Aisle Less Travelled
Published in the San Francisco Bride magazine
YOUR WEDDING setting is like a stage to play
out one of life’s biggest dramas. What tone do you want
to set for the next chapter of your journey together? Silly
or serene, romantic or rowdy, innocent or imaginative?
The Bay Area offers options for couples of every persuasion.
From a Gothic chapel in a garden-style cemetery to a tiny
Tiki island floating off Fisherman’s Wharf, here are
some of the most fun, unusual, and picturesque venues around.
Best Place To Raise A Bottle of Rum:
San Francisco Maritime Park
An 1886 square rigger from Scotland, the Balclutha once sailed
the world delivering California wheat, Welsh coal and Alaskan
salmon. Now permanently docked at Hyde Street Pier, the 299-foot
cargo ship is a beautiful place to deliver your vows. After
touching up in the Balclutha's chart house, the bride can
join the groom for a poop-deck ceremony. It's quite a romantic
setting with the main mast soaring 145 feet overhead and the
lights of the boats, bridges and skyline glittering in the
The ship's bell marked the end of each four-hour watch but
you can use it to call your guests to dinner. The shelter
deck down below is suitable for dining and dancing‹make
sure your DJ has a sea chanty or two in his CD sleeves.
Cross the pier to board the Eureka, an antique steamboat ferry
also available for weddings. The Eureka carried people across
the bay before there were bridges; a fleet of antique cars
now occupies the automobile deck. You can set up tables between
rows of wooden passenger benches to seat up to 300 dinner
Cost: Rental of either ship is $1500 a night.
Capacity: 300 standing, 125 seated
Available: Evenings only.
Contact: Rachel Short, San Francisco Maritime
National Historical Park, (415) 561-6662; Building 35, Fort
Mason Center, San Francisco, CA 94147; www.maritime.org.
Best Place for a South Pacific
Wedding: Forbes Island
Nick and Bridget Brown work in the wedding industry -- Nick's
a photographer, Bridget is owner of San Francisco;s Bella
Bridesmaid boutique. Having seen it all, they wanted a truly
individual ceremony, so they eloped to Las Vegas, where "Elvis"
officiated. For the "real" wedding, the couple returned
to Forbes Island, a dinky, floating islet off Pier 39 in San
Francisco. "We wanted it to feel like a party, not a
traditional wedding," said Bridget. The motorized island
has all the trappings of a cheesy Tiki wedding: palm trees,
40-foot lighthouse, thatched Tahitian room on the sandy "beach,"
and a white picket fence to keep at bay the sea lions lounging
on the docks 75 feet away. The main attraction is an underwater
restaurant lined with portholes sometimes visited by fish.
Wedding planners from City Celebrations decked the island
with coral-colored ginger flowers and orchids, hurricane lanterns
and floated dahlias and candles in the man-made waterfall.
The couple added their own kitschy touches: palm-tree wedding
invitations, a coconut cupcake tower with paper umbrellas
and a sandbox seating card arrangement. The sandbox, a wicker
tray filled with sand-looking organic sugar, was covered with
paper umbrellas printed with the guests' names and table numbers.
The Browns' guests arrived on Forbes Island via a shuttle
boat driven by Thor Kiddoo, the former Coast Guard cook who
built the floating home in 1975 as his personal island paradise.
Sea lions barked in the background as the couple married on
the deck with a steel drum band playing the King's tune "Can't
Help Falling in Love with You."
Cost: About $60 per person.
Capacity: Up to 95
Contact: Pierre Bleuse, (415) 951-4900; Pier
39, San Francisco, CA 94113; www.forbesisland.com.
Best Place for the Vertically
Challenged: Children's Fairyland USA
Kids at heart can play out childhood wedding fantasies at
this 10-acre storybook theme park skirting Lake Merritt in
Oakland. "Your imagination is your only boundary here,"
says Theodore Dawson, Fairyland event coordinator. One bride
and groom, both previously married parents, wed in Fairyland's
tiny Chapel of Peace. In keeping with a Medieval theme, the
groom wore pantaloons; the bride donned the pointy cone hat
known as a henin and the preacher sported a monk's robe. Another
good-humored couple required guests to wear crazy hats. Yet
another Fairyland groom said his vows with an animal tail
sticking out from his tux tails.
Bring your guests in on the Lakeside Lark tram for an Oz ceremony
on the Emerald City Stage. Or have a Robinson Crusoe wedding
aboard the Pirate Ship, followed by a cocktail reception lit
by floating candles on the Toyland Boat Ride. For a larger
reception, bring a dance floor and tent into the grassy Teddy
Bear Picnic area. The park can supply everything from Fairyland-theme
guest books and wedding favors to catering and costuming,
bubble machines and puppeteers. Dawson can even arrange a
treasure hunt to encourage your guests to explore the park's
three dozen storybook sets. (Remember, many of the park's
rides are strictly reserved for little people, so unless you
and your guests are less four feet tall, the miniature horsies
on the Wonder-Go-Round just can't take your weight.)
