Guide: Planning a cottage wedding

Tips from cottage-country experts on how to make your special day as smooth as possible

By Steve BreartonSteve Brearton


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You’ve decided to take the plunge and get married at the cottage. You know it’s not going to be easy, what with bugs, summer storms, and porta-potty rentals. So to help smooth your walk down the, um, aisle, we offer the hard-earned wisdom of cottage-country caterers, photographers, wedding planners, ministers, and those who’ve already tied the knot by the lake. Just remember, you’re not getting hitched at the Ritz for a reason. Embrace the place.

Planning the ceremony

Unlike most occasions when you invite friends and family to your country getaway, you probably won’t have everyone staying with you during your wedding. But it’s still up to the bride and groom to help organize accommodation.


Hosts can simplify the options by reserving a block of rooms at nearby hotels or lodges — making certain there is a range of price and style — and letting guests know about it when invitations are sent out. You can often negotiate a group discount — typically about 10 per cent off standard rates. But be sure to remind invitees to reserve in advance: Summer bookings at most popular accommodations must be made at least two months ahead.

Of course, if you advise guests on where to stay, inspect the lodgings beforehand. At one recent cottage wedding near Bala, Ont., family friends — a judge and a lawyer — arrived at their recommended hotel only to be met by a filthy lobby, the lingering smell of grease from the snack bar, and bikers swigging beer at pool tables. They were glad to find beds at a modest but well-kept motel nearby.

Rent a cottage

For groups, renting a cottage is also a possibility. Be warned, however, rental stays are almost always a minimum of one week and typically run Saturday to Saturday with check-in mid-afternoon (not exactly convenient for a Saturday afternoon wedding).

Some rental agencies, like Haliburton’s All-Seasons Cottage Rentals, offer a few cottages with stays beginning on a Friday. All-Seasons’ Janice Bishop reminds people that no cottage owner wants to turn their rental into a flophouse, and eight guests are the max for a standard three-bedroom cottage. She recommends booking by January.

Borrow a cottage

If you are really lucky, you may be able to take advantage of a neighbour’s generosity. When Kim Kane and Ken Melhuish were planning their September 1999 wedding on Upper Rideau Lake, they quickly realized there weren’t enough local lodgings to accommodate their guest list.

Mother of the bride Louise Kane says that once neighbours learned of their situation, they offered the use of five nearby cottages. “Some of them were just acquaintances at the time,” Kane notes, “but we definitely got to know them better.”


Tenting, either on location or at a campground, is the most affordable option. If campers are staying on-site, make sure they understand the complications and hazards of cottage life beforehand.

You might even provide tenters with “survival kits” that include bug spray, sun hat, sunscreen, and flashlight pulled together in a metal fire bucket or waterproof sack. Even then, not everyone will come prepared, so have some extra blankets, water, and (for the real rookies) pillows on hand.


The cynic who noted the Old English word for travel also meant torment was surely a cottager. The distance from urban centres that makes cottage weddings so enchanting is also a major complication. By road or water, you’re responsible for ensuring provisions, rentals, and guests arrive and depart as smoothly and safely as possible.


For people arriving by car, adequate parking can pose its own problems. Occasionally, cottagers will have to use a distant lot and hire someone to shuttle guests to and from the cottage. But even if you don’t have to do this because you and your neighbours can scrape together the necessary number of spots, don’t forget those with mobility problems (or just inappropriate footwear). Golf carts can be rented for as little as $45 per day and can be dropped off for an additional fee. Sean Beane, owner of Central Cart Services based in Windermere, Ont., says people mostly use them to move guests and heavy objects. But he’s even seen a golf cart used as a carriage for the bride. Drivers must be at least 18 years old. Some hosts will also assign designated parking attendants to jockey cars or direct people to spots.


For guests not comfortable driving on unfamiliar, unlit roads after dark, or for those who indulged in a few too many toasts, it’s wise to provide some sort of shuttle service to get them back to their lodgings at the end of the night.

Yellow school buses are a popular alternative and can accommodate 48 adults. Rates are based on time and distance travelled and, according to Haliburton-based First Student Canada (formerly Laidlaw Transit), fees can be as low as $200 for the day with a driver.


