By BROOKE LEA FOSTER
As Amy Jones and her fiancé, Rich, exchanged handwritten vows overlooking their favorite surfing beach in Playa Avellana in Costa Rica, a family of monkeys ran by.
After the couple sealed their union with a kiss, Mr. Jones challenged his new wife to jump in the ocean, fully clothed, which inspired Ms. Jones to try surfing in her crochet wedding dress. Soaked, the newlyweds returned to their hotel room to change and stripped to their underwear. On impulse, they slow-danced to their favorite song, “I Found You” by Alabama Shakes.
No one missed them at the reception; they didn’t have one. The couple had eloped, and it was the happiest experience of their lives.
“The best parts of any wedding are the ones you can’t plan — I tell all my brides that,” said Ms. Jones, 34, who has organized hundreds of weddings as owner of Amy Champagne Events, which has offices in Milford, Conn., Manhattan and Philadelphia.
She said it wasn’t so odd for a wedding planner to elope. She’s had too many brides call her in tears over seating arrangements or guest lists to take on that kind of stress for her own exchange of vows. “I wanted the wedding to only be about us,” she said.
Gone are the days when elopement almost always meant only that spontaneous trip to City Hall. Many of today’s couples are planning their elopements more closely than ever, some plotting secret ceremonies several months in advance and spending $15,000 or more for their dream weddings — without a hundred of their closest family and friends.
They search for stunning exotic backdrops for their ceremonies, shop in secret for the perfect dress, hire florists to arrange a Pinterest-worthy bouquet, hire photographers, even order specialty cakes. But in lieu of the invitations, friends learn about the wedding afterward in a cheeky Facebook or Instagram post, a photo announcing, “We Eloped.”
Statistics are hard to come by concerning how many couples are forgoing the big wedding to elope. But in the last few years, interest in eloping has created a cottage industry of photographers in romantic locales like Paris, New York and Hawaii that specializes in photographing eloping couples.
In 2014, Jennifer MacFarlane, a wedding photographer in Bushwick, Brooklyn, founded a company called Eloping Is Fun with her husband, Matt Levy, who also runs a tour guide company. For $2,100 for a three-hour wedding, Ms. MacFarlane scouts the perfect location and shoots the photographs the day of the wedding. Her husband interviews the couple so he has enough anecdotes to write a highly personalized ceremony, and then he officiates. Their first year, they married 20 couples. Last year, they wed 60.
“When you’re planning a wedding, the pressure from families can be overwhelming,” said Ms. MacFarlane, whose planned elopements have included one at Grand Central Terminal, the steps of the New York Public Library and a sandy beach in Brooklyn.
“Our couples want something more laid-back, and there’s this very punk-rock feeling about being married like this in New York City.”
When her husband wed a couple on the Brooklyn Bridge, a crowd gathered, erupting into cheers when the groom kissed the bride.
Of course, there’s a downside to eloping. Family members are often stung when they get the news — parents’ dreams of seeing their son at the altar or their daughter walking down the aisle crushed, since they’ll never share with their child one of life’s greatest traditional rites of passage.
Aja Koenig, who works in advertising sales for Playbuzz, found that her mother was not pleased after sharing the news that she and her fiancé, Chris Koenig, a 32-year-old digital media director for IBM, were going to marry in California wine country rather than have a traditional ceremony.
Anticipating her mother’s feelings, Ms. Koenig was quick to sweeten her disappointment with news of a party to celebrate their marriage in Alabama, where her mother lives, the next spring.
Ms. Koenig said that while both she and her husband are close to their families, they were sold on the advantages of eloping. They wanted to splurge on their honeymoon, leaving California after the elopement to vacation in Hawaii for two weeks.
Koreena Singh, 32, a catering sales manager and certified wedding planner for JW Marriott Parq Vancouver Hotel in British Columbia, was in the thick of organizing a traditional wedding with her husband, Mark Johnson, a 34-year-old working in international trade, when they had a change of heart.
They had set a date and booked a loft space in Vancouver for 100 guests, and she had put down a deposit on a big poufy ballroom gown. But the more they planned, the more the couple bickered, about things like whether they should sit at a sweetheart table.
“And we never typically fight,” she said. Scrolling through photos of other couples’ weddings on social media only added to the stress. What if her flowers weren’t as beautiful? What if the food wasn’t that great? “I started to ignore all of the advice I’d given other brides, which was to take a breath and think about what was important,” Ms. Singh said.
