much everything you can think of at our disposal. If you can dream it, we can do it.

Ideal beaches
The dream location for most couples is a beach – and not just because some of the best ones are free of charge. (The big exception is that the large number of couples who come here from Japan usually choose a chapel wedding.) “Anywhere from Haleiwa, North Shore, Makapuu, Waialae Beach Park, Lanikai . . when you photograph them, you don’t even know which island you’re on, they’re so gorgeous,” Russ said.

One of the most popular beach locations is Leahi Park, at the foot of Diamond Head. Leahi Park is a classic spot for a beautiful wedding and perfect photos. The park is grassy, shaded, and conveniently close to Waikiki.

Waialae Beach Park, located near the Kahala Mandarin Hotel, is a favorite for “barefoot in the sand” ceremonies. It has a long, curved expanse of beach that can easily accommodate several weddings at the same time. The beach ends in a short peninsula with a small, palm-covered island and a nice view of Koko Head. For wedding pictures, Parsons said, Waialae Beach Park is among the best. “They can be either in sand or on grass,” Parsons said. “There are several different kinds of locations there. The background is gorgeous, and there’s parking.”

The scenic sweep of Diamond Head provides the backdrop for couples that say their vows on Magic Island. One of Honolulu's most popular parks for joggers and picnickers, Magic Island is crowded during the day but usually clears out in time for sunset.

Another beautiful shoreline setting is Kakaako Waterfront Park, with its spacious, rolling lawns, walkways and trellis-lined pavilions. Kakaako Park is located downtown and has abundant free parking – making it popular for large local weddings, too.

Oahu residents have the advantage of scoping out the ideal beach at their leisure. Zack and Jen Ingram of Mililani arranged their own seaside wedding last December at Nimitz Beach Park at Barber’s Point. “We planned our entire wedding in 3 weeks,” Jen said. “We got a simple little pop-up canopy and had it underneath there because the minister was allergic to the sun, but we still had the beach and the great scenery. We had a beautiful sunset that night and everything. It was really romantic.”

Even a simple, 10-minute service can hold some surprises.  Diane Yasuhara of Aloha Forever Hawaii recalled one time when her husband, the Rev. Mark Yasuhara, had just finished the ceremony.  “Right after my husband pronounced them husband and wife and they kissed, they both ran into the ocean,” Yasuhara said.  “And the bride had on a – it was kind of simple, but it was a wedding dress – and you know, he had a shirt and pants on – and they had family there you know, like parents, and they were all kind of surprised.” The pair came out of the water wet from head to toe, and then remembered they had to pose for pictures.

Other idyllic beach settings away from Waikiki include Kawaikui Beach Park, Haleiwa Beach Park, and Sandy Beach – especially good for sunrise ceremonies.

Once in awhile, Parsons says, a couple requests “From Here to Eternity Beach,” where Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster shared a soggy moment of passion. He tries to tactfully steer them to another location; climbing down from the parking lot at the Blowhole is difficult, especially when long wedding dresses and camera and video equipment are involved.

There are other gorgeous outdoor locations, including Kapiolani Park, Haiku Gardens and Olomana Gardens. Away from the beaches, though, there is more risk of rain. Russ said, “I tell my couples, ‘You can order just about anything, but the weather is between you and God.’”
Alternatives to an outdoor service include historic properties such as Kualoa Ranch and Bayer Estate, or one of many chapels around the island.

An industry of aloha
Oahu wedding professionals share a camaraderie not always seen among business competitors. It’s not just that there is plenty of work to go around, although that probably helps. It also says something about the nature of people who choose this line of work.

“There’s a chemistry that you’ll have with each couple, and it’s like being fairy godmother,” said Russ. “I really feel it’s a calling. It’s not for everyone.”

A few businesses have quietly formed a lobbying group on behalf of their peers. Called the Hawaii State Wedding Planners Association, the group’s current goal is to get a marriage-licensing office opened in Waikiki. This would be more convenient to their clientele than the current office, located at the Department of Health on Punchbowl Street. Russ, who is leading the effort, said, “This is an industry of aloha. You don’t put someone [waiting for a marriage license] in a line like they’re trying to get a license plate for their car.”

The focus is always on the client, said Island Disco’s Belcher. “We all know each other and help each other out when we can. I mean we’ll compete furiously, but if a guy’s in trouble we’re glad to help each other out.”

“This is somebody’s big day,” he said. “What we’re dealing with are people’s dreams, and dreams are very sacred.”