Island and water-access cottages pose special problems, but local marinas are often able to help. Tonia Blenkarn, co-owner of Desmasdon’s Boat Works in Pointe au Baril, Ont., will assist in coordinating all aspects of transportation — from renting boats and barging supplies out to the island, to arranging water taxis for guests. (Desmasdon’s will even decorate their workboat for the occasion.)

But all marinas should be consulted well in advance — especially since weddings typically coincide with their busiest summer weekends. And if you need to ferry a lot of supplies to an island, remember, depending on the cargo, a 20-minute boat ride may take 90 minutes. Also, some commercial vessels require special insurance policies for driving at night, so make sure your marina can also pick up guests who need to leave after dark.

Those with water-only access who’ve invited guests from nearby cottages might also consider renting a barge as a floating dock to park extra boats. As with cars, think about designating a person to shuttle boats to available dock spots.

The grounds

Few hosts go to the lengths of the family that re-landscaped and levelled their hilly property (complete with retaining walls) to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in order to accommodate a bloated guest list. But the ability of your property to cope with the demands of a wedding is definitely an important consideration.


Although most septic systems can handle a lot of use on an occasional basis, both septic and party-planning experts suggest the use of portable toilets for convenience and reducing line-ups outside your indoor bathrooms.

“Health authorities recommend two porta-potties for every 100 people,” says Mike Shepherd, of Shepherd Environmental Services in Coboconk, Ont., whose firm rents units throughout Haliburton and the Kawarthas. “But no matter how many guests people have, they usually just rent two.”


The good news is portable toilets are now available in more colours than construction-site blue, and with many more features. Prim white portables, in fact, have become standard fare at almost all rental locations (a “natural” dark green is also available). They come with lights, mirrors, and sinks for handwashing, and you can always stock them yourself with special toiletries like hand cream, bug spray, and biodegradable soaps. Check the Yellow Pages for local resources.

Some companies, such as Toronto-based It’s My Potty, also rent elite units that come in a trailer with two self-contained bathrooms, flushing toilets, ceramic urinals, and warm water. They are priced at around $1,600 a day (plus $1 per kilometre each way).


Electricity is another factor that can limit or enhance your options — for everything from the kind of food you serve to lighting. Henry Blanchard, a Port Carling, Ont.-based electrician, says that 30 amps of electrical service is adequate for a modest cottage wedding, although he has been asked to install permanent outdoor outlets in order to reduce the number of extension cords snaking around a property. If you have a couple of free breakers in your electrical panel, you’re in business.


For situations where you need electricity away from the cottage outlets, a local electrician or equipment rental company can use an adaptor from your existing system to run heavy cables where power is needed. If you are planning to bring in large appliances such as refrigerators or convection ovens, you may need to upgrade your system or rent a generator. (But don’t underestimate how much energy small appliances can draw; even coffee urns pull a lot of power.)

You can also lessen some of the demands on your electrical system with creative solutions such as lighting paths using battery- or solar-powered outdoor lights.


If you draw your water from a well or filter lake water, test it close to the event to ensure it isn’t contaminated. If adequate potable water isn’t at hand, you need to have plenty available on-site. Sandra Morandin, of Morandin Catering in Bracebridge, Ont., says that for a 100-person wedding you should bring in about eight large office-cooler-size bottles, which is roughly 1.5 thirst-quenching litres per person.

Props & rentals

The serene beauty and get-away-from-it-all feel at cottage weddings is a world apart from the complicated preparations required for a major event in the near wilderness. Simply put: Be prepared.


Cori Bullock of Kingston-based Hand in Hand Bridal Services and a veteran of cottage weddings, recommends hosts visualize the event from set-up to tear-down and think about tools or necessary hardware they’ll require — things like extension cords to power a PA system or wire to attach directional signs to trees or poles.

Flowers & plants

A cottage setting provides a naturally beautiful backdrop, but if you decide to bring in cultivated flowers, remember that wind and rain can be an issue; fragile-petalled plants such as tulips will blow apart, leaving little more than bare green stalks and a dusting of pollen.

