Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cool off with an Antartica Cruise

I have always dreamed of cruising Antartica and with global warming, no time is better than the present. It is even more inticing with a deal like this one from Norwegian Coastal Voyage. My friends at Dreams Alive Travel told me about this great vacation. Here is the excerpt from the cruise line's website:

Chile & Antarctica- A 13-day expedition program featuring expert guides, lectures, and PolarCirkel boat landings, starting at $4,999.

  • Antarctica Season 2007-2008 13-day program on board the MS Fram: Book any departure before July 31, 2007 and receive free airfare with a savings of $750 per person. Offer is good for new bookings only. Offer is not valid on the following select sailing dates: Dec 25, Jan 2, Jan 10 & Jan 18, 2007. Not combinable with other special offers.
  • Upon your arrival in Santiago (Chile) our local guides will immediately make you feel welcome and well taken care of. You'll have some time to appreciate this cosmopolitan city while staying at a luxury hotel, before embarking on your exploration voyage. There is only one way to fully experience the frozen landscape and history of "The White Continent," and that’s by expedition vessel. Convenient charter flights will take you to your embarkation port. With the aid of our expert guides, who provide lectures onboard and off the cuff during landings, you'll have an enthralling, educationally enriching adventure.

    DEPARTURE DATES 2007-2008: NOV 21, 29; DEC 7, 15, 23, 31; JAN 8, 16, 24; FEB 1, 9, 17
    Day 1: Depart the U.S.
    Depart from the U.S. on your overnight flight to Santiago.
    Day 2: Santiago
    Morning arrival at the Santiago airport in Chile. During the transfer to your hotel, a sightseeing tour of the city will be given. You have the rest of the day at leisure, or you can join the optional excursions.
    Day 3: Santiago-Ushuaia/Embarkation
    After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your flight to Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city. You will enjoy an orientation tour of this popular and attractive resort town, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, rivers, and waterfalls, before boarding MS Fram. In the evening an informative welcome meeting will be held. [B/D]
    Day 4-5: The Drake Passage
    Less than two days will be spent crossing the Drake Passage. During the crossing numerous lectures will be held on fascinating Antarctica, considered one of the most breathtaking and beautiful continents. You will arrive in Antarctica on day 5. [B/L/D]
    Days 5-9: Antarctica
    Antarctica, "The White Continent," is more than half the size of North America. On the Antarctic Peninsula you'll experience the narrow, glacier-lined Lemaire Channel, considered one of most beautiful passages in Antarctica-where humpback and killer whales, various penguins, and elephant seals are a common sight-and the breathtaking Neumayer Channel, with its majestic cliffs. Visits by PolarCirkel boats will be attempted in various locations (weather permitting), including:
    Half Moon Island, with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, famous for its large chinstrap penguin rookery, kelp gulls, and Antarctic terns. Whale spotting is also common here.
    Whaler's Bay on Deception Island, with its warm springs and black volcanic sand.
    Ukrainian Vernadsky Base, with its abundant bird life.
    Almirante Brown in Paradise Harbor, named for its beauty, with ice cliffs and floating icebergs, home to gentoo and chinstrap penguins.
    Port Lockroy, surrounded by mountains, glaciers and ice shelves, and known for its gentoo penguins and blue-eyed cormorants.
    Neko Harbor off Errera Channel, home to hundreds of gentoo penguins, Weddell and elephant seals, is believed to be part of main land Antarctica.
    Polish Arctowski Base in Admiralty Bay, where Adelie and gentoo penguins and elephant seals can be found.
    Petermann Island, home of the southernmost gentoo penguin colony, blue-eyed shags and Adelie penguins nest here too.
    Day 9-10: The Drake Passage
    While you cross this stretch of water from Antarctica, a series of lectures will be held on board summing-up topics related to Antarctica. [B/L/D]
    Day 11: Ushuaia/Disembarkation–Santiago
    In the morning you will reach the Argentinean city of Ushuaia. Ushuaia is reckoned to be the most southerly city in the world and is situated on Tierra del Fuego Island south of the Magellan Strait. After breakfast you will be transferred to the airport for your flight to Santiago. Upon arrival, transfer to the hotel. The rest of the day is at your disposal. [B]
    Day 12: Santiago/Return to the U.S.
    Transfer to the airport for your return flight to the U.S. [B]
    Day 13: Arrive in the U.S.
    Morning arrival in the U.S.
    Meal codes: [B] Breakfast [L] Lunch [D] Dinner

MS FRAM Deck Plan & Ship Information

AARP members enjoy a discount of $150 per cabin.


