Load up the car and get ready for one plot-twisting get-together, based on your preferred great escape: a trip 'round the world, a taste-testing bash, a romantic picnic, or a high-energy adventure. Flip through all four parties below, and be sure to cook up tasty snacks, too!
tips + how-tos
ESCAPE TO ... ANOTHER LAND
The only things you need to enjoy around-the-globe travel? A little inspiration from Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, a patch of sand and a curious stomach.
Divide countries among a few friends and have each prepare a beach-friendly dish evoking the place. (England, India, China and Japan are good starts.) Bring dishes like samosas, curry chicken salad and fish-and-chips.
Create a playlist of songs with "around the world" in the title. Search the phrase in iTunes and you'll get more than 100 results -- everything from Frank Sinatra and Daft Punk to Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2 and Jay-Z.
Set up a food station on a beach blanket, or even a small card table, with each corner devoted to a cuisine. Use a beach-ball globe as a centerpiece; Secure it in a footed bowl or on a cake stand (double-sided tape helps) and trace the appropriate countries with a black marker.
Get nautical. After all, 80 percent of the globe is water! Define the party area with small garden stakes and between them string "sails", (cocktail napkins hung by their corners with clothespins). Play up the food with sea-blue tablecloths and wrap white rope around the bases of hurricanes or votive holders.
Bring a journal to use as a "travelogue" for guests to write impressions, funny moments or quotes from the day.
Go for authentic accessories: Have chopsticks on hand for the Asian dishes and opt for colorful paper takeout boxes instead of ordinary plastic containers.
ESCAPE TO ... GREAT TASTES
Every kid's a critic, so we're cribbing some ideas from Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything for a taste-testing bash. Everyone will leave a winner.
Once guests arrive, make them feel like restaurant critics: Channel an out-to-dinner vibe with red-and-white-checkered cloths. Stock up on diner-style squeeze bottles for your condiments. (Number them for easy reference.)
Want to skip the boardwalk vendors' wares? Load up the cooler with these Grilled Chicken Tenders with Creamy Honey Mustard.
Buy burgers, dogs and fries from the boardwalk. Ask guests to bring their favorite homemade, tricked-out condiments -- think a spicy ketchup or mustard, horseradish mayo and souped-up dressings. Then have everyone critique each dip with your boardwalk buys. Everyone can sample as much as it takes to choose the winner -- after all, calories don't count on the beach, right?
Ask guests to bring copies of their condiment recipes to share with the group. Have a sand pail labeled "recipe swap" so people can rifle through and pick out their favorites.
Don't let tasting score sheets get lifted by an ocean breeze: Tally points by drawing numbers in the sand and having guests place seashells next to their favorites.
Pile fries in paper cones. For DIY cones, roll circles of decorative paper and secure the seams with tape.
Stake out a large area, as close to the boardwalk as possible. (It'll make snack runs easier and just might keep the kids around for quality time, not dips in the ocean.) Mark the path to your bash with cheap flip-flops. Amp up anticipation by writing messages like "Walk this way!" on each shoe.
ESCAPE TO ... A MORE ROMANTIC TIME
Paris in the 1920s was the place to be. The glamour. The architecture. The macaroons. This picnic takes the sexiness of the French capital, as seen in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, straight to the beach. Couples only, please!
Designate one blanket or table for old-fashioned parlor games, like bridge. If you want to hit your feet, try vintage games like badminton or croquet.
All this talk of bygone eras making you nostalgic? Have everyone pick a topic (like "best date ever" or "my first kiss") and swap stories. We guarantee it'll be the perfect complement to an ocean-view sunset.
Turn your swath of beach into an alfresco library -- an antique one, at that -- by picking up cheap hardbacks at a flea market or garage sale and stacking them around your picnic space. They'll lend an air of musty sophistication -- and double as drink stands. (Once dusk sets in, they'll also be perfect for holding tea candles.)
Set the mood with music: Burn three mix CDs (one for the car, two for the beach) of classic old-school acts like Nina Simone, the Coleman Hawkins Quartet and Josephine Baker. You could even burn calories with a Charleston dance-off. Two left feet? Just flail and grin.
A moveable feast should move. Hit a private spot of sand with a bottle of red, croissants, salad, fruit and some hot coffee. As the tide rolls out, move closer to the water for dessert with a view -- try making Crunchy Coconut Cookies, our take on the Parisian macaroon.
ESCAPE TO ... THE WILD SIDE
Calling all adventure hounds! We take a cue from Bill Bryson's ode to Australia, In a Sunburned Country, with a day of high-energy fun. Beach bums need not apply.
Mix up the boldest tunes you can find. Take a chance on that new album your friend keeps talking about, or make a mix of songs with gym-routine-worthy beats. If it makes you wanna move, then it's fair game.
Ditch the culinary comfort zone: Fire up the barbie (or bonfire, if it's allowed) for kebabs. Ingredients? Whatever tests your tastebuds. (Pack our Seashore Shrimp Salad for seafood fans, too!)
Arrive early and seek out a rocky, secluded patch of beach to set up a scavenger hunt. Write riddles that hint at each hiding place, then leave inexpensive beach games and toys, like snorkeling masks, in each spot. Have your friends divide into teams and solve the clues until they happen upon buried "treasure."
Channel the vibe of the wild with a little foliage (that's "bush" to Aussies) of small houseplants and bouquets. They'll be perfect for hiding scavenger-hunt loot. (You'll also be glad you brought them if the wind threatens to blow off with your beach blankets!)
Cap off the day with a game of truth or dare. It might not be quite as daring as a trek across the Australian outback, but this high school classic can be as adventurous as your imaginations make it.