When Christina Sorrelle first visited Swan Harbor Farm in Havre de Grace 16 months ago, it struck her as one of Harford County's hidden gems.
Later, she called to book the facility for her wedding and reception, but was surprised to learn that the date she wanted was taken.
"When I saw the vineyard and the view of the bay, I thought it was incredible," said the 27-year-old Boston resident. "I was sold on it, and having my wedding at Swan Harbor was more important to me than the date. So we scheduled our wedding on our second date choice."
Sorrelle, whose wedding was scheduled for yesterday, is not alone. People from around the country -- and even from around the world -- are filling up the reservation books of wedding reception sites in the county, making Harford a hot spot in the wedding business, say owners of several county sites and the people who book them.
Facility owners and brides attribute the popularity of Harford locations to a range of factors, from picturesque views of the Chesapeake Bay, to lavish mansions and blooming gardens, to quality food service, to facilities that can accommodate both weddings and receptions.
Craig Lanphear, administrator at Swan Harbor, said only about 10 dates are still available in 2006 and that he's busy booking for 2007.
And recognizing a good thing when they see it, operators put on bridal fairs to promote their facilities and the qualities that make Harford an attractive locale for a wedding.
Today Swan Harbor is hosting its annual Bridal Show on the Bay, bringing together 50 vendors of wedding-related services. Next weekend, Richlin Ballroom and Catering in Edgewood will host the other Harford County fall bridal show.
Swan Harbor, which is owned and operated by the county Department of Parks and Recreation, is a relative newcomer to the wedding business. Curious about the potential demand, park officials began booking the site for weddings about 10 years ago but weren't prepared for the response.
Lanphear said business is so brisk that local residents are competing with people from other countries for the location.
"We have people from South Africa, Europe and many of the states that travel here to get married," Lanphear said, adding that Swan Harbor books about 100 weddings a year.
Lanphear attributes the site's popularity chiefly to its proximity to the bay. "There are a few other locations that do outdoor weddings, but they don't have the view," Lanphear said.
Another Harford wedding location that is doing well is the Liriodendron mansion, built in 1898 as the summer home of Johns Hopkins Hospital founder Dr. Howard Kelly.
The Bel Air mansion is booked by many out-of-state couples, said Patti Dallman, a member of the Liriodendron foundation board. Typical is a bride with Harford roots and groom from Pennsylvania or Delaware, for whom the mansion offers a central location.
The alluring qualities of the site are the stately house, the landscaping and the serenity.
"The entire mansion, minus the exhibit space, is theirs for the day," said Dallman. "Many of our couples have one or the other who remembered this place as a child and dreamed of getting married here."
At Ladew Gardens in Monkton, the gardens are the draw for couples who want a floral backdrop for their wedding, said Paul Kountz, vice president of sales and operations.
"We have nationally known gardens here," Kountz said. "In April and May, the tulips and irises are in bloom. In June, it's something different. So about 25 brides a year come here during their chosen time with the gardens as the backdrop."
New York City resident Amber Wyatt, a native of Harford, said she hasn't decided which location to reserve for her planned 2006 nuptials. She recalls from years ago the striking flora at Ladew, but also is attracted by the bayside setting of Swan Harbor.
She's been showing her maid of honor photographs and is at the point where "I'm ready to decide using the heads or tails method," Wyatt said.
Other outdoor Harford County hot spots include the Concord Point Lighthouse, Fiore Winery, Bulle Rock Golf Course and Susquehanna State Park. Although the outdoor facilities seem to be in high demand, indoor venues also are filling their bookings.
Richlin Ballroom and Catering is host to about 100 weddings a year from April to October, including many in the ballroom, owner Steve Vitali said.
"We go off-site to places like Swan Harbor and cater weddings," Vitali said. "But we have our own facilities which accommodate up to 350 people. Our busiest time is May and October because of the weather. We tend to offer the more traditional- type one-stop shopping service, and people like that."
Swan Harbor Farm is hosting Bridal Show on the Bay from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. today. Richlin Ballroom is hosting a Bridal Fair from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 25.