Lakes may be pretty and mountains dramatic, but few places conjure a relaxed, happy feeling as readily as a sandy beach. Monterey County possesses a half-dozen or so beaches that offer soft sands and bay or ocean views that should appeal to brides and grooms who love the sea as much as they love each other. But which to choose?

Your choice may depend primarily on the composition of your guest list and the duration of your ceremony (and reception,if you decide to combine promises and party in one location). If several of your guests are elderly and would have trouble negotiating a wide or very soft beach, choose a location with hard-packed sand or boardwalks. If you plan to linger longer, choose a beach with restroom facilities reasonably close by.

Melissa and Jarrod Balser under a flower bedecked arch at Carmel River State Beach.
Melissa and Jarrod Balser under a flower bedecked arch at Carmel River State Beach. (Moss Media 2007)

The splendid beach at Andrew Molera State Park, for instance, is a four-mile round-trip hike from the parking lot, while the sands of Garrapata State Park are reached via fairly steep trails from small parking areas on Highway One. The privacy of these locations is best enjoyed by couples — and a few guests — who are ardent hikers.

The sands of Moss Landing State Beach are popular for picnic excursions, as the high dunes provide shelter from onshore breezes, and would make an attractive setting for a laid-back seashore wedding. Here, the lack of restrooms might be a problem for very old and young guests if your ceremony is long or the reception follows it.


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Another consideration as you weigh and balance your water-side options are the components of your ceremony - a live guitarist or prerecorded trumpet processional music, a flower-decked wooden arch, or Champagne toast for the wedding party and parents. The entities governing beaches vary widely in what they will permit on the beach.

Pacific Grove's Lovers Point Park is famously popular for weddings, but few couples seem to make their way down to the cute, pocket-sized beach tucked below the bluff. The city's rather elaborate permitting system restricts the event to 100 guests, and charges $300 for each two-hour block of time you wish to reserve. Don't forget to submit ancillary permit applications: an Apparatus Permit for chairs, tables, arches, or sound amplification equipment ($150 refundable damage deposit required), and a $25 Sound Amplification Permit for live or recorded music or amplified voices- including that of your celebrant reading the service. Alcohol is a no-no in Pacific Grove's parks and beaches, as are dogs; the tossing of birdseed, rose petals, rice or confetti is prohibited, and the "release of butterflies or birds is discouraged."

Carmel River State Beach is composed of several handsome strands: Stuart Cove, Middle Beach, and Monastery Beach, as well as Rock Outcropping. While the latter can only serve 50 people, the beach areas have a 200-person capacity, and there are restrooms at Monastery Beach and the Carmel River parking lot. You're welcome to set up chairs, erect a "focal point" for the ceremony, and have amplified music - provided the sound does not carry past your permitted area. You can even pour a glass of bubbly for guests over the age of 21. But you must complete a State Parks special-event use permit, including payment of the non-refundable deposit, within 14 days of applying or risk losing the date and beach area you prefer. (At least you can reserve it up to two years in advance!)

Carmel's Town Beach is arguably one of the most beautiful on the Central Coast: a long, near-white strand of sugar-soft sand backed by cliffs that are topped by purple Pride of Madeira.

Melissa and Jarrod Balser s sandcastle wedding cake
Melissa and Jarrod Balser s sandcastle wedding cake (Moss Media 2007)
Carmel-by-the-Sea issues a basic set of Beach Rules, but the city's Community Services Manager, Christie Miller, encourages couples to contact her as soon as they begin planning: "Every wedding seems to generate different questions." For 50 people or fewer, you can probably just obey the Beach Rules: no live music or sound production equipment, no tents, canopies or similar structures, no smoking on the beach or surrounding areas. Alcohol is permitted on the sands until 10 p.m., as are modest bonfires.

However, if you are hosting more than 50, or are planning to have a catered reception following the ceremony for any number of guests, you're going to need a permit. Christie Miller goes on, "One particular 'rule' for Carmel Beach is that you cannot reserve any portion of the beach or give the illusion that you have exclusive use, it is a public beach and must stay that way." Allow a minimum of 90 days for the permit process.

