SPECIAL- WEDDINGS- Totally tubular: River a new hotspot for the daring bride


It takes a certain type of bride to embrace an outdoor wedding. Brides who relish the idea of beautiful pictures against the Blue Ridge Mountains or exchanging vows in a historic garden know coming to Charlottesville is a safe bet– with its burgeoning vineyard scene and dozens of private properties and inns available, Charlottesville is quickly becoming central Virginia's place for the bride who blanches as the thought of chapel nuptials. But not all brides can handle the great outdoors– there are bugs to consider! An expensive white dress that must be protected from dirt! And the weather! Well– that's never a predicable element.

Yet there are some couples who thrive on all of nature's challenges: hiking the Appalachian Trail, rock climbing in the Blue Ridge, or camping in the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest are much more romantic than a sunset vineyard or a quiet garden. For the bride who favors rustic adventure over prim and proper tradition, James River Runners might be the venue for you.

James River Runners? Isn't that where rowdy groups of co-eds or co-workers go to tube and drink each summer? While the river, with the historic Hatton Ferry, is a prime summer spot for sunning and funning, it is also the latest local property to jump at the opportunity to host weddings for the bold and fearless bride.

"We can really make this a great wedding venue– it's nothing fancy, not a B&B, but if you just want to have a laid-back wedding on the water..." says owner Paige Wilkes.

Three years ago, before new owner Wilkes and her husband took over the property, which consists of the ferry, campgrounds, and livery, weddings weren't a common sight at the river. 

When one of their employees expressed interest in hosting his ceremony and reception at his favorite Virginia spot, Wilkes jumped at the opportunity to transform the site into a wedding venue. Holding the ceremony in an open field on the river bank and the reception in a tent in a field that usually holds parked cars during busy tubing weekends, the couple– true "river rats," according to Wilkes– were able to host 200 people comfortably with a DJ and live band playing throughout the night. After partying until the wee hours, guests overnighted in the campsites and headed out onto the river early the next morning.

"They had the minister stand right on the river bank and everyone was facing the water," says Wilkes of the ceremony. "The next day people got on the water, canoed, kayaked."

While Wilkes admits that a James River Runners bride would fully embrace the unpredictable nature of a outdoors wedding– the most recent bride ended the night with a dirt-stained dress and guests had to bear umbrellas during a spell of rain– she is confident the space is a blank canvas open to the whims of any adventuresome couple. The property has the capacity to hold crowds of 400-500 people for a ceremony and reception, and options like overnight camping and tubing, canoeing, or kayaking can be easily added into the wedding package. As the space is a privately-owned property, there are no restrictions as to preferred vendors or alcohol. Wilkes plans on opening the property to weddings between March and early May, then later in the fall, from October to December. Due to the overwhelming capacity of tubers during the summer months, the venue wouldn't be available to host private events– but "we'd do a December wedding for sure– if you wanted to brave the elements, we'd do that too," she says.

Wilkes has her own romantic connection to the property– on her first date with her husband, he brought her to the flooded river and dared her to tube. When she readily agreed, he laughed and took her up to hike around Raven's Roost instead. The two later married at the popular Blue Ridge Parkway stop– and now, eight years later, Wilkes would likely make the perfect candidate for a James River Runners wedding.

James River Runners owner Paige Wilkes