Also bear in mind that if you’re asking a friend or relative to bring bouquets or other flowers up from the city, pre-made arrangements take up roughly five times the space as ordinary loose flowers.

Many cottagers choose to pick wildflowers from around their property. Anne Neave, of Campbell’s Flowers, Gifts and Garden Centre in Minden, Ont., suggests picking them 24 to 48 hours before the event to allow time for water to make its way up the stems so they won’t wilt as quickly.

Another popular option is to use potted plants for the tabletop or around the property. You may even be able to drop off your planters in the winter at the local garden centre, and have the staff seed and grow the geraniums or impatiens so they’re ready the day of the ceremony.


Inclement weather could make dinner and dancing on the deck something of a disaster, so a rented tent with platform is likely essential.

The problem is, tents require a flat, open area, which is frequently lacking at the lake. The story of one family who allegedly blasted a granite out-crop with explosives to increase usable space has entered the lore of cottage-country wedding planners. For the rest of us, tents come in many different sizes and configurations, and it may surprise you what a small patch of land can accommodate. Some companies will even forgo the traditional site visit to determine whether an area is appropriate for a tent and rely on images from photographs. Any tent over 600 sq. ft. generally requires a structural permit from the local municipality (about $50).


Only the rare cottage can muster the resources to pull off a wedding without resorting to rentals for items such as cutlery, tables, and chairs.


Cottage-area rental companies carry all of the basics, but if you are looking for extras, you’ll have to go to specialty firms in urban areas.

Toronto’s Chair-man Mills, for instance, provides anything you can imagine — from faux-marble dance floors to kosher Royal Doulton china — and, for a price, they’re willing to travel.


Margie Cook of Chair-man Mills recommends arranging for rental deliveries to arrive at least one day before the function to allow for alternative arrangements for missing or damaged items.


If there are barriers to a large truck reaching your property, Cook adds, inform the company in advance so they can bring ramps that will allow them to go the distance using dollies or hand carts.

Trucks typically require a three-to-four-metre clearance and it’s not unusual to have to cut tree branches. (If it’s a shared road, check with neighbours first so you don’t alter the tree that’s marked their property line for the past century.)


Remember to store any rentals in a sheltered area: Customers pay for breakage, loss, and damage. Clients often have the option of paying a damage waiver beforehand amounting to eight per cent of the rentals.

Food & neighbours

Let your location set the tone when it comes to food. You can use a caterer for the whole thing, or mix it up with food you and your friends and family have prepared in advance combined with some special touches a caterer can provide.


If you do go the caterer route, they will generally bring what they need to prepare and serve the meal — from warming pans to convection ovens — and can often avoid your kitchen altogether.

Setting the mood

Keely Schierl, of The Butcher’s Daughters in Huntsville, believes the best cottage wedding meals are ones that reflect the relaxed mood of the cottage, and suggests approaching the meal as if it’s a dinner party.

Salads with beans, bulgur, or couscous can be bought locally or prepared a day in advance, and may even improve overnight. Salmon can be baked the day before and served with a salsa or chutney. For meat lovers, ribs are excellent pre-roasted and reheated on a barbecue; or serve a salad with chicken or beef as a light entrée.

Schierl recommends that fancy, time-consuming appetizers are a good item to pick up from a caterer and then simply warm in an oven. “People have weddings at cottages because they are special places,” she says, and suggests that choosing food associated with specific cottage locales helps convey the spot’s uniqueness. “I was at a wedding where they served pies from a local place in Gravenhurst. It was perfect.”


In Ontario, serving liquor at a cottage does not require a license. The sale of alcohol at a residence, however, is illegal and anyone ignoring the prohibition could face criminal bootlegging charges.


Don’t forget to have lots of ice on hand for drinks; if no refrigeration is available for beer, wine, and water, a bag of ice per person is about right. You can store it in the shade in coolers or large plastic tubs available at hardware or home stores.

The neighbours

Cottagers are easygoing folk, but don’t push your luck by surprising your neighbours with cars parked on a shared road or a party blasting tunes all night long.


