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The Wedding Guide: A Month-by-Month Timeline To Get You to Your Big Day

Co-publisher of Southern Bride & Groom Magazine Jenna Parks offers a Chapel Hill-themed guide to planning your dream wedding

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Photo by f8 Photo Studios

If your holiday takeaways included giving or receiving a very shiny piece of jewelry that now adorns a ring finger, firstly, congratulations! Now it’s the new year, and the furor of announcing your new fiancee-status to the world and receiving lots of Instagram love is winding down. Like many newly engaged couples, you may feel a bit frozen, unsure of how to begin the path of planning the most meaningful day and biggest celebration you’ve ever thrown.

A small Southern town with plenty of charm and class, Chapel Hill is an easy choice for a wedding location. And with the condensed entertainment hub of Franklin Street as a central spot to host your guests, planning from here will be simple. Even couples who are no longer local but grew up here, or met attending the university and moved away, are returning to Chapel Hill to wed. There’s just something about this place that takes root deep in your heart, and after all, the best place for a wedding is where the couple feels most at home.

Looking forward at the long path from the heartfelt betrothal to the walk down the aisle, I’m sharing a timeline-meets-local resource guide that will hopefully serve as a handy cheat sheet to plan a Chapel Hill wedding.

Pre-planning checklist

Before you call a single vendor, create a budget based on the amount of money the two of you are able to commit to the wedding and any funds given by family. Step two is to establish a guest count. This affects everything from what venue you can book to how many invitations to order, chairs to rent and centerpieces are needed.

12+ months

PICK THE VENUE

Booking your wedding ceremony and reception venue(s) is the first major task (if you want help streamlining this process, hire a full- service wedding planner first). Try to be flexible on dates within a month or season. Many venues around here book 12-20 months in advance for peak wedding months (basically every month that it’s nice out … which, in Chapel Hill, is a majority of the year) but being flexible will help your chances of scoring your dream venue. The quintessential Chapel Hill venue for locals, UNC alumni and couples seeking a romantic Southern destination wedding, is, of course, The Carolina Inn. But there are other options – including The Carolina Club and The Blue Zone at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Die-hard Tar Heels might be interested in the Forest Theatre or the Coker Arboretum. If a country club atmosphere suits you, it doesn’t get any better than Governors Club, with its gorgeous entry and patio views of a lake and rolling greens. Another picturesque setting, the classic Chapel Hill Country Club also hosts wedding events for its members and guests in its facilities. A long-standing foodie haven, Chapel Hill has a few gems for more intimate wedding affairs, including Lantern Restaurant’s patio (below) or event space, Lantern Table, La Résidence and The Siena Hotel. For those looking for an urban setting with exposed brick, check out The Great Room event space and Back Bar at the Franklin Street institution Top of the Hill, the renovated The Cloth Mill at Eno River in Hillsborough or Chatham Mills in Pittsboro. Orange and Chatham counties are also known for farm weddings. Fearrington Village is, of course, gorgeous for an upscale affair, but the list goes on. There is Het Landhuis with a Dutch influence, The Barn of Chapel Hill with its white barn and on-site flower farm, The Barn at Valhalla with a homey lodge vibe and Rock Quarry Farm, an ideal rustic setting.

FIND YOUR OTHER “PARTNER”

Even if you and your fiance live on projects, enlisting a wedding planner or designer is crucial. A full-service planner will help you define your wedding style and introduce you to the right vendors. They will also take many of the mundane parts of planning off your plate, such as contracts and vendor coordination, and have your back if anything goes wrong. A partial-service planner is an affordable alternative that will coordinate the final details and run the wedding weekend. Many local venues require a planner or coordinator.

There are several amazing wedding planners, each with distinct flair, but two fantastic choices based in Orange County are Gather Together and Kast Events & Company. Both are experts in design and planning services.

11 months

LET’S PLAY DRESS UP

If you’ve been fantasizing about your dream dress since you were a tot, finding your wedding gown is probably the next thing on your agenda. You may not know that the Triangle area is home to incredible bridal boutiques that carry a wide-ranging roster of A-list designers. For a list of all full-service salons in Durham, Cary and Raleigh, visit southernbrideandgroom.com.

Photo by f8 Photo Studios
CAPTURING MEMORIES

Photographers (and videographers) often book a year or more out, so it’s never too early to start researching. This is a category that should not be price-shopped, and not just because everyone sets up their packages differently. Wedding-specific experience is important because there are so many special moments that need to be documented throughout the day. Being equipped and skilled to shoot in changing settings and lighting is another must. When researching your documentarians, view several weddings and take note of how they shoot the entire day. A good personality match is a bonus, since you’ll be spending so much time with them, so if you can’t do an in-person interview, at least chat on the phone.

