Exotic travel is to honeymoons as strapless gowns are to weddings.
Classic honeymoon destinations such as the Poconos Mountains and Niagara Falls have long been eclipsed by weeklong stays in Paris, all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic or island-hopping trips around Hawaii.
Today's honeymooners -- generally older and often more well-traveled than generations past -- are expanding the concept of the romantic, postnuptial escape to encompass everything from the trip-of-a-lifetime safari to budget stays in economical destinations such as Mexico and Thailand.
"Honeymoons have become different from what they were in the '80s," said Scott Ellingboe, who runs the honeymoon registry TheHoneymoon.com. "People had different expectations. Niagara was still popular. Now people are trying to outdo one another. They're going to India, Burma. Higher-end professionals who have money and time are really going for it."
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Rose-petal turndowns are still standard indulgences, but more and more couples are seeking authentic experiences that reflect the local culture, from participating in a Mayan sweat lodge known as the Temezcal to learning polo on an estancia in South America.
"Honeymoons are really so individual," said Jessica Griscavage, who plans honeymoons at Virginia-based McCabe World Travel. "Some clients want full R&R with an all-inclusive, which has value and they don't have to worry about gratuities. Others are looking for the trip of a lifetime, and they'll do Australia or New Zealand and be active."
Challenged by the economic downturn that saw many people curtail or cancel their vacation plans, the travel industry can still count on a steady stream of honeymooners to boost business. Eight out of 10 couples take their honeymoon within a week of their wedding, according to the wedding website TheKnot.com. It also notes that newly marrieds take, on average, eight days to travel and spend $4,847.
The Association of Travel Marketing Executives says the average honeymooning couple, paying more than $4,000, spends three times as much as the typical family.
How they spend it is another matter, as couples seek a variety of defining trips ranging from remote to refined among these top honeymoon trends.
Danielle Venokur, a New York City party planner, makes her living greening events. She knew how to make her own August 2009 wedding eco: soy-wax candles, organic food, rickshaws and hybrid cars for transportation.
In keeping with her environmental convictions, she sought a luxe but low-impact honeymoon, turning to California-based Global Basecamps. The agency, which specializes in sustainable travel, arranged a monthlong tour of Asia that took Danielle and her husband to rural, family-run inns in Japan; to pampering eco-lodges in Vietnam; and through Laos by boat.
"It's not like you have to stay in a remote jungle," she said. "I knew we could have our cake and eat it, too."
Once, eco-travel was a short step above camping, offering simple, close-to-nature accommodations without much for honeymooners -- planning the trip of a lifetime -- to write home about. Today, environmentally friendly travel has mushroomed into the mainstream with everything from resorts to tour operators touting a sustainable platform for reducing energy use, conserving natural resources, recycling waste and benefiting local communities.
"Now you don't have to sacrifice luxury at all to travel green," said Gregor Gomory, owner of Global Basecamps, who has experienced a surge in requests for sustainable travel from honeymooners. "They're asking, 'How can our honeymoon be an expression of who we are and how we are starting our lives together?'"
Where to go green: Belize, Chile, New Zealand
Elevate Destinations (617-661-0203, elevatedestinations.com) specializes in sustainable travel, donating 5 percent of proceeds back to the places where it operates, from Patagonia to Kenya. A nine-day Belize trip travels between small, eco-sensitive beach and jungle lodges at $3,500 per person.
Global Basecamps (866-577-2462, globalbasecamps.com) specializes in finding lodges and resorts with a sense of place and a sustainable orientation. Much of its work is custom, so prices vary, but its top honeymoon picks include a remote lakeside lodge of elegantly appointed wood huts near the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania.
At carbon-neutral Pacuare Lodge in Costa Rica, no trees were felled to make way for the lodge, water is solar-heated, nearly all employees are from the local village, and most guests raft in -- honeymooners among them.
"I loved that it was environmentally friendly, which definitely attracted me to it," said Karah Leigh Brashier, a Dallas nurse who got married at the lodge last September and had her wedding dress packed in a dry box for the boat trip in.
She found it easy to embrace being green in lantern-lit Pacuare. "There was rafting and jungle everywhere and canopy tours but complete candlelight at night. It was a total adventure and ultimately romantic, too."
Whether it's running Class IV rapids, diving the Great Barrier Reef, stalking elusive tigers in India or kayaking along Kauai's rugged Na Pali Coast, many couples enjoy the challenge of conquering the remote together, often learning a new skill in the process.
Whether you decide to camp out or choose a tented lodge with four-poster beds and down duvets, experts recommend unwinding before diving into an adrenaline-packed holiday.
"The most important thing is to start by relaxing and connecting after the wedding," said McCabe World Travel's Griscavage, who might send a couple on safari only after allowing them to wind down at a beach resort. "Then you can have an adventure."