Wedding planner Cori Bullock suggests speaking with nearby residents even before invitations are mailed, to inform them of plans and find solutions to any concerns.

Invite the neighbours

As a courtesy, caterer Sandra Morandin recommends inviting them to the party, if only for after-dinner dancing. “You may end up having to impose on these people for parking or use of a dock,” she says. “Inviting them is the least you can do.”


The good news is you’re not having your wedding at just another banquet hall. The bad news is you’re likely to be faced with bugs and the threat of foul weather. So, while every bride and groom dreams of a sunny, perfect day, you’ll need to plan for other possibilities.

Be Prepared

Have a tent — for intense sun and summer storms — as well as having blankets, sweaters, or jackets on hand for cool nights.

Plan ahead

For those who think they can control the weather? Hedge your bets and take a peek at Environment Canada’s website where they issue forecasts one year in advance.


Every cottager, of course, has tricks for coping with those annoying party crashers, bugs, but scheduling may be your best insect repellent. Haliburton-based photographer Russ Duhaime, for one, is quick to point out the perils of holding your event during black-fly season. Duhaime remembers one spring ceremony he shot where “the bugs were so bad we had to keep members of the wedding party in a van during the photos. To reduce their exposure to the black flies, we rotated them through.”


Finally, let’s get serious. Many of the elements that make cottage weddings fun and different — rustic buildings, docks, boats, and rugged terrain — also create hazards, so hosts should weigh whether their insurance policies provide enough liability coverage should any unfortunate incident occur.


Anne Carswell at Darling Insurance Realty in Bobcaygeon, Ont., recommends purchasing special-event liability insurance, and says cottagers need only call their broker with details about the event (such as the number attending and who is responsible for a liquor permit, if required) to find out if extra insurance is needed.

Drinking and driving (or boating) is a particular concern and hosts should consider whether additional transportation is needed for those celebrating into the wee hours.

Calgary-based PAL Insurance Brokers provides specific alcohol-related insurance for events. Party alcohol liability insurance provides $1 million in coverage for injury and property damage related “directly or indirectly [to] the consumption of alcoholic beverages.” Coverage starts an hour before the event and extends up to 24 hours. Each summer, PAL issues hundreds of wedding policies across the country and a typical fee for both additional general coverage and alcohol-related liability insurance is $250.

Parting gifts

It‘s always difficult to come up with that unique parting gift for guests who’ve travelled from far and wide for your special celebration – and, in the case of the cottage wedding, endured black flies and weekend traffic. But when you stick with the lakeside theme, it’s hard to go wrong. Here are some we’ve heard of:

Flashlights embossed with the newlyweds’ names and date of the ceremony.

Maple syrup or blueberry jam made at the cottage.

Christmas ornaments in the shape of Muskoka chairs or loons.

Boat floats printed with the name and details of the wedding.

Truffles or other treats from the local sweet shop presented in a small paper bag stencilled with a pine tree.

Fun tips

Want your multi-tiered, edible-flower-bedecked wedding cake to be displayed outside, but worried the confection might become a fly magnet? One cottaging couple came up with this fun solution: They suspended a mosquito net from the ceiling of the tent and draped it over the cake like a veil.

At one Stony Lake wedding, the bride and bridesmaids prepped for the ceremony right on the dock. After a morning swim, they emerged from the water and were met by a stylist and makeup artist who did their magic en plein air — including putting the girls under an old-fashioned hair dryer hooked up to a portable generator.

Leave the confetti at home and salute the happy couple with bubbly (cooled in an old galvanized tub, of course) or bubbles (even the grandmother of the bride will love ’em). If fireworks better express the mood, be sure to check with the local municipal office or fire department to see if a special permit is required in your area.

There are as many ways to use cottage elements as there are pebbles on the shore. Dig out those old sap or fire buckets as novel containers for everything from flowers to wine. One couple used small flat stones as place markers, painted with guests’ names and table numbers.

Percentage of total wedding costs consumed by rentals of standard tables, chairs, place settings, and linens: 25%, plus delivery. Shore lunch, anyone?

Don’t mince words on the invites when it comes to proper cottage footwear.


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