Thursday, October 10, 2013

Planning a wedding in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Hello regular readers! A few weeks ago I promised all kinds of wedding stories and I haven't delivered yet. We received sample photos from our wonderful photographer, which were so good I decided I wanted to wait for the whole set before hitting Publish. Because, you know, you only get to write about your wedding once.

Except if you get to write about it on Grey Likes Weddings too (pinch me.). Pop over to see how I wrote my own secular civil wedding ceremony (including the transcript of our ceremony).

Hello new readers! You might be reading this because you typed "Halifax wedding" into Google and ended up here. Thanks for stopping by! My name is Jess. I'm a Canadian living in Malta (a tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean). My husband and I are high school sweethearts from Halifax, Canada where we were married this past August. I normally use this space to blog about travel and life abroad, but I am lucky to be part of an incredibly supportive online community that compels me to write about life - whether it includes travel and life abroad or not. For the past year my Halifax wedding was a big part of my life, and I learned a lot while planning it. But, sadly, not from the Internet. That's why I'm sharing my experiences here, in the hopes that I can help some East-Coast Canadian brides through the process.

Halifax is, to put it nicely, limited in its wedding options. But my husband and I were determined to have a wedding that felt right to us, even if it seemed like it hadn't been done in Halifax before. And here's what happened.

We had a pop-up wedding ceremony on Citadel Hill, followed by beer at the Victory Arms Pub, and dinner at The Bicycle Thief. Then, several days later, we had our wedding party for 100 people at St. Mary's Boat Club.

THE CEREMONY VENUE

We were married on Citadel Hill (it's an old British fort) - the site of our first date, and where my husband proposed to me - under the lone tree that stands on the Garrison Grounds, across from the CBC Radio building.

In Halifax you can easily get married in municipal parks around the city (you have to get a permit, it's not hard or expensive) but Citadel Hill is a federal site and there aren't any rules or processes for having weddings on the hill (rather than inside it, which you can do). We made the (risky) decision to have our wedding there anyway, with no permits, after phoning Citadel Hill and being told that there were no rules for or against this sort of thing. (I do not recommend this if you can't handle the anxiety of your ceremony being potentially halted by a security guard. And do make a contingency plan or two!)


We were only able to pull off this non-traditional ceremony site because our ceremony was tiny - 16 people attended - and was done pop-up style (this was all my husband's idea). We arrived 15 minutes before the ceremony, quickly set up chairs, balloons, and a little portable iPhone speaker, our ceremony took less than 25 minutes, and then we disassembled everything. Our ceremony 'site' existed for about an hour - not long enough to get too much attention. And it was perfect.

So hey! It is possible to get creative about your ceremony site in Halifax.

Not sure what alternative ceremony locations in Halifax might be? Try tackling it like you're planning a business event - look at beautiful office spaces, the stunning lobby of your favourite building, the ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth (hey, I don't think there's anything to say you can't!), art galleries, micro breweries, the boardwalk. Whatever space around town makes you happy. You never know until you ask!

THE MEALS

After our ceremony we sent our guests off to the Victory Arms Pub at the Lord Nelson for beer while we ducked off to have our photos taken. I can't speak highly enough of the VA. I think I ate there every other day during the time we were in Halifax to get married. Their staff were the sweetest, and it's by far the most comfortable, quiet, and dare I say luxurious pub in Halifax. Perfect for a large group, which they were happy to accommodate (we booked ahead).

We had our wedding dinner at The Bicycle Thief because Mike and I love Italian - we eat the stuff every day in Malta - and The Bicycle Thief does the most creative, authentic Italian with a view in Halifax. If you've ever been to this restaurant you know the best seats in the house are in the front room, with a sweeping view of the harbour. But, even though we booked months ahead, the Bicycle Thief wouldn't accommodate our request to seat our 20 person party in the front room. We were seated in the back room, which to be fair is nicer than it looks, next to a big book shelf and fireplace. In the end, the back room was a wise choice as the alcohol flowed and the noise level of our table rose in proportion. But we were still slightly disappointed the restaurant didn't do more to accommodate our request. But the food - oh the food. Perfect. As always.

