Top 10 Tips for a Destination Wedding
Organize your destination wedding in France:
A chatelaine’s top tips to plan your perfect day
Over the years, many couples Chateau de Courtomer have honoured as the venue for their wedding. Based on their experiences and ours, these insider’s tips from the chatelaine of one of France’s most beautiful private chateaux will help you plan your perfect destination wedding in France.
For so many reasons…beauty, elegance, and charm…France has a special place in the hearts of couples seeking a destination wedding. And with proper planning and an insider’s knowledge of what makes a wedding in France work, your destination wedding à la française will create special memories for a lifetime.
It isn’t only the glorious food and wine… the picturesque countryside and the romantic cities…or the history of this fascinating country that draws so many to exchange their vows here.
It is something special about the French. French culture values beauty, good food, ceremony and great parties…but above all, it honours the ties of family and friendship. I am always struck by how carefully the French maintain family connections, treating them as something valuable to be preserved through the generations. There is a lovely deference shown to the older generation. And much attention, even if strict, paid to little ones. Weddings usually include a troupe of sweetly-dressed little nieces and nephews clustering around the bride. Cousins on both sides join with the bridal couple’s friends to organize skits and toasts.
But France is also a wonderful place to be married because, as I have learned, the French are not actually romantic. They are ruthlessly practical. And to have a successful wedding, you must be, too. After all, what good is Romance…if you run out of Champagne?
Some of the most down-to-earth advice about marriage has come from my French friends.
“Le marriage, c’est une danse à deux,” said one of them, as we watched a bride try to catch up with her new husband on the dance floor. “You must keep in step,” she added. “And you can’t just stop.”
Another friend told her daughter, “il faut sauter.”
Leap. Don’t look too long.
Our own caretaker, who has been married for 48 years, had this to say:
“Le mariage, Madame, n’est pas un long fleuve tranquille.” Not smooth sailing, on a long, calm river.
But, thankfully, your wedding day can go smoothly. I have married one daughter, one son, and been to numerous weddings in my twenty years among the French.
These are my top tips for your destination wedding in France:
Plan well ahead and commit your plans and budget to paper. The logistics under control, you can turn to romance. And you will both have time to serenely welcome your family and friends.
Organising a wedding abroad involves different priorities: site visits and catering choices require more advance preparation. You’ll need to investigate local suppliers. You’ll want to learn about special activities available in your area. And naturally, the best venues and caterers get booked up fast, so you must begin planning early.
Choosing your date
The average lead-time for organising a destination wedding is around 16 months. This will fly by fast.
Choosing the right date involves many personal factors. Your schedule and the availability of key guests, to name just two.
It also involves French factors. Consider avoiding national holidays when traffic is heavy, shops are closed, caterers busy and lodging in short supply. These can also be the dates when France’s feisty labour unions decide to shut down trains, planes and taxis. The French are used to this; your guests probably won’t be as philosophical.
The busiest holiday month is May, known as the “mois férier,” or “holiday month.” There is a saying in English, “Marry in May and rue the day,” and that might have been true this year. In 2018, May had five holidays – 3 national or bank holidays, one of them religious, and 2 more religious holidays (Ascension and Pentecost).
The busiest holidays are long weekends, like those of Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, and those that fall during regular holiday periods, like Christmas, New Year’s and The Feast of the Assumption on August 15.
Then, there are the Black Saturdays (“les samedis noirs »). This has nothing to do with Satanic rites, though it can feel that way. It has to do with “les congés payés” – paid vacation. French employees have 5 weeks of annual paid holiday, which most of them use to go to beach. On certain Saturdays in the summer, they take to the roads en masse either returning from or departing on their holidays. Roads can be gridlocked. Check out the site of Bison Futé to get latest traffic information.
Some people think of national strikes as another form of holiday; at any rate, they often cause travel delays. But strikes are scheduled well in advance. French airlines and railroads send email and phone alerts and have web pages devoted to this information. In principle, you can plan around strikes.
