Debbie + Lins by Lucy Li Photography

Tell us a little about yourselves, what you do, what you love, what is unique about you and your relationship:

I’m a management consultant and Lins is an investment manager for Callaghan Innovation. We met in the mid 1990s when we were both working at Lincoln University. We fell in love over long working lunches and pies from the famous but now defunct Hillyer’s pie shop in Lincoln.

We moved in together quite quickly and over the years our work has taken us all over the place. We now live between Eastbourne in Wellington and the Wairarapa. With six children between us from our previous marriages, and now with six grandchildren spread around the globe, the time has never seemed to be right for us to get married.  It felt too complicated, too expensive and too fraught in terms of family politics.

One Sunday morning during lockdown in 2020, we were reading in bed when I found a New York Times story about a couple who, like us, had been together for years, and decided to elope for a ceremony at the Grand Canyon, with only the photographer and celebrant as witnesses. The bride had hiked in wearing her formal dress and had trashed her gown.

This story gave us the idea of eloping to our favourite beach, the remote and wild Wharariki, on the northern west coast, in Kahurangi National Park. We both had memories of taking our kids into that beach, with its wild winds and rather aggressive sea lions. After 25 plus years together, we loved the idea of getting married more or less by and for ourselves. I decided that I would have the dress I’d never had and trash it in the sea and sand.

Our photographer Lucy Li is a friend of our daughter’s, and I had loved her wonderfully creative work when she shot portraits for my website. After swearing her to secrecy, I tested the idea with her.

We wrestled with the issue of surprising everyone in the family. It did feel a little selfish and we knew someone was bound to be offended. We also knew that if we told one person, it would be a high-pressure secret for them to have to carry. In the end, we decided to ask two good friends to be our witnesses and to tell no one else. We set the date for late summer 2021, when weather, tides and sunset would be at their best for photos.

With such a simple concept, planning was pretty straightforward. We quickly found our lovely celebrant, Tracey Walker, in Collingwood. She also runs a boutique guest house, called Zatori, which was originally the Collingwood maternity hospital.  She gave us a great deal to book out the whole place, so there was plenty of room for us, the photographer and our two witnesses. The vibe was elegant but laid back. Later, her cat Milo slept in my suitcase and her dog Beau followed us around as we got ready on the day.

With lots of experience at doing weddings at Wharariki, Tracey recommended a short helicopter trip in and out, rather than having to get ourselves and the dress over the walking track with its many stiles. She also suggested that a champagne picnic was the way to go. Tracey recommended local florist Teresa and I commissioned a trailing bouquet with the old roses I love in antique blush shades. This time, at least my flowers would be Princess Di!

Another of Tracey’s contacts, local chef Fred Archer was booked to do a simple meal for us after the ceremony. It felt remarkably liberating not to have to go the whole nine yards of a traditional wedding. There was no cake, no gifts, no music except for our own personal playlist, no need to decorate the venue and no family dramas to navigate.

Tell us about your main outfits:

For the dress, my plan had originally been for a flowing beach boho look in pink. Somehow, I came out of the bridal shop with a fitted and formal mermaid dress in white lace, worn with white sequinned sneakers and long crystal earrings. On the day, the gorgeous long train wicked up the sand and seawater, and by the end of the day it weighed a lot. I changed into a Schiaparelli pink dress by Gregory on our return from the beach.

Lins wanted a Mr Darcy (as in Pride and Prejudice) shirt and cravat and so we ordered these from a historical costume company. The amazing adze he wore is argillite from D’Urville island, carved by local Golden Bay artisan Geoff Williams.

My friend Vicki wore a stunning red satin jumpsuit by Ingrid Starnes, with a large Swarovski crystal brooch worn at the waist. Her husband Mike wore a navy Hugo Boss suit.

