Fionna & Dakota
Text by Melanie Saxton Photos by Ryan Bumgarner Photography
They both grew up in Houston, went to the same Presbyterian church camps and swam competitively for club swim teams that regularly raced each other. It seems that they should have met, yet they didn’t until 10 years later, when an online dating service “matched” them up. This serendipitous connection propelled Fionna Rhian Woodward and Dakota James Phillips down the aisle on Memorial Day, May 25, 2015, in a breathtaking outdoor ceremony — in a castle, no less!
Fionna attended Jersey Village High School and University of Texas-Austin, where she earned a bachelor of science in nursing. She is employed by St. David’s Hospital in Austin as a registered nurse.
Dakota attended Clear Lake High School and University of Houston Clear Lake, earning a degree in history. He is a swim coach and has headed back to college to become a physical therapist.
Connecting and Courtship
Their thoroughly modern romance got a jumpstart online, thanks to Match.com. “It really does work!” says Fionna of the site, which promises “more dates, more relationships, more marriages.” They met in person at a coffee shop one freezing Sunday morning and ended up staying until the place closed at 3 p.m.! With so much in common, it was hard to believe they hadn’t met before. Both of these native Houstonians ran in the same circles and now count their lucky stars (and the Internet) that they finally connected.
The couple dated six months and managed to spend plenty of time together outdoors in the fresh air while pursuing their careers.
“Dakota told me after about three weeks that he knew he wanted to marry me,” says Fionna. That was exciting and terrifying at the same time, and she asked him to wait at least six months before seriously asking the question. Sure enough, six months later, he did just that.
The magical moment occurred as they were vacationing in Sedona, Arizona during a week-long hiking trip. Fionna is not a morning person, but Dakota had her out on the hiking trail as soon as it opened. No one else was in sight as they hiked for nearly an hour. Finally they came to a clearing with an amazing view. Fionna stopped to take it all in and heard Dakota rustling in the backpack behind her. She assumed he was getting some water until he asked her to turn around.
Suddenly, the love of her life was down on one knee with the ring box extended in his hand — upside down! It took her a few seconds to realize what he was holding, and she burst out laughing at the upside down box. That wasn’t the initial reaction he was expecting, and after realizing his blunder he righted the box and asked her to marry him. Of course, she said yes. It was perfect.
The couple was engaged for nine months and knew they wanted to go somewhere fun to get married, but had no idea where. They opened up the suggestions to the family. Fionna’s parents are both from England and transplanted to Houston (and April Sound on Lake Conroe during the weekends) to raise their daughters. “My mum was actually the one who suggested the Asheville, North Carolina area, and Dakota found the Castle Ladyhawke venue,” says Fionna.
There was some initial joking about being married in a castle, but the website made it look amazing. After a few minutes of looking at the photos together, she turned to him and said, “I actually really love this place.” His response? “Good, because I do too!” They called the venue immediately and booked a special date — Memorial Day — which gave their guests an extra long leisurely weekend to travel and enjoy the 70 degree weather. Some might say the castle destination was also a subtle, and appropriate, nod to Fionna’s British heritage.
Castle Ladyhawke is located in Tuckasegee, North Carolina and transports visitors to a bygone era. In this current century, the venue might be considered more novel than traditional, but it provided a majestic setting for a classic wedding. The lawn overlooked a beautiful mountain range, emblematic of the couple’s love of the great outdoors.
In another fitting tribute to nature, the groom was surprised as Over the Rainbow played during the processional. The bride’s eyes welled with tears, knowing the song was special to him. She was happy her father was there to hold her up, and by the time she reached the groom (who doesn’t cry easily), she had an even harder time keeping it together, especially when she saw the tears in his eyes. “I was so emotional that holding Dakota’s hand during the ceremony felt like my lifeline,” says the bride. Their first kiss as a married couple was comforting and exciting all at once.
Floral and décor: While Mother Nature provided much of the décor, the bride incorporated various pink-hued roses mixed with white roses and greenery to complement her navy theme. Flowers decorated the church aisles and were used in the bouquets, boutonnieres and corsages.
Attendants: Officiant Jacqueline Weiks provided the couple various ceremonies and writings from which to choose. They were encouraged to write their own additions, which made the moment even more special. The bride’s parents, Mike and Stephanie Woodward, joined the groom’s parents, John and Kay Phillips, in witnessing the union.
The couple chose to keep their bridal party intimate, with family only. For this reason, and because the groom doesn’t have brothers, they had their sisters stand by them as attendants. The bride’s twin sister Alyssia and older sister Sabrina served as bridesmaids. Dakota’s two sisters, Jessie and Ryann, were also bridesmaids in lieu of groomsmen.
Attire: The bride wore a stunning Saison Blanche Couture sheath gown with a sheer bateau neckline and sweep train, with Swarovski crystals and stones beaded and embroidered throughout. Her mother altered the dress slightly and added the bustle using a button from the bride’s grandmother’s dress — which served as her “something old.” Her “something new” was a pair of earrings she received from the groom the morning before the ceremony. Her “something borrowed” was sentimental — the veil, made by her mother for her older sister’s wedding. Her “something blue” was her sapphire engagement ring. To complete the ensemble, the bride wore shoes previously broken in, which her dance instructor advised.
Bridesmaids picked their own short navy dresses and shoes, each just a bit different to show off their personalities. The groom wore a tailored black suit with a vest, navy tie and pocket square to complement the bridesmaids. Both fathers and the couple’s brothers-in-law wore pink ties and boutonnieres.
Top wedding moment: After the ceremony and before the reception, the bride and groom had a few precious minutes to themselves. One of the bride’s best friends very thoughtfully set out two glasses of wine and a plate of cheese and crackers. It was a small gesture, but meant so much and allowed them to calm down and have a bite to eat.
The reception was indoors, where guests soaked up the splendor of Old World charm. The deep wood hues of the rafters were set off by soaring ceilings, stone accents, tapestries and stained glass windows.
Floral and décor: Arrangements of hydrangeas, golden rod and pink bell flowers adorned tabletops, which were covered in navy and white linens. A full meal was a must — a large serving of the main course of salmon ensured no one would go hungry.
The Cake: The three-tiered chocolate, vanilla and chocolate cake was frosted in buttercream. The delicious confection was so dense that the cake cutter bent and had to be replaced with a large vegetable knife!
Top Reception Moments: The couple’s first dance was to Damien Rice’s Blower’s Daughter. The bride and her father danced to Have I Told You Lately by Rod Stewart. The groom and his mother danced to My Wish by Rascal Flatts. A carefully crafted playlist kept the dance floor hopping.
Three of the bride’s childhood friends wrote a song for her by reworking My Sharona by The Knack into My Fionna and performed in front of all the guests with inflatable guitars! “It was hilarious and surprisingly well-written,” notes the bride.
The bride wrote thank you cards to each of the guests. “I know it wasn’t easy or convenient, so I wanted them to know how much we appreciated them being there with us and being such a big part of our lives,” she said.
The Exit: Sparklers lit the exit to the shuttles, which took the guests to and from the venue.
The Honeymoon: The couple postponed their honeymoon until August to balance work and school. A trip to Boston and the Cape Cod area allowed them to relax on the beach and eat delicious seafood.