Most people associate weddings with love and commitment, and rightly so. After all, it’s a ceremony to unite two people together, building a life they will share. That’s the part they write songs about.
But a wedding also comes with another constant: questions.
So many questions.
Who to invite, for example. Who to hire to take photos, for another. Floral arrangements. Cake designs. Bridesmaid dresses. Donut wall or no donut wall?
It’s a virtual minefield of decision-making. And topping the list, towering high above all others, is the ultimate question: where to have the wedding?
In Philadelphia, choices abound. Country clubs and major hotels host weddings. So does the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center and the Franklin Institute.
Local wedding planners can give you glamorous art deco weddings, country barn weddings or traditional weddings like your grandparents enjoyed.
But there’s another choice. It’s not for everyone. But for those who want a unique wedding outside of Philadelphia, it’s a really great option: the Central American country of Belize.
Some people might be aware Belize rates high as a stunningly beautiful wedding location. What they may not know is its other advantage, a woman named Lara Goldman.
The Philadelphia native lives in Belize and runs a company that specializes in coordinating destination weddings. She knows Philadelphia. She also knows everyone and everything about Belize. She’s the person to talk with if you want to, say, swim with sharks or zip line your way to a ceremony in a hut in the jungle.
Or, as Goldman puts it, “The answer is yes, what’s the question?”
Philly-Zean At Your Service
Before everyone starts Googling “Where is Belize?”: The country runs for about 200 miles along the eastern Central American coast. Belize sits east of Guatemala, north of Honduras and just south of Yucatan and Quintana Roo (which you likely did not know existed until you read this sentence).
Thrillist named Belize one of the best countries to visit where locals love Americans, calling it an “even chiller extension of southern California.” Travel and Leisure magazine readers ranked Belize as one of the best destinations for travelers.
Goldman, who grew up and lived in the Philadelphia area until 2006, runs a business — Romantic Travel Belize — through which she coordinates destination weddings for couples. That includes everything from finding a venue, arranging hotels for guests and the wedding party, setting up transportation, and hiring all the people needed to get things just right.
“Planning a destination wedding is not the same as planning one locally, and it’s certainly not the same as planning a vacation,” said Goldman, who lives in Ambergris Caye, Belize. “There is a lot more to consider, especially when you have guests traveling all this way.”
Goldman handles all that. Articulate and blessed with a great sense of humor, Goldman summed up her job this way:
“I tell brides, ‘My job is to protect your wedding from everyone — including you.’”
Goldman said in her 11 years as a Belizean — or a “Philly-zean,” as she calls it — she has come to know everyone in the area that has anything to do with planning and producing a wedding. That includes musicians, photographers, tour companies, boat captains, hotel managers and caterers.
“I know everyone,” she said. She laughed, adding, “I know who gets drunk by 5 p.m. and doesn’t return phone calls.”
Goldman has planned more than 100 weddings. In December, she will coordinate a Jewish wedding for Danielle Rayzberg and Nathan Brandys. Goldman is bringing in a rabbi for the ceremony. The event will include a full chuppah and ketubah on the beach for 91 guests, who are coming from as far away as Sweden, Poland, Israel and Canada.
Goldman has some people coming in herself. The rabbi is from Mexico. The wedding photographer is well-known, respected Philadelphia photographer Rebecca Barger.
For Goldman, who once was a vice president at a Philadelphia company, there are similarities between her old job and new one.
“I still herd cats,” she said.
Starting a New Life
In just 46 years, Goldman has experienced a meteoric corporate career, small business success, personal tragedy and a new phase as an expatriate entrepreneur.
Goldman was born in Northeast Philadelphia in 1971. Her family moved to Bucks County in 1980 as part of what she calls the “great Jewish migration.” She graduated from Council Rock High School in 1989 and earned a bachelor’s degree from what is now Arcadia University in 1993. By 29, she had risen to the position of vice president of employee relations at large, public company.
Her job got phased out in 2003 when the company was sold and a new executive team moved in.
“I decided the next idiot I was going to work for was going to be me,” she said.
Goldman opened an antiques shop, La Tela, in Berwyn. Her husband, Tom Lennon, pitched in to help. He had been laid off as an airline pilot following 9/11, and was flying cargo planes. He helped her make deliveries and supported her around the shop.
The couple had renovated a 1920s Tudor house in Drexel Hill. Things were going well. Then, on a Friday in 2004, the phone rang. The MU-2 plane Tom was flying had gone down. He managed to crash land without hurting anyone on the ground, but he died.
Goldman spent the next 18 months grieving, then trying to figure out what to do with her life. After a long period, she began to jokingly ask friends about the cost of moving away to a tropical island. Finally, her sparring partner at the gym — she had taken up boxing — took her seriously and talked to her about the low cost of living in Central American countries such as Costa Rica and Belize.
Belize intrigued her, although she wasn’t exactly sure where it was. She listed her Philadelphia house for rent. She wrote in her journal that if a person wanted to rent her furnished home for a year, she’d take it as a sign to go. Literally the next day, a couple contacted her and asked to rent the home. For an entire year, fully furnished.
“The universe made it very clear to me that I needed to go,” Goldman said. At that point, she realized the only thing holding her back from making a move was fear. She concluded that “fear is not a reason.”
She got on the plane and cried during the flight.
“Not because I was leaving home, but because I felt like I was going home.”
Two weeks after hearing about Belize, she had moved there.
Back In The Neighborhood
Goldman said Belize in 2017 reminds her of growing up in Northeast Philadelphia. There’s a neighborhood quality in Belize where everyone knows everyone else. She loves that aspect of living there.
Goldman first went into business in Belize with Lemon Crush Belize, a lifestyle brand that started with bikinis adorned with vintage costume jewelry. She began to market to brides, and quickly learned that brides needed help with much beyond just bikinis. They wanted help with all aspects of the wedding.
Romantic Travel Belize was born. It is now a full-service destination management and event design company.
After more than 100 weddings, Goldman will hold her first Jewish wedding Dec. 8. The couple are first-generation Americans. Their parents immigrated to the U.S. as adults.
“I have a rabbi who will be doing a small Sabbath. The couple are hosting a catamaran trip for their guests to snorkel the world’s second-largest barrier reef, then with some sharks and stingrays, then to a neighboring island, Caye Caulker,” Goldman said.
That all sound fabulous. But it’s the norm for Belize weddings.
Exotic settings are part of the attraction. Get married in Belize, and you can swim with sharks, get married underwater, take a zip line ride in your wedding dress or get married on the beautiful beach. Goldman said a recent wedding took place on a sandbar in the ocean, with the chef cooking while standing in the water.
Craftspeople in Belize are willing to make anything people need for their weddings.
“Things are handmade and handcrafted by people who actually care,” Goldman said. She noted that there are no mega-resorts and multiple weddings each day. Couples get the complete focus of the people working there, who take great pride in putting on a beautiful wedding.
Goldman is busy enough that she typically asks for people to contact her six months in advance for weddings in the high season (November through April) and three months during other times of the year.
Goldman said she now focuses more on “design brides,” or couples “who have a specific vision, service level desire, and taste level but who realize you need to trust someone who knows what they are doing.”
As for Goldman, life did not go the way she anticipated when she was younger. But she truly enjoys coordinating weddings and working with couples to realize their vision.
And she enjoys her newfound home, not just for the natural beauty, but the wonderful people.
“I love that it is a true community, like old-time Philly,” she said. “At the end of the day, no matter where you live on planet Earth, it’s all about love and you don’t have love without people.”