What were some of the most memorable/unique moments from the day:

Although the weather in the days prior to our ceremony had been perfect, the weather forecast for our day was for torrential rain and gales. Feeling rather Bridezilla-ish, I phoned our celebrant Tracey two nights prior and asked if we could look at bringing the ceremony forward one day. If she and the helicopter pilot could do it, I would either do without flowers and makeup or try to bring them forward. Tracey gulped a bit, said she’d never had anyone move the entire day before, and then immediately set to work rescheduling everything for the earlier day. Her local contacts proved invaluable.

I phoned our Auckland based friends, Mike and Vicki, and told them that the day had changed, but that their flights should still enable them to make the ceremony. They decided then and there to change their flights to earlier ones. That turned out to be the day of Auckland’s third snap lockdown, so thank heavens they did, or they would not have made it. As it was, they arrived at midnight, and by the time we’d all had champagne, it was early morning.

Later that morning, we were all sitting having a leisurely and slightly hung over breakfast – the ceremony was planned for 6:30pm – when the helicopter pilot Glen phoned and told us the stormy weather was closing in early. He had a weather window at noon and would be there to pick us up in an hour. We went into panicked action stations and managed the world’s fastest ever wedding hair and makeup with the help of our clever (and very calm) makeup artist Poppy. Our beautiful flowers arrived with minutes to spare.

While pregnant Lucy trekked into the beach, with her husband carrying her gear, Glen zigzagged through rain cloud to land us in the perfect spot by the Archway Islands. After all our planning, the tides weren’t out and nor was the sun. It still felt glorious to be there, in such a truly special place.

Our friend Mike drew a huge heart in the sand, with the date, and that’s where we stood for the formalities. Lins’ vows were based on Bob Dylan’s song ‘I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you’ and mine were based on lyrics from Marc Cohn’s ‘True Companion’, which has been a favourite of ours for years. It all felt incredibly romantic. Seagulls screeched around us as we said our vows, and nearby, a family of sealions played in the surf.

We had champagne on the beach while Lucy took the photos against a moody backdrop of darkening skies. The moment the helicopter landed back at Zatori, the rain fell in sheets. It continued to fall heavily for days.

We felt enormously grateful to everyone who had made our day so special. Mike and Vicki had dropped everything to be present. Tracy had moved mountains.  Our helicopter pilot was a skilled professional.  Our florist nearly cut her finger off wiring up the bouquets in haste. In spite of all the changes, they all helped make the day feel relaxed and fun.

The next day, after Lucy had edited a photo or two, we spent a few rather nerve-wracking hours telling family and friends about our elopement. We were especially worried about how our almost 90 year old mothers would take it. Oddly enough they both had the same immediate reaction: ‘Oh good, now I can say I have a son/daughter in law’. Our children’s reactions varied from happy tears to hysterical laughter and amused acceptance. ’Diva move, Mum’, said my eldest daughter, ‘quite possibly your diva-est yet.’ Our London based son in law said: ‘Love that beach, it reminded me of The Piano.  Where were all the other people?”

Any advice for other couples planning to spend the rest of their lives together:

After being together nearly 26 years, we sometimes wondered why we were doing this in our mid to late sixties. We also wondered whether we’d feel any different afterwards.

I think we were both surprised at how joyful the experience felt and how affirming of our long commitment to each other. We have always felt deeply connected, but this experience has drawn us even closer. We now bop around the house doing our chores to the tunes on our elopement playlist.

We love these photographic memories of the day and we’re so grateful for the support we’ve received and the positive reactions of our wonderful family and friends. An elopement is a bit of a tough thing to carry off emotionally, but if it feels right for you, we highly recommend it!

Photography: @lucyliphotography | Ceremony location: Wharariki Beach, in Kahurangi National Park | Reception location: @zatorigoldenbay | Celebrant: @zatorigoldenbay | Bride’s gown: @bridesonthorndon_ | Groom’s attire: @bridesonthorndon_| Bridesmaid’s attire: @cocowellington | Bride’s ring: @partridgejewellers | Groom’s ring: Mason Carter | Earrings: @bridesonthorndon_ | Hair & Makeup: @makeupartistpoppy | Fragrance: Habinita | Flora: @teresabroughdesigner | Helicopter: Helicopter Charter Karamea