Asilomar State Beach is renowned, not only for its fascinating tidepools and surf-bashed rocky outcrops, but for the long smooth sands at the southern end of Sunset Drive, just before the road turns inland toward the Pacific Grove gates into Pebble Beach. It shares many of the strictures of Carmel River State Beach,as it is also a state park, but Asilomar has a wonderful card up its sleeve: the proximity of the catering and lodging options of the Asilomar Conference Grounds, just a short walk away over the dunes boardwalk. The assistance of a wedding planner is part of the deal at Asilomar, and she or he can help arrange everything from flowers to photography as well as planning the reception in one of the center's various and lovely rooms.

For ease of access - and the provision of every convenience- it is hard to top Monterey's main beach, at the foot of Wharf 2.It is also a state beach, and shares the restrictions that apply to other state beaches; in addition, it has public restrooms, and plenty of parking very close to the generally firm sand. Monterey State Beach also has the unique advantage of a great, casual party site on its doorstep in the shape of Adventures by the Sea's Pirate Cove facility. (Adventures can also bring chairs, palm trees and arch to other beaches, as will most other area event services companies.)

Carmel's Christie Miller offers two additional pieces of advice that apply to any beach wedding in the area. First, check the tides: "The day you look at the beach, [it] may look great with lots of sand, but if it is high tide, that very spot could be gone!" Second, check the county events calendar. Big events in Carmel, Monterey, or elsewhere, may make it difficult to get hotel rooms, and popular beaches will probably be busier than usual.

Ah yes, popularity. Beaches are wide open and popular spots for brides and grooms and surfers, beachcombers, dog-walkers,joggers, kids shrieking happily in the surf, and families barbecuing slabs of fragrant ribs. Embrace the public nature of your chosen spot and picture yourself sharing your joy with everyone who happens by, and you'll be far more likely to enjoy the event. (For a few real life tales, see Ceremonies in the Sand.)

Lastly, be aware that with a beach wedding, Mother Nature is automatically on the guest list. Depending on her mood, she might decide to give you long, dark, odiferous streamers of kelp, or to arrive bearing crashing surf, or wrapped in cool grey fog. On the other hand, sudden swift partings of cloud cover might bring you golden sunlight and warm sands when you least expect them.

At the very least, discuss a "Plan B" with your fiancé and - if you're using one - wedding planner, as well as your photographer and reception caterer or venue. You might agree to go ahead with the ceremony in mysterious fog, but plan to retreat to higher ground if the waves make your chosen beach outright unsafe. Asilomar, for instance, might be able to relocate your beach wedding to the meadow fringed by Monterey pines and cypresses or even indoors to the historic Chapel Hall. Consider selecting a gown and bridesmaids' outfits that include a wrap or jacket.

As Io and Adam Wolk said of their January 2008 beach wedding, "The beach was great, but the important thing was that we were getting married." The sand between your toes may feel great, but slipping on those rings will feel even better and last longer.

Resources

Andrew Molera State Park
Highway 1, Big Sur
Contact: CA State Parks Wedding Special Event Coordinator: 831-667-2315
Web: parks.ca.gov

Moss Landing State Beach
Jetty Road off Highway 1, Moss Landing
Contact: 831-649-2836
Web: parks.ca.gov

Garrapata State Park
Highway 1, Big Sur

Monterey State Beach
Del Monte Avenue at Park Avenue, Monterey

Carmel River State Beach (includes Monastery Beach)
Carmelo Street off Rio Road, Carmel
Contact: CA State Parks: 831-649-7118
Web: parks.ca.gov

Asilomar State Beach
Sunset Drive, Pacific Grove
Contact: Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts: 888-733-9005 (toll-free)
Web: asilomarcenter.com

Lover's Point Cove
Ocean View Avenue at 17th Street, Pacific Grove
Contact: City of Pacific Grove Parks Department: 831-648-5730
Web: pacificgroverecreation.org/weddings

Carmel City Beach
Scenic Road, Carmel
Contact: Community Services Manager: 831-620-2020
Web: ci.carmel.ca.us

Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.