28 April 2013

How do you book a wedding in Italy?

Once we'd decided to get married in Italy, the first issue was where to start? How did we know we could book the wonderful wedding of our dreams yet find someone we could trust not to rip us off? How did we know that we wouldn't arrive in Italy to find the wedding of our dreams was really the stuff of nightmares?

We decided to start with the obvious, large tour operators. Since these were well known and mainly protected by ATOL, they seemed the safe, reassuring option. With Kuoni, Thomas Cook or Thomson organising our wedding day, it would be less likely to be ruined by some scam artist running off with our money or us arriving at our wedding venue to discover the ceremony was being held in a hovel in the middle of a building site.

The great thing about these sorts of weddings was that they would do everything for us. We would literally arrive at the hotel and they would organise the flowers, ceremony, food, drinks and legalities.

I had a friend who got married last year and booked a wedding package through Thomas Cook at the Olympic Lagoon Resort in Nissi Bay, Cyprus. She went into the travel agents and said "I want to get married somewhere hot" and they did everything else. The photos looked lovely and she had a wonderful, relaxed day. No bridezilla moments organising the order of service or table plan, she just handed everything over to the experts.

However, with the large tour operators, there wasn't a huge amount of choice. Most companies only held weddings in Lake Garda or Como, the Italian Riviera or the Amalfi Coast. It seemed that getting married in Greece or Cyprus was much more popular. Added to this, most of the ceremonies were held by the sea, around a lake or in a town hall. None of them had ceremonies in a vineyard and none of them were places in which we particularly wanted to get married.

Lake Como. A popular destination for Italian weddings

The next option was to organise everything ourselves. Find a venue, book a celebrant, organise a florist and book the caterers directly. This would have given us a whole load of flexibility, made our day more individual and less of a package and also provided us with a wider selection of towns and cities from which to choose.

The difficulty with this was that it would have taken a lot of time to organise. We simply didn't feel we had the time or money to fly out to Italy to meet with suppliers and, although Adam had basic Italian, we didn't feel confident negotiating with florists and caterers over the phone. We also felt we would have been much more susceptible to being ripped off.

So we decided to find a wedding planning company to do things for us. I guess we were looking for something in between a formulaic wedding organised completely for us and a bespoke wedding we organised ourselves. Something laid back where we had to make some choices, but where we wouldn't necessarily have to sweat the small things.

The sort of wedding we wanted

With a quick google search, we found a whole host of companies who would organise an Italian wedding for us. So the next issue was how did we know which companies were trustworthy? We couldn't meet all of them in person and there didn't seem to be an independent company we could use to judge whether organisers were reputable and whether we could rely on them with our money and wedding day.

We decided to base our choice on the following criteria:
- did their website look professional
- did they have lots of testimonials on their website
- were they willing to let us speak to other couples they had helped
- did they speak English and could we communicate with them via email
- did they have a presence on social media
- did searches on blogs and social media find any negative stories
- did they organise the sorts of weddings we wanted
- ultimately did we like the people we would be dealing with

After contacting a few companies, we chose Italy Weddings. They were really quick to respond to all of our emails and had lots of options and information they could share with us immediately. There were probably other companies we could have opted for, but they seemed right for us.

The main planner was Ben Singleton and he had English as a mother tongue. Their website contained hundreds of photos of exquisite looking weddings, beautiful flowers, wonderful destinations and breathtaking scenic back drops. As well as stacks of case studies of very happy couples.

Our friends Natalie and Phil are getting married in Spain next year and they've chosen a wedding planner to help them too. I think this is a really great option if you're getting married abroad. It's maybe not the cheapest route, but for us, we feel it's the best stress free route and we have someone holding our hands along the way. We hope we've made the right decision and I'll let you know over the next few months!

27 April 2013

A new chapter

When I started writing my blog a few years ago, I was a happy spinster and assumed I always would be. I mean, who would marry me?! No one would be that foolish. So my blog has largely been the experiences of a lone traveler and a single person enjoying food and wine.

However, the fact that a very foolish man has asked me to marry him kind of puts pay to that! So here's my confession. I'm getting married and its happening this year, in Italy.

The crazy fool just after he proposed in Turkey

We decided on Italy because Adam is half Italian and I always wanted to get married in a vineyard abroad. I've never actually been to Italy (other than to ski) and I've never got married before (obviously) so this feels like a bit of a step into the unknown. Perhaps a slightly mad step!

My lovely ring

Over the next few months I thought I'd share with you my experiences of planning and booking a wedding abroad. As a complete novice. Everything from choosing an area, finding a venue, selecting the food and, of course, the very important wine choices! And, hopefully (fingers crossed!) we'll get to the day itself and I'll share that with you too.

If you have had any experiences of planning a wedding abroad, I would love to hear from you. Any help or advice is very gratefully received!

