Desi Globetrotter visits Maui’s top resorts and wedding planners for an inside look at why Maui is quickly becoming the island of choice for South Asian brides looking to infuse Indian traditions with the Hawaiian tropics.
With scenic drives, lush greenscapes, quaint ocean-side towns, a rich Polynesian culture and pristine beaches spanning 120 miles, it’s no wonder Maui has been voted Hawaii’s “Best Island” for 19 years by readers of Conde Nast Traveler.
From Kāʻanapali on the western shores to Wailea on the southern coast, the spirit of Aloha permeates the entire island with large, luxurious resort communities and small, laid-back surfer towns paying homage to local traditions. After all, Aloha is more than just a greeting — it’s a way of life. Positive energy, love and affection form the true meaning of Aloha for Hawaiians.
It’s this sense of spirituality, healing, natural beauty, appreciation of a slow-paced life, and nod towards honouring, celebrating and preserving Hawaiian culture that makes Maui different than many beach destinations I have visited. In a way, the spirituality of the Hawaiian culture reminds me of India and provides a meaningful backdrop for weddings.
Indian destination weddings have been trending among South Asian brides and grooms living here on the West Coast for the past five or so years. With accessible, inexpensive and direct flights available to sunny destinations and newly engaged couples hearing about beach-side nuptials through word-of-mouth, it’s no surprise big, fat Indian weddings are turning into experiential, intimate vacay-weddings instead — a refreshing trend indeed.
Imagine having your mehndi party on a cliff overlooking the ocean or your groom-to-be gliding in on a private catamaran to the trumpet-like sounds of the pu – a ceremonial Hawaiian conch shell. Your parents are relaxed, enjoying their time with family and guests with mai tais in hand. You wake up on the morning of your waterfront laavan with a view of the ocean and tropical green mountains greeting you. Your wedding menu is filled with authentic Indian and Hawaiian options — from pakoras and pineapple lassi to pao bhaji and mahi mahi.
Ocean-side manicured lawns dotted with swaying palm trees and flaming tiki torches set the mood for the evening — the destination becomes your décor and its people, culture and food your inspiration. Over cocktail hour, experience the magic of the glowing sun setting in the horizon with your close guests in attendance. Start the night with spectacular Polynesian fire knife dancing and end it with what you know best — bhangra and Bollywood dance.
Although all-inclusive resorts are a popular choice for weddings and can be a cost-effective option, they can sometimes be a cookie-cutter experience with set packages, sub-par food and multiple weddings booked on one day as I’ve seen in the Dominican Republic. I’m guessing you’d rather not share your wedding day with someone else at the resort.
In Maui, although costs may be higher, resorts aim to make your wedding a unique and customized experience — some even limiting wedding bookings to one a day. Many of the large resorts in Maui have experience planning Indian weddings, with business picking up in the last two to three years. In-house training in cultural weddings is available for hotel chefs and wedding coordinators, partnerships are in place, vendors and planners specializing in Indian weddings are available — and yes, even a horse can be arranged.
Most importantly, the hotel wedding coordinators I spoke with — from the Sheraton, Westin, Fairmont and Hyatt — all know Indian wedding terminology. Mention sangeet, mandap, baraat and mehndi to your planner — and they know what you’re talking about.
It wasn’t always like this a few years ago. Rewind five years back and the Indian wedding landscape in Maui was much different.
In 2009, Amy and Navi Dherari of Langley, BC began planning their dream destination wedding in Maui for July 2010. Their ceremony was held at the private Honua Kai Lani Estate, the reception at Pacific’O Restaurant and accommodations at the Outrigger Aina Nalu.
“I thought the island was really beautiful and very different from Waikiki/Honolulu, which is really touristy. And the Polynesian culture is very beautiful. I wanted to go somewhere different,” explains Amy.
“The culture in Maui is like no other; it’s such a chilled out place to lounge and relax. There are no aggressive beach vendors. Everyone’s on Hawaiian time. It’s super chill and there are nice little shops,” adds Navi as I sit down with the couple to find out more about their Sikh destination wedding.