After some soul-searching, she and her fiancé agreed that what mattered most was a beautiful ceremony, not a reception. She was also a little shy and dreaded standing up before so many people to say her vows. They canceled the loft space, forfeiting part of their deposit; Ms. Singh canceled her poufy dress.
Instead, they reserved a date at Haiku Mill, an old sugar plantation on the Hawaiian island of Maui; they rented the entire gardened space for the day to ensure that no other couples would be on the property. In the months leading up to their nuptials, she worked with a designer to create her dream dress, and Mr. Johnson had a suit custom-made. She bought special jewelry, without showing family and friends, and scheduled to have her hair and makeup done on the island. “You may be eloping, but you still want everything to be beautiful,” she said.
They kept their plans private from friends and family, pretending to be vacationing when they took off for Maui in March 2015. Minutes before she was to walk down the aisle, Ms. Singh was alone with her photographer in an old cane house on the Haiku Mill property, her feet in Valentino heels, when she felt the same panicky feeling nearly every bride experiences before she marries. The photographer offered her reassurance. “I suddenly understood the power of bridesmaids,” she joked. It was the only time she wondered if eloping had been the right idea.
Still, Ms. Singh would not have done it any differently. She and Mr. Johnson both cried during their vows, captured by a videographer so they could share the moment later with their parents. It was 10 a.m., but they popped a bottle of Champagne anyway and ate slices of chocolate cake with espresso buttercream.
The total cost of the elopement, travel and event space costs included, was $15,000, far less than what many couples spend on conventional weddings.
Keren Buynak, 33, who works in freelance marketing in Parkland, Fla., and her husband, Ryan Buynak, 34, a creative strategist at a design firm there, knew they would elope in Montreal soon after they were engaged.
“It was a fun secret we kept together,” she said. The couple visited Montreal to request a wedding date a year before they planned to marry. Once their wedding date was set for Oct. 19, 2016, they began planning. Ms. Buynak, who was living in Manhattan at the time, found her dress, a $100 Lauren Ralph Lauren long-sleeved white sheath at the 59th Street Bloomingdales; her husband selected a gray suit from H&M. They booked a photographer. But a few months before the ceremony, she started to fret about not telling her family and closest friends, so she sat them down. “It was hard, and they understood,” she said, “but they wanted to be involved somehow.”
To include them, Ms. Buynak asked her friends and family to write her notes to read aloud on her wedding day. While she and her fiancé waited in line at the Montreal Courthouse, she opened a little blue pouch, her “something blue,” where the notes were stored. Her father sent his love on the back of his business card: “Even if I don’t walk with you down this aisle, I will forever walk with you through the aisle of your life and forever hold your hand. I love you.”
The bride’s “something borrowed” was her mother’s beaded clutch, and inside, Ms. Buynak found a small vial of her mother’s favorite perfume, so she could smell like her when she wed. “I’m always with you,” her mother wrote.
“It felt like they were there with me, even if they weren’t physically there,” Ms. Buynak said. “It was almost like they were giving toasts.” Total cost: About $2,000, including their train tickets and hotel stay.
Kim Myers-Black, a photo retoucher at Urban Studios, and her husband, Chris Black, a graphic designer, who live in Brooklyn, had set a September 2016 date at a wedding chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., putting down a significant deposit. But as planning evolved, even picking a bridesmaid dress that would please all her friends proved challenging. So Ms. Myers-Black, 30, and Mr. Black did what they had originally wanted to do. In August 2016, they boarded a red-eye to Reykjavik, Iceland, to elope. (Her parents understood; they had married at City Hall themselves.)
Eloping in Iceland meant the couple could marry in one of their favorite locales and yet, compared with a regular wedding, save money for, say, a down payment on a house. The total cost of the international elopement was less than $10,000.
Proof that an elopement need not be elaborate to be memorable, Ms. Myers-Black picked flowers on the morning of her ceremony to make her own bouquet and flower crown. For the ceremony, they drove three hours to a cliff overlooking two waterfalls, the bride and groom exchanging vows with their hands tied together in a knot to symbolize their union — an old Scottish tradition. Afterward, with the photographer in tow, they hopped out of the car to snap pictures on a black sand beach in the rain.