  • Roundtrip economy class transatlantic airfare from New York
  • Airfare from Santiago to Ushuaia
  • Airfare between Ushuaia to Santiago
  • Transfers as indicated in itinerary
  • Services of expedition guides
  • Accommodations in five-star hotels as indicated in itinerary, including breakfast
  • Accommodations in select cabin category
  • Meals as indicated in itinerary
  • Port charges

- Add-on airfares from Miami and Los Angeles- Local entry/departure fees, when applicable- Optional Excursions- Gratuities- Air taxes

Let me know if anybody is interested and we will try to coordinate dates for a "Yuppie Life Cruise to Antartica". Until then, safe travels.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Maximizing Your Investment Returns is a Balancing Act

Today the stock market had the largest single day gain in four years. Meanwhile, the real estate market continues to languish. It is funny how things have flip flopped in just two short years. I know I have talked about this in the past, but I thought it would be fitting to revisit the importance of balancing your investments through asset allocation.

Here are the major investment asset categories (listed from less risky to riskiest):

  • Cash/Money Market- This is the least risky because deposits up to $200k are insured by the Federal government. It also provides the lowest return on your investment (supposedly). Pundits tell us you should have at least 3 months of expenses in cash/money market accounts. In today's environment, I recommend a different strategy. You should have 6 months of expenses in cash. The best place to park your money is either in CDs (certificate of deposits) or in a high interest savings/checking account. Check out these aforementioned links on my past posts.
  • Bonds- Unless you are on the verge of retiring, I cannot really recommend bonds. Some people have been successful in bond investment in the past, but the slightly greater rate of return on bonds these days is not worth the extra risk. If you still want some exposure to bonds (I recommend no more than 10% of your total portfolio if you have to have them), check out high yield bonds or municipal bonds (for strategic tax planning purposes).
  • Stocks- This asset class offers so many vehicles for investing and includes everything from mutual funds to index funds to individual stocks to international stocks. Since this is almost one of the most popular investments, I think it is best to talk about the different kids of stock investments separately.
  • Mutual Funds- I don't know why people invest in mutual funds anymore. Granted there are some really great fund companies (Dodge & Cox is my favorite), but the high fees, inability to manage tax consequences and the emergence of index & electronically traded funds have made mutual funds almost obsolete. Less than 10% of the stocks I own are in mutual funds.
  • Index Funds/Electronically Traded Funds- These are my favorite. Basically, these are baskets of individual stocks that trade collectively as an individual stock. Better yet, whereas in the beginning the index funds were limited to the SPDRs (tracks the S&P 500) and the QQQ (tracking the Nasdaq 100), today there are hundreds of funds that follow everything from oil industry companies to ecologically friendly companies. Here is a list of the top performing index funds. Since these funds trade just like a share of stock, you can control when you sell it to manage your taxes better. Plus, many of the funds are no or low fee. At least 50% of the stocks I own are index funds.
  • Individual Stocks- These are stocks of your favorite companies. I am a firm believer in buying stocks in companies that you like or purchase from. This methodology is used by Warren Buffett (and he is a pretty savvy investor). When buying an individual stock, I usually look for one "on sale". In other words, I buy a stock on a dip (as long as the drop in price isn't related to a fundamental business problem). This may be a terrible example, but I love the organic food store Whole Foods Market (ticker: WFMI). Today, it was released that the company's CEO made unfavorable comments about a rival store (Wild Oats) on a chat room trying to drive down the price of Wild Oats stock just months before Whole Foods made a bid to buy the company. Today, the stock was down 2% because the CEO was stupid. I decided to buy more of the stock because his comments shouldn't affect the fact that America's desire for organic food is growing. Try to limit 20% of your stock portfolio to individual stocks since they are inherently more risky than a basket of stocks (like mutual and index funds offer). Finally, look for individual stocks that pay great dividends. Companies like Altria, Bank of America and others pay over 4% dividends recently. This is better than most money market accounts and offer a pretty good rate of return by itself (the stock's appreciation at this point is just gravy). Better yet, there is an index fund with the ticker DVY that holds the stocks of companies paying the highest dividends.
  • International Stocks- I wanted to give this class of stocks its own section because it is one of my favorites and I have dedicated 20% of my stock portfolio to these stocks. I buy mostly index funds for international stocks (EEM for emerging markets, EEB for Brazil, Russia, China & India, but there are a load of others). The returns on international stocks have been nothing short of spectacular the past few years. I sincerely believe as we continue to expand the global marketplace that many of the best companies (and investments) will come from overseas. Even Warren Buffett has gone overseas to invest in an Israeli company. There will always be turmoil and unstable governments that make this a very risky investment, but it is this inherent risk that makes the return that much better.
  • Real Estate- Everybody who owns real estate has a portion of their wealth invested in the asset class of real estate. You can also invest in REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) which allow you to own a stock like investment whose value is tied to a portfolio of real estate investments (apartment complexes, skyscrapers, hotels, etc.). Recently the value of REITS has declined with the overall market. However, I still recommend having some money in REITs (although only a paltry 10%). Buying the stocks of home builders is another way to "play" the real estate market as there is a direct correlation between the two. You can also invest in real estate by owning a rental home, duplex, vacation home, timeshare/fractional ownership or even owning a small strip center. This is my preferred way of investing in real estate because you need very little money to get started. Banks love to loan money for real estate purchases, but you would be hard pressed to find a bank to loan you money to buy stocks. Plus, with 1031 exchanges, you can defer the tax implications of selling real estate. I will write posts on this later, but you can get a good idea by reading my post, how to become a landlord.
  • Alternative Investments- This includes so many different things: investing in a hedge fund, starting your own business, investing in a partnership or private company, investing in art, wine futures, foreign currencies, vintage automobiles or anything that you can buy at one price today and sell for a higher price in the future. Again, these tend to be the riskiest of investments so only invest up to 10% in these various ventures.

