THE GANG'S ALL HERE More couples turning wedding day into weekend get-together at accommodating inns and hotels

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last winter, Wanda Skiba spent most of her weekends traveling to and from the Inn at Perry Cabin, an elegant English country house hotel in St. Michaels where she was masterminding her wedding.

In between frequent work-week jaunts to Buenos Aires and Mexico City, Ms. Skiba, an investment banker whose family lives in Owings Mills, found the gentle waterfront setting of St. Michaels to be relaxing and luxurious -- just the type of place she might choose for a weekend getaway. In fact, that's just the effect she was looking to create for her once-in-a-lifetime wedding, one that was as much about providing a venue for friends and family to reunite as it was about celebrating matrimony.

Ms. Skiba, who had to plan most of the wedding on her own fiance Todd Bonner, an investment banker based in Hong Kong, flew in only a few days before the event), chose the Inn at Perry Cabin from a travel guide rather than a bridal guide.

She liked the idea of a weekend retreat, highlighted by a marriage ceremony, for a couple of reasons. First, she admits, it appealed to her because the concept bucks tradition.

"In some ways, there are so many rituals you are supposed to keep and people are always saying, 'You have to do it because it's expected,' but it's my wedding," she says.

And for her guests, who were traveling from as far as the Orient and Antigua, as well as from all over Maryland, a weekend retreat offered an opportunity for them to spend some time together in a comfortable setting.

Ms. Skiba and Mr. Bonner are among the growing number of couples planning destination weddings, which Modern Bride defines as "getting married away from home." Last year, the magazine conducted a survey of readers to determine new trends and revealed that destination weddings, which represent percent of the approximately 1.5 million U.S. ceremonies annually, are on the rise.

"Families and friends have become so geographically scattered these days that people are going to have to stay somewhere anyway," says Geri Bain, travel editor of Modern Bride. "If everybody's going to fly in for your wedding, you want to do more than just see them for the typical four-hour reception."

Another reason for the increasing popularity of destination weddings is that couples are marrying later. In 1994, the average bride was 26 and the groom was 27. They've possibly attended college out of state and have long since moved out of their hometown. In addition, Ms. Bain points out, "Getting married away from your home turf takes you away from problems that might arise over different religions, unpleasant divorce situations and family battles."

One other charm is that the concept of a weekend retreat offers a solution to a common conundrum. It's one of life's ironies that a wedding is often the only opportunity for the bridal couple to gather friends and family together in one place. Unfortunately, it's also the one day they're so tied up with chores and responsibilities that there's little quality time to visit.

The typical weekend wedding often starts off on Friday evening with a rehearsal dinner or some other planned get-together, moves into Saturday with brunches and sightseeing expeditions well as the wedding itself), and wraps up on Sunday with a final reunion event.

These weddings, where ideally entire groups stay together in the same inn or hotel (though sometimes people are scattered in different establishments in a particular locale), often are a cross between a marriage ceremony and a slumber party. Because family and friends are on hand not just for the traditional rite of passage and the reception that follows, but also for two or three days of togetherness, it's a time of renewing friendships and developing new bonds -- sort of like prom night, graduation and a family reunion all rolled up into one weekend.

Weekend weddings can be based at any type of lodging facility -- from resorts and convention hotels to private homes and luxury lodges -- but for many couples, historic inns offer a special appeal. The Inn at Perry Cabin, where Ms. Skiba and Mr. Bonner were married in April, is one of a number of establishments in the mid-Atlantic region where wedding weekends are thriving. Others include Antrim 1844, in Taneytown; Keswick Hall, in Charlottesville, Va., and the Kent Manor Inn, in Stevensville.

When it comes to accommodating weddings, these inns offer the efficiency of a hotel and the intimacy of a grand home -- that is, if home is a 19th-century antebellum mansion (Antrim 1844), a grand Italianate villa (Keswick Hall) or a 100-year-old English country house (the Inn at Perry Cabin).

