Last Updated on July 23, 2023
(This article about desert weddings originally appeared in a 2008 issue of the now-defunct Exquisite Weddings magazine and later on SanDiegoMagazine.com.)
Flowering cacti, majestic red rock formations, locations to match every mood and taste — and cater to every caprice. A Southwestern destination wedding is the perfect match for the romance of your big day. Add an atmosphere that ensures pampering and relaxation with spectacular vistas and you have truly found an ideal oasis for nuptials.
With enchanting desert options such as Scottsdale, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas each just a short drive or even shorter flight from San Diego, you will quickly be transported to splendid natural scenery and the feeling of being in another world. From the lights and bustle of Las Vegas to the art and recreation communities of Scottsdale and Palm Springs, you’re sure to have your wedding wishes granted at any of these destinations.
The draw of the desert is only strengthened by the pleasantly dry and moderately warm climes, especially in the fall and winter. The consistent weather means that you’re unlikely to need to call on backup plans for an indoor celebration. The destinations also provide an ideal playground for you and your wedding guests — whether sports enthusiasts, nature lovers, or those looking for a little pampering from a world-class spa.
As Sin City has grown up, so has its taste. The desert oasis has done much to shed its former reputation and now offers world-class extravagance for just about any indulgence. Chefs from around the world are constantly lured to Vegas with the promise of creativity unfettered by a budget, as well as surroundings to match in opulence. Hotel casinos have become mini-cities unto themselves, with round-the-clock amenities and entertainment that make it virtually unnecessary to go outside.
But go outside you must, for while Vegas shows and over-the-top amusements have long stolen the spotlight, the area’s natural gems are well worth exploring. Red Rock Canyon’s glorious namesake formations are striking at sunset, while the pines of Mount Charleston offer a fragrant and cool escape from the desert floor. At Lake Mead, situated just above the Hoover Dam, a menu of water activities keeps bodies busy, and the West Rim of the Grand Canyon is but a short helicopter flight away.
Everything about this most posh of Vegas Strip casino-hotels is done on a grand scale — but tastefully so. While other properties go overboard to impress, Bellagio’s charm is subtler — except perhaps for Dave Chihuly’s rainbow of hand-blown glass flowers that adorns the lobby ceiling, prompting visitors to gape overhead as they enter. The hotel exudes class, from the inside botanical gardens to a showcase of masterworks in the Gallery of Fine Art. Even the hotel’s Cirque du Soleil show goes a step beyond, taking acrobatic artistry underwater in the show O.
Here, dining too becomes art. Counting up the six fine-dining establishments’ many accolades would take longer than a four-course meal at Le Cirque, the contemporary French restaurant that claims one of the hotel’s two AAA Five Diamond Awards. Several nightclubs and, of course, the casino provide plenty of entertainment without having to wander far, while the rest of the Strip’s wonders await a mere walk away.
Two wedding chapels, swathed in soft hues, provide a graceful environment for receptions. For an alfresco affair, plan your gala on the Terrazza di Sogno, which overlooks the manmade Lago di Como, and have the Bellagio’s legendary dancing fountains timed to soar into the air as you share your first kiss.
Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas
Just 17 miles from the bustle of the Vegas Strip lies Lake Las Vegas, a 320-acre manmade lake surrounded by the stark beauty of desert mountains. The Ritz-Carlton made the most of the new landscape with Tuscan-inspired architecture, yacht tours that ply the lake waters, and two world-renowned golf courses that frequently make “best of” lists. A full-service salon and spa ensure your stay is as tranquil as can be.
The white sand of the property’s lakefront can host receptions from casual beach parties to formal affairs incorporating Italian gondolas. In the Florentine Garden, manicured courtyards and cobblestone paths make for an enchanted atmosphere, while the newly constructed PonteVecchio bridge can be viewed from several venues around the grounds and makes a wonderful scenic backdrop.
How to Get There
Much has been made of the “adventure” of driving from Southern California to Las Vegas, but flying is a far saner option. McCarran International Airport is close enough to Strip hotels that take-offs and landings provide one-of-a-kind views of the mega-resorts from above.
Once the overlooked suburb to nearby Phoenix, Scottsdale has begun to outshine its neighbor, having earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the country’s finest destinations for food, arts, and spa culture. Not to be outdone, the local golf scene is on par with the best around the globe, with nearly 200 courses dotting the region’s maps. The adventurous can take to the sky in a hot air balloon, or view one of the world’s natural wonders with a trip to the Grand Canyon. Scottsdale’s varied topography provides pleasant hiking and horseback riding for all fitness levels, especially in the areas surrounding Camelback Mountain, the iconic silhouette that dominates the landscape.
The Scottsdale Art District is chock-a-block with art galleries, while Old Town’s kitschy gift shops make more for short diversion than a history lesson. No trip to Scottsdale is complete without a visit to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece and final home.
Refined opulence makes its home at this Starwood property, named one of North America’s top ten romantic resorts. Five-star restaurant Mary Elaine’s boasts nearly one proposal per day, but the rest of the grounds are equally steeped in romance. Brooks burble through Casita Lagoon, while white gazebos grace Orchid Lawn and the aptly named Wedding Lagoon. Crystal chandeliers in the Grand Ballroom sparkle in contrast to the regal wood paneling.