To recap, I think the best balance of investments is the following:

Cash (6 months of expenses) - approximately 10%

Bonds- 0-10%

Mutual Funds- 0-10%

Index Funds/Electronically Traded Funds- 50%

Individual Stocks- 10%

International Stocks- 20% (you can invest in individual stocks through ADRs, but I prefer index funds for international stocks)

Real Estate- 10%

Alternative Investments- 10%

The numbers don't exactly add up if you have bonds or mutual funds, but if you do just subtract the total from Index Funds. I will dedicate a post for Index Funds because they deserve the attention. Until then, take care and happy investing.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

How to Throw a Party, Part 3

I promise this is my last post regarding throwing a party. If you haven't had a chance to read Part 1 & Part 2, here are the links:

How to Throw a Party, Part 1
How to Throw a Party, Part 2

This post, I want to focus on the food and drink of my wife's surprise birthday party, including some recipes.

On one table, I laid out all of the appetizers and a drink station near the front door. Since this was a fairly large party (over 60 people), I wanted a large variety of little bits to please any palate. Keeping with my Italian theme, I offered the following:

  • Sliced Deli meats- Prosciutto di Parma, Salami, Mortadella (kids love this stuff because it tastes like bologna), Capicolla (hot) and Sopressata (sweet). I bought basically a pound of each which was plenty.
  • Cheese- Fresh sliced mozzarella with a sprinkling of salt and black pepper, Fontal (sheep milk cheese), aged Provolone, Parmigiano Reggiano, Asiago and Gorgonzola. The idea here is to arrange the cheeses from mildest to strongest (which I did in the order above). This way your guests can progress on the cheeses until they reach their comfort zone. I also like to mix up goat, cow and sheep milk cheeses to make it interesting. With the cheese, I offered an array of fresh and dried fruits. These are natural pairings. I offered green and red grapes, fresh cherries, dried pear slices, dried cherries, figs (both mission and Smyrna) and dates (madjool). I also put together a nice mix of nuts including cashews, pistachios and almonds (blanched). Put the nuts on a baking sheet in an oven at 450 degrees for 15 minutes until golden. These make boring nuts taste fantastic. I should have also put out some honey, but in all of the confusion I forgot.
  • In the past, I always made a mini caprese salad on a toothpick, but this time I decided to deconstruct it. I took super sweet grape tomatoes and marinated them in balsamic vinegar, garlic powder, pepper and olive oil. Just before the party I added a bunch of fresh basil (torn up into pieces) with small balls of fresh mozzarella and plenty of salt. If you want to use toothpicks, simply put the mozzarella on first, then a basil leaf and then the grape (or cherry) tomatoes to cap it off. Salad on a stick!
  • Olives, galore. I am not a big fan of olives, but my wife loves them. Here are some great ways to jazz up the olives: stuff them with crazy things. I love taking different varieties of pitted olives and stuffing them with: almonds, pistachios, any nuts, prosciutto, roasted garlic, fresh garlic slivers, gorgonzola, provolone, any cheese, roasted red peppers or really any flavor item you can fit in the little hole. Once I have stuffed the olives (or leave them plain), I use my microplane and zest lemons and oranges all over the top and then drizzle really good quality olive oil all over the place with a dash of white balsamic vinegar (add dried chili flakes if you want some heat to the dish). This is the best way to jazz up canned or jarred olives.
  • I love bread. I decided to offer a big variety that included a semolina loaf, some ciabatta rolls, thinly sliced non-seeded Italian and a seasame seeded Italian round. Next the bread, I put some roasted garlic, butter whipped with gorgonzola cheese and a sformato (see recipe below).
  • Sformato (ricotta cheese spread). Ingredients: 3 cups of ricotta, 1 cup of parmesean, 2 eggs, 2 tablespoon olive oil, 2 tablespoons of lemon zest, 1 tablespoon each of salt & pepper Directions: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Mix together the ricotta (room temperature), parmesean, egg, olive oil, lemon zest , salt & pepper and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Place the mixture into a non-stick baking pan about 9 inches in diameter. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes before serving.

Main Course
You are probably freaking out already that there is this much food, but there isn't a lot more food left. I like for people to fill up on appetizers and then wow them with just two or three entrée items. The appetizer stuff takes no time to prepare and can be done in advance. I didn't even start cooking my main course dishes until my guests arrived (with the exception of the veggies and the orzo in the egg bake). Since I was going to cook and entertain at the same time, my main courses have to be quick. I also like to prepare a meat, fish/seafood and a vegetarian option to satisfy all guests. Here you go:

  • Pancetta wrapped jumbo shrimp with sage and a honey, orange glaze. This sounds like a restaurant dish, but is super easy. Use raw, deveined, cleaned shrimp (with the tail on). I buy big bags of this stuff frozen at Sam's and defrost the shrimp slowly in the fridge throughout the day. 30 minutes before you are ready to cook, mix together 1/2 cup of orange marmalade, 1/2 cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons of orange zest, 1/4 cup of finely chopped sage, 2 tablespoons of honey. Mix together well and drop all of your shrimp in, coating them well. Let them marinade for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, grab your round slices of pancetta (thinly sliced) and unravel the rounds, slicing them every three inches or so. Get a nonstick pan over medium high heat ready. Grab your shrimp out one by one (no need to pat dry) and wrap the meaty party of the shrimp in pancetta in a spiral motion so there is only one layer of pancetta. Place in the hot skillet until the pancetta is crispy and browned on one side (about five minutes). Flip shrimp over and cook other side for five minutes more. Do not disturb the shrimp while they are cooking or the pancetta will not crisp up. . . HINT: You can also do this under the broiler, but the pancetta doesn't get quite as crispy and the shrimp tend to overcook. Serve immediately.
  • Grilled Flank steak with Gorgonzola Cream. This is a cheap and easy way to feed a lot of people. Take a 5-7 pound Flank steak and stab it all over with a fork. Rub in a generous amount of salt, pepper and olive oil and marinade for 4 hours (or overnight). Let the meat come to room temperature before placing it directly on the grill over high heat. Cook for 10 minutes on one side before flipping and cooking for another 10 minutes. Close the grill, turn off the heat and let the meat roast for another 10 minutes for medium rare. Remove from heat and let rest for 15 minutes. Finally, thinly slice the meat against the grain at a 45 degree bias. To make the gorgonzola cream sauce, simmer a cup of heavy cream for 30 minutes until thick (should cover and stick to the back of a wooden spoon). Remove from heat. Add some white pepper and a 1/4 cup of gorgonzola cheese crumbles. Stir until combined and cheese sauce is smooth. Drizzle a bit of sauce over the meat and put any remaining sauce in a side dish so people can add more if they want. I served the steak on top of a bed of baby spinach that was seasoned with lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.
  • Egg bake with Orzo and herbs. Cook the orzo (a small pasta that looks like rice) according the box's directions. Drain pasta water well and pour some olive oil in to prevent the orzo from sticking. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Beat a dozen eggs with 2 cups of ricotta cheese, 2 tablespoons of milk, a pinch of salt, a pinch of black pepper and herbs finely chopped (fresh basil, fresh oregano and fresh parsley. Add in orzo and stir until all ingredients are combined. In a 9x12 baking dish that has been coated with cooking spray. Pour in egg mixture and bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes until eggs bake is firm and a toothpick inserted in center is clean when removed. If the top is still soupy, put under the broiler for a couple of minutes. You can also sprinkle some grated parmesean on top for an additional flavor.