It wasn’t easy convincing their parents at first, especially when thinking of wittling down a possible 1200-people wedding to a 100-200-people one. “My side of the family had said no at first. This was way out of the box for them. They didn’t travel much and they wanted a large wedding for me,” says Navi.
Navi’s mother Jasbir was worried that guests wouldn’t attend a wedding abroad. Speaking to me on the phone, she says, “At first, we were concerned and asked them who’s going to follow you all the way to Maui?”
Still with no decision, one night, after much debating at Amy’s house, it came down to asking her 94-year-old grandmother, the matriarch of her family, to make the final decision. Amy was nervous asking at first, but she soon found out Bibi Ji does always know best.
“Beta, we have seen so many weddings here. Chalo, let’s go to Hawaii.”
The matter was settled — the wedding would be in Maui. Amy promised her in-laws that they would have an “experience of a life time.”
With pressure on them to ensure their parents’ happiness with this “out-of-the-box” Indian wedding, Amy and Navi rolled up their sleeves and got to work, managing most of the details themselves — even with a Hawaiian wedding planner.
“Our venue didn’t have an on-site wedding planner, so we got a wedding planner out there, but there was a lot of coordination. She wasn’t experienced in Indian weddings and didn’t realize how large of a wedding it would be. We did a lot of micro-managing back then, even sending her pictures of what the inside of a gurdwara looks like,” explains Navi. “We found Monsoon India, the Indian restaurant, ourselves and we also flew in a Sikh priest from Honolulu.”
In the end, their hard work paid off. Close to 160 of their closest friends and family attended, each leaving with a memorable experience. Any doubts their families had were gone once they arrived in Maui. “We were so surprised and grateful for all the work Amy and Navi put into planning the wedding. They arranged everything; we didn’t have to do anything. Although we had a much smaller wedding, it was more memorable. We celebrated with our close family and friends. It was a different experience — we now love travelling,” explains Jasbir.
Amy adds, “Now things are so easy, when people are planning it, it’s all set up now, people blog about it, people have vendors they recommend or others who have done destination weddings. Back then, there was no one who did destination weddings. People didn’t know anything about Indian weddings at the time.”
In 2010, had Navi and Amy known what Indian event coordinator Mira Savara was planning in Honolulu at the time, perhaps some of the stress may have melted away.
Based in Honolulu for the past 25 years after moving from India, Mira Savara is an active member of the Indian community, having planned Bollywood nights, Diwali, Holi and other Indian festivals for many years. It wasn’t until 2010, when a groom-to-be from New York found her Bollywood events online and asked her to plan his wedding in Maui, did Mira seriously start thinking about wedding planning. After planning the first one, she started receiving requests from around the world.
Fast forward to 2015 and the Indian wedding landscape in Maui has changed. Now dubbed “The Queen of Indian Weddings” in Hawaii by many of her industry partners, Mira Savara offers full-service event planning and design, specializing in Indian weddings in Hawaii through her company Mira Savara Events. She organizes Indian weddings on all of the Hawaiian Islands including Maui and has worked with most of the large hotels such as Sheraton, Westin, Four Seasons and Hyatt brands.
Mira’s love for her Indian culture is what motivates her to plan the perfect, traditional Indian wedding for her clients. “I love my culture, and I really want everyone to enjoy it and understand it. I want the younger generation to learn about it too. Weddings in India were the most fun things to experience,” she describes passionately.
Her Indian-Hawaiian weddings have seen brides and grooms entering by boat, by horse and carriage, helicopter, catamaran, canoes, surf boards, segways, pedi cabs and special decorated chairs carried by men in traditional Hawaiian dress choreographed to music. “We take care of all the minute details and make it really special, fun and magical for them. We’re on Team Bride and Groom,” says Mira.