At Canyon Suites, The Phoenician’s boutique hotel located right on Camelback Mountain, service meets even higher standards. All guests receive a private Canyon Ambassador, who will greet you by name upon arrival and tend to your every whim, whether that be arranging for the chef to prepare a meal in your room or delivering drinks as you lounge in your very own amply equipped pool cabana.
Dreaming of arrival via horse-drawn carriage? Want a dove release as part of your ceremony? “The sky’s the limit. We can make anything happen here,” says Shannon Wardlow, the hotel’s Media Relations Coordinator. On-site pastry chef Roy Pell, who will compete on Team USA in the prestigious Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie in 2009, has made wedding cakes his specialty, which means even your dessert will seem straight from the pages of a fairy tale.
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain
Located on the mountain’s north slope at 3,500 feet, Sanctuary can hardly fail to thrill, with extraordinary views, multi-hued sunsets as backdrops, and views of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley below. The essence of the resort is right in its name: It’s a soulful haven that looks to impart an aura of serenity, wrapped up in a sleek and modern setting. With such an aspiration in mind, the property set out to bring special indulgences to its spa, including Watsu (a combination of the words “water” and “shiatsu”) pools, in which therapeutic treatments are provided in body-temperature waters. Even locals partake in the resort’s bounty, with many belonging to the Pilates, yoga, and hiking programs.
The cuisine echoes the resort’s ethic, with elements’ Executive Chef Beau MacMillan concocting new takes on farm-fresh cuisine each month, as new produce comes in season. It’s a culinary connoisseur’s heaven, with frequent cooking demonstrations from MacMillan and guest lecturers. Ample activities balance out the Sanctuary experience, with everything from the requisite resort sports to adventure tours.
For the main event, it’s all about the view. The vast majority of couples opt to exchange vows on the mountainside overlooking the valley, followed by a ballroom reception with equally enthralling panoramas. Guests can stay in the mountain or spa casitas, while the newlyweds retreat to one of the secluded private homes perched high on the mountain, protected under the gaze of the Praying Monk rock formation.
How to Get There
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport services Scottsdale, as well as the surrounding towns of Mesa and Tempe.
PALM SPRINGS AREA
During its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, Palm Springs buzzed with Hollywood’s elite, who came here to escape the maddening metropolis of Los Angeles in exchange for a little spa action and desert sun. Today the homes of the stars are open to visitors, with tours to several residences on most out-of-towners’ must-hit lists, which also invariably include a trip to one of the area’s many galleries, upscale malls, and outlets. For recreation, 100 nearby golf courses offer an array of play for all skill levels, while kids and adults alike can cool down with a romp at Knott’s Soak City.
Nature also draws the crowds, with nearby Joshua Tree National Park a popular trekking and rock-climbing destination. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway zips visitors to the top of Mount San Jacinto in rotating gondolas that afford majestic views of the Coachella Valley. While the temperature on the valley floor may be in the triple digits, it’s not unusual to find snow on the 10,800-foot summit, even in summer. Many a wedding proposal has been made at the top of the tram, most often when the sun is setting the valley afire as it dips below the horizon.
Desert Springs, A JW Marriott Resort & Spa
Just 13 miles outside the town proper, international elegance abounds at this 450-acre property, whose motto is “1 resort, 100 adventures.” A recent $12-million renovation included the addition of a porte-cochère reminiscent of European castles, to allow for grand entrances. In the spa, Turkish hammams (special steam bathing pools) boast private entrances, while the outdoors come inside with digitally programmable desert rain showers.
The centerpiece of the hotel can be found right in the lobby, from which guests are whisked away by gondola. At lakeside weddings, brides arrive by boat to The Pointe, a grassy parcel of land that juts out into the water. Pink flamingoes strut about the 450 acres of landscaping, which in turn is surrounded by the Santa Rosa Mountains. Two 18-hole golf courses, twenty tennis courts, five pools, and countless other activities keep visitors active.
The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn
For a completely different change of décor, head to The Willows, a historic California site that offers two intimate options for wedding events: the main bed and breakfast and the O’Donnell House, both of which showcase the rustic charm of Old Palm Springs. The only AAA four-diamond property in town sports an art deco design that dates back to 1924, when it became the winter estate of famous New York attorney Samuel Untermyer.
The attention paid to maintain an aura of classic charm is evident in the choice of amenities, such as a claw-foot bathtub and pewter chandelier in the room named for Albert Einstein, a former guest of the Willows. The Rock Room’s signature feature, a boulder protruding into the shower, allows for a quirky yet serene ambiance.
Desert flora is so abundant that many brides purchase only bouquets, as the gardens already brim with colorful blooms. A waterfall, originally built as a cooling system before the days of air conditioning, makes a graceful ceremony backdrop. To add to the natural splendor, consider a butterfly release, which also helps contribute to the regeneration of area flowers.
How to Get There
Palm Springs International Airport is the most convenient way in, being small enough to fit on the outskirts of town. Los Angeles’ Ontario Airport, only 70 miles west, provides another option with more frequent flights. The drive from LA proper generally takes less than two hours, while from San Diego takes about a half hour longer.