One man spent 16 months planning a secret wedding in New Zealand, which happened only 55 hours after he popped the question.
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Christy Cowan and Kyle Johnson attended the same high school in Carlsbad, California, where they crossed paths but didn't know each other well. It wasn't until sophomore year of college—when a mutual friend re-introduced the pair—that a relationship formed. The couple dated for almost a decade before Kyle, an MBA student at Cornell University, proposed to Christy, an event designer and coordinator at To La Lune. What Christy didn't know, however, was that Kyle tirelessly worked for 16 months to plan a secret wedding at the Puriri Valley Estate on Waiheke Island outside of Auckland, New Zealand, just 55 hours after that proposal. The surprise celebration took place on February 18, 2017, with 21 guests, a blue and white color palette, and plenty of heartwarming touches.
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Christy and Kyle had talked about potentially having an intimate destination wedding with family and friends. Sixteen months before the engagement, Kyle took the idea and secretly turned it from fantasy to reality. "Christy had planned and designed so many weddings with her own business," says Kyle. "I felt like a lot of the logistics of planning her own wedding would just feel like work. I really wanted her to feel the excitement of a bride going through this experience for the first time, and the only way to do that would be to completely surprise her." Kyle asked for Christy's parents blessing, got all 21 guests on board, and hired a host of vendors to help plan the event.
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Kyle coordinated with all guests via email to ensure the secrecy of the affair, but he worked with Christy's mom and Peanut Press Creative to design an invitation for Christy as a keepsake. The stationery featured a blue and white watercolor design that would be carried throughout the wedding.
Kyle says that guests were supportive and excited about the secret wedding after he shared his plans. "It took me a little effort to convince Christy's parents, but they put their trust in me. About 30 people knew a year prior to the wedding. It was quite a feat to keep a lid on the secret for everyone involved!" he says.
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A Sweet Surprise
After popping the question, Kyle handed Christy a wooden box, which held plans to the wedding he'd been preparing behind her back. The box came from Christy's parent's best friend (an uncle figure), who passed away from cancer a few months before the engagement. "He was an incredible woodworker and offered to make the box that held all of the elements that explained the surprise wedding. It was the last thing he made and, due to his unique style of woodworking, I knew it was his creation the moment I saw it," says Christy.
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The box contained a book detailing elements of the big day. It also included a wooden paddle engraved with the coordinates of the wedding location: Waiheke Island in New Zealand. The paddle was attached to Christy's wedding band with a bright blue ribbon.
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A Beautiful Book
The book in the wedding box had multiple purposes. "It asked the question, 'Will you marry me this weekend?', included a mood board for a sneak peek into the design of our wedding day, shared the timeline for the adventure ahead, and contained the list of attendees that would be joining us in New Zealand," says Kyle, who worked with Peanut Press Creative to design the book with printed images and watercolor touches.
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After the proposal, Christy and Kyle hopped on a plane to New Zealand with 20 friends and family members.
The wedding took place at Puriri Valley Estate, a private estate on Waiheke Island right outside of Auckland, New Zealand. Kyle chose the island destination because the couple fell in love with it during a post-college visit, and Christy's parents visit New Zealand every year for surfing.
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The Bridal Shower
Christy's mom threw her a surprise bridal shower, which started with dinner at Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant and ended with cake at the Crescent Villa. Guests received invitations from Peanut Press Creative and Mānuka honey soap bars in muslin bags stamped with the Māori greeting translating to "be well". Since the bride is a huge lover of chocolate, her mother had locally-made candy bars on hand for the occasion, which were engraved with a map of New Zealand.
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The groom recruited photographer Jen Wojcik—who shares an office with Christy and works with her often—to help devise a sneaky plan to pick out Christy's wedding dress. "One day while we were working together, Jen got a request from a floral designer to do a shoot focused around two bouquets. They would just need a model and two gowns. Jen turned to me and asked if I would be up for playing model for a day. I happily agreed and didn't give it a second thought," says Christy. Jen used the opportunity to her advantage, telling Christy that she'd need to pick out some gowns at The Dress Theory before the photo session. Taking it one step further, Jen said that The Dress Theory was shooting promotional photos and videos for marketing purposes, and that Christy should make it look like a "real dress fitting" was happening. The employees even took Christy's correct measurements.
Jen insisted Christy pick out a few dresses for the shoot—and Christy liked one so much, she told Kyle she wanted to wear it to their future wedding. He ended up secretly purchasing the Sarah Seven number for their big day. "The trip to The Dress Theory is still something I will forever think back to and wonder, 'How the heck did everything seem so natural and nonchalant?'" says Christy, who didn't figure out the ulterior motives of the dress fitting until after the wedding.
