Light glowed from behind stained glass. Bouquets of white flowers decked the room. As "The Wedding March" began, the bride and groom walked down the aisle.
It's a scene repeated hundreds of times a day, in every state of the Union. But this was at sea, aboard Princess Cruises' newly launched Grand Princess. Last June, Jon Riddle and Evelyn Choi of Burbank, Calif., exchanged vows as the ship's master performed the ceremony.
Although the Grand Princess is currently the only ship that hosts weddings when at sea (considered legal for Liberian-registered ships), most major cruise lines now offer packages that enable couples to get married aboard ship while the vessel is in port.
It's an opportunity many people are finding too good to pass up. "According to our research, the number of couples opting for weddings away from home doubled from about 2 percent in 1991 to 4.3 percent in 1995," reports Geri Bain, travel editor of Modern Bride magazine. "And cruising is extremely popular with our readers. If it were a destination, it would be the No. 1 honeymoon destination in the world. The lines make it very easy to get married on board."
Carnival Cruise Lines, which began offering wedding packages four years ago, has seen a steady increase in packages booked. The line reports that in 1995, 1,200 couples were married aboard Carnival ships. For 1998, the number is expected to be 2,000. Royal Caribbean International started its wedding program in June 1997. "In the beginning, we had about 30 weddings a month," reports spokesman Rich Steck. "Now we're seeing 110 a month."
The lure of floating nuptials is not too hard to explain.
"Couples are looking for something different, to make their wedding special," says Ms. Bain. "Also, most of today's couples have busy careers, and often they're paying for the wedding themselves. They're finding that weddings aboard ship can save them time and money."
Orchestrating a shoreside wedding can be a months-long ordeal. Arranging a shipboard wedding can be as simple as one phone call.
"It was fantastic," says Minna Lowry, an administrative assistant in Yonkers, N.Y. She and her husband got married aboard Celebrity Cruises' Zenith when it was docked in Manhattan last August. "The ceremony was in the Fleet bar, which was lovely. The service was beautiful. We had 30 guests; after the reception, they got off the ship, and we sailed to Bermuda for our honeymoon."
Helen Barraco got married aboard Holland America Line's Maasdam in Vancouver last May.
"The cruise line's wedding planners took care of everything," says Ms. Barraco, a volunteer for the Sheriff's Department in Golden, Colo. "They arranged for extra flowers when we asked them; they picked us up at the hotel, boarded us early, took care of our guests.... One of the ship's musicians played the piano, and my daughter sang. It was intimate and lovely."
According to Modern Bride, the average price of a formal wedding ashore is $19,095. Shipboard packages start at about $600, in addition to the cruise fare, and typically include a civil ceremony, the marriage license, photography, music, wedding cake, and flowers. Video services, catering, and even tuxedo rentals are usually available at additional charge.
"Our wedding was a fantastic bargain," Ms. Lowry says. "In a regular wedding, the cake alone can cost you $400. Our entire wedding package on the Zenith - including the reception, with delicious sandwiches, fabulous service, and a beautiful, heart-shaped wedding cake - cost $650. The wedding and honeymoon combined cost less than $5,000, and that included a week-long cruise to Bermuda."
Often, these weddings take place in the ship's home port, before the vessel sails. But other possibilities abound. Passengers on Royal Caribbean cruises that visit St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, can get married on the beach. And Holland America Line passengers cruising Alaska can hop in a helicopter in Juneau and get married atop the Herbert Glacier.
Saying "I do" in such an exotic location may not be for everyone.
"A lot of people still want the formality of an old-fashioned marriage in a church," says wedding consultant Kimberly Cashwell of Fantasy Weddings in Los Angeles. "Also, when you get married on a cruise ship, you have to use their on-staff catering; the couple doesn't have as many choices as they do in a traditional wedding."
But for couples like Jon and Evelyn Riddle, getting married at sea was the right choice."This was the first wedding in the chapel," said Mr. Riddle, after the ceremony aboard the Grand Princess. "So there was a lot of hoopla around it."
The new Mrs. Riddle, a fashion designer who hand-sewed the elegant dress she wore, mused, "We're here in the middle of the ocean. And we got married. It's very romantic."
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Marriages aboard ship are usually performed by a nondenominational minister or a civil officiant. The cruise line's wedding planners will advise you on the fees, licensing, and documentation necessary in the location where the ship will be. Foreign marriages are recognized in the US as long as you meet the requirements of the foreign government as well as those of your home state. Typically, there is a per-person charge for reception catering services, but no additional charge for guests boarding for the ceremony while in port. To arrange a shipboard wedding, contact your travel agent or cruise line. Some lines handle the arrangements in-house. Others employ the services of a wedding planner. Celebrity uses Davie, Fla.-based A Wedding for You; Holland America contracts with Vancouver-based Royal Pacific Occasions.