THE PARTY VENUE

We viewed several potential party venues in Halifax, including the Lord Nelson, Pier 21, the Halifax Seaport Farmer's Market, and St. Mary's Boat Club. All of these venues were suitable for a wedding reception of 100-150 guests, and each had pros and cons.

The Lord Nelson and Pier 21 offered the advantage of 'extras' - a little extra staff, equipment, perks, etc. - but came at a premium price, and would have forced us to use specific catering companies. We also felt more like numbers than people at those venues.

The Halifax Seaport Farmer's Market staff were quite unorganized, the venue was overpriced for what services it offered (super basic tables and chairs, and no extras for $1,700 for a night + security costs), and we got the feeling not many weddings had taken place there so there was no pre-established wedding 'system' at the venue that we felt comfortable with.

st. mary's boat club, halifax

We ended up choosing St. Mary's Boat Club after it was recommended by a fantastic local photographer (more about him later) for its basic bare bones, stunning location, and super-affordable price tag ($700 when we rented it from 10 am to 12 am - 14 hours). When the photographer said 'every couple I've ever shot there loved it' we were sold (we were pretty sure he wasn't getting a commission or anything ;) We were also able to bring in our own food and bar, and the municipal staff at the Boat Club were lovely to work with.

When some old men showed up to go fishing off the dock during our wedding party and kayakers paddled by as the sun set over the Arm, we looked at each other and knew we had chosen the right site.

FOOD

We briefly considered using catering services in Halifax, but we live in the Mediterranean, and to be blunt, food in Halifax pales in comparison to what we're used to. So we ended up making everything ourselves, with a bunch of help from our moms. We just couldn't justify paying a caterer a premium price for so-so food. For a decent meal the cheapest catering quote we could get was $50 + tax, tip and alcohol. Ouch. But, to be fair, we did talk to Local Source catering in Halifax for awhile about catering and they were by far the best company to deal with - super accommodating, awesome menu and ingredients, and fair prices. And they allow you to bring in and serve your own alcohol - which most caterers and venues in Halifax don't do.

On the topic of alcohol, we purchased most of ours from NSLC but I wish I had gone to Harvest Wines instead. We ended up there looking for prosecco for our speeches, and were blown away by their selection and super reasonable (in many cases, better than NSLC) prices. The service was also incredible. And, just like at NSLC, keep your receipts because you can return all unopened alcohol to the NSLC/Harvest Wines for a full refund. That's why we purchased beer in cases of bottles, rather than kegs, and only opened our wine bottles as we needed them.

We purchased most of our food between Superstore, Sobeys, Costco, and Pete's Frootique. We got all of our speciality cured meats and European cheeses from Pete's. We served a BBQ of beef, chicken, and lamb slider burgers. Since it can be hard to track down lamb in Halifax we pre-ordered our meat from Pete's Bedford location ahead of time. The butcher at Pete's was also willing to make the mince meat into slider patties for us (for a small fee) but they can't add extra ingredients to the meat, so we had them make plain beef sliders, and we dressed up the lamb and chicken sliders ourselves.


Because we self-catered we had to by or source all our own dishes. Since we live overseas, we were only in Halifax for a few weeks to get married, and we don't get to see our families very often, we wanted the whole thing to be as stress free as possible for everyone involved. We also refused to pay MacFarlands - or any other rental company in Halifax - $0.50 to rent a fork. So we purchased (awesome, glittery) disposable dishes for 100 people for about $350 from an online American catering supply company (Posh Party Supplies - they don't ship to Canada so we had a kind American friend forward our packages on for us).

If you are DIY-ing your catering, I highly recommend looking for disposable dishes from catering supply companies rather than party supply companies - they're much cheaper. At the end of the night we were able to speed up our tear-down process by simply throwing everything out. We accidentally threw out Mike's iPhone too, but that's another story. And I lessened my guilt about being so wasteful by being very strict with myself on all of the other decorations - which were mostly made of biodegradable and recyclable paper.