To make the wedding seamless, she partners with award-winning local vendors, hotels and chefs. “Nothing can be done without collaboration. I’m very proud to have collaborations with the industry,” she says adding, “They have been so willing to learn about our traditions and culture. Food has been a wonderful collaboration.”
Mira, with her knowledge of Indian traditions and local Hawaiian connections, was just the link the Maui wedding industry needed to bridge the gap between Amy and Navi’s planning in 2009-2010 and what the industry can offer Indian couples now.
To find out just how much the industry has grown to cater to South Asian weddings, I make my inaugural trip to Maui as a guest of the Maui Visitors Bureau, scouting swoon-worthy luxe properties with pampering wellness spas, award-winning restaurants and cultural activities perfect for your wedding week.
From lively Kāʻanapali to the quieter, secluded shores of Wailea, here are my top resort picks that had my heart beating to be a bride again:
SHERATON MAUI RESORT & SPA, KA’ANAPALI
Known for: Its Location
Located at Kāʻanapali’s historic Black Rock cliff (Pu‘u Keka‘a), the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa’s 23 oceanfront acres flow gracefully from the crest of Black Rock to the shores of Ka‘anapali Beach. Eighty-three per cent of the 508 rooms and suites directly face the Pacific, with a private lanai (balcony) for contemplating the view.
With a sprawling property, the bonus is that even at 100 per cent occupancy, the resort doesn’t feel congested. Having been a part of the original Kāʻanapali resort development, Sheraton has one of the best locations closest to the beach and Black Rock cliff.
No matter where I walk on the property, whether I’m on the first floor or the fifth, on the east side or west side, on the cliff or below it, I’m seduced by sweeping, panoramic views of the Pacific with the island of Lanai and Molokai in the distance — truly taking my breath away.
I’m in the deluxe oceanfront suite for the three nights. When I mean deluxe, I mean larger than my Vancouver condo. With a separate living room, sofa beds, microwave, wet bar, fridge, deluxe double-door spa bathroom and private lanai, it’s perfect for multi-generational families, the bridal party or as a honeymoon suite.
Since the Sheraton is a part of Starwood Properties, the one advantage it has is its access to resources. Although, Sheraton has worked with Mira Savara on Indian weddings, they are also investing in in-house staff training. “Starwood rolled out an Indian-wedding training seminar on their u-portal last year. The training talks about differences between each ceremony. We learned all the names and procedures, so we got some background from that, but our number-one rule is having an open mind, providing the right information and the experience the brides are looking for. Our entire team is flexible, open minded and we work with all budgets,” explains Emily, Sheraton’s wedding coordinator.
Some sample Indian menu items they’ve been able to arrange include mango kulfi, kheer, pineapple/banana smoothies for the wedding ceremony to spicy Madras curry with local Hawaiian Vanda Orchid garnish. “Ohe Kapala,” the traditional Hawaiian bamboo stamping similar to Indian block printing, can also be experienced at a Lū’au or booked as a private activity for guests.
The beautiful cliff-side Moana Lounge is where mehndi parties have previously been booked and the Ocean Lawn is where many of the weddings take place. Having seen the layout of the Maui Nui Lū’au that same evening on the grassy Ocean Lawn, complete with buffet tables and high-boy bars, a stage for entertainment, round tables of 10 and an unbeatable view of the Pacific — it’s ample space for an Indian-style mid- to large-sized wedding and reception.
What I really noticed at my first resort in Maui — no loud, obnoxious inebriated all-inclusive vacationers; it’s classy and calm at the Sheraton.
WESTIN MAUI RESORT & SPA, KA’ANAPALI
Known for: Its Spa & In-House Wedding Office
Only a few minutes away from the Sheraton is its sister Starwood property, the Westin Maui Resort & Spa, an eclectic 759-room resort fresh from a multi-million dollar re-investment last year.