The park doesn't have a Disneyland budget-- besides a spiffy
new entrance featuring Aladdin's magic carpet ride, the displays
haven't changed much since Fairyland first opened 51 years
ago -- but it's all part of its innocent charm.
Cost: Prices start around $1,000.
Contact: Theodore Dawson, (510) 452-2259;
1520 Lakeside Dr., Oakland, CA 94610; www.fairyland.org.
Best Place to Wed a Botanical
Scholar: St. Hilary's in the Wildflowers
Even fallen Catholics are welcome to wed in this deconsecrated
hilltop mission overlooking the old railroading town of Tiburon.
Built in 1888 by and for railroad workers, "Old St. Hil's"
is one of few surviving Carpenter Gothic churches. The simple
interior features redwood walls, wrought-iron chandeliers
and needlepoint cushions on the pews. A slender stained-glass
window depicts St. Hilary, patron saint of scholars. Nearly
150 species of native plants, including such rarities as Marin
dwarf flax and black jewel flower, bloom in the wildflower
preserve surrounding the church. To echo the garden, carry
a native wildflower bouquet and have your flower girl sprinkle
orange poppy petals down the aisle.
Though Old St. Hilary's isn't available for receptions, the
Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society also rents out nearby
China Cabin, a saloon salvaged from an 1886 sidewheeler. Now
anchored at Belvedere Cove, its Victorian drawing room brandishes
cut-glass floral windows, fluted walnut pilasters, and 22k
gold ornaments. These popular sites books up quickly, so make
arrangements far in advance, especially for a weekend wedding.
Cost: Old St. Hilary's and China Cabin rent
for $1,100 and $900, respectively; half of the fee is tax
Capacity: The church seats 125, the cabin,
Contact: Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society,
(415) 435-1853; P.O. Box 134, Tiburon, CA 94920; www.weblink.com/landmarks/landmark.html.
Best place to flaunt a vintage
bias-cut wedding gown: Bix
Hidden away on a historic Jackson Square alley,
this sumptuous supper club recalls the atmosphere of the Barbary
Coast's bygone speakeasies. Its perks as a wedding site include
valet parking, a live jazz and an entire downtown alleyway.
The street's antique shops and art galleries are generally
closed on weekends, and you can close off and red-carpet the
alley for an outdoor ceremony, as one couple did. Or make
the gold-railed staircase leading from the mezzanine your
aisle, and exchange vows by the bar at the bottom.
Your guests can sip Sidecars and Martinis served at Bix's
long mahogany bar. A painting stretched above the bar cleverly
mirrors the restaurant's revelries on a lively night. Owner
Doug (yes, vaguely related to the Jazz Age cornetist Bix)
Biederbeck will help you design the menu of your dreams from
the classic menu, which includes chicken hash, sweet-corn
custard, steak Tartare and Rex sole. Impress your guests with
the Tsar Nicoulai Russian caviar service, featuring the roe
of rare Beluga and Osetra sturgeon.
Cost: Rental rates begin at a high-rolling
Capacity: The restaurant1s plush banquettes
and tables seat up to 100 (150 for a standing reception).
Contact: Doug Biederbeck or Alistair Smith,
(415) 433-6300; 56 Gold Street, San Francisco, CA 94133; www.bixrestaurant.com.
Best place to marry a man in
uniform: The Presidio
San Francisco's fortress since 1776, the Presidio offers several
great wedding locales -- especially if you're marrying a man
in uniform. The Officers' Club, the city's second oldest building,
once housed Mexican and Spanish commanders. Have your ceremony
in the Arguello Room, serve cocktails in the De Anza Room,
seat your guests for dinner in the Moraga Room and cut the
cake in the cozy Garden Room, where a stained glass window
depicts the Spanish-era Presidio.
For a more rustic wedding, consider the Presidio's Log Cabin,
another old military haunt. A hardwood dance floor, tree-trunk
columns and a massive stone fireplace distinguish the spartan
interior. Another option on Presidio grounds is the Main Post
Chapel. A descendant of the Spanish mission churches, the
chapel features a tiled roof, three-story bell tower and stucco
exterior as well as an adjoining mural room and garden patio.
Kitchen and dining facilities in the Presidio are limited,
so be prepared to rent or bring your own tables and dishes.
Cost: The Officer's Club, $3500; Log Cabin,
$2500; Main Post Chapel, $750 weekdays, $1500 weekends
Capacity: Together, the three ballrooms of
The Officer1s Club accommodate 290 seated, 525 standing. The
Log Cabin seats 180, but you can seat up to 700 guests on
the lawn. Chapel seats 160 comfortably.