Where to adventure: Costa Rica, Hawaii, Canada
Pacuare Lodge (866-963-1195, pacuarelodge.com) in Costa Rica operates on a private, 740-acre rain-forest preserve. You can get there by land, but for the most exciting trip, raft the Pacuare River in. On site there is bird-watching, hiking, swimming and fishing as well as massage services. Rates from $375 per person, all-inclusive.
Clayoquot Wilderness Resort (888-333-5405, wildretreat.com) operates 20 luxuriously appointed guest tents in the coastal wilds off Vancouver Island near Tofino. Wood stoves, antique dressers, throw rugs and cushy log-frame beds provide a comfortable base for whale or bear watching, ocean kayaking and rock-climbing. Three nights from $4,650 per person, all-inclusive.
The all-inclusive resort goes destination-hopping aboard a cruise ship. Increasingly, honeymooners are embracing ships that allow them the ease of paying one price for accommodations, food and entertainment, while also allowing them to explore a number of ports of call. Excluding shore excursions, which can be costly, the base price for many cruises often blows away landlocked resorts.
"Cruises are something that gives couples a lot of value for the dollar," said Donna Keane, director of the honeymoon registry Distinctive Honeymoons. Holland America Line, for example, has seven-day Mediterranean cruises this summer priced from $949 per person. "You get to see a multitude of destinations, you unpack once, and all meals are included. It's a great value for people who want to go to Europe and can't afford to."
The same goes for Alaska, which can be costly to reach by other means. But it's not just price that drives honeymoon cruises. It's the effortlessness of visiting five Caribbean islands in a week. And sometimes, as in the Galapagos, it's the only way to travel.
Since 1990, cruise audiences have grown by more than 7 percent per year. Expanding fleets ranging in size from enlarged yachts to 5,400-passenger leviathans and itineraries that span quick trips to the Bahamas and extended tours of Asia offer, operators hope, something for everyone -- including honeymooners.
Where to cruise: Alaska, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean
Among mid- to small-size ships, Princess Cruises (800-774-6237, princess.com) recently introduced a series of seven-day itineraries around Europe aboard the 680-guest Ocean Princess. Summer itineraries visit Norway, Germany and the Netherlands from England. In September, the ship departs Rome to ply the Mediterranean, with ports such as Portofino on the Italian Riviera and the Greek Isles. Fares from $999.
Norwegian Cruise Line's (866-234-7350, ncl.com) new 4,200-passenger Epic headlines new launches taking place this summer. The July launch will debut the sea's first rappelling wall, ice bar and blow slide in its water park. Blue Man Group, Cirque Dreams, Second City and the tribute show Legends in Concert will entertain. Seven-night itineraries from Miami around the eastern and western Caribbean start at $889, dropping to $649 in September.
Honeymooners certainly help keep Tahiti, considered an expensive destination, in business. But increasingly savvy travelers looking to get more return on investment are expanding the world map for romance.
"Destinations have changed," said Susan Breslow Sardone, About.com's wedding expert and author of Destination Weddings for Dummies. "There's a lot more interest in Central America, Belize and Costa Rica."
Substitute destinations also prosper in tough times. For example, Sardone suggests Quebec City and Montreal for people averse to the flight cost of Paris. "They still get charm and food and cobblestone streets."
Swine flu and the border drug war, though a long way from resort areas, combined to crimp Mexico tourism last year, leading to current deals.
"At the same time [as the flu scare], Mexico built new resorts with amenities and great service," noted Barbara Messing, vice president of the budget-dealing web site travel-ticker.com. "The deals are just the best, like 50 percent off regular retail rates. There's value and pampering and romance in Cabo, Cancun, Cozumel and Puerto Vallarta, plus good airfare there too."
South American countries like Argentina and Chile are good buys. But there are plenty of deals, too, closer to home.
"Anywhere in the U.S. you can find value, especially compared to foreign countries where the dollar might not be strong," said McCabe's Griscavage. "People forget about the U.S."
Where to save: Mexico, Thailand, Argentina, the U.S.
There are scads of deals on all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, but the buyer should beware of crowding or kids, among two red flags for honeymooners. El Dorado Royale on the Riviera Maya (888-280-7558, karismahotels.com) is adults-only, has 13 swimming pools, with outdoor showers attached to guest rooms and classes in couples massage. Rates from $140 per person, all-inclusive.
It's hard to beat Las Vegas for domestic deals. Rates in Sin City fluctuate wildly with bookings, and heavy convention periods can drive prices up. But MGM Grand (877-880-0880, mgmgrand.com) has an online deal through next May that offers rooms from $70. You might do better elsewhere, but at this enormous hotel on the Strip, you are in the center of the action, from Cirque du Soleil's "Ka" show to chef Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak and the Tabu ultra lounge.