As I enter the hotel, I hear the gushing sound of waterfalls, the centrepiece of the lobby. Surrounded by lush gardens, pools and exotic wildlife, this 12-acre beachfront resort reminds me of a tropical rainforest, a very different feel from the Sheraton. Couple that with Indonesian esthetics (the original developer loved Asian art and decor) and you have a unique setting for your wedding.
I walk over to their in-house wedding office, first of its kind at a resort on the island. Outfitted with wedding photos, an array of colourful sample table cloths and mock set ups, it’s perfect for the bride needing a visual picture of how her wedding will look like. I meet with Ku’uipo, Westin’s in-house wedding coordinator who has been there for 10 years and has seen cultural weddings pick up over the past five years.
One of the unique requests they can accommodate is a flower drop from a helicopter, with thousands of orchids gracefully falling from the sky. With flower garlands playing a large part in Indian weddings, the Westin can even arrange a traditional lei ceremony with their in-house Hawaiian cultural advisor at the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas, their close-by second location perfect for families needing larger spaces, kitchenettes and laundry.
The Westin can arrange for wedding room blocks and because there are three Starwood properties (the Westin Maui Resort & Spa, the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas and Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa), they can transition wedding parties between the sister resorts much more easily.
“For example, the wedding ceremony can be at the Westin, the sangeet at the Sheraton and rooms booked at the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas. A complimentary shuttle goes between each hotel,” explains Ku’uipo.
If wellness and girl-time are among your top priorities during your destination wedding, the “Heavenly Spa” by Westin will surely deliver. I make my way over to the 15,000-square-foot spa, complete with 16 treatment rooms, whirlpools, sauna and steam room for my 60-minute Hawaiian lomi lomi massage before relaxing in the spa’s beautiful ocean view lounge.
Lomi Lomi is a flowing, healing treatment using long forearm strokes like an ocean wave rolling over your entire body. Spa practitioners in Hawaii today learn the tradition of lomi lomi from native Hawaiian families who have been practising for generations.
“Many of the massage techniques in various cultures cross over because there are so many points on the body that are release points. In deep tissue, you find energy points for release and those same points are used in lomi lomi, shiatsu and probably, even Ayurveda,” explains Anne, one of Westin’s spa therapists trained in lomi lomi.
For bonding time with your fiancé or bridal party, I recommend indulging in a spa treatment to revive those energy points — you’ll need it before the wedding.
HYATT REGENCY MAUI RESORT & SPA, KA’ANAPALI
Known for: Its Size
Although I didn’t personally visit the Hyatt Regency Maui due to time constraints, it’s worth a mention as it’s situated on the same resort row as the Westin and Sheraton, and is the largest of the three with 806 rooms on 40 oceanfront acres along the famed Ka’anapali Beach. Most recently, they completed a multi-million dollar renovation.
“Generally we will see Indian weddings with 150-300 guests. We have a big outdoor lawn space and large ballrooms; we do tend to attract the bigger weddings,” says Brittany, Hyatt’s wedding coordinator, adding, “We work with Mira Savara often and although our chef is trained in cooking Indian food, we want to ensure it’s authentic; so we partner with Monsoon India. Our head chef works together with them to create a really unique menu.”
When working with the bride and groom, the wedding team customizes each event from the sangeet to the ceremony, working with unique requests as they come. “Rarely will we have to say no,” replies Brittany.
FAIRMONT KEA LANI, WAILEA
Known for: Upscale Elegance & Sophistication; High End Service; Mediterranean-Style Architecture
Only an hour away from Ka’anapali, the upscale resort community of Wailea feels worlds apart. Ritzy, quiet and secluded, it reminds me of Beverly Hills — uber luxe but with a Hawaiian touch.
The Fairmont Kea Lani is Hawaii’s only all-suite and villa luxury oceanfront resort, located on the white sands of Wailea’s Polo Beach with 22 acres of lush tropical landscape. Recently, millions have been invested to upgrade the property to its top-notch look today.