14 April 2013

Catered vs non catered accommodation in the French Alps

I've always thought that one day I would buy my own ski chalet. Somewhere near Lyons or Geneva so I could pop over for a weekend of snow, sun and après-ski. I’d get to know the best ski runs, I’d speak to French like a local and I’d probably have an affair with an instructor called Yves.

Until I earn significantly more than I do, I will have to accept rental accommodation. Over the years, I've stayed at a variety of ski rentals. With everything from a huge apartment block in Val Thorens to a catered chalet in Meribel.

Having recently returned from a ski trip to La Plagne, I thought I would explore the benefits of the different types of ski accommodation.

In my view, there are two main types:self-catered apartment or catered chalet. You can obviously stay at traditional hotels, but for me, this is a very expensive way of going skiing. And, given that ski holidays are one of the dearest holidays you can go on, I don’t know why you would suffer the extra expense.

Benefits of self-catering apartments
  • With a self-catering apartment you get the freedom of cooking your own food to your own tastes and dietary needs. This can be especially useful if you have allergies or picky children
  • You can eat when you like. You don’t have to be up by nine in order to catch breakfast, or leave the slope side bars by 7 in order to catch dinner
  • If you meet people or there are different groups of people going on the holiday, you can easily invite them over for dinner without it being an issue
  • Eating on the slopes can be expensive. So you can make your own packed lunch and take it out on the slopes

Down-sides of self-catering apartments
  • There are some mini markets on the resorts, but the produce is limited and expensive so you have to be more organised and stop off at a hypermarket en route
  • It means you either have to cook and clean every day or accept the expense of eating out
  • Often, the cost of self-catering apartments is not significantly different to catered chalet
  • Apartments can be large, multi-story affairs. My advice would be to try and avoid the real eye-sores

Benefits of catered chalets
  • Everything is done for you. The sheets are generally changed every day, your plates and glasses are tidied away and your bathroom is cleaned daily
  • You have three meals cooked for you on all days apart from the leave day (generally a Wednesday). So, breakfast and supper as well as tea and cake when you get back from the slopes
  • You generally get unlimited white and red wine with your evening meal. That’s right, unlimited wine
  • The chalet staff are on hand every day to help with questions and advice. They’re all doing a ski season, so they know the best slopes, the best restaurants and where to stop for steak hache on the mountainside
  • Chalets tend to be smaller buildings. So can be more attractive than the cram-them-in apartments
  • Unless you are a group, you’ll generally share with other people. This can be useful if you're travelling with different abilities or if you are looking to have a spot of holiday romance (please note, this can also have downsides, see below)

Downsides to catered chalets
  • If you have very specific dietary requirements, a catered chalet may not be for you. In the larger chalets in particular, you often don’t get much of a choice around what you are presented at 7pm
  • Unless there is a large group of you, you’ll generally share with other people. This can mean you get stuck with people you don’t like, screaming babies or overly familiar people
  • The chalet staff are often there all the time. If you don’t like them, they can be annoying
  • The chalet staff make additional income from the “honesty bars” that they operate. Some chalets therefore operate a rule where you can only drink alcohol purchased within the chalet. Which is obviously more expensive than if bought elsewhere

My top tips for finding accommodation
Here are my five top tips for finding accommodation:
  1. If you have specific dietary needs or tastes, you might be better off with a smaller chalet rather than a larger one. We recently stayed at a smaller, boutique-style chalet in Les Coches where the chef cooked us bespoke food each day. It meant that they were able to cook a gluten-free cake for when we got back from the slopes and cook evening meals without dairy.If you have ever been on a ski holiday in France, you know that most meals are topped with cheese or doused in cream so this is an absolute luxury. Here’s my review on TripAdvisor of the place we recently stayed as it was excellent.
  2. You should always look for accommodation that backs out ontothe slopes. Having been on many holidays where I've had to lug my skis up hillsand onto shuttle buses, it really isn't much fun. Also, check the ski ability needed for the slopes located by the accommodation. If you are a beginner,you’re not going to be able to ski out onto a red or black run.
  3. Following on from this, there is nothing worse than finding out that the ski rental shop is a bus ride from your chalet. Honestly, skis,boots and poles are the most cumbersome and heavy items to lug around. It may cost you a bit more, but if you can get the ski people to deliver and fit your skis at your accommodation, it removes a lot of the hassle.
  4. If you are catering for yourself, be organised. You’ll need to stop off at a large supermarket before you start climbing the mountains.But, if you run out of anything, you may not be able to get everything you need in the local markets. Plan what you are going to cook and shop accordingly.
  5. If you are sharing with other people, tread carefully. You may find yourself agreeing on the first day over a glass of free wine to going to ski lessons altogether,only to discover that you have nothing in common by day two. Absolutely, it’s great if you can find people at a similar level to you that you can head out to the slopes with. But, if you fall out, things can get awkward.
I hope this helps you plan your next ski trip. Have fun and enjoy the après ski. I would recommend a vin chaude every day at around 11am.