French holidays and moveable feasts in 2019
o January 1, “Jour de l’An” or New Year’s Day (national or bank holiday)
o April 19, “Vendredi Saint” or Good Friday
o April 21, “Pâques” or Easter Sunday (national or bank holiday)
o April 22, “Lundi de Pâques” or Easter Monday (national or bank holiday)
o May 1, “Fête de Travail,” or “festival of work” -- when no-one works and people purse their lips at those that do (national or bank holiday)
o May 8, “Victoire 1945” or Victory in Europe (national or bank holiday)
o May 30, “Fête de l’Ascension.” Always on a Thursday and falls 40 days after Easter Sunday. I once waited in a very long line in the Paris airport to go through Customs because, as the loud-speaker informed us, it was Ascension Day.
o June 10, “Fête de Pentecôte” or Pentecost. Always 50 days after Easter Sunday.
o June 11, “Lundi de Pentecôte” or Monday after Pentecost, which a former government unsuccessfully tried to abolish as a cost-saving measure.
o July 14, “Fête national” or Bastille Day (national or bank holiday)
o August 15, “Fête de l’Assomption” or Assumption of the Virgin Mary (national or bank holiday)
o November 1, “Toussaint” or All Saints Day (national or bank holiday)
o November 11, “Armistice de 1918” (national or bank holiday)
o December 25, “Noël” (national or bank holiday)
o December 26, “Lendemain de Noël” or Boxing Day (national or bank holiday)
o December 31, “Fête du Saint Sylvestre” or New Year’s Eve.
So, what do you want from your venue?
The backdrop to your celebration is part of its success. Finding the right one can seem daunting, but it need not be so. To help narrow down what seems to be an endless number of fairy tale castles in France, draw up a list of what you want from your venue.
o How many guests will be celebrating with you.
o Do you want everyone to stay on site?
o Are you planning to hire a marquee?
o Do you want exclusive use of a facility and the grounds?
o What is the maximum travel time you consider reasonable for your guests?
o How easy is it to reach the venue?
o Can everyone climb stairs?
o Should every bedroom have its own bath?
o Are you picky about quality of furnishings and linens?
o Do you want the full French experience – or just a place to lay your head and keep dry?
o Do you want maid service?
o A cook for regular meals in addition to the caterer for your wedding feast?
o Special activities on-site and tourist opportunities nearby?
These are just a few of the considerations you and your fiancé will want to take into account.
Once you have your list of requirements, make a shortlist of venues. And make sure you plan a site visit. The reality often doesn’t live up to those pretty pictures and romantic descriptions. Only by visiting can you really be sure. Prior to the visit draw up the most thorough list of questions possible.
Next steps towards your dream day…the site visit
Always give yourself plenty of time to look around. Snoop. Take pictures, take notes. It is easy to forget essential details when you are viewing several properties back to back. Recording your research is key.
Ask the person who is showing you around questions and more questions. Listen to the way he or she presents the property. This is one of the most special days of your life. You want to get the right vibe from the person providing the venue.
When you hire a venue remember that for some chateaux it is just that -- a venue. Once the date is booked, you might be on your own. Check out what back up is available to help with your planning and who will be responsible for answering the myriad of questions you will ask on the run up to your wedding. Who will be on site in case something goes wrong – the electricity goes off, a toilet backs up – on the big day? Does he or she speak English, in the event that you or the person organising your wedding doesn’t speak French?
Details are important here. For instance, is this a turnkey let or will you have to make up beds and bathrooms yourself when you arrive? Does the venue restrict your choice of suppliers and do they charge corkage? What is the facility charge for your marquee set up and breakdown, especially in the event that it falls outside your rental period? Can you organize to have deliveries made prior to your rental period?
You have found the perfect place, congratulations!
You found it! The perfect setting for your wedding celebration. Now you must turn dreams into reality. Could you do with some help? It takes, on average, 30 full days to plan a wedding. Do you really have that time to spare? Think about hiring a wedding planner, either to accompany you on the run up to the wedding or to orchestrate the day itself.
I wanted to control every aspect of my daughter’s wedding (yes, that was me!). But in the last months before the date, I brought in a wedding planner to handle the logistics. My daughter and I chose the florist and the type of bouquet and floral décor, but our planner handled the payments, access to the chateau and grounds, and all other details. We chose our caterer, but our wedding planner handled the nitty-gritty details like where to put the catering tent and where to run electric lines for refrigeration. We chose our invitations, but our planner paid for them, picked them up, and took them to the post office. Etcetera. And our planner also made suggestions for details we hadn’t contemplated. She found suppliers, and came up with money-saving solutions. Finally, working with a wedding planner alleviated much stress.