The Fairmont captivated me at check-in with their impeccable service, impressive all-white Mediterranean-style architecture, oversized Spanish arches and those white Escalades — yes, you read that correctly; Escalades are offered as complimentary guest shuttles. You may be paying luxury prices at the Fairmont, but the service and those little details that so often make a big difference is what you will gain in return, threefold. Perfectly cut pineapple pieces, offered poolside? Brought to you without even asking. Staff greeting you by name on the second day? Absolutely, with a happy side of smiles. Tiny bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion and shower gel — personalized with your name? Delivered to your suite courtesy of the housekeeping staff — great idea as favours for your wedding guests.
The service and quality flows into the award-winning Kō Restaurant, which serves signature plantation-inspired cuisine, the only fine-dining restaurant on Maui inspired by Hawaii’s sugarcane plantation era. If you love searing fish, try their “Ahi on the Rock” as an appetizer for your reception — shichimi spiced with orange-ginger miso sauce —simply divine.
The Pacific Terrace is where majority of the outdoor weddings take place. It overlooks Polo Beach, the Pacific Ocean and the islands of Lanai, Molokini and Kahoolawe in the background. For large families, the Fairmont also offers newly renovated two-floor contemporary villas with full kitchen, deluxe modern bathrooms, even a Wii for the kids.
“Many of the brides who come to us want to incorporate Hawaiian traditions with their own cultural ceremonies,” says Veronica, Fairmont’s catering and events manager when discussing recent Indian weddings. As seen similar to other hotels in Maui, the Fairmont has a full-time cultural coach to help perpetuate native Hawaiian traditions and they also have key partnerships in place with vendors who cater to both Indian and Hawaiian-themed weddings. The responsibility of being authentic to native Hawaiian culture is a theme I see throughout my week in Maui and I’m impressed with the Fairmont’s approach.
As a cultural activity and to wipe away those pre-wedding jitters, go on a traditional Hawaiian canoe excursion at 7am to watch the sun rise. We paddled out into the ocean, then just floated for an hour watching graceful hump back whales going in and out of the water as the sun rays peaked through the clouds. Quiet, still and peaceful — nature at its finest.
To relax even further, try the Natural Hawaiian Journey energy treatment at Fairmont’s newly renovated “Willow Stream Spa,” where private rooms can be booked for bridal parties. My treatment starts with the therapist dipping Hawaiian ti leaf in a bowl and shaking the kai (salt water) to clear the room’s mana (energy) and my mana. Deep cleansing with a Hawaiian salt scrub begins — and ends with soothing Maui vanilla bean and coconut body butter.
Explaining the concept, Spa Director Livia Reddington says, “The spa is very much about finding and restoring your energy. For us, that’s very integral with what Hawaiian culture represents; it’s very much about the respect of the land, nature and people.”
Similar to Indian culture, wouldn’t you say?
INDIAN DESTINATION WEDDINGS ON TREND
It’s this spirituality set against a natural tropical landscape that sets Maui apart. For Amy, it’s the energy of her surroundings and the people around her that create a positive vibe. “There was not one person who was not special in my life who didn’t make it to our wedding in Maui. I believe in positive energy, so I thought at the wedding everyone was giving us that blessing,” says Amy.
From 2009-2015, Maui’s wedding landscape has grown immensely to encompass specialty options for the modern Indian bride looking for customization. Now that top resorts have experience planning Indian weddings and creating partnerships with Indian vendors, perhaps it’s time to re-think the big, fat Indian wedding as we know it.
For Amy, it was all worth it. “South Asians work so hard all their life. I told my parents, ‘you’re going to spend $100K on the wedding [in Vancouver], but people will be complaining and weddings are all the same and blurry. Out [in Maui], I guarantee you people will not complain because that experience they will remember for a lifetime.’ To this day, people still talk about it. Everyone had a vacation and a wedding.”
“I totally agree,” says Navi adding, that’s why I think people are trending towards destination weddings because they want it small and personalized.”
Well, the trend definitely seems to be going that way.