At these inns there is no typical wedding. Bridal couples can choose from a mixture of options that surround the key weekend events, from rehearsal dinner to wedding to reception.

These inns are large enough to offer a variety of locations within their perimeters -- at the Inn at Perry Cabin, for example, the expansive lawn that leads down to the Miles River is one favorite site for festivities; others include the sprawling back patio, the elegant, formal dining room and the cozy, intimate drawing room.

Charm aside, it's important to select a location that can encourage togetherness by not only providing guest rooms but also accommodating the ceremony, handling catering chores for the rehearsal dinner and the reception, and even offering ancillary events, such as a post-reception party or Sunday brunch.

At the same time, most locations are not entirely full-service, and couples are usually required to make their own arrangements for hairstyling, makeup, entertainment and photography. Often, though, innkeepers are good for making personal recommendations.

But for all the idyllic charm found in historic inns and the novelty of spending a weekend away with your closest friends and family (not to mention the added appeal of a marriage ceremony), destination weddings still pose numerous challenges.

First, selecting a wedding site requires the bridal couple to consider more than just a romantic gazebo for a ceremony or a ballroom with enough space to dance. Does the inn or hotel have enough sleeping rooms for all the guests who want to stay over? If not, are there other lodging facilities nearby? Because the cost of the wedding does not usually include guest-room rentals, it's important to consider whether guests, particularly the wedding party and close family members, can afford this idyllic weekend.

Wanda Skiba found this out the hard way. "Cost can certainly be a factor," she says, noting that the average room at the Inn at Perry Cabin costs $331.34 a night -- a fee that drove some of the wedding party to a less luxurious motel down the street.

In many cases it's not just cost that's a factor. A number of inns, for a Saturday wedding, require the bridal party to take all rooms -- making the property totally private and ruling out the chance of disrupting other paying guests.

At the 14-room Antrim 1844, co-owner Dorothy Mollett says, "Initially, people are concerned that they won't have enough guests to fill the rooms. Ultimately, though, they find more people want to stay than there are rooms."

Larger inns can present a bigger problem. When Wanda Skiba realized she would not be able to take all 41 rooms at the Inn at Perry Cabin, she moved her wedding to Sunday, a day in which there was no room requirement. In this case, Ms. Skiba shifted the dates of the entire wedding weekend so that it began on Saturday and ended on Monday.

A weekend-wedding getaway also puts the bridal couple in the enviable -- or unenviable -- role of playing travel agent and entertainment maestro, an added pressure during a time filled already with much responsibility.

Juggling room assignments is a major chore, as is planning off-site activities for one's guests.

Innkeepers can help make recommendations regarding the latter, whether it's a trip to the Gettysburg battlefields that are close to Antrim 1844, a quick ride to Jefferson's Monticello estate from Keswick Hall, or Eastern Shore antiquing near the Inn at Perry Cabin.

For the most part, though, many weekend wedding guests are happy simply to lounge pool-side (or bay-side or riverside or garden-side), making new acquaintances and renewing old ones. Because even with the extra opportunity to socialize that a weekend provides, it's still not always enough. "The one lament I have," says Ann Andrews, whose daughter Sally married Pat Moore at Antrim 1844 last April, "is that I wish I'd been triplets so I could have gone around and talked to everybody."

Wanda Skiba had the opposite reaction. Tired after a Friday-night pub-hopping excursion with her fiance and close friends, she felt herself getting "annoyed and overwhelmed" on Saturday, particularly when 60 people showed up at the ceremony rehearsal that afternoon. "They all just happened to be in town and didn't have anything to do," she says ruefully.

Still, by Monday morning, having survived -- and even enjoyed -- the ceremony and the reception, she was feeling a bit more relaxed and a lot more sociable. "I always thought your first day of being married, you stayed in your room all day long," she says. Instead, she and her husband decided to forgo romance and squeeze the last bit of sociality out of the weekend by breakfasting with one group of friends and lunching with another.

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