Tying the knot aboard ship

More brides - and cruise lines - are helping spur the popularity of nautical nuptials.

A just-wed couple aboard the Celebrity Solstice. Cruise lines offer a broad array of options, with ceremonies aboard ship or ashore in port.

More brides are going to sea than ever before. Some are even taking along a lot more than the groom.

One New York bride set sail in May with a contingent of more than 100 guests, says Norwegian Cruise Line spokeswoman Courtney Recht.

Over the waves, wedding business has increased as much as 60 percent in the last decade, report the 21 maritime members of Cruise Lines International Association. The attraction, presciently noted years ago in a Royal Caribbean International survey, was that a whopping 95 percent of vacationers rated cruises as "extremely or very romantic" compared with landlubber vacations.

Another reason is convenience. According to the cruise association, almost 35 percent of the group's 16,000 agents say their clients want to combine a wedding with a honeymoon; more than 23 percent say the top reason for a cruise wedding is value.

As a setting for romance, more than 80 percent of agents say nothing beats the Caribbean and Bahamas as favorite wedding destinations.

Today it's a lot easier to tie the knot either at sea or in ports around the globe. More cruise lines now offer shipboard wedding packages, amenities, and wedding-planning services, including legal marriages performed by ships' captains.

The notion of nautical nuptials was practically codified in 1998, when Princess Cruises, "the Love Boat" line, launched bona fide weddings at sea, performed by a ship's captain. According to spokeswoman Carol Maglione, more than 6,000 couples have since taken vows at sea or in port. Princess' weddings at sea are official because the line's vessels are registered in Bermuda, which recognizes all marriages in international waters.

Besides weddings, many lines also offer honeymoon and vow-renewal packages, bachelor and bachelorette parties, even programs for "popping the question" - the ultimate engagement party at sea.

Carnival Cruise Lines, which saw a 60 percent increase in wedding packages in the last decade, expects that 2,400 couples will marry aboard its "Fun Ships" this year, says the line's spokesman, Vance Gulliksen.

And on all lines, the menu of options is extensive.

Shipboard ceremonies on Carnival, for instance, are available on embarkation day in U.S. ports and many Caribbean destinations. Prices for Carnival's Just for the Bride & Groom package start at $1,195 and include an official civil ceremony, a champagne toast with keepsake flutes, flowers for bride and groom, a wedding cake with cake topper, recorded wedding music, a decorated bridal aisle, and photographic services.

Add some guests, an hour-long open bar with hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, a traditional two-tiered wedding cake and coffee service, and the Welcome Aboard package comes in at $1,635.

Celebrity Cruises' most popular wedding package is the Nautical Nuptials program, featuring a captain-led wedding ceremony at sea offered on all Celebrity ships except Celebrity Xpedition.

Since 2008, even intimate Azamara Cruises has made marriage at sea legal on its ships, offering captain-led wedding ceremonies. Couples tying the knot with Azamara and Celebrity captains can choose from packages that include items ranging from private receptions in the ship's specialty restaurant to cake, champagne, and more. Basic captain-performed wedding packages start at $2,500.

Costa's cruise weddings take place while the ship is in port, either shipboard or ashore, with the company's wedding planners taking care of all the details.

Crystal Cruises' romantic options include a candlelight dinner on the veranda of the couple's suite, onboard florists, a portrait studio, and private shore excursions.

Brides and grooms on Disney Cruise Line can exchange vows aboard the ship or step ashore for a romantic ceremony on the line's private island paradise, Castaway Cay.

With 300 nuptials per year, Norwegian boasts an array of options to turn the basic wedding into an extravaganza. The line offers two wedding packages - Onboard Aisles and On Shore Aisles - available in ports in the United States, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Bermuda.

Both include a ceremony conducted by a local official plus all the usual features of a wedding, from music to cake and wine.

Onboard Aisles packages range from $1,850 per couple (for shipboard weddings held in most southern U.S., West Coast, and Canadian ports) to $2,250 (for Grand Cayman, St. Maarten, and Northeast U.S. ports).

The package includes priority embarkation for the couple and their guests (when the wedding is on embarkation day), snacks and refreshments upon embarkation, a ceremony conducted by a local official, recorded music, a wedding coordinator, a basic bouquet, a matching one-bloom boutonniere, professional photography service for one hour, an 8-by-10 photo, a private website to view and order photographs, a wedding cake, a bottle of private-label champagne, and a keepsake certificate.

On Shore Aisles packages range from $2,250 in a colonial chapel in New Orleans to $2,895 in various locations in Florence, Rome, or Venice, Italy.

On Royal Caribbean, betrothed couples can exchange vows while climbing onboard rock walls, ice skating, or catching the waves on the shipboard surf simulator. The line's Royal Romance package features a one-hour wedding ceremony aboard ship or onshore on embarkation day.

Shoreside venues include hot-air balloons, the glaciers of Alaska, medieval European castles, and an Italian vineyard.

As if hand-holding for the nervous bride and groom weren't enough, some lines and travel agents provide registry service. With all these options, it's not hard to see why brides are going overboard for shipboard ceremonies.