  • Grilled Veggies with Roasted Garlic. I thickly sliced eggplant, zucchini, summer squash and red onion. I tossed the veggies in olive oil, lemon zest, juice of a lemon and a couple of splashes of balsamic vinegar. I placed the vegetables on the grill over medium high heat until they were softened a little bit. Meanwhile, I took 4 heads of garlic and sliced off the top half. I sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper and wrapped tightly in aluminum foil before sticking in a 420 degree oven for 40 minutes. After the veggies came off the grill, I sprinkled with salt and pepper with tons of chopped herbs (fresh basil, fresh oregano, fresh parsley and suck it in the 420 degree oven with the garlic for the final 20 minutes to finish cooking and to meld the flavors of the vegetables. I took some of the roasted garlic and mashed it up really well and mixed it into the veggies when they were done cooking. The remaining roasted garlic I also mashed with salt and olive oil and put it near the bread for a roasted garlic spread.

I am not a baker by any means, but love inventing different types of cakes. My sister-in-law is an incredible baker and cake decorator so she was in charge of the birthday cake. My Aunt Marie also makes the best biscotti in the world (both an almond and toffee variety). I don't have the recipes, but here is the gist of the birthday cake (you can buy cake mix and replicate the filling that follows:

  • Pistachio Cream Cake. To make the filling, finely grind 2 cups of pistachios in a food processor with 4 cups of powdered sugar. Mix in a stick of cream cheese (room temperature), a stick of butter and a cup of heavy whipping cream until a smooth consistency is achieved. You can also mix in store bought butter cream icing to smooth out the pistachio mixture. This is the filling for between the layers of cake. The icing on top was whipped cream. Take a quart of heavy whipping cream, 1 cup of powdered sugar and a tablespoon of almond extract and beat until soft peaks are formed. Decorate the cake with ground pistachios around the side of the cake with maraschino cherries on top.

With the huge selection of food, finding the right wines to pair with the food wasn't easy. Of course, all of the wines had to be from Italy to keep with the theme. Here are some of the wines I purchased from

  • Prosecco- I bought two brands, Brio by Folonari and Zardetto. The Proseccos (sparkling wine similar to champagne, but a bit drier and sweeter with less carbonation) paired nicely with most of the cheeses, the caprese salad, as well as the dessert.
  • White Wines- Again, I bought two brands: 2005 Lugana Zenato & 2005 Danzante Pinot Grigio. The Zenato is a fuller bodied white that paired nicely with the egg bake, roasted vegetables, olives. The Pinot Grigio is a little lighter with flavors of honey and lemon. This paired perfectly with the pancetta wrapped shrimp, the dried fruit.
  • Red Wines- Two more reds. The lighter style 2004 Vitiano Falesco. This red is so smooth it doesn't need food, but went nicely with the cured meats (salami, sopressata, prosciutto, etc.), egg bake, sformato and practically everything else on the menu. For a fuller body, super jammy drink to go with the flank steak with gorgonzola cream sauce, I decided on the 2005 Di Maio Norante Sangiovese. This wine was the crowd favorite and is extremely quaffable for a big wine.
  • Limoncello- The ultimate digestif. This homemade limoncello (also made by my Aunt Marie), takes the peels of lemons soaking in a liter of vodka in a dark closet for 2-3 weeks. Afterward, you strain out the lemon peels, you add 2 cups of simple syrup (equal parts of sugar and water that are brought almost to a boil or until the sugar is completely dissolved) and stir well. Stick the whole bottle in the freezer before serving in small glasses. This is some potent stuff, but so delicious and easy to make.

