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The 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 evening.

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 guests.

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;

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;

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.
Capacity: Flexible
Contact: Theodore Dawson, (510) 452-2259; 1520 Lakeside Dr., Oakland, CA 94610;

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 deductible.
Capacity: The church seats 125, the cabin, 55.
Contact: Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society, (415) 435-1853; P.O. Box 134, Tiburon, CA 94920;

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 $15,000
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;

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, CA 94129.

Best place to marry a Cali native: Oakland Museum of California
A showcase of the art, history and ecology of California, the Oakland
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 for rent.
Capacity: The gardens accommodate 600 seated, 2,000 standing.
Contact: Lacy Carter, (510) 238-2920; 1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA 94607;

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 Russian
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 ice-cold.

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;

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, 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;

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;

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 out for information on this and other wedding sites within the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, including a
downloadable permit.

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; For information on the farm, go to

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