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May 30, 2013

Peaks Island says 'I do' to weddings

Booming industry balances benefits, congestion

by Laurie Schreiber

PEAKS ISLAND – A gala atmosphere prevails here during the wedding season as the island has become, over the last several years, a popular choice for the growing "destination wedding" trend.

Last year, the wedding season—which runs spring to fall—saw at least 75 weddings on this small island. The five top spots for ceremonies and receptions are The Inn on Peaks, Jones Landing, Greenwood Garden, Fifth Maine Regiment Museum and Trefethen-Evergreen Improvement Association. Weddings also are held at private homes.

Depending on the location, vendors that include caterers, florists and photographers make the journey to the island. Local businesses also profit from ancillary wedding activities, such as rehearsal dinners and overnight guests looking for breakfast the next morning.

Peaks Island, part of Portland, is three miles from the city. With its lovely water vistas, protected lands and easy access via a short ferry ride running often through the day, it's no surprise the island makes for an attractive venue.

Then again, the year-round population of 1,100 already swells to nearly 4,000, plus day-trippers, each summer. These days, the addition of frequent, large wedding parties may pose congestion issues and perhaps some disruption to a quiet atmosphere.

At the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum, executive director Kim MacIsaac said that until recently, the only weddings on Peaks were those of residents or people who had longstanding ties to the island.

That's changed.

"Over the past several years, Peaks has become a wedding destination locale – a reflection of the greater trend to have destination weddings at exotic or unusual locales," MacIsaac said.


Jayson Mathieu, events manager for The Inn on Peaks, recalled that on one day in 2012, the island had six weddings simultaneously. From the beginning of May to the end of October, the inn alone had 47 weddings.

"I feel like the wedding industry is something that is still thriving, even with this economy," said Mathieu.

The destination wedding, said Bangor-based wedding planner Amber Small, enriches the celebration with a unique experience and takes pressure off bride and groom as hosts; they can enjoy their own party and let venue and vendors handle services.

"It creates almost like a summer camp feel, all sharing the same experience, and it's really fun," said Small.

Weddings on Maine islands, Small said, have a "quaint" feel. At the same time, islanders are accustomed to tourism and understand the experience sought by non-Mainers.

The state Office of Tourism and many chambers of commerce promote Maine for destination weddings, which are "a huge market," Small said. An average Mainer's wedding costs up to $20,000, whereas an average destination wedding in Maine costs as much as $60,000, or up to $100,000 for a luxury package.


On Peaks Island, any and all outlets are responsible for promotion.

"Out-of-state newspapers like the New York Times seem to run a lot of stories about Peaks, my New York friends tell me," MacIsaac said. "Word-of-mouth plays a part, too. I've had wedding people tell me that someone told them Peaks is a nice place to visit, so they've come for the day, liked it and later on decided to get married there."

Some people, said Mathieu, have connections to the island. Others select it from afar, plan via email and phone, and finally view the venue when they arrive. Some come from as far as the West Coast; many are from the Boston and New York areas.

At one point, a local magazine generated some buzz, said Mathieu: "The place is gorgeous, so we have people photograph their wedding and, next thing you know, they're in a publication. You can't beat the scenery. The way we're situated, the sun sets right on the water. So we have these amazing sunset shots with the bride and the groom, and it's become iconic for us."

According to Chip Corson, weddings and other events are a great opportunity for Maine islands.

Corson, who lives on Chebeague Island (and graduated from the Island Institute's Island Sustainability through Leadership and Entrepreneurship, or ISLE initiative), is opening an events and catering business.

Chebeague—an hour's ferry ride from Portland—used to be a popular spot for weddings, events and tourist activities, Corson said: "We’re trying to bring that back – and bring back the economy and keep working families on the island."

Employment is key to retaining year-round island populations, he said.

"From May to October, we have to make our money. The rest of the time it's, 'What am I getting by on?' Everybody on an island does five different jobs. Most of the working families work at many things just to stay on the island, so the more employment we create, the more potential there is for people to form businesses and provide services," he said.

"There’s a lot of opportunity, and people my age"—Corson is 30—"need to jump on those opportunities if we want to live on the island."

MacIsaac echoed that view.

"The money wedding people spend helps the local economy—important since island businesses rely on summer income to keep them afloat over the winter," she said.

The industry may actually be helping to diversify islands' aging demographics. Said Mathieu, "A lot of people come out here and fall in love with the place. They're looking at the real estate."

MacIsaac said it's difficult to put a number on the industry's economic benefits, but certainly weddings boost business. For example, "All of the venues make money from rental fees—this varies from venue to venue. The golf cart rental man rents golf carts to wedding people. The only grocery store gets business. Many wedding people rent cottages for a week or long weekend, so that helps property-owners.  The Peaks Island Tours business does see an increase in customers," she said.

It's not that businesses aren’t busy anyway during the summer.

The Peaks Café, run by Lisa Lynch, is a popular eatery, particularly because it opens for breakfast early in the morning. But she also caters three to six weddings each year, provides breakfast pastries to the inn, and does a lot of breakfast catering on Saturday and Sunday mornings for overnight wedding guests, as well as rehearsal dinners.

"I love when I get four or five good-size weddings to cater per year. That's a good number," Lynch said. "And certainly I've seen increase an increase in catering over the past 12 years. It's been good for business."


The industry does provide challenges—readily acknowledged by host venues.

"Absolutely!" said MacIsaac. "Most of the weddings tend to include large numbers of guests and happen at the same time. This results in way too many people trying to get on the same ferry at the same time. This is in addition to the island-resident and normal day-tripper ferry traffic. I know of a couple of instances where wedding guests couldn't get on the ferry (too many people) and missed the ceremony."

Also, she said, some wedding people charter full-size buses or the trolley to transport guests around the island.

"They block the roads and have a lot of trouble negotiating our narrow, winding dirt roads. No one is happy about that," she said.

"There are more logistics in an island wedding," Small said. Transportation and accommodation—for large parties staying two or three nights, and for mainland service-providers—can both be tricky. For the most part, though, Small said she finds that coastal and island Mainers seem to feel the industry helps to sustain their communities, and are willing to put up with a certain amount of "annoying drivers and people wearing socks with sandals."

Lynch agreed. For the most part, she said, residents are able to enjoy their yards and "off the beaten path" spots known only to locals.

"A lot of us have 'secret gardens' and areas we can get together," she said. "It's more like, we know where to go."

There's a comic side, too, she said.

"We're pretty amused by what we see coming and going, women coming off the boat in stiletto heels. Are they going to make it down the hill?"






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