Flash forward to the big day, and Christy says the gown was "even more amazing than I had remembered it was!" She paired it with Badgley Mischka shoes, a Sara Gabriel veil, her late grandmother's earrings (her "something borrowed" which her mom packed and brought with her), and a bracelet gifted from her mother on the wedding day (her "something blue").
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Leaf & Honey made Christy's bouquet with speckled fox gloves, dark scabiosa, berries, chocolate cosmos, earthy achillea, and textured foliage, which was bound together with silk ribbon. Christy said her bouquet was so beautiful, she started sobbing when she first saw it.
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Christy and Kyle had a first look adjacent to the property's vineyards overlooking the ocean.
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The Bride's Rings
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The Groom's Ring
Since Kyle tends to lose things, he decided to get a silicone ring for the trip to New Zealand. "He lost it, and many others since," says Christy. "He still wears a black silicone ring to this day and has them shipped from Amazon on a regular basis!"
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Christy's parents walked her down the aisle to "Like Real People Do" by Hozier (a song Kyle picked out while planning) played by local singer and guitarist Andrew Healy. According to the bride, "One of my most memorable moments of the day was walking out from the house to the ceremony. My parents had to direct me on where to go because I didn't even know where the ceremony was. When we turned the corner and I saw Kyle standing there, with my best friend as our officiant, all of our closest family and friends awaiting my arrival, the sound of one of my favorite songs being sung in the distance, the vineyards and ocean as our backdrop… it was like walking into a dream."
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Taking a Seat
Guests perched on a slope overlooking the ceremony site to watch the nuptials. Christy said the unplanned seating arrangement was one of her favorite parts of the day, noting that it felt incredibly relaxed and organic.
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Christy's best friend, Michelle, officiated the ceremony. "Michelle and Christy have known each other since Christy was two years old, so I knew how special it would be to have Michelle as our officiant," says Kyle. The couple wrote their own vows; the bride finished hers on the morning of the wedding.
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Guests enjoyed live music by Andrew Healy, passed appetizers, and drinks during cocktail hour on a wraparound patio. Signature cocktails were a "Tequila Sheila" (tequila, jalapenos, lime juice, and other garnishes) and an Old-Fashioned.
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"Kyle's sister-in-law surprised me with a garland of love note hearts that had messages and photos from people that couldn't be there for the wedding day but sent their love," says Christy. Peanut Press Creative designed and printed the garland.
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To plan the overall set-up of the outdoor reception, Kyle created a mood board based off of Christy's Pinterest boards. "Because she was consistently involved in creating custom wedding designs for her clients, I could literally ask any question about her preferences without her being suspicious," he says. Wooden tables from My Waiheke were topped with dusty gray runners (made by Kyle's stepmom), as well as ceramic vases and vintage ink bottles filled with loose floral arrangements by Leaf & Honey. Candles gave a warming glow to the tables.
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"Tablescapes are my absolute favorite part to design for my clients, so Kyle put extra attention into every detail to make sure it would be something that would leave me speechless," says Christy. The groom even brought in flatware and glassware from The Hostess Haven in San Diego. According to the bride, "He actually ordered and shipped a set of the dinner plates from New Zealand to the States during the wedding planning process, so he could lay them out in person with the glassware and flatware!"
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Peanut Press Creative designed and printed the menu with the blue watercolor design used in various elements of the celebration. The family-style meal catered by Free Range Chef included chargrilled summer salad, sirloin steak, lemon chicken, and spiced eggplant.
The party moved indoors after dinner as a light rain came down, and each guest gave an impromptu speech to the couple. "Whether it was words of encouragement or them letting us know how much they love us, it was such a unique and intimate moment for everyone to share. That experience alone would have made the whole effort worth it," says Kyle. The couple danced to "Purple Rain" by Prince (a last minute decision that got a lot of good laughs), and guests enjoyed Eton strawberry rhubarb mess cake baked by Free Range Chef.
After the wedding, Christy, Kyle, and their guests traveled to the North Island for almost a week. The newlyweds then headed to the South Island for a camper van adventure. Christy said her wedding was special "in every single way imaginable. Everything was a surprise that exceeded every possible expectation! I cried the happiest tears. I cried practically every five minutes after the proposal and every day through to the end of the wedding. My face has never hurt so much from crying, smiling, and laughing." And Kyle agrees, summing up the wedding with, "I can't believe this is real."
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Photography, Jen Wojcik Photography
Location, Puriri Valley Estate
Catering, Free Range Chef
Flowers, Leaf & Honey
Videography, Caleb Wojcik Films
Stationery and Calligraphy, Peanut Press Creative
Music, Andrew Healy (ceremony and cocktail hour)
Makeup, Leah Haeata
Groom's suit, Men's Wearhouse
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