Take a Working Vacation

Pam and Darin Bowers had their hearts set on using their vacation time to take their health care skills (Pam is a nurse, Darin an ophthalmologist) to people truly in need of them. And they wanted their children to be part of the experience. Bringing eye care to the remote country of Honduras, meanwhile, was not their three daughters’ idea of a fun summer getaway. For six days, the Lynchburg, Va., family treated patients in Roatan, an impoverished island off the Honduran coast. “It was extremely hot, and 180 people came through on that first day,” says Pam. “But every day, after we left the clinic, we’d do something fun. Every evening, there were these beautiful sunsets. The water was clear, and we’d often go snorkeling.” In the end, though, the trip far exceeded all of their expectations because it meant so much more than a good time.

Nearly a quarter of all travelers are interested in volunteer vacations, according to the Travel Industry Association. Travel agents, resorts and volunteer organizations are promoting so-called “voluntourism” and making it the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. Interested? Here are just a few of the many voluntourism options out there:

Take a hike and talk to the animals Volunteer projects suitable for kids are often tacked on to more traditional vacations, according to John Stacy, owner of It’s Your Trip Travel & Tours, an online travel agent in Columbus, Ohio. One of his company’s most popular vacations combines National Park tours with a two-day stop to care for animals. Travelers visit Zion and the Grand Canyon and then veer off to Kanab, Utah, home of Angel Canyon and the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, where thousands of rescued cats, dogs, horses and other pets live, and visitors can provide some all-important attention.

Resort to something different In today’s economy, just like every other business, resorts are eager for your business. Many have teamed up with local charities and organizations to guide guests to volunteer opportunities nearby. In return for reaching out, some resorts give back with coupons for lunch or a spa visit. The Marriott in Wailea Beach, Hawaii, recently worked with Habitat for Humanity to offer discounted rooms and meals in exchange for hours on Habitat’s building sites in Maui.

Cultural immersion Mainstream sites like Travelocity have partnered with Globe Aware, Earthwatch Institute and other programs to meet traveler demand for trips that make a difference, even trips for as short as a week. For families, Cross Cultural Solutions offers 20 programs in 12 countries -- including Thailand, Morocco and Brazil -- suitable for kids as young as 8.

The Bowers family has gone to Roatan every year since that first trip in 2004, and the girls are completely on board, planning their calendars around it. Because of the experience, Katelyn would like to go to medical school. “We went to Honduras with the idea we have a lot to give back,” says Pam. “But we learned so much. By our standards, they have nothing, and yet they are such contented people. We come home feeling as though our lives have been so enriched.”

The Perfect Potluck

Is the economy throwing a damp dishtowel on your dinner party plans? Don’t be too quick to cut social gatherings from your budget. Sharing good times with friends -- no matter what the bank statement says -- is too important to forgo. And with a little ingenuity, it doesn’t have to cost beaucoup bucks.

Hosting a potluck dinner, for instance, lets you be creative about making it fun and keeping it reasonable. Whether it’s a one-off or a regular event, try adding a theme to your potluck party. It gives guests a good starting point for deciding what to bring and builds in a conversation starter, according to event planner Kathryn Osborne, who organizes parties in New York City. Themes can vary as widely as your imagination allows.

Here are a few jumping-off points:

Outsource the menu Mary Conway and her friends do Bon Appetit potlucks several times a year, and each guest prepares a course from any cuisine magazine. Choosing menus laid out by professional foodies will add variety to your party. “Initially, none of us were all that confident in our cooking, but now we hardly ever have a failure,” says Conway, of Newton, Mass. “Sometimes the dishes don’t look much like the pictures in the magazine, but we have a lot of fun, and the food is secondary.”

Home on the range Party planner and Houston native Osborne likes a cowboy party theme, with such dishes as ribs, chili or baked beans for the entree. Salsa and chips, cornbread and some old-fashioned apple pie can round out the meal. It’s enjoyable, yummy and cheap.

Eat what you read Call it a twist on the old come-as-you-are party and invite guests to bring a dish in keeping with the book on their nightstand. Assign them a part of the meal and see what arrives at the appointed hour. The guest who’s reading Ina Garten’s latest cookbook may have an advantage over the one who’s nodding off to a John Grisham thriller, but that’s the beauty of it. (Note: This theme works well with movies too.)

Of course, with so many cooks, there is some room for missteps if you don’t plan ahead. Bear in mind a few tried-and-true potluck pointers for making the party a hit:

Appoint a manager Particularly if you form a supper club, an overseer who knows the abilities and behaviors of the group at large can help avoid potluck pitfalls. The job may involve creating and assigning the menu (and avoiding the seven-casseroles-on-a-sideboard disaster), nudging the guy who always makes cocktails into trying a dessert and keeping the chronic latecomer from taking on the hors d’oeuvres course (again).

