A Bride’s Guide: Plan a Destination Wedding Close to Home

Planning a destination wedding is lots of work, but planning a destination that’s closer to home? There’s a reason why some of northern Illinois’ top venues are right in our backyard.

(Acquaviva Winery photo)

If you’re seeking the perfect location for a destination wedding, you don’t have to travel far to find waterfall backdrops, lakefront views, garden ceremonies and fireworks to celebrate your special day. It’s all available close to home, in the Prairie State.

What does it take to find the right vendors, accommodate guests and plan a spectacular wedding at a destination that’s still close to home?

We asked event coordinators at four of northern Illinois’ top destination venues for a little inside advice on what it takes to pull off a beautiful wedding in a truly unforgettable setting.

(Acquaviva Winery photo)

Find a Venue
The first order of business is finding an event space. When narrowing down the options, consider the number of guests, desired ambience and time of year. Remember, outdoor wedding season is May through October in the Midwest, in part because many venues have more spacious accommodations outside and they offer a particular vibe outdoors. Be sure to ask when you get a general site tour.

Most event spaces have a wedding coordinator on staff who can guide you through planning once you’ve booked the venue. From timing the order of events to sharing a preferred list of local vendors and selecting the menu, they aim to make the process seamless. This is especially helpful when you’re planning an event that’s an hour or more from home.

Shop Local
Using trusted local vendors is a way to prevent mishaps that can happen during long car rides, like flowers wilting or wedding cakes tipping over. Besides, hiring vendors familiar with the space and its wedding-day protocol will help put the happy couple at ease. They can take comfort in knowing that everything has been arranged for them and their guests. Still, it’s important not just to trust your vendors but to also enjoy working with them.

“Definitely do research on photographers,” says Beata Szymkowiak, events manager at Acquaviva Winery, 47W614 Ill. Rt. 38 in Maple Park. “Interview them. See their work to determine if it’s something you really like. Personality-wise, you want to meet them prior to the commitment. It’s a lot of money you’re spending. Make sure your personalities vibe. The day of, they’re really trying to pull you into different scenarios and positions you may not be comfortable in. You need to have a good relationship established.”

Before hiring any vendor, browse their professional social media pages to get an idea of their style and the services they offer, adds Maggie Truppa, senior catering sales manager at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, 444 Eagle Ridge Drive in Galena. “Meet up with them via Zoom, in-person or phone calls to get an idea of their style. That way, you can find someone you click with, because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them.”

Give Guests Advance Notice
Truppa strongly recommends mailing “Save the Date” cards. Include lodging information, because you want guests to have priority access, Truppa says. Since destination weddings in the Midwest are often around tourist locations, create a wedding website. Share details about the airport, hotel, transportation (if hiring a bus), as well as a schedule of wedding events and locations.

“It’s always fun to include a little bit about the couple, too, their backstory, some pictures,” Truppa says.

Travel to the venue and the planning coordinator shouldn’t deter couples from having a destination wedding, Truppa says. Not all meetings have to be in-person. Couples who don’t want to travel for a menu tasting can have their parents do it for them, if they live nearby – and the couple can join them virtually via FaceTime or Zoom. It really depends on their comfort level, Truppa says, and how much they want to be involved.

Travel Light
Consider renting certain items, such as centerpieces, which you can still customize with a florist by adding flowers or greenery.

“The fewer items you have to carry from a distance, the easier it is to arrive and participate in the wedding,” Truppa says. “There’s also less to clean up and take back afterward.”

(Gigantic Design photo)

Reserve Guest Accommodations Early
Depending on the time of year, guest rooms need to be booked earlier, rather than later, especially for a fall wedding, when every inn and hotel in Galena is booked well in advance, says Birgit Radin.

She and her husband, Slobo, own Goldmoor Inn, 9001 W. Sandhill Road in Galena. The venue has 18 rooms. In most cases, the bride and groom and their families stay at Goldmoor while their guests go to other locations nearby.

“Within those 18 rooms, we have four rooms that are in the same section of the inn with a very large common space between them, as well as an outdoor balcony with furniture,” Birgit says. “It’s ideal for the family to be in that section. It’s like a house, within a house.”

(Gigantic Design photo)

Attend to Details
The Radins guide couples through all of the decision-making at Goldmoor Inn. Will seating be open or arranged? How will beverages be handled – open bar or cash bar? Do they want a wedding cake, sweets table or both? Menus are chosen six months prior to the wedding. Dinner options are provided on the invitation and selected by guests when they RSVP. Giving the kitchen advance notice of meal choices helps ensure the dinner will be flawlessly executed.

Do Your Due Diligence
In Illinois, couples need to obtain a marriage license from the county where they get married. “They need to apply in person,” Truppa says. “Most of the time, it’s done a couple of days before the wedding at a local courthouse. Set aside time to make sure you get the license and have the officiant return it.”

Make it Memorable
Wine aficionados or couples who dream of getting married on the lush grounds of a vineyard find it all at Acquaviva Winery.

“I feel like we are a hidden gem,” Szymkowiak says. “We really transport guests and make them feel like they’re having more of an experience in Italy than the Midwest.”