Contact: Christie Schantz, Presidio Trust,
(415) 561-5444; 201 Halleck St., P.O. Box 29052, SF 94129.
For the Main Post Chapel, contact the Interfaith Center at
the Presidio, (415) 561-3930; P.O. Box 29055, San Francisco,
Best place to marry a Cali native:
Oakland Museum of California
A showcase of the art, history and ecology of California,
Museum inspires creative weddings. While a brass band tooted
through the museum's breezeway and a flower girl passed out
political statements, brides Judy Appal and Alison Bernstein
married under a hoopah (a Jewish ritual canopy) in the Great
Court Gardens, an ample lawn shaded by cedars, oaks and redwoods.
When the weather soured, the reception party swiftly moved
into the museum's restaurant, where changing art exhibitions
reflect the museum environment.
The galleries also make fun spaces for theme weddings. One
couple wed inside a boxing ring set up as part of a pugilism
exhibit. Environmentalists might marry on the Natural History
floor, where the recorded sounds of crickets and owls provides
background music against a backdrop of dioramas filled with
bristlecone pines, birds and bears. Food and drink aren1t
allowed in the galleries, but you can easily move the reception
outdoors to one of four sculpture-dotted terraces, one of
which overlooks Lake Merritt.
Cost: A flat fee of $2,500 includes use
of the gardens, restaurant and patio terrace, but virtually
all of the museum's funky, flexible spaces are also available
Capacity: The gardens accommodate 600 seated,
Contact: Lacy Carter, (510) 238-2920; 1000
Oak St., Oakland, CA 94607; www.museumca.org.
Best place for a Goth wedding:
Mountain View Cemetery
Rent a hearse and pull up to the Mountain View Cemetery for
a wedding that would make Marilyn Manson proud. Designed by
Frederick Law Olmstead, father of Central Park, this 226-acre
garden-style cemetery has three chapels available for funerals
or weddings. You can't use the crypts as cocktail tables,
but any of the cemetery's open lawn areas are fine for receptions.
The Mausoleum Chapel gives new meaning to the words "Til
Death Do Us Part" (If this sounds creepy, remember that
marriage is just one stage in the life cycle.) A black tulle
veil and burgundy rose bouquet would look striking against
the chapel's Greek granite columns. Inside, the chapel mixes
classical and Art Deco motifs, its towering stone walls rising
to a floral-painted wooden ceiling. The chapel opens onto
halls lined with pewter and bronze urns; a window at the chapel's
head gazes onto the marble crypts and greenery of a memorial
atrium. One purple- and orange-haired couple married in the
Cemetery's Gothic chapel; the wedding scene in 1997 "Flubber"
was filmed in the Tower Chapel next door. Both feature a red-brick
American Gothic facade, antique English organs, muted stained
glass windows, and a surprisingly peaceful vibe.
Thread your way through a curvy maze of stone paths shaded
by oaks, maples, pines and palms to reach Millionaire's Row.
Here you can take photos amidst the stately mausoleums of
such wealthy retirees as railroad baron Charles Crocker and
chocolate king Domingo Ghirardelli. The avenue has a grand
view of San Francisco's cityscape. Cemetery staff can arrange
everything from organists to caterers.
Cost: Each chapel rents for $520.
Capacity: Up to 150 people.
Contact: Doreen Herbruger, (510) 658-2588;
5000 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, CA 94611.
Best place for a vodka toast:
Russian Center of San Francisco
Founded in 1939 to preserve Russia's cultural heritage, the
Center is like an heirloom gown embroidered with stories and
traditions. Its 550-seat Art Deco Grand Ballroom and Theater
features San Francisco1s only free-standing balcony, a large
stage, and a gilded ceiling complete with disco ball. Staff
can recommend gypsy bands, opera singers and other Russian
entertainers as well as caterers offering such delicacies
as pelmeni and vatrushka (Russian ravioli and cheesecake).
The Center can also arrange for a vodka tasting bar, with
walnut, red pepper, and cranberry-flavored spirits served
The venue's flexibility is another plus. You can rent out
a room or a whole floor, the events coordinator won't sweat
last-minute changes to your guest list and couples with an
extended family can put them to work cooking blini for the
reception in the Center's kitchen. You don't have to be Russian
to wed here: one Mexican couple found the ballroom the perfect
setting for a mariachi band.
Cost: Prices range from $1,900 to $2,700,
plus staff and setup costs.
Capacity: Up to 500 people
Contact: Natalie Sabelnik, (415) 921-7631;
2450 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94115; www.russiancentersf.com.
