As the introduction to the classic holiday song "Winter Wonderland" tells us, "Love has no season, love has no clime*," but anyone who has observed a bride and her bridesmaids in strapless gowns shivering in July fog at Lovers Point Park knows, it can make a difference. Wedding-day romance will blossom more reliably if you size up the seasons in our beautiful — if occasionally climactically confused — county before selecting venue or gown.

Of course, you can safely ignore this advice if you're planning a big indoor event from start to finish. Holding a wedding at, for instance, Ferrante's by the Bay atop the Monterey Marriott Hotel means guests can admire the sweep of Monterey Bay from a glass-enclosed, climate-controlled eyrie, while the huge, 12,000-square-foot, ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Monterey, which handily seats 1,000 guests for a banquet, virtually makes its own weather (a steady 72°F and no wind).

So where to go and when to wed? I posed this question to Julie Armstrong, whose work with the Monterey County Convention and Visitors' Bureau and the Monterey Film Commission has taken her all over the county in all seasons. Here, we offer a selection of Monterey County wedding sites by the season.

Spring: Big Sur

"I love Big Sur in the spring," Armstrong says.


"Especially at wildflower season."

April and May clothe Big Sur's rounded contours and steep slopes with Shooting Stars, Goldfields, Johnny Jump Ups, and countless more wildflowers. The contrast with the distant blue of the Pacific - where whale spouts are not unknown - and a freshly-washed sky makes every inch of Big Sur a spectacular wedding backdrop.

How you enjoy this expansive setting depends not only on your budget but on your yen for immersing yourselves in Big Sur's zenlike calm.

If thousands of people hike Big Sur's state parks, very few take to the trails wearing white, accompanied by a minister. To be among the few, head for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where a 1.4 mile (roundtrip) hike along Big Sur Creek brings you through one of the coast's finest redwood groves to 60-foot high Pfeiffer Falls.

An ocean-side alternative is the Creamery Meadow trail to Molera Beach in Andrew Molera State Park. (Bring your own bouquet: all those gorgeous wildflowers are protected.) The Big Sur Lodge, tucked beneath the ridge in Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park, is a welcoming spot for a well-earned wedding breakfast.

You can enjoy Big Sur without having to put on hiking boots. The wedding gazebo at the luxurious Ventana Inn commands an uninterrupted, 50-mile vista from a private knoll just below the inn's highly regarded Cielo Restaurant. Ventana has two other wedding site options: the Lower Terrace of the restaurant, which shares the view but offers more guest space, and the more intimate Vista del Mar (perfect for the inn's fabulous "Elopement Package").

Summer: Carmel Valley

Ah, summer, when ocean-side dwellers contemplate woolly cardigans to ward off the fog's chill. For almost guaranteed sunshine and warm weather, Armstrong suggests Carmel Valley.

Carmel Valley defines the phrase "casual elegance," with vineyards and golf courses along the valley floor and mountain biking and horseback riding trails threading the ridges. Enterprising caterers have been known to pack wicker picnic hampers, wine coolers, plus a tiny table and a couple of folding chairs up the trails at Garland Ranch Regional Park to enable intimate ceremonies on Snively Ridge.

A less strenuous but intriguing alternative is Holman Ranch. Its primary business, as the Peninsula's largest full-service stable, is getting riders mounted and out on the trail, but the 400-acre ranch hosts numerous weddings every year. Couples choose it for the privacy, the grand views, a country estate atmosphere, and its ability to offer caterers a wider play for their creativity than can fit in a picnic basket.

At the elegant end of the Carmel Valley scale, little beats the lavender-surrounded terraces of Bernardus Lodge. The wedding garden itself is charming, a flowery bower through most of the year, and the on-site spa can soothe bridal jitters with custom-blended aromatherapy massages and facials. And while chef Cal Stamenov could doubtless cram a miraculous meal into a bread-basket, his award-winning (think Zagat's Top 20) Marinus Restaurant is one of the region's best places for innovative California cuisine. The herbs are plucked from the hotel's organic garden, and dishes are duly complemented by a great wine list, led by Bernardus wines.

