Some brides know from the moment of their engagement every element of their dream wedding. Others let life and love guide them toward a wedding that somehow manages to capture the spirit of their relationship. Charlotte Collins, who celebrated her marriage to Marc McDonnell May 20, 2017, in Aix-en-Provence, France, is definitely part of the latter group. France has been part of Charlotte’s life since she was just 6 months old when her parents, Margo Newton, who teaches French at the University of South Carolina, and Tom Collins took her to Paris to visit Margo’s sister, Mim Newton. The family visited regularly after that, spending summers in Provence, holidays in Paris, and living for a short time in Alsace.
Charlotte and Marc’s story actually began in New York City, where Charlotte moved a few months after graduating from Florida State University and where Marc was attending graduate school at Columbia University. She hadn’t planned to meet her future husband so quickly after moving to the city, but one evening there he was, standing with her friends who then introduced her. A few days later, she was on a dinner date with the handsome fellow from New England. Things were fairly casual for the next few months, or so Charlotte thought. “I liked him immediately,” she says. “In fact, I didn’t realize how much until after dating him for about four months, and he told me he’d gotten a job offer in Seattle. I was heartbroken.”
The couple dated long distance for about a year, with one of them, usually Marc, making the cross-country trip between Seattle and New York once a month. Finally, exhausted and almost constantly missing each other, they decided that Charlotte would relocate to Seattle. A year and a half later, Margo and Tom found a message on their phone from Marc inquiring about setting up a time to chat with both of them. “Tom said, ‘You know what that means,’” recalls Margo. “He was right. We were thrilled. We liked Marc very, very much from the first time we met him.”
After securing the blessing of his future in-laws, Marc found himself with a perplexing challenge: how to create an unexpected proposal when the couple had not only discussed marriage, but had chosen a ring together.
“I originally reserved a room for us at our favorite inn on one of the islands near Seattle that we love going to in the off-season when it is far less crowded with tourists and a bit more romantic,” he says. “Charlotte is very intuitive though, and I had an inkling she knew what was up when I told her I booked that trip. In an attempt to maintain some of the surprise, I decided to expedite the process.” That plan involved a hike through the woods to an overlook perched above the Puget Sound. “We sat on the same bench and admired this particular view on this hike dozens of times, and it certainly carried some sentimental value for us,” he continues. “Unfortunately for me, there was a torrential downpour when we went on the hike (thanks, Seattle) and the ring remained in my pocket.”
Plan C did the trick. Charlotte remembers, “It was about three in the afternoon on a Saturday. We were at home in the kitchen, and Marc asked if I wanted a glass of Champagne. I said ‘yes’ to the Champagne without even thinking that he might be proposing, even though I’d been hoping that he would propose that weekend.”
Although Charlotte and Marc had discussed their many options for a wedding locale in the months prior to their engagement, it took about a day and a half for the couple to realize they wanted to tie the knot in France. Paris topped the list, but after further consideration, Charlotte and Marc set their sights farther south, in Aix-en-Provence, a charming town once home to post impressionist painter Paul Cezanne. The town is filled with cobblestone streets, shady plane trees, and outdoor cafes that Charlotte, Margo, and Tom visited nearly every summer. Marc visited the family there prior to the engagement and was as taken with the town as Charlotte and her parents had always been.
“We love Paris,” says Margo, “but Aix, being small, is easy to navigate on your own. No one needed a car, and everyone could easily gather for lunch or sightseeing in the days leading up to the wedding.”
Once the location had been decided, Margo got to work finding a venue. She first called Mim to discuss L’Hôtel de Caumont, a grand 18th century mansion with sweeping staircases, sunny terraces overlooking formal French gardens, and a series of individually decorated, oversized salons designed by Robert de Cotte, the chief architect on the Palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV, the Sun King. Completed in 1715, L’Hôtel de Caumont was meticulously restored in 2015 and is now an art center and museum.
“It’s a stunning building in an equally stunning setting,” says Margo. “The gardens, the rooms, the architecture — all were just fabulous and would work so well for the outdoor ceremony and sit-down dinner that Charlotte wanted.” Charlotte and Marc agreed, and the family booked the majestic property for a Saturday in late May.
