When Michelle and Jason Munsell set their wedding date for Oct. 30, 2016, Michelle’s father cautioned them about the time of year they were planning to say “I do.”
“My dad kept saying, ‘It’s hurricane season, are you sure you want to do it in October?’” says Michelle. But given the Lowcountry’s history with hurricanes, the couple knew chances were slim that their destination wedding would be derailed by weather woes.
And then, three weeks before the Atlanta couple’s nuptials, Hurricane Matthew struck the island. Michelle and Jason followed weather updates from their home in Atlanta while trying to think positively. Her parents had secured wedding insurance, which covers any losses due to natural disasters. But the couple had no interest in putting off the party they’d spent more than a year planning.
“When our wedding planner, Beth Baldwin, was talking with us about what was going on after the hurricane, she kept using the word ‘devastation.’ She told us a lot of trees were down, and she kept saying ‘devastation.’ Finally I said, ‘I swear to you, Beth, if you use that word anymore I’m going to lose it,’” Michelle laughs. “So we didn’t know what to expect.”
What they learned, however, is that the Lowcountry’s beauty and resilience cannot be downed by wind or rain; its businesses and communities rallied in a way that makes it obvious why this area is such a perennial wedding destination.
“We were completely impressed by The Westin’s ability, and the island community itself, to pick up the pieces so quickly,” Michelle says. “Even though The Westin was hit and there were areas where they were doing construction, you couldn’t really tell and no one really acted like something had just happened three weeks before. Our day was as perfect as it would have been if no ‘devastation’ had happened.”
The couple had chosen Hilton Head because of Michelle’s family ties to the island; they’d been vacationing here for more than 20 years. The two sweethearts met in an English class at the University of Georgia, where Jason graduated in 2010 and Michelle a year later. In May 2015, Jason invited his then-girlfriend back to campus under the guise of preparing for a work presentation. He proposed in the same classroom where they’d met.
“I had a feeling that weekend he was going to propose, because I really wanted us to be by ourselves. I wanted to enjoy the moment with him,” she says. “So I didn’t know exactly. But I’d gotten my nails done, just in case.”
With Michelle hailing from Atlanta and Jason’s friends and family mostly coming from his native Cleveland, Ohio, they knew there was going to be some significant travel involved for a lot of their guests no matter where they picked to wed.
“All of our friends are getting married – we’ve been on the wedding train for the past 2-plus years – so we wanted to do something different,” Michelle says. “His side of family and friends would have had to travel anyway, so we said ‘Let’s do something no one has done yet.’”
No one had done a destination wedding on a picturesque island a short drive from Georgia. So Michelle and Jason, along with 175 of their friends and relatives, descended on the island that last weekend in October to celebrate a love story and cement its future. Their original rehearsal dinner site, Port Royal Golf Club, was out of commission due to the hurricane, so the Westin Resort accommodated the party instead, and everything went off without a hitch.
The following day the Georgia fans hosted a tailgate party for all of their out of town guests, as they watched the Florida Gators defeat their beloved Bulldogs. “We had bar food, beer and wine, and everyone was invited to that,” Michelle says of the casual, sports-themed pre-party.
The wedding itself was on Sunday evening, so the bridal party – eight bridesmaids and 10 groomsmen – relaxed during the day and slowly got ready. Michelle’s gown was a stunning V-neck ivory Monique Lhuillier mermaid-style gown with lace overlay. Her bridesmaids wore varied styles of the same chiffon dress in a deep eggplant color called “ink.” Dawn Kiritsy of A Floral Affair created bouquets of purple and green succulents to complement the dresses. But her finest work was with the chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy that stood overlooking the ocean on the Westin’s outer deck.
“Our chuppah was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen,” Michelle says. “I envisioned this very natural-looking floral vision with purple and green succulents and flowers and driftwood, and it was amazing to see it all come together. Dawn is an artist and I told her what I was thinking and gave her some pictures and she just kind of went with it.”
After all the anticipation and planning, Michelle says the walk down the aisle toward her groom was the most memorable part of the day.
“Really what stood out to me was seeing Jason for the first time, and seeing him seeing me. He was jumping up and down at the altar,” she says. “And seeing all my guests, and looking around and seeing that all these people were connected through me and Jason.”
The couple’s rabbis traveled from Atlanta to lead the ceremony, which included the signing of the ketubah in front of the wedding guests. When the nuptials were complete, the cocktail hour was held on the same outer deck while guests soaked in the sunset and ocean breezes. Reed Richmond, who’d played acoustic guitar for the ceremony, continued to play for the cocktail hour as photographer John Brackett took some formal pictures of the bridal party in front of the setting sun.
Then it was inside for the reception, where the RiverTown Band played a customized version of Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” the song the couple had chosen for their first dance.
“Jason and I’s first dance really sticks out for me because we didn’t practice at all. I remember going out there and I thought I was going to be very nervous, but it felt like we were the only people in the room,” Michelle says. “It was just fun to dance to this song we’d been planning to for a year and a half.”
The Westin’s staff provided a plated salad and several stations of delectable dishes, including salmon wrapped in phyllo dough and beef tenderloin, before a multi-tiered marble cake with white chocolate mousse icing was presented for slicing and serving. But the party was the focus, and the happy couple and all their guests danced – and sang – the night away.
“I loved the party. I had forewarned the band that I was going to need a microphone,” Michelle says. “I sang everything. Bon Jovi, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ Taylor swift.”
Except for a Georgia football win, Michelle and Jason say the weekend couldn’t have gone any smoother, and they were thrilled with their Hilton Head wedding experience – thanks, in large part, to the amount of professional help they received to pull off the perfect party.
“Beth Baldwin was phenomenal. I called her the captain of my ship. I had no worry in the world, she was on top of it from the get-go,” Michelle says. “She was the first person I called to interview for wedding planners, and within one minute I knew this was the woman I wanted.”
Wedding planner: Beth Baldwin Weddings
Cake: Frankie Cakes
Photographer: John Brackett
Videographer: Hilton Head Video
Rentals: Amazing Event Rentals
Music, Ceremony & Cocktail: Reid Richmond
Music, Reception: Rivertown
Florist: A Floral Affair
Stationer: Pretty Papers
Hair & Make Up: Bride’s Side Beauty
Live Canvas Artist: Artistic i Wedding