Tips on hosting a great wedding at your cottage

Published: April 23, 2019

a-couple-having-their-wedding-by-the-lake-in-the-country Photo by Svetlana Iakusheva/Shutterstock

Bob Irvine and his wife Karen Smith, both in their late 60s and retired, live in Ottawa. Every year from mid-May to mid-October, Bob and Karen love to spend their days at their cottage on Lake Memphremagog in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. In this article, they explain the steps they took to host a super wedding for their son Stephen and his fiancée Katharine.

Our cottage has been in Karen’s family for over a hundred years. When we were both working, we tried to spend at least a month there every summer. Stephen, 30 and our only child, has loved the lake as much as us ever since he was little. When Stephen first brought Katharine to the lake, she fell in love with it too.

In October 2017, Stephen and Katharine— now living in Halifax—announced to us on a Skype call that they wanted to get married at the cottage in late August 2018. They also said that they would be inviting about sixty guests. Thus, began our journey leading to a super wedding ten months later. We worked on many fronts or “headings” as we called them. For each of them, we offer you some tips plus share with you our own experience.

Toilets

Key tips

Unless your cottage is the size of Casa Loma, keep your guests out of it. If they are inside your place, many will inevitably use your bathroom. This in turn will tax your septic system. The end-result may not be pretty.

Our experience

We learned the “keep your guests outside” rule from wedding planner extraordinaire Lynzie Kent (www.lovebylynzie.com). Lynzie was the featured guest at an information-packed seminar hosted by Cottage Life editor Michelle Kelly at the Ottawa Cottage Life and Backyard Show in April 2018. (We had five pages of great tips from Lynzie and Michelle by the end of their talk.)

On the Thursday morning before the wedding (when we still had time to deal with such things), a local toilet-rental company dropped off at our cottage the two deluxe Fleet VIP porta-potties that we had ordered. With a deluxe porta-potty, you get a toilet with a hands-free flushing mechanism, an overhead light, a mirror, and a wash-basin. With the deluxe model, you don’t get—crammed right next to the toilet—a urinal that’s literally a hit-and-miss affair for men and that women find revolting. The porta-potties proved invaluable over the entire weekend of the wedding.

Accommodation

Key tips

Find the hotels, B&Bs, Airbnbs, etc. that are the closest to your cottage. Explore with hotel managers if they will hold a block of rooms for you, which guests can then book. Ask the hotel what discount or promotion it will offer your guests (in exchange for all the business you’ve brought them). Book the requisite number of beds as soon as possible and then tell your guests their best options for accommodation. If you need to book rooms at more than one hotel, pick places that are close together. This will pay off when you are busing guests to and from your cottage. (See Transportation below.)

Ask the owners of nearby cottages if they might have spare beds on the weekend of the wedding. (After the wedding, give them wine and beer for their help at a crunch time.)

Our experience

Lake Memphremagog, which runs 51 kilometers from Magog, Quebec at its north end to Newport, Vermont at its south end, has been called “the Muskoka of Quebec.” Our cottage—south of Magog near the New England-style village of Georgeville—is best described as small and quaint. We only have two spare beds (plus two collapsible Ikea cots). So, the race was on from the get-go to put a hammer-lock on the requisite number of rooms.

Early on, Stephen sent guests a list of reasonably priced accommodations on the south side of Magog. He later did a canvass of guests’ travel plans. From this, Stephen prepared a spreadsheet that showed at a glance where guests were staying and who needed a lift to and from the wedding festivities.

Helping guests find your cottage

Key tips

Because you probably know the area better than they do, help the bride and groom prepare a map and clear directions on how to find your cottage. If they get this info out early, it will help their guests to narrow their options on accommodation.

Install signs that will lead guests all the way from the highway right to parking for the wedding at your cottage.

Our experience

Using Google Street View and the Windows Snipping Tool, I created easy-to-follow guides to help guests find their way from the four-lane autoroute north of Magog right to our gravel road. Stephen emailed the guides to all their guests, who loaded them on their iPads and other devices.

We had Staples make a set of large signs for us. Their signs looked better than anything we could do ourselves plus they were laminated, which made them rainproof.

The tent (plus tables, chairs, dishes, and cutlery)

Key tips

Book a tent as soon as possible. (Many tent suppliers offer guides on their websites on what size tent will best suit your needs.) View a tent as a key asset that will help you in all scenarios from blazing sun to a huge downpour. Look for a caterer who will offer you one-stop shopping on all your needs: food plus a tent, chairs, tables, tablecloths, dishes, and cutlery.