Acquaviva can accommodate events up to 230 guests. The winery’s most popular location for ceremonies is the owner’s private estate, a lush vineyard across the street from the winery.

Szymkowiak held her own wedding there and likes to suggest special touches to make the day memorable.

“We want to make sure couples feel like it’s the best day of their lives,” she says. Guests won’t need to go offsite for photos. They have their choice of stunning, natural backdrops: apple orchards, bridges, ponds, vineyards and willow trees. There’s also the barrel room where red and white wines age. Depending on the day, wine production can be viewed through two windows in the reception area, giving guests a front-row seat to elements of the wine-making process.

Outdoor ceremonies are held by the elegant pool house or under the pergola. Indoor ceremonies are held inside the spectacular atrium, beneath a hand-painted dome. The standard wedding package includes black, white and ivory linens and napkins, brown Chiavari chairs, a cocktail hour with appetizers and a coursed-out meal. Homemade Italian food in delicate sauces; beef, chicken and fish options; and accommodations for dietary restrictions make meal planning easy. Guests enjoy a plated salad, family-style pasta, a plated entree and dessert. A huge hit with wedding parties is adding a late-night snack of brick oven pizza that’s made on-site.

Receptions are exclusive: one event per evening. During the reception, couples have access to the outdoor upper and lower-level patios, with an option to rent firepits and space heaters, or to enjoy an unforgettable fireworks show.

(Seth Morris Photography and Video photo)

Get Close to Nature
Couples can hold their rehearsal dinner, wedding and farewell breakfast all in one place when they visit Starved Rock Lodge, located at 1 Lodge Lane in Oglesby. Outdoor and indoor ceremonies can accommodate 30 to 200 guests. While indoor wedding ceremonies commence in front of the grand fireplace, notably the largest double-sided fireplace in Illinois, it’s not the only big draw around the property.

Outdoor ceremonies overlook the top of scenic Starved Rock. Couples are transported by trolley for photoshoots before dramatic waterfalls or canyons (if it hasn’t rained). Jenny Roulston, Starved Rock Lodge’s sales manager and assistant general manager, has a preferred vendor list that includes all of the usual services, along with pet boarding facilities, bridal stores, tux rental shops, invitations, officiants and local hairdressers who travel to the venue – there’s a dressing room for the bridal party.

(Seth Morris Photography and Video photo)

Starved Rock Lodge has a total of 90 rooms and cabins. Each room in the historic lodge wing, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), has a different layout. The CCC was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a work program during the Great Depression.

“All of our furniture is custom made in Illinois,” Roulston says. “Some cabins have fireplaces. If the wedding is a winter theme, you can cozy up to the fireplace.”

A few hours away in northwest Illinois, four championship golf courses, acclaimed restaurants, hiking trails, fishing on Lake Galena, and complimentary kayaks, canoes and paddle boats make Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa a fun venue to host weddings. The destination attracts couples from the Chicago area, Madison, Wis., and the Quad Cities.

(Eagle Ridge photo)

Located on Lake Galena, the resort’s 444 Eagle Ridge Drive address is a short distance from historic downtown Galena, where visitors find quaint shops, restaurants, antique stores, vineyards and museums to explore.

“We consider ourselves a one-stop shop for weddings,” Truppa says. “We have in-house catering for the wedding itself and multiple options for the rehearsal dinner, welcome party and farewell breakfast that are different from the wedding menu.”

She advises couples to find out when the sun sets and keep that in mind when developing the order of events. The location of the sun, in relation to the resort, can give your photographer a lot to work with, she says.

Eagle Ridge has hotel rooms at the main lodge and complimentary shuttle services to its villas and houses in the surrounding countryside. In all, the venue can accommodate up to 300 guests. There are approximately 80 hotel rooms, plus 100 houses and villas in its rental program.

(Eagle Ridge photo)

Hair and make-up services are available on-site at the venue’s newly remodeled Stonedrift Spa, a beautiful place for brides to prepare and guests to pamper themselves.

The night before the wedding, Truppa suggests inviting guests to a welcome party with drinks and appetizers. A farewell breakfast the morning after the reception gives everyone the opportunity to spend more time together before they head home.

At Goldmoor Inn, couples can hold their ceremony anywhere they choose on the sprawling, 21-acre property, which features multiple floral gardens in bloom. A popular spot for fall ceremonies is under a special maple tree bristling with vibrant colors.

The venue just completed a new terrace that boasts breathtaking views of the Mississippi River. It’s the perfect spot to say “I do” in summertime. Although Goldmoor Inn hosts weddings year-round, parties with more than 50 guests are held outdoors.

Goldmoor’s outdoor wedding receptions take place in an open covered pavilion that’s large enough for dancing and has beautiful views of the property. If the weather gets bad, sides go up so the party can go on.

“There’s never more than one wedding on the premises,” Radin says. “I like to have people be able to move to different spaces, so not all of the action takes place in the same area.”

Ceremonies take place on the lawn; the cocktail hour, at the Inn, on the terrace or outdoor area; and the reception, under the pavilion. Dinners are sit-down, not buffet.

The wedding package at Goldmoor includes one hour of beer, wine and appetizers and a sit-down dinner.

“The most important thing is to relax and trust us,” Birgit tells couples. “We have done this a thousand times.”