Rob & Amber: Swept Away
06/06/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
He was about to begin his biggest challenge, the ultimate adventure—and the mother of all endurance tests—and Rob Mariano was hurt. "We've never done a television show where he hasn't gotten injured," says his beloved, Amber Brkich, as Rob limps around their room at the Atlantis, Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas. "In Marquesas he did something to his teeth, in Panama he got bit by a moray eel, and on Amazing Race he cracked a tooth. And here he stepped on a piece of coral and sliced his foot open."
Fortunately Rob pulled it together in time for the main event—the spectacularly romantic beach wedding of reality TV's winningest couple. Held April 16—and filmed for a May 24 CBS special—the ceremony for 230 guests became Rob and Amber's latest coup: They managed to make it an intimate event despite a swarm of television crews. "It was so unique and special to them and it was just like being at a regular wedding," says Amber's cousin Colleen Funderburk. "I didn't even notice the cameras."
For Amber, 26—who fell in love with her tribemate Rob, 29, en route to winning Survivor: All-Stars in 2004—"I think the cameras actually calm her down," says her sister-in-law Cassie Brkich. In the hours before the ceremony, with her own hair in pin curls, she even stepped in to help her eight anxious bridesmaids get ready. "In every wedding there's always drama about the hair," she says. "Guys have it so easy. All they have to stress about is if they'll have a beard or not."
Actually all was not completely serene at Rob's suite either. "You look like the Backstreet Boys," Mike Mariano teased his brother's 10 other groomsmen as they donned their off-white linen shirts, olive pants and brown Tommy Bahama sandals. Rob, who sipped champagne and played a dice game until it was time for him to put on his light cream Tommy Bahama suit, ignored the bickering. "Everybody was asking me all day, 'Was I nervous?' " he says. "I started to question why am I not nervous? But we've been engaged almost a year and we've gone through everything together. I know what I'm doing."
And by 7:15 p.m., when Amber walked down the makeshift aisle in an Arlette Kronk gown (see box), with her father, Val, at her side and 25-mph winds spraying guests with ocean mist, any doubts were long forgotten. "You might have started out as competitors," the non-denominational minister J.R Reynolds told the beaming couple, "but today you stand side by side as each other's truest friends." Next came the vows, which they wrote themselves (Rob finished his at 3 a.m.). "I've never met anyone who's made me feel so special," he said. "I promise to always be true to you." Amber's teary response: "Thank you for making my fairy-tale wedding come true, and by that I mean, thank you for choosing me."
Two kisses and a little crying later, Mr. and Mrs. Mariano left the beach to strains of "Oh Happy Day," sung by a BeBe Winans-led 50-member gospel choir carrying tiki torches. "That was a bit of a Survivor moment, but it was the only one," says wedding planner Colin Cowie. Instead, Cowie hung 150 cream lanterns and draped large pieces of cream fabric between palm trees to create a sea-and-sail-boat effect in the reception area between Paradise Lagoon and the Royal Baths Pool. Guests danced beneath 15 glittering disco balls, and trumpeter Chris Botti surprised the couple by playing "When I Fall in Love" for their first dance. The showstopper, however, was Amber and her mother, Cheryl, dancing to Celine Dion's "Because You Love Me." "I looked at my dad and I go, 'Don't worry, I'm not dancing with you,' " says Rob with a laugh. "He had this panicked look on his face."
Overall, says Amber, "it wasn't a serious wedding, but it was elegant and cool and relaxed." As when her brother Val moonwalked to "Billie Jean." "Before he goes anywhere he always tells his wife, 'Please, if they play Michael Jackson, don't let me do the dance,' " says Amber. "And he always does it! When I heard the song, I went running in my heels, and Rob's like, 'Don't fall,' and I'm like, 'I have to get back—I know my brother's dancing!' " Just before 9 p.m. the newlyweds cut into their five-tiered tiramisu wedding cake as fireworks went off in the sky behind them. "Rob looks as happy as he could ever be," says his brother Mike. "That kid has a horseshoe up his [butt], he's so lucky. And he's lucky to have Amber. They're on a good roll right now, and hopefully it will continue the rest of their lives."
It was after 1 a.m. when the newlyweds finally slipped away to their $25,000-a-night suite, complete with rose petals and champagne. "Both our feet were killing us," says Amber. "We were just out." But even so, Rob carried his bride across the threshold as if it were one last reward challenge. "He goes, 'Honey, I have to pick you up,' and I said, 'It's okay,' and he goes, 'No, I have to pick you up!' " The next morning, "on our first day of being husband and wife," says Rob, they reflected on their new status. "I definitely felt different afterwards," says Amber. "And we're having so much fun saying, 'Oh, my husband needs this' or 'Excuse me, my wife is here.' If so much fun saying the words!"
After a weeklong honeymoon in Los Cabos, Mexico, the pair headed back to the states and stopped by their new home in Pensacola, Fla. Down the road they'd like to have kids—"we both come from a family of three, so I'd like to have three," says Amber—but for now they plan to travel (they won three trips on The Amazing Race) and—for the first time in nearly three years—escape the constant glare of cameras. "It's going to be so weird," says Amber. "We're used to always having 10 people with us." Rob, however, isn't worried about it being just the two of them. "I'm like a little kid in love for the first time," he says. "I hope it never wears off."
Alex Tresniowski. Cynthia Wang and Ulrica Wihlborg in Paradise Island