Cottage wedding: Good idea or no?

A bride and groom standing on a deck overlooking a lake By trofalenaRV/Shutterstock

Q: “My fiancé is a non-cottager but he thinks it would be a great idea to hold our wedding at my family cottage. Is this a good move?”

A: At first blush, the concept of a cottage wedding does seem appealing, and it would be tough to find a more beautiful backdrop for your ceremony. Certainly the relaxed cottage atmosphere lends itself to a less formal event, which is what most couples want when they opt for lakeside nuptials. Never mind the stuffy accoutrements of the traditional wedding, they say, our celebration day will be hip, fresh, and full of quirky creativity, from painted stones as place cards to citronella tiki torches. This is the cottage, after all, so it will be simple skirts or summery dresses for the ladies in the wedding party and snappy board shorts for the fellas. Everyone in attendance will be encouraged to wear colourful flip-flops. And to really set the easy-breezy tone, dinner will be simple: just burgers on the grill and some beautiful salads. There will be self-serve beer and wine on ice in a canoe, and speeches will be super short. After wedding photos—the entire bridal party holding hands and jumping off the swim rock—Skuyler will play his six-string at the big bonfire. What could be more fun?

According to no less an authority than Vizzini in The Princess Bride, there are a number of classic blunders, and getting involved in a land war in Asia is just one of them. Another, he might have added before dying from iocane powder poisoning, is to stage a marriage ceremony at your family cottage. Both actions seem like good ideas to begin with, then prove more difficult than imagined. And, fraught with unseen perils and booby traps, both the war and the wedding usually end badly. I know this to be true because for a number of years I worked as part of a catering team in cottage country, and at almost half the weddings we did, the bride was in tears of despair at some point, usually due to weather events, unrealistic expectations, and poor planning. 

Wedding creep—that inevitable expansion in size, complexity, and expense usually caused by meddling interlopers—is unstoppable. For a normal wedding, it is easily solved with some phone calls and a steamer trunk full of cash. But for a cottage wedding, creep represents certain disaster. First, the intimate guest list doubles in size, and burgers and salad becomes a four-course catered meal. Then paper plates turn into rented dinnerware, skirts to gowns, and flip-flops to heels. It happens all the time, especially to people who say that it will never happen to them.

With the possible exception of those enormous 14-bedroom carbuncles you find on our less desirable lakes, there is no worse venue for a wedding than a cottage. As a non-cottager your fiancé is oblivious to this because he knows nothing and imagines your big day will shake out like a super-fun long weekend with a bunch of friends. But he is dead wrong, and you need to show him the error of his ways. Start by pointing to the toilet in the cottage’s only bathroom and asking him where things go when it flushes. He will not know. But your parents and grandparents know, because they have babied and caressed that vulnerable septic system for decades with single-ply paper, strict rules of usage, and SeptoBac. Cottage weddings require porta-potties, and lots of them. And to cut down on the hepatitis, some way for guests to wash their hands. They also require tents, and lots of them, for the dinner and the dancing and the DJ (sorry, Skuyler) and the caterers and the now full-service bar.

It is a universal truth that when couples map out their perfect cottage wedding they unfailingly fail to plan for uncontrollable weather events. They might acknowledge the potential for rain, but they don’t actually make preparations for its inevitable appearance. Only when the temperature drops 10 degrees and the heavens open up do they realize that the tents have been set up at the bottom of a hill. It also becomes apparent that some sort of duckboard pathway would have kept guests from sinking ankle deep in mud going to and from the porta-potties, which have no lighting inside, which is a problem after nightfall. Take it from me: bad things can happen in a pitch-dark porta-potty.

So here’s how your perfect cottage wedding could turn out. Having eaten cold food, the wet and muddy guests will huddle under one good tent, wearing hoodies and windbreakers over their fancy clothes, driven together like they’re part of a kettling manoeuvre by riot police. Most of the guests will be grumpy because they cannot leave the property until the shuttle bus arrives at midnight to whisk them off to their room at a resort on a different lake. Meanwhile, your parents, allowing only immediate family to shelter inside the cottage and to use the sacred indoor toilet, have locked the doors and are peering out anxiously at the rain-soaked mob.

While that might be a worst-case scenario, it is one I have witnessed first hand. But if you are still contemplating getting married by the lake, consider this unpleasant truth: most people resent having to go to cottage weddings because they always consume an entire weekend, which the bride and groom seem to see as an added bonus for guests. Which it isn’t. For many, your wedding represents the loss of a precious summer weekend that could have been better spent elsewhere. It also means two long drives in cottage-country traffic and an expensive night or two at some country resort they won’t have time to enjoy because they will be at your place under a tent. 

My advice? Do your family a favour, and save the cottage for cottaging. If you must get married in cottage land, get hitched at a full-service resort. Better yet, do the deed in the town where you live, and do it in November. Book an Italian banquet hall for the reception. Generous portions of good food, served hot. Flaming sambuca shooters. The chicken dance. What could be more fun?

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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