There are so many photography styles and many local talents. For fine art film, take a peek at the work of Bronwyn Duffield Photography. For bright wedding day shots and creative portraiture, go to Heba Salama Photography. If you want crisp natural light images, check out Katherine Miles Jones. A wonderful contemporary classic option is Robin Lin Photography. For sharp, vibrant images, check out f8 Photo Studios. For moody and artsy, look into Adam Chapin Photography or Joe Payne Photography.

10 months

PRESENTS, PLEASE

Yes, a honeymoon fund is exciting, but this is the South, and we expect a “real” wedding registry as well – as in, gifts for your newlywed home. Having a national registry is helpful so friends from near and far can go online to order gifts. To make it easier on yourself and receive guidance, register in person at Belk for
a wide range of styles, or Crate and Barrel for casual chic. For your nearby guests, it’s a nice touch to have a local boutique gift choice. SOUTH and Southern Season are two fantastic stores with beautiful, hand-selected pieces like china from VIETRI (below).

Photo by Fancy That Photography

9 months

BBQ OR CAVIAR?

If you’re not having your wedding at a location that has on- site dining, start shopping for your caterer. As you might suspect, the fact that we live in a foodie community does indeed trickle into the event-catering business. It won’t be difficult to find any genre of food you are seeking for your day. Many offer tastings, so this part of your planning can be especially fun.

The Catering Company of Chapel Hill has been long renowned for high-end food service. You might not know that local favorites like Spanky’s and 411 West have a catering division – CHRG (Chapel Hill Restaurant Group) Catering – that serves up fan favorites and more. Rocky Top Catering, one of the most reputable Raleigh-based wedding catering operations, has its place in Chapel Hill as well, with a contract at UNC’s Kenan Stadium for The Blue Zone football and private wedding events. Its sister company, Southland BBQ Catering, is worth a call for all of those farm weddings we know y’all are hosting!

TAKE OVER THE TOWN

Especially if you are getting married during peak seasons, you’ll need to secure hotel room blocks for your out-of- town guests. Most hotels offer reduced rates for a small commitment, and then you can add more closer to the wedding date if necessary. For the classic Chapel Hill experience, make sure to reserve some rooms at The Carolina Inn. Another perfect choice downtown is The Franklin Hotel. A unique boutique experience is The Siena Hotel, which has a very special restaurant, Il Palio. There is also an Aloft Hotel near Meadowmont, a Sheraton off of 15-501 on the Chapel Hill border and a Hampton Inn & Suites in Carrboro.

8 months

BRINGING YOUR PINTEREST BOARD TO LIFE

If you’ve hired a wedding planner, they’ll already be nudging you into planning your wedding decor. If you haven’t, it’s not too late to reconsider and get a partial-service planner onboard. Otherwise, get organized and start interviewing the vendors who will bring the overall event design to fruition.

• RENTALS

Whether you’re hosting a wedding on a field that needs the whole shebang brought in and built on-site, tent to table, or you just want to upgrade your chairs and linen, Party Reflections and American Party Rentals are sure bets for your rental needs. You’ll be surprised at some of the items available for rent, including furniture and lighting. For specialty rentals, check out Cottage Luxe for gorgeous modern minimalism, Get Lit Special Event Lighting for backdrops and lights, and ThemeWorks for anything eclectic from vintage to uber contemporary.

Photo by Katherine Miles Jones Photography

• FLOWERS

In the heart of downtown you’ll find University Florist, which specializes in sophisticated artistic design (see right). Or consider Bluebird Meadows, a local flower farm that creates breathtaking wedding floral design.

• CAKE

If you’ve walked down Franklin Street, you know the sparkly mosaic that entices passers-by into the goodness of Sugarland. They are known for wedding cakes and gelato. There are other nearby bakers, such as Sugar Euphoria, which specializes in creative wedding cakes. Or you could go offbeat, with a frozen treat from SweetWater New York Ice Co. – real Italian ice served out of a vintage cart or truck!

7 months

PLAN THE JAMS

Music will go a long way to define each part of your wedding. The ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner and dance party each have a distinct mood. Tack on any extra gatherings you are hosting over the  weekend and you’ve got a lot of planning on your hands. A booking agency like Save the Date Music can help with small bands, while ECE (formerly EastCoast Entertainment) has big party bands. (Please note, if you are trying to secure A-list entertainment, you might want to plan this a few months earlier.) Even if you get a band, you’ll probably want a DJ for part of the wedding event to serve as the emcee or play during band breaks. Of course, an experienced wedding DJ like Stylus SE, SPIN or Bunn DJ Company, can handle an entire wedding and create set lists perfect for each hour from ceremony to dance bash. Or, try the best of both worlds – SPIN has a DJ-band operation that can rock a wedding out.

DRESS THE GIRL TRIBE

Order bridesmaid dresses … or better yet, let your bridesmaids pick their own. Many bridal boutiques carry them, and there’s even an entire store devoted to it – Bella Bridesmaids in Cary.