SERVERS

On the theme of making our wedding party as relaxed and fun as possible, we did hire help for the evening. Many DIY weddings are 'staffed' by family members and friends but we felt uncomfortable with asking our loved ones to 'work' our wedding for us. We hired two servers from Metro Hospitality Services for the night (cost of about $500) and they were worth every penny. They helped us set up, replenished food and bar stocks, BBQ'ed our food, served drinks, and helped us tear down. They were fabulous, and made the evening so much more enjoyable for everyone. I can't recommend them highly enough.



TIPS ABOUT ST. MARY'S BOAT CLUB/DECORATING YOUR OWN WEDDING
  • If you rent the venue for a full day and night you can access it from 10 am to midnight. 
  • It has white Chiavari chairs for 200 people. They are beautiful.
  • It has two types of tables - rounds (5 feet) and rectangles (3 sizes - 5, 6 and 8 feet by 2.5 feet). The tables are basic wooden and plastic folding tables, so you'll want to cover them with something.
  • You can store extra chairs in the basement, but it's quite labour intensive, so we just stacked them in a corner. 
  • You can store extra tables outside on the wraparound deck. 
  • The lighting inside is adjustable (on dimmers) and is warm and glowy (not the blue fluorescent kind)
  • The Boat Club has a fully functioning kitchen with an oven, deep freezer, and stainless steel two-door catering fridge (similar to the kind that supermarkets keep flowers in). We were also able to bring in our own BBQ to use, which we just bike-locked to the railing outside overnight. 
  • You are responsible for complete tear down at this venue (which is why we hired help). Guests have to be out by midnight, and tear down has to be done by 1 am (so you have an hour). You have to return all the chairs and tables to their original spots, and empty all of the recylcing and garbage and put it in the dumpster at the back of the building. All of your decorations and food have to be taken out of the venue, except any rented items which you can leave there overnight. Rented items have to be collected the next morning between 9:30 am and 10:00 am. 
  • I was most anxious about hanging stuff at this venue. It's a big, white open space with great light, but it's very bare. You aren't allowed to use tape (except painter's tape) or tacks or anything to hang decorations. You can use:
    • Command hooks (the white plastic kind that come off the wall without leaving a mark)
    • Ropes, strings, fishing line
    • Painter's tape
  • With that in mind, here are my tips for decorating the space:
    • Streamers! It was a lot of fun to throw streamers up and through the rafters of the space, and super easy to pull them down at the end of the night. If you buy a ton of streamers in bulk (cheaper) it would create a very cool canopy above this space.
    • Balloons! Like streamers: big impact, little cost. If you use helium balloons, note that there are ceiling fans in the vaulted area of the space that they can get stuck in. We used helium balloons but corralled them in the sections of the space that had a lower ceiling. We got our helium in Halifax from Glow Parties (24 hour tank rental).
    • Colourful disposable table cloths! I couldn't bring myself to rent linens (too expensive and too much of a pain in the butt). Our metallic disposable tablecloths had a big impact in this space for very little money. We literally could have put the table cloths on the tables and nothing else and it would have looked great.
    • Let the scenery be the decorations! We opened the doors and windows wide and encouraged our guests to mingle on the big, beautiful terrace outside by placing tables outside and a life-size Jenga game (which was a total hit!) At sunset it was breathtaking how incredibly beautiful that place was. Note that you can't use St. Mary's chairs outside, so we used our own (they were leftovers from our ceremony, $10 folding metal chairs from Walmart that we spray painted gold).
    • Get help! It's a much bigger space than you think it is. With 12 helpers we were able to decorate and set up the space, and our food and bar, in 4 hours. I attribute this to being super, super organized (I had architectural mock ups of the rooms, people) and putting my husband in charge of being the Communications Manager that day. Everyone was to go to him with questions, and he knew the full big-picture plan for the day, so I could do what I do best - decorate quickly. And if you don't want your family and friends to hate you, I suggest breaking up the tasks to be done into 1 to 2 hour chunks and assigning them to each helper (and consider their personal strengths before you do this!) so they can get in, do their job, and have the rest of the day to get ready or relax. 

