One of the best, and at times most challenging things, about being an expat in Sydney is flying visits back to Europe for the weddings of close friends. The most extreme yet was 36 hours for a destination wedding in Greece, specifically to watch one of my oldest friends Alex Stambouzou (now Rayner) getting married in Crete.
If you’re planning a trip to Greece, make sure you pick up your copy of Lonely Planet Greek Islands (Travel Guide)
The popularity of destination weddings has risen in recent years. It’s easy to see why, you are usually choosing a location with guaranteed good weather, especially if you’re based in the UK, it’s usually cheaper, the scenery is stunning, and it can be turned into a week-long event and the start of a minimoon or longer honeymoon. A destination wedding in Greece offers all this and more; stunning food, a burgeoning local wine scene, a chance to experience an ancient culture and welcoming locals.
Crete, the location of Alex’s wedding, is the largest of the Greek islands, located a 7 hour ferry ride from Athens or a short internal flight with Aegean Airways. You can also fly to Crete direct from the UK with EasyJet or British Airways. If travelling from Australia, it’s going to take you a little while longer and I don’t recommend a trip for only 36 hours! You can fly via the Middle East, or if like me you are trying to save some money you can opt for a Skyscanner special; I flew home to Sydney in via the following route; Crete to Athens to Istanbul to Bangkok to Sydney. It was so worth it.
For Alex, getting married in Crete was an easy decision; half-Greek on her father’s side, she’s spent every summer at her family’s beach house near Chania on the northwest coast of the island of Crete, an absolutely stunning beach house called Konaki that looks straight out of Mamma Mia, right on the water’s edge with its own olive grove. The year’s crop of olive oil was given as a wedding favour by the newly married couple in a beautifully personalised touch. The wedding wasn’t my first time visiting Chania, having spent a few holidays eating, drinking, sunbathing and face-planting whilst attempting to water-ski with the Stambouzou clan, but it was my first time staying somewhere other than at Konaki. My girlfriends and I opted for a villa that the most organised of us found on AirBnB that slept 10 of us somewhat comfortably! Whether you’re thinking of getting married in Crete, or just visiting this beautiful part of Greece on your travels, there are hundreds of villas and holiday rentals available in Crete to suit groups of all sizes and budgets.
My 36 hours watching Alex and her husband Al getting married in Crete was spent in a haze of jet lag, passion ginger cocktails and gyros, so I caught up with Alex to get a few more details on her special day to share with you, and maybe help with your own dream wedding planning.
1. Why did you decide to have a destination wedding in Greece?
We decided to get married in Greece, as it’s really been the place I consider home and the only constant through my life – we grew up in the expat community living in France, Australia, the US and the UK, and every summer without fail we’d spend months in Greece, where my family have a home. My father is Greek so that whole side of my family live there and it’s always felt like home. Traditionally, you get married in the Bride’s hometown and so we thought it would be really special to have the wedding there and we were so touched by all our friends who made such an effort to travel all the way to Greece to celebrate with us. We also considered guaranteed sunshine to be a huge plus as we were planning an outdoor wedding!
2. How did you plan the wedding in Greece from Singapore? Did you use a wedding planner in Crete? Were there any challenges?
Planning a destination wedding from Singapore was definitely not the easiest route we could have taken, but having my parents live there and help out with anything on-the-ground was definitely a huge help. The fact that they are both fluent in Greek, and knew all the vendors already meant that we were able to get the wedding organised without needing to use a wedding planner in Crete. True to Greek culture, a lot of the vendors were friends of the family and the lady who owns the estate we used as a venue acted as the main point of contact who organised all the different vendors on the day.
The biggest challenges I found when wedding planning were the lack of choice of vendors (I had wanted all sorts of features like a glitter station, photo booths, donkey rides etc but there is really just not a huge choice on the island of Crete for that type of wedding feature). We found ourselves incredibly lucky finding a cocktail bar that was able to feature at our wedding and we were blown away with their service and professionalism – without being biased they were honestly some of the best cocktails I’ve ever had!
Another challenge was that the Greek culture is very relaxed, and you are not able to book many things too far in advance, meaning as a bride you don’t get much contact or reassurance from your vendors until your wedding is only months away! This, however, all works out in the end and it is actually quite nice to plan a wedding with a more relaxed attitude to it all! Although it’s becoming more common for weddings of 150-200 people, many traditional weddings in Crete are very large and so the venues and catering companies are used to catering for groups of 400+ guests! Scaling them down and paying more attention to detail was a bit of a challenge from a distance, but we got there in the end!
3. You mention wedding venues – did you look at many Crete wedding venues? What made you choose your venue?
We got married at Roxani Estate in a small village near to where my family are from, with a beautiful view of the Cretan White mountains. I had looked at only one other venue (there aren’t many venues that accommodate the 170 guests I intended to have – other Crete wedding venues felt far too big for massive weddings, or much too small). My sister actually got married at Roxani Estate the year before, so I did umm and ahh about whether we should do something different, but quite honestly it was so perfect and so close to my local village that I would have struggled to find something with the same atmosphere without travelling further away and I didn’t want my guests to have to travel between the church and the reception, which were both in the same place at Roxani Estate.
Although I’m not religious, I quite like the tradition of getting married by a church so we had a beautiful white Cretan church as our backdrop for the wedding ceremony. It was also really important to us that the whole wedding could take place outside and we could dance under the stars! The venue doesn’t offer a wedding package, so we had to get all the various vendors in to set up separately at the estate, which the owner of the venue helped us to manage.