Best place to make your own
wedding dress: Collectively Explorative Learning Labs (CELLspace)
At last, a wedding venue for starving artists: CELLspace,
a community arts center in a skylit Potrero Hill warehouse.
Artistic duos can showcase their creations in the Crucible
Steel Gallery, or use CELL's tools and props to make the wedding
itself a work of art. Put your guests to work designing masks
and costumes in the sewing and crafts labs while you hammer
out pre-nuptial frustrations in the metal and wood shops.
Recruit friends to wield giant puppets or bang on African
drums as you dance down the aisle. Use the 20-foot movie screen
for a self-indulgent slide show or project wedding scenes
from "The Godfather" and "The Graduate."
Scott Beale, creator of LaughingSquid.com, and his bride,
Lori Dorn, put on a performance-wedding here which culminated
in a chase scene staged around the intrigue of a "stolen"
wedding ring. (The "hero" ended the drama by swooping
down from the rafters of the 30-foot ceiling to snatch it
back.) One CELLspace volunteer joined with his love in a ceremony
drawing from Celtic, Jewish, Pagan and storytelling traditions.
(This resourceful couple will work for food and did, exchanging
labor at nearby Cakeworks for a triangular banana bread wedding
cake served after a brunch of purple organic waffles (naturally
colored, with a mix of beets, carrots, ginger and blue corn).
A lawyer-for-the-arts and her partner, a Latina muralist,
staged a bi-lingual Mayan ceremony followed by dancing to
a salsa band; another couple turned the upstairs loft into
a healing arts tent and offered aromatherapy and massage to
their guests. Name your wedding fetish -- you can probably
experience it here.
Cost: Fees range from $500 to $2,000.
Capacity: About 350 standing, 110 seated.
Contact: Jenna Dahm, (415) 648-7562; 2050
Bryant Street, San Francisco, CA 94110; www.cellspace.org.
Best Honeymoon Spot "Out
of Africa": Safari West Wildlife Preserve
You can't get married at Safari West, but this 40-acre wildlife
preserve makes for an unforgettable rehearsal dinner or honeymoon
hideaway. Honeymooners staying in one of Safari West's secluded
tents will wake to the honks and howls of springbok, eland,
addax, wildebeest and the other exotic, endangered animals
that romp the preserve. No sleeping bags here -- expect hardwood
floors, custom-built furniture and a king-sized bed for the
post-nuptial rites. Or lodge your loved ones in the tent camp
and have an African-theme rehearsal dinner at the Savanna
Cafe. The cafe's Zulu chef prepares old family dishes as well
as Zambian and Zimbabwean specialties. Though most of the
wild critters keep to the oak-flecked hills, Delilah, an Indian
hornbill, roams the Savanna for table scraps. After dinner,
you can take a sunset jeep tour with Safari West's naturalists
and a bottle of wine. Rates vary, but dinner and lodging average
$250 per person. The cafe seats up to 200.
Contact: Aphrodite Caserta, (707) 579-2551; 3115 Porter Creek
Road, Santa Rosa, CA; www.safariwest.com.
Best Place to Bare your Love
Handles: North Baker Beach
Publicly display your love on Baker Beach,
the nation's most-visited clothing-optional urban beach. You
can seat 200 guests on the sand, though chairs tend to sink.
One couple provided their guests with flip-flops and a foot-washing
station. Be forewarned: parking is limited, no weekend weddings
are permitted between May and October, and your butt will
get cold. Special-use permit and $400 administrative fee required;
the permit doesn't prevent gawkers from crashing your ceremony.
Contact: Office of Special Park Uses, (415) 562-4300. Check
for information on this and other wedding sites within the
Golden Gate National Recreational Area, including a
Best Place to Reenact your Great-Great-Great
Grandparents' Wedding: Ardenwood Historic Farm
As one wedding planner put it, "If you
have any bone of country in you, Ardenwood is the place to
get married." For a Victorian garden-party wedding, make
your grand entrance onto the Gazebo Lawn in a horse and buggy.
Don't be surprised if a resident peacock escorts you down
the aisle. Afterwards, you and your guests can tour the Patterson
House, a 19th-century Victorian mansion. You can rent this
working historical farm for an evening affair or hold a quiet
ceremony during park hours. On Fridays and Sundays, docents
in period costume work and play the old-fashioned way, demonstrating
farm chores, crafts, cooking and games. Ardenwood also sells
organic vegetables just inside its gate. The Poolside Gardens
can accommodate up to 250 guests; the Gazebo Lawn, up to 700.
Weekend rental rates start at $875. Contact: Ardenwood Affairs,
(925) 426-3055; 34600 Ardenwood Blvd., Fremont, CA 94555;
www.ardenwoodaffairs.com. For information on the farm, go