Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Destination Wedding Locations: St. Thomas, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

The Virgin Islands have been a virtual revolving-door of colonial powers, who have continually swapped the islands in a geopolitical gin rummy. "Discovered" in 1493 by Christopher ("Hey, I think we're near China") Columbus, the Virgins were first ruled by the English. In 1650, the English were kicked out by the Spanish, who were then thrown out on their butts by the French. Later, in 1653, Malta (that dinky island nation in the Mediterranean) came to rule the Virgin Islands, but nobody is sure why. When the Maltese needed money for a pizza expedition to Italy, they sold the island back to the French. Next came the Danish in 1666, who took control of the islands in order to ensure safe passage of pastries to the New World.

During World War I, the United States purchased the Virgins from Denmark for $25 million, ostensibly to protect shipping traffic passing through the newly minted Panama Canal. However, recent documents unearthed in federal archives revealed that the Virgin Islands were actually coveted by President Woodrow Wilson's cabinet, who mistakenly thought the islands were home to thousands of wild women.

Nevertheless, the Virgin Islands (where some wild partying is said-to still occur) are one of the easiest locations in the Caribbean to visit and get married. After all, they belong to the United States, so they speak English, use our money, and don't require any passports or other travel documents.

Wedding Logistics
The U.S. Virgins require a completed marriage application form from both the bride and groom. It must be typed and notarized. There is no blood test or physical exam. The applications must be forwarded to the Territorial Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands (809-774-7325) in advance—at least two weeks before you plan to arrive.

Once received, the application takes eight days for processing. During this time, the application is posted for public inspection. After that the license can be issued but you must pick it up in person (unless your wedding planner has been authorized by the court to pick it up for you). There is a $50 fee. Fortunately, there is no residency requirement.

Costs, Accommodations, and Getting Around
Debra Filkins of Touches of Romance Paradise Weddings (809-774-8232) plans weddings on St. Thomas (the main island in the U.S. Virgin Islands). We spoke to her recently about what it costs to get married there. She has four different packages that range from $300 to $2700.
All packages include choice of site, transportation to and from the wedding, choice of clergy, marriage license fee, witnesses, a written copy of the wedding ceremony, a bridal bouquet and matching bouton-niere, wedding cake, and commemorative wedding photo album. The most expensive package, for $2700, also includes a bottle of Dom Perignon with keepsake champagne flutes, over seventy photos and a ceremony videotape, limo service, live music, and a helicopter ride to a secluded beach followed by a private picnic. Debra requires a 50 percent deposit to book the date with the balance to be paid at the wedding. The deposit is refundable up to fifteen days prior to the wedding. Debra told us many folks stop off in St. Thomas from a cruise, marry here, and then continue on with the rest of the cruise.

If you plan to stay in the Virgins, hotel packages range from $1700 to $3800 per couple for a seven-night stay. For example, we've heard raves about the Ganeel Bay resort (800-223-7637 or 809-776-6111) on St. John. This 170-acre resort has seven beaches that ring a peninsula. The 171 guest rooms have views of a garden courtyard or the sea. Honeymoon packages run $1495 to $2580 per couple for seven nights in low season (May 1 to November 6), $1630 to $2890 in the shoulder season (April and November 7 to December 19) and $2330 to $3800 in high season January through March). Three-night packages in the off and shoulder seasons run $650 to $1250. Included in the price are activities and a beach barbecue. Other plans include an "island hopper" package, tennis, scuba diving, and land/sail options.

What Makes it Special
In the winter, humpbacked whales mate in the nearby waters. Isn't that romantic? The Virgins have a wide variety of beaches, shopping and, of course, water sports. Access to other nearby islands for more rustic and/or private vacations makes the Virgins a common jumping-off point. Since it is a U.S. territory, you don't have to exchange your money for some exotic currency.

Insider Travel Tips
Many people (especially seasoned travelers) find that St. Thomas is very touristy and crowded. Recent crime sprees have given parts of this island a less than stellar reputation. Our advice: get married here and then quickly leave for a more exciting island. For example, nearby St. John's (the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands) is stunning. Two thirds of this laid-back island is a national park.

If you want to stay on St. Thomas, be aware that crime along the waterfront between the town and marina makes wandering around outside of well-traveled routes in less-busy hours ill-advised. The hills are home to the some of the island's best restaurants—but the drive at night makes some people nervous. Best bet: take a taxi. A car is rather essential to get around on St. Thomas or St. John. Thanks to the Danish, drivers drive on the left (or wrong) side of the road.

While you don't need a passport to visit the Virgins, you do need proof of U.S. citizenship to leave. This can be a passport, driver's license, birth certificate, voter registration card, etc.

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