Mix it up Push beyond your comfort zone and invite a multigenerational mix of guests, suggests Osborne. Keep in mind older or younger friends and neighbors who don’t necessarily fit “neatly” with the group. “It’s fascinating and wonderful to see what comes out of those new encounters,” says Osborne. Some guests can bring wine so they don’t feel obligated to cook or embarrassed for arriving empty-handed. If they say they’d like to prepare something, give them an assignment. The more food, the merrier.

Go fancy Just because you want everyone to pitch in doesn’t mean you have to be informal. Send invitations -- Evites are a charming (and free!) alternative to purchasing and sending paper invitations. Sit down to a table set with the good china. After all, what are you saving it for? 

Set up the next one With everyone pitching in, your party will be everyone’s success, and chances are there will be a call to do it again -- and soon. As host, it’s your responsibility to pass the baton. Before the first guest leaves, pull out calendars and decide on the next date and host.

Raise a glass Don’t forget to toast each other’s good work. You all deserve it.

The Stress-free, Low-cost Party Planner

The weather outside may be frightful, but hosting a great holiday party shouldn’t be. If you’re game to entertain friends and family, you can make it festive and simple. How? Don’t do it all. Instead, choose one or two things and do them well -- en masse. Skip the complicated and pricey array of hors d’oeuvres, mixers and decorations, and stick to what you know and love.

Work Ahead
The best parties include good music (make a special playlist), tasty drinks, and above all, your company. Everything else is gravy. Choose simple recipes you can prepare ahead of time in batches. This way, you can spend time with your guests -- not your oven mittens.

Serve up an Activity
Think of small gifts you’d like to whip up for family, teachers and friends -- and invite guests to come and make their own. If you’re a cook, try homemade granola or herb-infused vinegar. Are crafts your forte? Whip up some no-sew felt coasters or rolled beeswax candles. You can find many simple, low-cost recipes and project ideas online. As the host, you assemble the ingredients, instructions and a platter of treats. Ask friends to bring a bottle of wine, and enjoy an afternoon or eve of DIY holiday cheer.

Ditch Tradition
Instead of your usual holiday fest, celebrate the season with a Winter Solstice party. This ancient pagan fire festival marks the moment when the sun is farthest from us, bringing the shortest day of the year, to be followed by gradually longer days.

Embrace the darkness by lighting your front path with brown paper bag luminaries. Fold the top of each lunch-sized bag about 2 inches down, toss in a few good handfuls of sand and nestle votive candles in glass holders inside. Inside, dim the lights and light candles and a roaring fire -- complete with a few fragrant cinnamon sticks. Feed folks warm comfort food that’s easy and inexpensive to make, such as stew or shepherd’s pie. Make a batch of hot cider for kids.

Hit the Road
If you have no room at the inn, take your party a-caroling. Print the lyrics to the handful of songs that everyone knows. Make toasty rosemary-roasted almonds (toss almonds with chopped rosemary, olive oil, a pinch of cayenne and salt, then toast in the oven) and pack them in paper bags. Fill thermoses with extra-toasty hot chocolate and flavored liqueur, then take these goodies and your good cheer to the streets.

Stick to Sweets
You can feed a crowd easily if you don’t have to feed them everything. Lay out a few sweet treats and ask friends who bake to bring their favorite holiday cookies for the table. Limit your bar to prosecco and liqueurs that guests can add to coffee or hot cocoa waiting in carafes. (Don’t forget the marshmallows and whipped cream!) Keep decorations simple: Pour fresh cranberries into glass cylinders, vases or bowls and fix white or cream candles on top.

Brunch After Dark
Most families find themselves more than a bit done -- with shopping, cooking, decorating and preparing -- by December 24. Host a casual Christmas Eve brunch, complete with mimosas, bagels and cream cheese, fruit salad, and quiche you can make or buy ahead. Friends itching to pitch in can bring muffins and other baked goods. Now all that’s left is enjoying the people you love most.

The Great Neighborhood Cook-off

It’s time for the annual block party, and you know what that means: burgers and dogs, brownies and ice pops, coolers of beer and juice boxes. Every family kicks in money and donates a dish, and everyone helps with the setup and cleanup. But instead of collaboration, maybe your block is ready for some friendly competition this year -- in the form of a neighborhood cook-off.

For three years, Kelly Lougee-Ordner and her neighbors in Spokane, Wash., have vied for the coveted Deanna Court Golden Baster Award at their annual cul-de-sac party. The theme for the first two cook-offs was basic barbecue, with the chefs hauling their grills out into the cul-de-sac and competing face-to-face. Friends were welcome, but only neighbors got to compete. This year, the Deanna Court residents are upping the ante with New Orleans-style cuisine, and as always, they’re preparing to go all out.