TEST YOUR LOOK

If you’re doing an engagement shoot, go ahead and interview hair and makeup artists, and line up a test run for your shoot. Alternatively, you could do this for your bridal portrait. Mina’s Studio, located near Whole Foods, will help craft your hair and makeup look, and they are happy to travel offsite to doll up you and your wedding party. Caju in Meadowmont is another spot with a spacious salon. There are some individual hair and makeup artists who specialize in Triangle-area weddings, such as Perfection by Patricia, Wedding Hair by Liz and Makeup for Your Day.

6 months

THINK ABOUT THAT “OTHER” EVENT

Just when you think you’ve got the bulk of planning behind you, it’s time to plan your rehearsal dinner. So it’s back to the basics – start with a guest count, budget and vision for how you want your event to be. You might have a favorite restaurant in mind. Plenty of couples today book event spaces and bring their own catering onsite, too. If you are hosting a welcome party or farewell brunch, repeat these steps. Map out a plan to expose your guests to the best that Chapel Hill has to offer.

Photo by Krystal Kast Photography
HONEYMOON, TOO

Start planning the honeymoon. If you need a passport renewed, go ahead and get it done now. Remember that if you’re honeymooning close to the wedding date, name changes probably will not have gone through yet so you might need to book flights with maiden names. The money a travel agent saves you makes hiring one a no-brainer. Viking Travel has been a Chapel Hill staple for nearly 40 years.

PAPER

We work in magazines so, of course, we think paper matters. But you don’t have to take my word for it that when it comes to weddings, a formal invitation is still not only expected, but one of the most exciting design pieces of your day. Just spend a few minutes on Instagram or Pinterest and you’ll see how many exquisite details there are from engraving and letterpress to custom art and calligraphy to wax seals and silk ribbon wrappings. This is the first peek your guests will have into your wedding day, and if you want your save-the-dates to match the invitation, go ahead and find your stationer now. SOUTH is not just a wonderful gift shop, but a purveyor of classic made-to-order stationery. The Triangle is home to many custom stationers and watercolor artists, like One + Only Paper, and calligraphers, like UNC alumna Maghon Taylor of All She Wrote Notes.

5 months

GET ETHEREAL…

If you need to hire an officiant, go ahead and do so now. Two non- denominational ministers I love are Reverend Kayelily Middleton and Reverend Barbara Lodge. They both help you choose the words for the ceremony if needed and offer premarital counseling, which is a worthwhile endeavor no matter how in sync you are.

…AND GET HEALTHY

Everyone knows that self-care is the best way to feel healthy, confident and stress-free. And if there is ever a time that it is needed, it is now. Hopefully, you’ve already had this on your mind. Start a self-care routine to help with stress. A trip to the spa might be in order – check out Bella Trio near Southpoint. Many gyms, like Orangetheory Fitness in Meadowmont, have special motivational packages for folks who are engaged.

4 months

JEWELRY THAT’S CLOSE TO YOUR HEART

Even if your diamond ring was procured online, you can still shop locally for your wedding bands and the wedding day jewelry. Especially if you want a unique custom design piece, it’s a good idea to make moves now. Chapel Hill has several noteworthy jewelers who specialize in custom design and goldwork, including Wentworth & Sloan, Goldworks and William Travis Jewelry.

Photo by Richard Barlow Photography
DAPPER DONS

A black tux is no longer standard for men on a wedding day. You’ll be amazed by all of the colors, fits and fabrics that are available. One trend is to have the groom stand out in some way, such as by wearing a different colored bow tie, jacket or shoes. Rentals can be ordered a couple of months out, but it’s a good idea to pad this to give your groomsmen time to get their measurements. Chapel Hill mainstay Julian’s is known for custom suits (a service that is often used by wedding parties), but they also have rentals available via our Durham friends, Bernard’s Formalwear.

3 months

COOL WHEELS

By all means, go all out for a special getaway ride – those shots are priceless. But transportation is practical, too. It’s just easier to have the entire bridal and groom parties riding in unison, and limousines or limo buses are the best bet. Guests should be considered as well. Many hotels offer a shuttle service within town. If your wedding ceremony or reception are far away from the hotel, you’ll need to rent a bus. Check out Carolina Livery or Greenway Transit.

2 months

GIVE SOME GIFTS

Take some time to think about all of the people who helped make this day possible. Purchase gifts for parents, the wedding party and your fiance. Start preparing your welcome baskets for out-of-town guests. If you want super local gifts, the ultimate destination is still Southern Season. From packaged foods to NC-themed dish towels, they have it all.

Last month

Get your marriage license ✔
Finish up bridal fittings ✔
Finish your vows ✔
Badger your guests for RSVPs ✔
Create table assignments ✔
Order place cards and other paper needs ✔
Squeeze in some spa treatments and address hair needs ✔
Soak it all in!