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Weddings on Water

Fond childhood memories of a Wisconsin summer almost always includes sand and water, and with more than 15,000 lakes from which to choose, it’s no wonder so many couples celebrate their weddings on—or near—the water. From the aquamarine swirl of oceanic Lake Michigan to the crystal clear, fish-laden waters of northern Wisconsin, opportunities abound for a breathtaking celebration. Waterside weddings are not without their own unique challenges, but with proper planning your wedding day is sure to be unforgettable. 

David and Julie Phillips of New York decided to marry in Wisconsin, after ruling out Jamaica. Either way, Julie says, they were determined to have their event on the water. “I love Door County. I grew up vacationing there,” says Julie, a Manitowoc native. “I knew it had to be on Lake Michigan.” The couple chose Gordon Lodge, a large resort on a quiet, wooded peninsula in Door County between North Bay and Lake Michigan, largely for its sweeping views of the lake. About 60 of the 140 guests stayed there, spending free time fishing, kayaking and paddle boating.  “All of the East Coasters said it was exactly like Cape Cod without the hassle,” says Julie. “They just fell in love with Wisconsin. Lake Michigan looks just like an ocean, so expansive, a beautiful blue green. People said it looked like we were Photoshopped into the pictures!”

Their wedding planner, Carrie Baldwin of Door County Event Planners, says the picturesque and luxurious Gordon Lodge is one of her favorite spots for couples seeking a water wedding. Baldwin also loves the beachfront at Horseshoe Bay Country Club, which allows tents (not all beaches do, due to potential environmental damage). Baldwin says water weddings allow special touches specific to the unique environment. She recommends a “sand ceremony,” where the bride and groom each take sand from beaches near their respective hometowns and pour them together—an outdoor alternative to a unity candle. Baldwin also organizes stone ceremonies, where each guest is given a rock as they arrive and then, after the wedding, tosses the stones into the water along with wishes for the couple. She also uses decorative ribbon to attach the wedding programs to each seat to combat lake breezes.

"The most important item to consider about a wedding by or on the water is that you can’t control the elements,” agrees David Caruso, president and creative director of Milwaukee’s Dynamic Events. “Water weddings are not for the bride who can’t be flexible.”

If you’re prepared to keep your guest list on the small side, a floating wedding could be an option. Most cruises can accommodate up to 100 people, and can serve as a ceremony and reception site in one. Some provide catering for sit-down dinners, while others are more suitable for cocktails under the moon and stars.

For onboard guests, the key to having fun is access to the outdoors, says Caruso. He often steers couples to Milwaukee Boat Lines’ Voyager Yacht, its upper deck ideal for cocktails. Caruso also stresses the importance of informing guests about the schedule and the location and managing expectations—not all guests are comfortable with water and must be made aware of what’s happening in advance. He often holds welcoming receptions for guests once they arrive, handing out water bottles, parasols and informal instructions.

Betty Lou Cruises makes the most of the Madison lakes flanking the Isthmus: Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. The company, owned and operated by von Rutenberg Ventures, is also responsible for longtime waterfront dining establishments The Mariner’s Inn, Nau-ti-gal and Captain Bill’s, so it’s not surprising that they also offer onboard dining. But the main event is still the view from the water. Lush with shoreline greenery during the day, the city’s lakes are even more gorgeous at night with the lit dome of the State Capitol visible from nearly every point on Terrace and Convention Center on Lake Monona and the Memorial Union on Lake Mendota. “This is a great way to showcase what Madison is all about,” says von Rutenberg. “It’s memorable because it’s unique, whether you’re on the cruise or on the outdoor lawn area with the boats and the marina in the background. It’s just a really picturesque setting.”

Stephanie Keber and Kyle Neiss were married before 150 guests on the outdoor patio at the Geneva Inn in Lake Geneva, then set sail with their bridal party and buckets of champagne on “Lorelei,” a 1954 mahogany-trimmed cabin cruiser from Lake Geneva Cruise Line to the Riviera reception hall, built on a bluff overlooking the lake. The couple, who have vacationed in that area all their lives, were sitting on the water’s edge the evening before they got engaged talking about how perfect the setting was for weddings, Stephanie says. After her surprise proposal, the planning included the lake from the start. “We wanted a water wedding because we love Lake Geneva and wanted to have a weekend at the lake. The backdrop was the major and most important part of the wedding—from ceremony to the reception. Everybody said the setting spoke for itself.”

Even if the day doesn’t go exactly according to plan, water weddings are always memorable. When Jayme Galanos of Beyond Elegant Events planned a wedding at Bishops Bay Country Club on the northwest shore of Lake Mendota in Madison, and everything went wrong—hail, mud, power outages—but guests still made the most of it. They traded in their heels for baskets of flip-flops that Galanos provided, and danced the evening away beneath an unexpected rainbow over the lake. “People were having such a good time,” says Galanos. “They said, ‘This is definitely a wedding I am going to remember for the rest of my life.’”

Water Weddings

  • Bugs are often a problem near water. Work with a pest-control service to spray the shore beforehand, and set decorative baskets filled with bug spray and anti-itch cream around the reception area.
  • Alert neighbors and surrounding businesses to your wedding date and time, and ask their cooperation in respecting your day. There’s nothing worse than vows interrupted by Jet-Skis.
  • Water essentially magnifies weather conditions, whether it’s wind off the lake or the reflection of the hot sun. Be aware of potential dangers of wind-blown decorations and sunburned guests by providing sunscreen and windy blocks, if needed. Reserve fans or heaters to keep at the ready.
  • For the rare case of motion sickness, instruct your bartender to keep bitters and soda on hand or put small packages of pharmacy remedies in guests’ welcome bags. 
  • The perfect waterfront setting is not always the most accessible one. Prepare a plan for parking and transporting guests to and from the site. —David Caruso, Dynamic Events

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