Anyone who has ever planned a wedding knows how complicated it can be to manage all the moving parts. Add thousands of miles and a seven-hour time difference to the mix, and there is no doubt that assistance is needed. Charlotte and Margo found that help in the form of Lucy Till, a British planner who has lived in France for 15 years and has managed weddings in Provence for 10 years. Not only was Lucy familiar with local vendors and French wedding customs, she was also immediately in sync with Charlotte and Margo about decor and details. “Charlotte wanted a wedding that felt Provencal, but chic, not rustic,” says Lucy. “It was the perfect choice for that magnificent venue, L’Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence.”
Charlotte says her save-the-date cards, which were designed by botanical artist Stephanie Fishwick and featured a wreath of spring flowers, inspired the overall look of the wedding. “I loved the save-the-date design so much that we asked Stephanie to use them as the basis for all the printed pieces, including the invitation and the menu,” says Charlotte. “The pattern was so open and airy, yet detailed, and it illustrated exactly what I wanted in the flowers, too.” All the printing was done in classic French gray.
To plan the meal, Charlotte, Marc, and Margo flew to France during the summer of 2016 for tastings. “They made us feel like movie stars,” recalls Charlotte. “The table was set beautifully, the wine was perfect, and the food was delicious.” They chose Helen’s, a legendary Provencal caterer, who created a meal that showcased both French cooking and the seasonal flavors of Provence with dishes that included a crab and white asparagus mousse to start. Traditional steak au poivre was elevated with the addition of truffles; tiny local strawberries with honeyed glacé finished out the meal. Tom, Charlotte’s father, who had spent many years in the wine and spirits business, personally handled the pairings for each course.
The weekend kicked off Friday evening with a cocktail reception for the nearly 80 guests at Jardin Mazarin, a local restaurant that Charlotte loved for its modern setting. “It was just around the corner from Caumont, and they served lovely little bites that were perfect with local rosé,” she explains.
The next day, she and Marc had their first look — a modern tradition where the groom gets to see the bride before the ceremony — at Villa Gallici, the Florentine-styled hotel where most of the guests were staying. “My bridesmaids and I had the best time getting ready,” says Charlotte. “We were eating, drinking wine, and laughing. By the time of the first look I was relaxed and ready. I had really wanted to see Marc before the ceremony because I knew it would make me less nervous, and it did.”
The team decided that the ceremony would take place in the cour d’honneur, an elegant walled space between the street and the villa that is shaded by a tall plane tree and was built to welcome aristocratic guests to the home. Set between chairs bedecked with hydrangeas, roses, and greenery, an aisle of white silk led toward the building’s massive double doors. On either side, tall arrangements of fragrant peonies, garden roses, sweet peas, and other blossoms in shades of pink, white, and the palest of blue created a stunning backdrop for the ceremony. Charlotte’s loose bouquet of ivory and white was gathered with silk ribbon that waved in the breeze. Her dress, an ivory creation that was the first she had tried on, was perfectly accented by a sparkling tiara.
Once the couple said their “I do’s” and were feted with white rose petals as they walked back down the aisle, the event moved to the formal garden for a reception with Champagne, canapes passed by tuxedoed waiters, and tables filled with elegant hors d’oeuvres. “At a traditional French wedding celebration, the ceremony is followed by a stand-up aperitif, or cocktail event, that lasts two hours,” says Lucy. “From there, the guests move to a three-course dinner, followed by dancing.”
For Charlotte and Marc’s dinner, tables were set up in several different rooms within the mansion. Since the decor in each room was unique, table settings were unique as well, reflecting the colors and the style of each room. In the rose-hued salon des Putti, for instance, which features ornate ornamental plasterwork depicting angels, low arrangements of white blooms were surrounded by vintage plates bordered with pink flowers. Within the blue-themed salon des Rinceaux, bluebells decorated tables set with simple gold and white china. Golden flowers filled the tables of the ornate salon Chinois. “The details were just beautiful,” says Lucy. “The salt and pepper pots were shaped like tiny birds, the votives sparkled, and the greenery from the arrangements spilled amongst the glassware and vintage plates. It was opulent, but somehow ethereal.”
Charlotte was thrilled with the celebration. “It was everything we’d hoped for, and so much more. I was so worried, but now I’d do it again in a minute. And I wouldn’t change a thing.”