With love from Cape May

Text by Kate Chadwick Photographs by Doyle Dowdell / June 2015

So, you want to get married in Cape May, do you? That’s an excellent notion. The quaint beauty and charms of America’s oldest seaside resort provide not just the perfect backdrop for a summer vacation, but also an ideal setting for tying the knot—ask me, I know. I was a Pennsylvania resident when I married here in 2001, and in my mind, Cape May was not just at the top of the list, it WAS the list.

Indeed, approximately 500 weddings per year are performed in Cape May, a number that’s steadily ticked upward over the past decade. Think about that for a minute: that’s approximately 10 weddings per week, more than a wedding a day. Given the size of our fair city, that’s quite a lot, and it’s largely because so many of those who marry here are non-residents who choose Cape May to make their nuptials all the more special. One of the reasons for that, of course, is because Cape May is a National Historic Landmark, its Victorian architecture providing a vintage tableau. But the big draw remains the beach. We spoke with a few wedding planners and officiants around town, and they all estimated that 90% of the weddings in which they participated take place on the sand.

Catherine Walton has been running Weddings by the Sea for over 18 years—“I’ve almost lost track,” she laughed. When we asked her about the most memorable one she could recall, she didn’t hesitate. “It was back in 2004 or so. It’s still the biggest wedding that I’ve ever done, if not the biggest in Cape May that I can remember,” Catherine told us. “It took place at the Beach Club, and I think the final price tag on it was $250,000. The couple was from New York City. There were only about 150 guests, but the venue was unbelievable. We had several huge tents set up—one was strictly for desserts, with every possible candy, cakes, and ice cream that you could imagine. The guests swooped in on it like locusts—they went nuts,” she laughed. “The lighting alone cost $37,000, and there were four-foot sparklers like a gauntlet along the path outside the tents. There were sand castles, and they even had an ice cream truck parked outside next to the trolleys, so the guests could get a treat for the ride back to their hotels. It was like something out of a movie.”

If you, like most of us, don’t have $250k to spend on a wedding, fear not. Bob Steenrod has performed ceremonies in which it was just the bride and groom, where he not only officiated, he had to provide a witness to the nuptials. “Sometimes I drag Linda along,” he said, referring to his wife, with whom he runs the Billmae Cottage. “And then I just promise to buy her dinner.” He said he once married a couple at a B&B, and pressed the desk clerk and chambermaid into service as witnesses.

The biggest issue with beach weddings is, of course, the weather. I recently took a walk along the promenade on a picture perfect Saturday afternoon. It was 70 degrees, with just enough of a breeze to send flags fluttering a bit, and not a cloud in the sky. I saw chairs being set up on Broadway beach for a wedding and thought “How perfect!” But Mother Nature isn’t always that cooperative. “I remember performing a ceremony at the Cove pavilion in April, and it was chilly and really windy,” Bob said. “Sometimes it’s hard for everyone to keep focused when the bridesmaids’ dresses are blowing up constantly.”

Crystal Hardin, another wedding officiant in town, couldn’t agree more. She’s been helping folks say “I do” in Cape May for 12 years now, and her most memorable wedding by far featured Hurricane Igor as an uninvited guest. “I was performing what was then called a civil union for two gentlemen, to be held on the beach. They were circus people, and they had guests flying in from Nevada, Florida, and as far away as England,” she said. “There was just a little bit of rain at first, and then it hit, and we had to move everything into the Hotel Macomber at the last minute. My sons helped me decorate, and the ceremony was just so moving. Nature was the music, and everyone was crying. My youngest son said afterwards, ‘Mom, that was SO COOL!’ And it was—we overcame Igor.”

If you don’t want to take your chances on the beach, there are other options. Our officiants told us of marrying couples on the steps of their favorite bed and breakfast inns, in friends’ backyards, even at the Cape May Lighthouse. West Cape May Mayor Pam Kaithern remembers one young couple that she married atop the lighthouse on a beautiful early summer day. “They were so lovely, starry-eyed, even,” she said. “And I don’t have to tell you that the view was breathtaking.” Any other memories from that day? “Yes,” she chuckled. “The stairs are worse coming down than they are going up.”

The garden behind the Chalfonte is a spot that’s gaining in popularity, according to Catherine Walton. “People are starting to stick to places where the reception’s being held for their ceremony, too, instead of transporting people back and forth from one place to another, especially in the summer. If the reception’s at Congress Hall, they’ll get married on the lawn there. If it’s at The Grand, the beach out front. If it’s at the Southern Mansion, they’ll get married in the garden there, etc.”

In the end, though, people are people, and weddings are fraught with emotion no matter where they’re held. “You just have to be ready for anything,” Bob Steenrod said. “Once I was marrying a couple at the Montreal in front of 60 guests. The groom didn’t have the rings when I asked for them and he bolted out of the room to get them. I had to stand there for 10 minutes and keep the bride calm and 60 people entertained until he got back.” He said he once counseled a couple in his office when the bride-to be noticed a Rastafarian hat—complete with dreadlocks—on his hat rack. A Jamaican native, she asked Bob to wear the hat when he performed the ceremony. So what did he do? “I wore it, of course. The bride gets what she wants. Each wedding is special, because each person is special.”

Katlyn Mogavero, Director of Catering at The Grand, definitely agrees. “We had a bride in March 2013 who wanted a fairytale wedding. And she arrived at the ceremony on a ‘unicorn.’ It was a horse from Cape May Carriage Company with a horn attached, but she wanted a fairytale wedding, from her décor to her dress to her demeanor, and that’s what she had. “

For Krystina Kennedy, Event Coordinator at Congress Hall, that’s the name of the game. “I’ve been doing this for four years, and I always say ‘If I don’t cry at a father-daughter dance, it’s time to get out.’ The thing that makes it really memorable for me, though, is building a relationship with these couples, and having them return to Cape May to celebrate anniversaries and growing families.”

Bob Steenrod agrees. “I married a young couple recently, and their family was so taken with this town, I’ll be doing their parents vow renewal ceremony. People love a good wedding, and they love Cape May.”