Okay, that's it. I hope this will inspire some of you who are hesitant about throwing parties to take the leap and entertain. It is so much fun to throw a surprise party and share an evening of great friends, food and drink. Just remember to keep it simple to spare yourself the headaches. Relax and enjoy the party and your friends.

I would love to hear about some of the parties you have thrown or attended in the past. Include any neat ideas for gift bags, food, decorations or any other comments.suggestions.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Throwing a Party, Part 2

If you didn't read Part 1, which contains a lot of general tips on throwing a party, I have included it here: Throwing a Party, Part 1

Throwing a Party, Part 2

I wanted to give the particulars of my wife's surprise party. Hopefully going through the actual party will give you some ideas for hosting your own party.

Advance Prep- I ordered the invitations (from a month before the party and mailed them 2 weeks before the party. A great way to personalize the invitation is to get find a great picture (especially of the birthday person) and put it on the stamp. This is done so easily through Photo Stamps.

Food- I did all of the shopping the day before the party to ensure the freshness of all ingredients. I started at Sam's Club, the perfect place for all of those bulk items needed for a large party. I found incredible deals on fresh mozzarella, grape tomatoes, huge frozen shrimp, flank steak, decorative dinner plates, pistachios and a bunch of other items. Since I was doing an antipasto platter, I needed some Italian deli meats so I headed to Publix. Publix has Boar's Head meat, which are incredible. I also bought some arugula, espresso and a couple of other items I didn't need in bulk. I then headed over to Fresh Market, a gourmet grocery store similar to Whole Foods, but not completely organic. This is where I bought the Prosciutto di Parma (probably the finest piece of deli meat in the world and certainly one of the most expensive at $20 per pound). I also found a nice selection of cheese here, including Fontal (a great Italian Sheep's milk cheese).

Drink- Keeping with my all Italian theme, all of my drinks were made from Italy. This included some Prosecco (Italy's version of sparkling wine, albeit more restrained), white & red wine, Panna water, San Pellegrino sparkling sodas (I love the Aranciata and Limonata flavors), Italian beer (Peroni & Moretti) some homemade limoncello and some espresso. I found most of these items (including the water and Italian sodas) from Total Wine & More. This is like Toys 'R Us for alcoholics. They have some great prices and an expansive selection.

Decorations- This definitely isn't my strong point so I went with fresh flowers. Here is a great hint, instead of searching for florists in your area look for floral supply. These are wholesalers to florists and offer a huge discount over your local retailer. My wife loves the color pink, so I decorated the house with peonies (her favorite, they look like huge roses) and roses. I also love to use candles everywhere, but since there were going to be tons of kids running around, I opted out of this. Finally, I decided to go with paper plates and utensils that I found from Sam's Club (believe it or not they had paper plates that matched the invitation-circles in pastels with a pink background). For background music, I simply put on a digital music station (instrumental) that can be found on most cable and satellite providers). Although the plates and utensils were disposable, I used porcelain platters. Most of them were from Deruta in Italy. These are beautiful hand painted pieces. I love using different shapes and heights to make the appearance interesting. I also purchased stemless wine glasses from Linens 'N Things. These were only $19 for a set of 12 and were a great buy and great quality.

I know this seems to be the never ending post, but next time I am going to talk specifics about the food and drinks that were served. I have some great recipes that were quick and easy to make, a key point so you can enjoy the party instead of slaving over the stove.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Throwing a Party

First, let me apologize for not posting sooner. This is a crazy time of year for me. I've been super busy with real estate, my day job and planning a surprise birthday party for my wife. Which brings me a post about what to do (and not to do) when throwing a surprise party.

