Photo credit: Annlee Ellingson

In a meadow in the wine country of Southern California. At a farm in Hudson Valley in New York. On the beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.

These are the locales where some of my girlfriends have gotten married — or hoped to, before the coronavirus intervened.

One of these very women has traveled even farther afield to attend her friends’ nuptials — to an island off the coast of Washington state, to Alaska, to Italy.

Destination weddings sound so romantic, don’t they?

Sure, the venue that the couple booked sight unseen may not meet their expectations set by the carefully curated gallery on the website. And everyone with whom they’d like to celebrate may not be able to attend. Then there’s the matter of flying with a wedding dress.

And for guests, destination weddings are expensive. They use up precious PTO. And they’re in locations not necessarily on everyone’s vacation bucket list.

But ultimately an exotic locale and storybook backdrop combine to create memories to last happily ever after — and the ultimate Instagram post.

Such was the case with my friends Julianne and Mike’s wedding last year — the one in Hawaii.

The ceremony took place the weekend after New Year’s — the tail end of the holiday travel season — so between airfare, hotel, car rental, and meals, my husband and I paid thousands of dollars to be there. I’d planned to travel quite a bit last year, so I had to ration my vacation days with a quick five-day trip. (If I’d known I’d end up taking random day off to use up those vacation days thanks to pandemic cancellations, we could have stayed longer.) And my sister used to live in Hawaii — she herself got married in Maui — so we’d been several times before and weren’t exactly itching to go back.

But, I mean, it’s Hawaii! We were determined to make the most of it with the one full day and two half days not set aside for wedding-related activities.

Photo credit: Annlee Ellingson

We flew in on New Year’s Day — a Wednesday — landing at the tiny outdoor Kona airport mid-afternoon. We picked up our car and checked into the Royal Kona Resort — a 50-year-old hotel looming over the casual coastal town (think Venice Beach). The place underwent extensive, multi-million-dollar renovations during COVID, but back then, the carpet in our room was worn and the bathroom mirror rusted. Due to a reservation mixup, however, our patio door opened onto an ocean view. We could sit out there and watch the sun set every evening before being lulled to sleep by waves crashing onto lava rock.

We explored Kona, shared shave ice with a velvety neon green lizard, and — when cell service went out all over the island — gave up on Yelp, calculated the cash in our wallets, and let our noses us lead us to an Indian restaurant for dinner.

Photo credit: Annlee Ellingson

The next day, Thursday, was the one full day we had to ourselves, so — after our first cups of Kona coffee — we drove two hours south along the coast to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We hiked through stinky sulfur banks and steaming meadows to the crater rim, then drove the 19-mile Chain of Craters Road to the coast, pulling over occasionally to pick our way over crunchy obsidian lava fields, spy the southernmost point of the United States in the distance, and feel the ocean explode on the coastal cliffs. At the end of the road were a dramatic sea arch, vault toilets, and popsicles.

On our way back to Kona, we detoured to a black sand beach where sea turtles are known to sun, swapping our boots for sandals and then bare feet. We buried our toes in what looked like crushed Oreos and let the cold water rush over our feet, marveling at the geologic wonder that produced such an alien phenomenon — so much so that we didn’t even notice at first the giant turtle resting in the sand nearby, surrounded by orange cones so that beachgoers would keep their distance.

Photo credit: Annlee Ellingson

On Friday, we drove north. We got lost on a gnarly trail to a field of ancient petroglyphs. We stopped by a fort where tourists watched for whales and sharks still swim among the ruins of a submerged temple. We shooed away chickens at a gas station. We took another detour to Waipi’o Valley, where parking was scarce, so we tag-teamed dashes down to the lookout, where we each snapped a few photos and took a moment to soak it in while the other waited in the car.

We crossed to the east side of the island, swearing in awe at the Jurassic Park jungle views flying past our windows. We hiked to Akaka Falls — a narrow yet powerful stream of water thundering 400 feet into a verdant vase. We circled back to Kona past Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano at the center of the island that is the subject of an international conflict between astronomers and the state government who want to build a Thirty Meter Telescope there and Native Hawaiian protestors who consider the peak to be sacred. At the turnoff to Mauna Kea Access Road, we drove through an encampment that had built up over months.

We made it back to the hotel just in time to shower and change for a luau hosted by the groom’s family, feasting on pork that had been roasting underground under our hotel room window all day, potato-macaroni salad, and poi while hula and fire dancers entertained us onstage.

Photo credit: Annlee Ellingson

Saturday was the day of the wedding, so we didn’t venture far, heading back south, less than an hour this time, to Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historic Park. On the stubby peninsula are carved wooden figures called ki’i surrounding the Hale o Keawe temple, which houses the bones of twenty-three chiefs, and the Ka’ahumanu stone, named for the favorite wife of King Kamehameha I, who fled to the site when her husband found out she was unfaithful and hid under this seven-ton rock but was given away by her dog.

The two reconciled, though, because Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau is a place of refuge. In ancient times, breaking a sacred law, or kapu, was punishable by death, but if fugitives reached the rocky shores of this sacred site, they’d be saved and forgiven.

I wasn’t seeking refuge or forgiveness that day, but picking my way over the hardened lava amid shallow pools of water, a line of palm trees like pom poms framing the Pacific Ocean, peering at the Rothko horizon where the Crayola blue sky met the sapphire of the ocean, I felt its power.

I felt honored to be in a place infused with such history and culture and grace.

And I felt grateful to the couple who had brought me there.

Julianne and Mike’s wedding was postcard-perfect — at sunset on the beach in Hawaii. A sweet, intimate affair with happy friends and family in a fairy-tale setting.

There was no gift table — in part because another challenge of destination weddings is the transportation of china and blenders and linen.

But also because they were the ones who had given us a gift — of indelible experiences and adventure in a place that without them we may have never ventured to.

Writer. Reader. Film critic. Moviegoer. Traveler. Hiker. Cook. Besotted aunt to Logan, Titus, and Bodhi. Based in Los Angeles. Socials: @annleee (she/her/hers)