PHOTOGRAPHER

The Halifax wedding photographer scene seems to be on-par with the rest of Canada and the US - plenty of photographers to chose from in every price range, and most of them incredibly talented. We did our research, and met two photographers in Halifax - Layton Reid and Evan McMaster - and loved both of them. We hired Evan McMaster in the end, who was incredible and who I can't recommend highly enough. We actually felt that Evan was undercharging for his services, which included an engagement shoot, wedding services, and a photo booth. We replaced our engagement shoot with our ceremony day, so Evan was able to shoot the whole multi-day event for us.

candid of evan in action. that's my mum and sister.

Evan was a wonderful, calming presence on our ceremony day. He was friendly, personable, and kind. He laughed with us, and never questioned our requests or non-traditional wedding plans. He was like a photographer ninja, too - we rarely noticed him shooting anything on our wedding ceremony or party days. His discretion was amazing, since I had been worried I would feel uncomfortable about being followed around by a photographer all day. He had wonderful creative ideas for shooting us post-ceremony, happily snapped formal photos of our families, and made everything quick and painless. I can't wait to share his images in this space. And he shoots in digital and film formats, so you get the instant gratification of seeing a few polaroids on the day of!

JUSTICE OF THE PEACE

To hire a Justice of the Peace in Halifax you simply email them about their availability. JOP fees are regulated by the province (including tip, I think we paid $200).

We hired Rhonda Lemire as our Justice of the Peace and were happily surprised at how rad (not a word I use lightly!) she was. She wore a great outfit, smiled a lot, joked with us, and delivered a poignant and lovely speech during our ceremony. She was also there via email to answer all of our questions and help us write our own ceremony before the big day. She was also able to provide us with sample ceremonies, and didn't mind when we chopped them up and reassembled them, either.

candid of rhonda and mike
Your JOP is not only your officiant, but takes care of submitting all of the official paperwork to Vital Statistics NS for you. At the end of your ceremony you'll get a 'souvenir' marriage certificate. To get a real, legal marriage certificate, you have to apply to Vital Statistics and pay a small fee.

OTHER VENDORS

We self-DJ'ed, commissioned our mothers and grandmothers to make dessert for our wedding party, there wasn't a single flower at our wedding, we did our own videography, walked to our ceremony site, drove ourselves to our wedding party, my sister did my hair and make up, and I did my own nails, so unfortunately we had no experience with other types of wedding vendors in Halifax.

And hey, we're proof that you can pull off a wedding without hiring them, anyway.

QUESTIONS?

You can reach me via Twitter or email!

HALIFAX BRIDE/GROOM?

Leave your tips for other brides and grooms in the comments below!

4 comments :

  1. I seriously love that you and Mike made everything about this wedding so you. Amazing that you were creative enough to be able to marry where Mike proposed and I like that you kept it small and intimate and then had the ceremony later. Although Jurg and I will definitely not be getting married in Halifax, I'm bookmarking this for the host of other tips and ideas included. I cannot wait to see the professional photos! :) xxx

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    1. Aw, thanks! We never really set out to make it "us" (we just wanted it to be painless, really) it just sort of happened that way. A happy accident!

      I was worried readers without a local context wouldn't find this to be a useful article, but I'm glad you have :)

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  2. Incredible post Jess! I have to say, reading this gives me hope that you can have an incredibly beautiful, personalized wedding without spending a fortune, and doing it yourself. I love all the details on your wedding, it is inspiring.

    Also, big kudos on your blog in general. I stumbled upon this back before the rebrand, and I look forward to all your new posts. My family is from Gozo, and I am currently living in NYC. I return every summer to Gozo, and reading all your posts on the Maltese islands makes me so happy and nostalgic. You've done a stunning job capturing the essence and beauty of our small country. I love your blog.

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  3. I can't wait to see the rest of your photos! What a lovely location you picked!!!

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