Especially for a destination wedding, control of logistics is essential. If your wedding is small and intimate, you may only need the regular concierge services offered through the venue. And some venues provide a wedding planner. But whether you use a concierge service or a full wedding planning service, look for a list of trusted suppliers, intimate knowledge of the surrounding area, and someone who will be on-site.
Finally, if you involve friends and family in your wedding, make sure responsibilities are clear and the timeline is respected.
Whether you are planning a five-course formal meal, a hog roast or a burger van, food is fundamental. An empty stomach is does not encourage romance. Good caterers offer sample tastings. Once you have selected your caterer, ask for tastings of the dishes that appeal to you, fit your budget, and will please your guests. French wedding fare typically involves foie gras and other delicacies that the French find luxurious – and some guests will simply find foreign. Ask out about special dietary requirements of key guests well in advance, and make sure your French caterer can deal with them. I once entertained an international group of guests that included two Indian vegetarians on a special Jain festival diet, a vegan, and a Muslim. There were the usual gluten- and lactose-intolerant individuals as well.
“Why can’t they just eat ham like everyone else!” snorted our old-fashioned cook. The idea of people who wanted wheat-free bread had already ruffled her sensibilities. France has a long history as an agricultural country with strong peasant traditions. Wasting food and being picky are viewed unsympathetically.
Choosing the drinks to accompany your meal is often as tricky as choosing the menu itself. Real Champagne or Saumur Champigny? Bordeaux versus Burgundy, Pommeau or sparkling cider. If you buy your own wines you can be sure of the quality and will save money. Check if your venue allows this. Some will charge “corkage” for all wine bought off the premises, and this can add up quickly.
Housekeeping throughout your stay
Most venues require a minimum booking for three to four days. This is actually a great idea. You and your family can thus spend time together before and after the wedding. Your focus is naturally on the wedding celebration itself, but you will need to eat, drink, and keep your guests amused on the other days, too. What extra services do you need? Pizza for 60 sounds easy, but who will clear and wash up afterwards? If you are in the venue for several days prior to the wedding, can your venue provide daily maid service and cleaners to spruce the place up for The Day? Make sure you cover this important aspect of the overall organisation and budget for it.
Plan B- what’s yours?
“The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley,” wrote Robert Burns, in his poem “To a Mouse.” This is true for brides as well. Try to plan for all eventualities. Weather is unpredictable. Rain or a heat-wave can ruin an alfresco event. What’s your alternative?
We were at a wedding recently in which the bride and groom were supposed to dash away from the church in a horse-drawn carriage. A romantic idea! Until the heavens opened and rain pelted down. The horses didn’t mind the soaking – but the bride was dismayed. It was an open carriage and she was wearing white satin.
Oh well. As the French say, “mariage pluvieuse, mariage heureuse.” A rainy wedding is a happy wedding. Small consolation!
Plan for bad luck. When considering a venue, check to see if the public rooms are spacious enough to accommodate your party if you have to move inside. Or whether there are alternative spaces -- a grange or an orangerie --that could be hired, just in case.
Coordination, communication and cooperation- the key to success
From the moment that you have agreed on the basics, clear communication between all parties is vital. Caterers, for example, must liaise with the “tentiste,” as the marquee supplier is called in France, or with the venue. Music providers must know about electrical outlets. The more elaborate your wedding, the more “moving parts” that can get stuck.
Make sure someone is charged with keeping all parties in the loop. He or she should understand your expectations and make them clear to others. This person should be the keeper of a master timeline, and will keep others apprised of any changes. This is, of course, a wedding planner’s role. But if you are relying on the venue to represent your wishes, make sure that this is included in the service provided.
The day will go so quickly! Live in the moment…and remember, as the French poet Alfred de Musset, wrote:
“Le seul vrai langage au monde est un baiser.”
The only true language in the world is a kiss.
Who says the French aren’t romantic!