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For your big day, choosing the right location can make all the difference

Although most have a few things in common -- bride, groom, cake -- weddings are one of life's milestones that allow for the ultimate in customization. Couples like to feel that their wedding is unique, and rather than opt for the traditional church or banquet hall route, many prefer alternative reception options. Luckily, party venues have responded; you can book a wedding now in such diverse locations as an aquarium or a golf course.

Natural Settings Take Planning

Garden weddings conjure up thoughts of cool, leafy trees, crisp linen chair covers and lots and lots of rose petals. Jo Baudoin, owner of event planning business Details by Josie, has worked with brides whose fondest dreams include walking down a white satin runner laid on bright green grass.

That vision is doable, Baudoin says, as long as you remember one rule about planning an outdoor event: "You are working with nature." That means taking weather into account and preparing alternative plans.

A good solution is to have the ceremony outdoors, and then move the party indoors so guests can eat, drink and dance in comfort. "You can almost always pull that off," she says.

Because gardens don't come with altars and aisles, an important step is creating a focal point for the ceremony, such as an arbor or a gazebo. For a wedding Baudoin coordinated at an outdoor space studded with huge oak trees, she climbed 22-foot stepladders and draped the trees with soft fabric. She had the florist create a large floral ball to suspend right over the spot where the couple exchanged vows. For a fall outdoor wedding, Baudoin went with lanterns hanging from the trees.

Even though people may have a beautiful backyard, home garden weddings are tricky, Baudoin says. Most home kitchens aren't equipped for caterers, and it gets expensive to rent chairs, linens and tents. Home ceremonies and receptions work best if the wedding is fairly small and if the couple are fortunate enough to live in a very large house with high ceilings and spacious landscaped grounds.

Timing is crucial to the success of garden weddings. In our climate, Baudoin says, morning ceremonies followed by a brunch are a good choice, as are evening weddings, which are ideal for masses of votive candles and twinkling tree lights. Both of these times avoid the prospect of a bride and her guests wilting during the heat of the day.

Courtyards are also popular venues for outdoor weddings. The Maison Dupuy Hotel in the French Quarter has one of the most popular courtyards in town. Christie Anderson, director of catering for the hotel, says that about 70 percent of the weddings held there include both the ceremony and the reception. Many are destination weddings, and brides and grooms like the fact that their guests can stay at the hotel. "It keeps everything in one location," Anderson says. The majority of weddings at Maison Dupuy take place outdoors, but the hotel can move the party inside if the weather turns bad.

The hotel offers several wedding packages, most of which include hors d'oeuvres, a buffet and a full bar. Like many in the bridal industry, Anderson takes into account the differences in reception preferences: Northerners are accustomed to sit-down dinners, while southern families traditionally go for buffets. The hotel offers a compromise -- a buffet with extra tables and chairs for diners. Weddings at Maison Dupuy average 150-175 guests.

Hotel weddings can be individualized with flowers, centerpieces and other touches. "We had a client who walked down the aisle to the Star Wars theme song one year," Anderson says. "We also had a couple who did their first dance in the swimming pool."

Throughout her years of experience, Anderson has seen trends come and go. A new one is setting up a picture booth at the reception. Guests pose, print out their pictures and keep some for souvenirs while giving others to the wedding couple for their scrapbook.

Because so many couples want Saturday evening weddings, Anderson advises brides and grooms to nail down their venue early -- about 12 to 18 months in advance. She also recommends finding out whether or not you can bring in your own vendors, if parking is paid for and if the hotel will set aside a block of rooms at a discounted rate for your guests.

Tim and Tricia Upton, attorneys who live in Mandeville, had their wedding ceremony and reception at Maison Dupuy in April 2001. Tricia Upton says she wanted a small courtyard wedding. "I had already been a bridesmaid at so many huge weddings," she says. "I was so over it."

Having a wedding in a beautiful courtyard with a fountain eliminates a lot of worry over flowers and other decorations because the setting is already so attractive, Upton says. She also liked the fact that guests could enjoy the party and then just walk to their hotel rooms. Because the hotel quoted a per-person flat rate, Upton says there were no unpleasant surprises when the bill was tallied.

A Special Restaurant for a Special DayHolding a wedding at a restaurant can combine tying the knot with digging in to some delicious food. When it comes to choosing wedding food, the trick is to retain freshness and tastiness while serving hundreds of people at a time. At The Longbranch in Abita Springs, Allison Vines-Rushing and her husband Slade Rushing strive to give their party menus the same flair that has made their restaurant so popular.

Vines-Rushing calls the atmosphere at The Longbranch casually elegant. The restaurant has hosted weddings ranging from intimate gatherings for 50 people to bashes for 250 with lawn tents and bands; Vines-Rushing says the property is ideal for gatherings of about 100.

The Longbranch itself is a beautiful historic building once used as a hotel. It is surrounded by porches, gardens and lawns. Having a wedding there is akin to having a home wedding -- if your home happened to be a well-landscaped southern mansion. The porch makes a pretty spot to serve cocktails, and guests can wander in and out of the reception rooms like they would in a private home.