Arrange for the tent to be at your place from Thursday through Sunday (Monday if your wedding falls on a long weekend) because you will find it useful for other occasions beyond the wedding ceremony. The tent-supplier may not even charge you extra for set-up on Thursday because they are typically very busy on Fridays. Make sure that your tent has curtains on all sides that you can pull tight if the weather turns ugly.

Our experience

Our caterer ordered a tent for us that was 20 by 30 feet. It proved to be a perfect size for 60 guests to sit comfortably during the wedding ceremony. (We had eight rows of about eight chairs each plus an aisle in the middle for the bride and groom to make their entrance.) There was also room in the tent for two rectangular tables adorned with floral arrangements that greeted guests as they arrived. There was also space for a small round table and chairs, where the bride and groom could sign documents at the end of ceremony, as well as a small amplifier and mike. We set up a separate sheltered area where the caterer’s staff prepared canapes and beverages that they served right after the ceremony.

Our caterer was ecstatic that we had ordered all our supplies through him. (He told us horror stories of arriving with food fresh from his kitchen only to find no way to serve it to guests.) We had great weather for the wedding on the Saturday. On the Sunday, there was a brief cloud-burst just as guests were arriving for brunch. We closed one side of the tent where the wind off the lake was blowing rain into the tent.

Parking

Key tips

Ask your neighbours well in advance if guests can use in any spare parking spots they might have. Clearly mark with signs where people should park their vehicles. Early in your preparations, deal with any poison ivy or other hazards where guests might step out of their cars.

Our experience

The only access to our cottage—as you get close to it—is a narrow gravel road. I used a trimmer to clear out weeds on either side of the road near our place. My goal was to offer guests plenty of parking spots close to our cottage. However, I ended up taking on more than I bargained for: I discovered a big patch of poison ivy right where people would be stepping out of their cars. I also found strands of rusty barb wire in these roadside weeds. I learned that the barb wire was a remnant from almost a century ago when the cattle of a nearby farmer grazed behind our place. (Until I cleaned it all up, I had a recurring nightmare: guests get out of their car to check a flat tire, only to be rushed to the hospital for tetanus shots.)

We hired two teenaged brothers to guide people to our various parking spots. (We also hired their sister to greet guests as they arrived at the tent. She handed out the program for the wedding ceremony and pointed out where guests could get water or go to the bathroom.) Perhaps fearing that their beds would feel like the floor of a discotheque, our next-door neighbours announced that they would be staying in the city over the weekend of the wedding. This was a kind gesture on their part, which gave us oodles of extra parking spots close to our place.

I did one other thing on parking: just after Christmas, I swooped into a Canadian Tire store in Ottawa and bought up all their white lights. Before the wedding, I strung the lights up on trees and hedges around the cottage. It gave our place a festive air at night but also helped people get to their cars in the dark without stumbling.

Transportation 

Key tips

Consider the many advantages of laying on a bus to transport guests from their lodgings to your cottage or other venues and then back to their accommodations at night. The bus companies offer great rates in the summer when their drivers welcome the work. You just tell them where you want the bus driver to start their route, how many hours they will be working, and roughly how many kilometres they will have driven by the time they finish. Somebody forgot their camera at their hotel? Back they go in the bus to pick it up. A few people have had too much to drink as the fun is winding down? Offer them door-to-door service to their rooms and we’ll sort out the cars in the morning.

Our experience

Dennis—an affable, easy-going fellow—worked for us from 1 p.m. on Saturday to 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. We made sure Dennis had frequent breaks and we covered the cost of him having a great supper at a local restaurant during our reception and dinner.  Dennis drove a minibus, which seated 20 comfortably. (We had rejected the concept of a larger bus because of our narrow road.) Before the wedding, Dennis followed a minute-by-minute schedule to pick up guests from six different hotels and B&Bs and them to our cottage before the start of the ceremony. A friend of ours kindly accompanied him on this run. After the wedding, things became more relaxed. From then on, Dennis and his minibus were like a big taxi for anyone needing a lift.

Wedding ceremony 

Key tips

You need to choose one of two approaches on the elements of the actual wedding ceremony:

  • You can have the soon-to-be-weds handle a whole bunch of questions themselves: What forms and licenses need to be completed by what date? Will there be flowers and where will they be placed? Will they be wildflowers from roadsides or bouquets from florists? Who will be their officiant? What will they say in their vows? Will the ceremony include music or a poem?  How will the tent be decorated? Will there be corsages and boutonnieres for every member of the bridal party? If a program is being handed out, what should it say? What will the bride and groom wear? How should the bridesmaids, best man, and ushers be dressed?