Like everything else, I love to plan every detail. I am a firm believer in "you never plan to fail, only fail to plan". Here are some quick general steps to planning a party on the sly:

  • Don't tell ANYBODY about the surprise party until you send the invitations out (preferably 2 weeks before the party date). Some people have a hard time keeping secrets, while others may accidentally slip up.
  • I prefer sending out old school paper invitations, just make sure you do not include a return address if the surprise party is for a person in your house. This way they do not see any invitations that were returned in the mail. Check out Vista Print. They have some of the best prices on invitations, business cards, postcards, etc. on the web. Just make sure people RSVP to your private email address or work phone number (if appropriate) so don't have to dodge calls on your cell phone. If you want to send invitations electronically, check out Evite. This lets you organize RSVPs very easily and it is a fun and efficient way to send invitations.
  • Invite long lost friends. No surprise party is complete without surprise guests. Go ahead and find a childhood friend or somebody the party person hasn't seen in awhile and invite them.
  • Pick a theme. No matter what type of surprise party you are throwing (birthday, anniversary, promotion, etc.), pick a theme and carry that theme through ad nauseum. My wife is 100% Italian, so the theme was a night in Italy. All of the food, wine, decorations and even the bottled water (Acqua Panna) and soda (San Pellegrino) were Italian or made in Italy. I will post more on the food and drink later.
  • Keep it simple. In order to maintain the element of surprise, a lot of shopping, decorating and preparation must be done at the last minute. Nothing is worse than spending the entire party cooking and cleaning. To avoid this, keep the food and decorations very simple. Don't be afraid to buy prepared or frozen food. Otherwise choose food that cooks very quickly. For decorating, flowers and balloons are quick and easy and add a special touch.
  • To be the ultimate host, read the morning paper's headlines. When hosting or attending the party, pick 4 or 5 current events that you can discuss with your guests. It makes the conversation go easily. Also, refresh your memory on what is going on in your guest's lives. They may have new jobs, moved recently or had a loved one pass. By asking your guests about things that are important to them, you are guaranteed to have satisfied guests.
  • Introductions. In a mixed crowd, make it a point to introduce at least 5 people to other guests they may not know. If you are having a sit down dinner party, I like mixing up the seating arrangement to seat people who may not know each other by each other.
  • Play some games. Even though you aren't 10 years old anymore, try playing some games or competitions with your guests. One great idea is to get a bag of corks and paint one of them red (or any other color). Guests reach in and draw a cork. If they pull out the painted cork, they get a bottle of wine. Another great game is get a plastic trashcan with a lid. Cut a hole in the lid large enough to fit an arm through. Line the trashcan with a trash bag and fill it up with ice and a large variety of different drinks. When somebody gets thirsty, they reach in to get their drink and are "stuck" with whatever they pull out. It is really fun if you put all kinds of beverages that people don't drink on a regular basis(Yoohoo, 40 ounces of malt liquor, Capri Suns, etc.).
  • Don't be over zealous about cleaning your house before the party. Let's face it, your house is going to be trashed during the party. Save your energy for cleaning after the party. Just make sure valuables are stowed away, your house is straightened and the bathrooms have plenty of toilet paper. Forget about vacuuming and mopping the floors beforehand because nobody will ever notice.

Here are some other quick tips: Turn on all of your lights or light a bunch of candles. Blast your air conditioner. Secure any pets. Put a plunger and air freshner in the bathroom. Re-arrange any furniture to improve seating and the flow of people. Place food in different areas around the house to prevent traffic jams at the table. Pre-wrap the napkins and utensils for guests if serving buffet style. Place trashcans everywhere with extra bags nearby. Get more ice than you think you will need. Don't be shy about asking your guests to leave when you are ready for the party to end (just tell them you have to be up early and have a night of clean up ahead of you).

In the coming days, I am going to go through in detail the surprise birthday party I planned for my wife, including menu items. In the meantime, please post some comments on things you liked/disliked about parties you have attended or hosted in the past. Take care.