Since they opened the restaurant in 2005, Vines-Rushing and her husband have fine-tuned their party menus to include items with a broad appeal while continuing to emphasize the use of seasonal farm produce.

French Quarter restaurants with proximity to many large hotels are also popular wedding sites. Antoine's Restaurant, a landmark in the French Quarter for more than 160 years, has been the site of innumerable New Orleans weddings. The hotel has 14 different dining rooms and can accommodate parties from 25 to 450 people. Each dining room has a different dŽcor, but all are rich in historic ambience, minimizing the need for decoration.

Antoine's provides all the food and beverages as well as white linens ornamented with fleur-de-lis. Guests are served on Antoine's china. Wedding couples can leave the reception in a French Quarter buggy and guests from out-of-town are conveniently positioned to explore the Vieux Carre on foot.

Exclusivity a plus at country club weddings

Dawn Ledet has helped plan many weddings as sales and marketing director for English Turn Country Club, but she still swears by one rule: "You have to remember that this is the most important day in their lives."

Couples like holding their wedding at a country club like English Turn because of the feeling of security and exclusivity it lends to the affair. "You are in a community, not a city," Ledet says. A bonus is that guests do not have to pay for parking, and if the ceremony and reception are both at the club, there's no need for limousine transportation.

Ledet says many couples prefer to have the whole wedding at English Turn, with the ceremony in the main dining room, the garden room or even the ballroom. Some couples do chance outdoor ceremonies as well.

Like Robinson at Maison Dupuy, Ledet sees a split -- those reared in the north generally prefer sit-down dinners while southerners want a big buffet. A sit-down dinner is usually more economical, she says, because a buffet has to have an abundance of food at all times while a seated dinner is portioned. Ledet has seen a movement toward less traditional foods. Recently, a bride asked for a pizza station at her reception, and Indian food is also extremely popular, she says.

Other trends Ledet notes include a return to the bride changing into a going-away outfit, and a desire by couples to duplicate the wedding receptions they see on reality television shows. Renewal-of-vows ceremonies are also in vogue right now, she says.

Like many country clubs, English Turn offers wedding packages and does not allow outside catering. But the kitchen tries hard to customize to meet the couple's needs, duplicating favorite family recipes when feasible.

Ledet suggests contacting a country club a year in advance to secure a date, but she admits that when pressed, she can put together a wedding in a hurry. "We can make it happen within two months," she says, but she'd prefer not to. "I just hate to see a bride stressed out."

Name That Theme

Weddings come with built-in themes, such as new beginnings or the joining of families. But some brides and grooms prefer to dream up their own, such as a Hawaiian luau or Renaissance banquet. Singer Kat Walker and her husband Jami Mitchell, who got married last October, had a toga wedding. Don't start thinking Animal House, though. This was an elegant affair with custom-made togas for the bridal party and tastefully dressed guests with grapes in their hair. There were even children in tiny togas.

The whole thing started out as a joke, Walker recalls. Mitchell said the couple ought to have a toga barbecue so they could use their outfits to wipe off the dripping sauce. Both of their homes had flooded in Hurricane Katrina, and each had two children, so they were looking for a type of wedding that would involve their families and wouldn't be excessively expensive.

Rejecting the idea of a park wedding as too chancy weather-wise, Walker went to see the Champagne Palace. Not only did the reception hall have an indoor/outdoor option, it was decorated with Roman statues and columns. "That's their theme," she says.

One thing led to another as Walker created invitations that showed caricatures of the family in togas. They gave their guests cups with Roman-style designs on them as favors. The hit of the party came when her brother, who had appeared in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum 30 years ago, flew in from California to sing the show's wedding song, with customized lyrics written by Walker.

Walker says she and Mitchell have lots of great pictures and happy memories of their wedding, which united their two families in an atmosphere of fun and provided a welcome respite from hurricane recovery.

Most couples can't go to the expense Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes did when they threw their "We're Italian royalty" wedding last year, but theme weddings aren't that difficult to pull off if you have a little imagination and are willing to buck tradition. The Internet is filled with sites explaining how to give Princess weddings, Mickey Mouse weddings and Halloween weddings. There's even an "On Skates" wedding for people who are "head-over-heels in love."

Choosing from all the great locations available for your wedding doesn't get you off the hook, though. You still have to pick a spot for your honeymoon -- but that's another story.

click to enlarge A Details by Josie courtyard wedding
  • A Details by Josie courtyard wedding
click to enlarge Kat Walker and Jami Mitchell hosted their toga-themed - wedding at the Champagne Palace
  • Kat Walker and Jami Mitchell hosted their toga-themed wedding at the Champagne Palace
click to enlarge English Turn Golf and Country Club - MQ PHOTOGRAPHY
  • MQ Photography
  • English Turn Golf and Country Club
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