We tried a few caterers, and the owner of the venue recommended Siganos Catering to us who were very professional and the food was delicious. We wanted a taverna-style relaxed menu where you could just help yourself from platters on the table – in true Greek style there was far too much food! They also did a dessert bar and at 2am they set up a Greek gyros stand for everyone to soak up the booze! Siganos offered some wine which we had as a backup, but my father also tested a few out that he preferred so we had those bottled on the table which came from a local vineyard, Douloufakis Winery (find out more here at www.cretanwines.gr) where we also got an amazing local champagne for toasting! Siganos Catering also offered some welcome drinks at the beginning before the ceremony.
4. Tell us more about the cocktail bar?
The cocktail bar was one of my favourite things at the wedding. Michalis and his team from Dash & Drops Dash & Drops based in Chania, were incredibly professional and set up their bar by the dance floor for the reception. They agreed with us on the quantities and the types of cocktails we wanted to serve beforehand, and it’s safe to say there was PLENTY for all our guests to enjoy until 6am when they finally packed up! We offered Gin & Tonic, Aperol Spritz, Passion Ginger and Old Fashioned. They all went down very well, and a lot of the guests commented on how great the service and quality of cocktails were!
If you’re looking to host your wedding in Crete in a hotel, check out this list of 10 best Crete wedding hotels
5. What flowers did you choose to decorate your Crete wedding venue, and why?
My vision was to have a bougainvillea everywhere around the venue and give it a really bohemian Mediterranean feel. Unfortunately, after consulting the florist we realised that bouganvillea doesn’t survive very long without water so we coulddn’t have it strewn across the tables and everywhere we had visioned, so we ended up just having some pot plants of bouganvillea and my favourite feature – our wedding arch had bouganvillea growing all up and around it giving the ceremony a real splash of colour! For my bouquet and my bridesmaids bouquets, along with the table assortments we chose Alstroemeria, Lysianthos and local greenery which kept alive much longer and looked beautiful! I also wore a simple olive leaf crown on my head to keep in line with the Greek theme.
6. One of my favourite things about your wedding were the Greek dancers after dinner. Can you tell us more about them?
The Greek dancers we used were the troupe of dancers that our Greek musician works with, from Chania. We often go to a restaurant Ta Hani in Chania where Lefteris Mathioudakis, a very talented Greek musician, entertains diners with his wonderful Greek songs and music. We asked them one evening if they’d be interested in playing at my wedding and he was delighted to do so, so we booked them straight away. Lefteris walked down the aisle ahead of me singing traditional upbeat Greek songs which I loved as it was really different and stopped me from crying my eyes out as I was very emotional!
7. I remember you had your dress make by a local dressmaker, how was that organised?
Two days after I got engaged in Crete (Christmas 2017), Mum and I went to this little dress shop in Chania and just popped in to see what she had. My mum lives in Greece and we are currently in Singapore so I knew she wouldn’t have had a chance to look for dresses with me otherwise, so we thought it might be fun to just pop in for fun and see what they had. My mum also didn’t get a chance to dress shop with my sister for her wedding, so I knew it would mean a lot to her. We went in and the lady asked me what type of dress I was looking for. I’m a bit of a dreamer and had been thinking about my big day since I was a little girl so immediately pulled out a photo I had stored up for years of a dress I absolutely loved but could never afford. She took one look at it, and said – yes! I can make that. She showed us some materials and we very spontaneously put down a deposit with her then and there! She did an amazing job in the end and although I think its a shame I never got to try on any dresses, I’m so pleased with the outcome and absolutely loved my dress.
8. Your dress looked beautiful in the wedding photos, which I absolutely loved by the way! Why did you choose your destination wedding photographer?
We used the same photographer that my sister had used at her wedding, who has become a family friend. He is very professional, incredibly talented and passionate about wedding photography. We were dubious about choosing a local photographer at first, because we know how different the photo culture is in Greece for wedding photography and we really wanted natural, light and spontaneous photos at the end. A lot of the photos we had seen from weddings in Crete had been incredibly posed and glamorous which is very much not our style.
After Lykakis did such a wonderful job at my sister’s wedding, we were completely at ease that he knew the type of photos we wanted and he didn’t fail to deliver! He made sure to create a different atmosphere than he did with my sister, and yet keep that light natural look that we were looking for. He went above and beyond to find really meaningful places for us to do the photos and even came a few days later asking me to put my dress back on to get some more sentimental shots in places like my grandfather’s fishing boat, our local church by my beach house and on the rocks by my house on the beach.
9. What else is there to do in Crete and Chania for guests attending weddings in Crete?
Crete is such a good island for visitors as there really is something for everyone. Our guests all arranged their own activities based on some tips we gave them on our wedding website, but we organised a big dinner in a taverna for all our friends to get together two nights before the wedding, then a rehearsal dinner for close family in the local taverna our family frequented for years, and then a BBQ at my beach house the day after the wedding. If you’re attending a wedding in Crete, other things to do include – walks, beach trips, boat trips to local islands, Chania is amazing for shopping and just wondering around the old buildings, the Venetian port, going out to tavernas (Greeks organise their days around eating!), water sports, and a plethora of nightlife in the various local towns for tourists and locals alike.
10. Would you recommend a destination wedding in Greece to other brides?
Absolutely. Getting married abroad may sound a little daunting but it really is worth it. Local planners and vendors are so accommodating and absolutely love being involved in your big day and can be very helpful from afar. I would recommend going to view Crete wedding venues yourself before committing to anything and making a holiday of it before to scout out the right places but planners are so great and will really set your mind at ease! The cost is usually a bit less in Greece (unless you plan Santorini!) as well meaning you can have a few extra things that may not have been accommodated in your original budget and there are lots of Crete wedding packages on offer if you do some research. For me the sentimentality of being somewhere I hold so special made all the admin worth it and when you look around and see everyone you love in the world travel to a place that means so much to you is a feeling I really can’t describe – it’s just the best!
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