BAR HARBOR, Maine — Eat a lobster roll, buy a souvenir, take a bus tour of Acadia National Park and exchange wedding vows.
The latter shows up on the to-do lists of visiting cruise ship passengers more often than people might think.
Bar Harbor town officials do not keep statistics on how many cruise ship passengers get married in town while their ship is anchored for a few hours in Frenchman Bay, but they say it happens on a fairly regular basis during the town’s busy tourist season. Bar Harbor’s cruise ship season ended on Nov. 1, when the Crystal Serenity made the town’s final visit of the year.
Pat Gray, Bar Harbor’s town clerk, said recently that cruise ship passengers often do research ahead of time about what they might need to do to be ready to get married during their stop, but sometimes they make no formal contact with town officials until the day they are in port.
In 2002, Maine eliminated its three-day waiting period to get married so now people can complete the paperwork and get married on the same day, Gray said. Couples fill out the forms, pay the fee, and then visit a local notary public who officiates the brief ceremony (the town has a list of them on its website). Typically, the couple fits in a few tourist activities before heading back out to the boat in wedded bliss, she said.
“Oftentimes, the gazebo down by the Bar Harbor Inn is used [for ceremonies] and sometimes if they’ve done their homework, some of them might go a location in [Acadia National Park] or down to Albert Meadow,” Gray said.
Getting a license
The town clerk said the number of marriage licenses issued by the town has risen sharply in the past year, but she doubts it is because of the 126 cruise ship visits Bar Harbor had in 2013 — a record that was broken with 127 visits this year. The improving economy is a more likely factor, she said, and the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maine at the end of 2012 is a significant reason.
In 2012, the town issued only 88 marriage licenses, but last year it issued 174, nearly double the prior annual total, according to Gray. Maine residents have to get marriage licenses in municipalities where they live and only 29 of the 174 issued in Bar Harbor in 2013 were to residents. That means the remaining 145 licenses were issued to couples who live out of state, she said.
Bar Harbor is a popular place for weddings whether someone arrives by ship or not, the town clerk said, but often it is easy to tell when a couple calling or stopping by the town office is on a cruise. They might mention what ship they are on, she said, or even come in with cruise ship logos on their clothing or bags.
“Sometimes … they want to know exactly how far it is from point A to point B and to be sure they have time enough to pick up the license and get married,” Gray said.
Portland also gets a large number of cruise ship visits each summer but, according to officials there, they have no knowledge of any cruise ship passengers getting married in the southern Maine city during the brief time that their ships are in port.
Jennifer McWain is one of several notary publics on Mount Desert Island who offers her services to cruise ship passengers when they are in Bar Harbor. She said recently that ceremonies for cruise ship passengers tend to be more unpredictable and quicker than other weddings.
“There’s not a lot of dilly-dallying,” she said. “Things have to stay on track.”
McWain recalled marrying a couple from Hawaii that arrived on a cruise ship in October 2012. The weather wasn’t great, and there was a possibility the ship would not let passengers disembark.
“It was blowing a gale,” McWain said. “I remember standing on the pier float waiting for them.”
The wind calmed long enough for a tender to bring the bride and groom to shore where they, McWain and a required witness got a ride to Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park to perform the nuptials. The conditions at the site, famous for its pounding surf, weren’t any better than in town, she said.
“It was damp. I remember being very cold,” she said with a laugh.
Some days are busier than others, McWain added. This past May — she couldn’t remember which ship was in town — she performed three ceremonies the same day, all for lesbian couples who were on a chartered same-sex cruise.
“I had six requests that day,” McWain said. “I had to turn three of them away.”
Debra Mitchell-Dow, another notary public, works at Bar Harbor Bank & Trust as an assistant vice president. She said that over the past few years she has seen an increase in requests to officiate weddings for cruise ship passengers, some of whom have exchanged vows right in her office at the bank.
Mitchell-Dow said her cruise ship clients tend not to be young brides and grooms getting married for the first time. Usually they are older people who may have had prior marriages, she noted.
“A big, flashy wedding is not what they are looking for,” Mitchell-Dow said. “They want to explore the town, have a nice lunch somewhere, and off they go.”
For some couples, the decision to get married in Bar Harbor is more pragmatic than romantic.
North Carolina residents Tim Owens and Wayne Simpson, passengers on the Royal Princess, stopped at the town office when it was in port on Sept. 30 to inquire about tying the knot in Maine. They already consider themselves married, having had a commitment ceremony eight years ago in a Lutheran church in Charlotte, where they live, but say they have been unable to enjoy the benefits of a legally binding marriage.
Owens, who is self-employed as a certified public accountant, said he gets domestic partner benefits through Simpson’s employer, which is a Charlotte-area hospital, but that because they are not married, it comes at a steep financial cost.
“I’m on his [health] insurance policy, but we’re taxed heavily,” Owens said, standing in the hallway of the Bar Harbor municipal building.
Owens and Simpson did not tie the knot during the few hours they were ashore on Sept. 30, but they have their reasons. Without getting into specifics, Owens said that date is significant to a former relationship he was in and that he and Simpson would rather have a different date on their marriage license.
They said during their visit that they might return to Bar Harbor in December to get married in a small, religious ceremony. Since returning to North Carolina, however, a series of decisions in the federal court system has nullified the same-sex marriage ban in their home state, though there still are pending legal challenges to those decisions.
During a phone conversation Friday, Owens said they now are planning to getting married on Nov. 30 in the same Lutheran church in Charlotte where they had their commitment ceremony in 2006.
But they have not lost their enthusiasm for returning to Bar Harbor, he said. He and Simpson greatly enjoyed their brief visit and want to return for another that lasts for several days instead of several hours.
“That was our first trip to Maine,” Owens said. “I’m a cold-winter person. When we walked off the ship, I fell in love with the place.
“The town is just incredibly beautiful,” he added. “We will definitely be back next year.”