Or,

  • You can seek to become intimately involved in any or all the above and then be viewed forevermore by the bride and groom as “The Hovering, Helicopter Parents from Hell.”

Ah, but here’s the rub for you, the cottage-owners and hosts. Because the wedding is being held at your place, you may need to wave a yellow caution flag at the love-birds in your life on the very first question: what forms—not for the province where they live, but where the wedding will take place—need to be completed by what date?

Our experience

Because their wedding was taking place in Quebec, Stephen and Katharine needed to fill out and submit some online forms to the Quebec government three months before the wedding. The consequences of missing this three-month deadline were serious—the marriage ceremony at our cottage would not be recognized by the Quebec government. Luckily Karen flagged the deadline to Stephen and Katharine three days in advance and they sprang into action.

Food

Key tips

As hosts of the wedding, you need to start quickly to scope out the food that will be served at one or more of the following and nail down who will provide it: a Friday rehearsal dinner, the wedding (e.g. canapes after the ceremony), and a reception and dinner on Saturday night. Yes, your future in-laws may offer to pitch in, but only you know the lay of the land and what’s feasible. But here’s the kicker for you, the owners of the cottage on which everyone is converging. Again, it’s a valuable tip from Lynzie: you basically need to have food on hand at your place (or be able to get it quickly) from Thursday through Sunday night (or Monday if it’s a long weekend).

Our experience

We laid on a rehearsal dinner for 35 at a beloved diner in Georgeville. Roland, a great caterer based in Magog, made canapes to accompany a toast to the bride and groom after the marriage ceremony at the cottage. Roland and his team also put on a lovely dinner for 60—capped by a three-tier chocolate-raspberry wedding cake—at the community hall in Georgeville.

Here’s how we handled the “need-to-have-food-available-all-the-time” challenge: in Fitch Bay, another little village near our cottage, a lovely couple our age—Yves and Caroline—have a gourmet takeout business loved by all us locals. A few weeks before the wedding, we asked them to prepare for us a big batch of a flavourful beef stew we enjoy—“Boeuf à flamand.” At our request, Yves and Caroline put the stew in small packets, each serving two people. We typically learned in the morning how many people we would be serving at our cottage that night and immediately defrosted the requisite number of packets of stew. No meals were planned for our guests on the Sunday, but Karen had an inkling that many people would soon be arriving. That challenge was solved by us dashing to a sausage-maker in Fitch Bay. (Quebeckers are such great cooks!)

Location of the post-wedding dinner and dance 

Key tips

Think long and hard before you choose to host a dinner and dance at your place. You will need multiple outlets for hot-plates and food-warmers. You will need to rent a sound-system and install a dance floor. You will need to figure out with the caterer how to keep a lot of food cool and other food hot.

Our experience

We briefly considered it but then veered away from hosting the big Saturday-night dinner and dance at our cottage. The ah-ha moment for us was when we realized that we would be working hard to replicate what was ready and waiting for us at the community hall in Georgeville.

Wine, beer, and spirits 

Key tips

Before you buy booze, clarify the return policy of the place where you’re getting it. (Quebec has big “depot stores” where you can buy wine, beer, and hard stuff in cases. However, the stores will only reimburse you for full cases that you return. This stands in contrast to Ontario, where the LCBO allows returns on individual bottles.) Keep any receipts for the booze you buy. Check the date by which you need to return the stuff.

Carefully read the fine print in your application for a special-occasion permit from your provincial liquor board. (For example, there are different rules and fees if you have a bartender who is paid.)

Pick a couple reds and a couple whites that you know will be crowd-pleasers and put them out on people’s tables to help themselves as dinner gets underway. Keep the beer cool in the fridge until people ask for one.

Have someone tend the bar especially toward the close of festivities. The big goal of this person is to avoid a bottle of a nice wine being opened when there is already one on the go.  

Our experience

We showcased the “terroir” of the Eastern Townships by toasting the bride and groom with a local cider, which was a big hit. The sausage-maker offered us a great selection of beer but stated clearly that he would not take back any beer on return. We thought about it for a moment and realized that “returning beer for refund” in Quebec is probably the ultimate oxymoron in that fun-loving province.

Conclusion 

It was Karen’s great idea to group all the tasks that needed to be done for the wedding under the above headings. It made the whole planning process more manageable and less overwhelming. It also helped ensure that we didn’t forget some important detail. We did not use a wedding planner but remain eternally grateful to Lynzie and Michelle for all the great tips they gave us. After everyone left, Karen and I reflected: we hosted a terrific destination wedding and the destination was our cottage!

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