Cooking competitions are nothing new. Many an apple pie has sat out on the table awaiting judgment at the county fair. The longest-running cook-off, the National Chicken Cooking Contest, began in 1949 at the Delmarva Poultry Festival. The grand prize was $10,000. Today, it’s $50,000. But in recent years, the phenomenon has moved from fairgrounds to front lawns.

“It’s been around for a long time, being a competitive cook,” says Amy Sutherland, author of Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America (Penguin Group 2004). “The modern twist of that is seeing the professionals compete on TV. We just like to have fun with food, and it naturally becomes an issue of competition and entertainment.”

In order to keep it fun, Sutherland recommends the following steps:

Spell it out Set parameters and state them clearly: ingredients allowed, time allotted, amount to cook. Chefs -- and judges -- should have no doubt about the drill.

Set a time limit Be militant about this one. Someone is always going to try to push the envelope, but fairness is key to cook-off success.

Expand the menu Don’t focus only on the food. Give contestants a few different ways to win. Judge on presentation, creativity and greatest effort, and spread the joy around.

Make it funny Lighten it up with some goofy criteria: worst presentation, biggest mess, most utensils used. They remind people not to get too serious. As fun as a cooking competition is, the competitors have a lot at stake. “Their reputation is on the line,” says Sutherland.

Dress it up Make sure there’s a show component to the day, whether it’s part of the competition or just for fun. Have everyone wear a costume, decorate their tables and put on a performance. Or bring back the spirit of collaboration and plan the festivities together like the Deanna Court crowd does.

“We decorate the cul-de-sac with flags, tiki torches and a tiki bar with a grass, hut-like covering,” says Lougee-Ordner. “Our neighbor who spearheads the event designs an apron and spray paints the baster gold. We haul out everyone’s patio furniture to be able to have enough table and chairs for everyone to enjoy!”

The Life of the Party

Considering cancelling your annual holiday shindig because of cost? No need. "With planning and a little creativity, it's easy to throw a great party without spending a lot of money," says former caterer Denise Vivaldo, author of Do It For Less! Parties (Terrace Publishing 2005) and Do It For Less! Weddings (Sellers Publishing 2008). Try some of her favorite themes for successful celebrations on a shoestring. Your guests will never guess that you didn't spend a bundle on them.

Cider and holiday cookie party Instead of hosting an affair in the evening, try the afternoon. Just changing the time of day can save you -- and your guests -- money. If you slate the party for Sunday at 2 p.m., for instance, you don't have to provide a full meal. Instead, you can get away with serving hot apple cider, desserts and perhaps some mulled wine. Your guests can bring their kids so they don't have to spring for a sitter -- and everyone's happy. Vivaldo also likes to bake an extra two or three dozen cookies that she leaves unfrosted. Then she covers a card table with a plastic tablecloth, sets out tubes of icing and lets her younger guests go crazy decorating. If there are any left at the end of the party, the kids can take them home as party favors.

Success secret: Spell it out on the invitation that it's a cider and cookies party so that guests won't be expecting more.

Soup for a crowd Soup is another good way to stretch your party dollar, and it's easier to serve than you might think. Vivaldo likes to cook up a big pot, leave it simmering on the stove and ladle it into tea and coffee cups, mixing patterns (if you don't have enough, borrow some). One of Vivaldo's favorite crowd-pleasers is ginger carrot soup: simply saute carrots and leeks until soft and puree in a blender along with some fresh ginger, adding chicken or vegetable broth if necessary. Then serve with a big basket of chewy breadsticks.

Success secret: The best party soups are easy-to-sip purees -- no one wants to deal with spoons when standing and socializing.

Champagne tasting More unusual than a regular cocktail party, a tasting is the perfect way to kick off the holiday season. Ask each couple to bring a bottle of bubbly in the $20 to $25 range. Prepare some nibbles, such as cheese puffs, or try this recipe for a succulent baked brie that only looks expensive:

1. Cut a 2-pound round of brie in half crosswise and spread the bottom half with two 6-ounce containers of pesto.

2. Replace top half, place on a sheet of puff pastry (from the supermarket's frozen food section) that's been slightly thawed and rolled out on a nonstick baking sheet.

3. Fold the corners up and seal at the top with a little beaten egg white. Spritz the brie with cooking spray, then bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 F or until lightly brown.

4. Serve the delicious gooey results with crackers. For a dessert variation, fill the brie with raspberry jam and candied walnuts and serve with shortbread cookies. Then pop those corks, and rate the different bottles.

Success secret: If you don't have enough champagne flutes, borrow or buy them cheaply (Vivaldo stocks up on elegant glass flutes from IKEA at $4.99 for six and stores them in the box between parties).