Autumn: Salinas Valley

Talk of wine led Armstrong immediately to the rolling vineyards and balmy weather of the Salinas Valley. "I love the idea of a winery setting for a wedding, especially in fall," she said. "The grapevines are so heavy, they look pregnant, waiting to give birth to the wine."

Symbolism aside, we agreed that some of the finest views are from the wineries on the western side, in the foothills of the Santa Lucias, gazing across the valley to the Gabilan Mountains.

Paraiso Vineyards will tent the lawn of the Fountain Terrace, where a Mediterranean-style fountain-bordered by Pinot Noir vines and cypress trees-plays a subtle accompaniment to your vows. The Blue House of Paraiso's near-neighbor, Hahn Estates, is a turn-of-the-century ranch house, now wrapped in expansive decks, standing in the midst of vineyards and ancient oaks. Both are between 500 and 1,000 feet above the Salinas River and sheltered from the strong breezes that sometime sweep the valley floor. Your worst decision: how to choose a wedding wine from their superlative cellars?

For a most unusual Salinas Valley wedding, hire a bus for your guests and set out for Jolon, specifically historic Mission San Antonio. (The mission is on Fort Hunter-Liggett: Busing your guests spares hassles checking motor vehicle registrations as they enter the gate.) The restored mission feels as remote as the 18th century; the stillness of the cloister rose garden is broken only by birdsong and the occasional bell. The unusual reception venue here is The Hacienda Restaurant & Lodge, built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst to house his ranch hands.

Winter: Carmel-by-the-Sea

One mission often leads to another, and Carmel Mission, Armstrong and I agreed, was the perfect setting for a formal winter wedding. The gated courtyard is framed by olive trees and pale Carmel stone walls; the stateliness of the interior is warmed by candlelight and soft organ music. Because this Roman Catholic basilica is so popular, it's essential to contact the parish's own wedding planner as soon as you decide you're interested.

"All of Carmel village is great in winter," Armstrong enthuses. "The surf is up, making for dramatic portrait photography, the days are usually clear, the nights crisp - and the choice of restaurants for an intimate wedding dinner are endless."

Forced to choose, we thought pride of place would have to go to Casanova, with The Forge in the Forest a close runner up.

Casanova calls itself the "most romantic restaurant in Carmel," and it might well be. Its two special dining rooms - the Harvest Room and the Milagro Room - both are warmed by massive stone fireplaces, yet the atmosphere is friendly and never fussy. The menu is "inspired Mediterranean," with accents from Italy, Provençal France, and North Africa, and its wine list has been celebrated by "The Wine Spectator" for years.

The Forge is perhaps best known for its big burgers and dog-friendly patio, but it also has three private dining rooms. The Artists' Gallery sports brass lamps with jade-green glass shades, white linen cloths, and work by local artists; the Wine Cellar seats from 8-16 at a huge round table beneath an equally huge modern chandelier, and the Oak Tree Room - and its adjoining, tree-sheltered patio, evoke a French bistro. The eclectic catering menu never even mentions burgers.

Now all you need to do is choose your season and enjoy!


Big Sur State Parks Wedding Coordinator

Big Sur Lodge - Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Big Sur

Ventana Inn
Highway One, Big Sur; 831-667-4202;

Holman Ranch
Carmel Valley; 831-659-2640;

Bernardus Lodge
Carmel Valley Road at Laureles Grade; 831-658-3504;

Paraiso Vineyards
38060 Paraiso Springs Rd., Soledad; 831-678-0300;

Hahn Estates
37700 Foothill Rd., Soledad; 831-678-4555;

San Antonio Mission
23 miles off Highway 101, Jolon; 831-385-4478;

The Hacienda Restaurant & Guest Lodge at Mission San Antonio

Carmel Mission Basilica
Rio Road, Carmel; 831-624-1271;

Casanova Restaurant
Fifth between Mission and San Carlos, Carmel, 831-625-2727;

The Forge in the Forest
Corner of Fifth & Junipero, Carmel; 831-624-2233;

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