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Six Tips for Giving Great Gifts

By holiday fun, lifestyle, lists, shopping, skills, you might learn something 3 Comments

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For the last few years, I’ve put together a holiday gift guide, but this year, I thought I’d try something different. I’m posting these actual gift-giving tips for a few reasons: (1) because doing that scavenger hunt and putting together those collages takes way, way too much time, (2) because I can’t actually post any of the gifts I’m planning to purchase without ruining the surprise, and (3) because your friends and family probably want to receive gifts you picked out, not me. (Well, maybe not so much that third reason — I’m an excellent gift giver, and I bet your friends and family would love getting gifts from me. :))

I knocked out a big chunk of my Christmas shopping this weekend, and while I was at it, I made a few mental notes about how I choose gifts. For me, gift shopping is much, much different than shopping for myself, so most of the shopping tips I normally dole out do not apply. Obviously I’m posting this list in time for the holidays, but I think these ideas work for all occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, showers, weddings, etc.

Anyway, here it goes. How to become the best gift giver your friends and family are acquainted with (unless they’re acquainted with me):

1. Make a Budget

The first thing I do when shopping for gifts is figure out how much I want to spend on each person, and I write it down where I can keep a tally of how much I’ve spent as I shop. I don’t do this because I’m not generous — I do it because I am generous, and sometimes I go overboard. Shopping for gifts should be fun, and it shouldn’t put you in debt for months afterward. As I’ve become more financially stable over the last several years, I’ve gradually increased my shopping budget for my family members. For my friends, I do my best to stay within a reasonable dollar range based on previous gift exchanges with each person. I do this to make sure I don’t overextend myself, but also because the last thing I want to do is make a friend feel awkward, which sometimes happens if one person spends a whole lot more money than the other. If I do go over my budget for the perfect gift, I try to prevent any awkwardness by saying (or, even better, writing in my card) something along the lines of, “I saw this, and I thought it was absolutely perfect for you. I really, really wanted you to have it, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I think you will.”

2. Give Something Special

It’s important for gifts to be thoughtful and useful, but they should also be special. By special, I mean something that the person wouldn’t have necessarily bought for him or herself, perhaps because they would never have thought of it or because they wouldn’t have been willing to splurge on it. A gift is something shared between two people, and it’s a win-win if the giver appreciates the gift just as much as the recipient…because spending money on gifts you personally dislike isn’t very satisfying at all. It’s also good practice to focus on quality over quantity when gift shopping because crappy gifts have a tendency to turn into household clutter or end up in the donation pile. That’s best avoided by purchasing useful items of the highest quality possible in your price range.

Here are some examples:

  • I have a friend who sits on old bath towels at the beach. If I splurge on some extra cute, colorful beach towels for her, I know she’ll use them; they’ll remind her of me because she knows I love the beach; and they’ll also be something special that she wouldn’t have spent money on herself.
  • If I’ve got a $30 budget, I’d prefer to spring for a top-of-the-line $30 amazing-smelling body lotion in a gorgeous bottle, rather than purchase a gift set of three average body lotions for $9 each. The $30 lotion is more likely to be treasured, displayed on a dresser and ultimately used, whereas the $9 bottles are more likely to end up in the bottom of the bathroom cabinet, never to be seen again.

3. Do Some Research
Almost everyone has some kind of social media account these days. Pinterest is an especially good tool for doing a little investigative research prior to choosing a gift. Those who are easiest to buy for might have a “Wish List” board, but even those who don’t may have boards that offer up clues as to what they enjoy and what types of things are important to them. You might pick up on some favorite brands, favorite colors, favorite foods/wines/beers, etc. Facebook and Twitter might not offer quite as much insight, but it’s always worth a peek, and these two offer up the ability to private message a significant other, family member or friend of your target to see if you can get some hints about what he’d like.

Here are some examples:

  • Perhaps you notice on Facebook that your friend and his wife just exchanged anniversary gifts — he got her a beautiful red handbag, and she bought him a black wool coat. The perfect gifts for these two could be a pair of new winter scarves — one that goes with his black coat, and one that has a bit of red in it to go with her new bag.
  • Whenever I look at my friend Heather’s photos on Facebook, I remember that she always wears these multi-colored plaid rubber boots on rainy days. I might consider giving her a collection of cute umbrellas — one of each color in her boots. (No, Heather. I did not get you umbrellas for Christmas.)
  • Maybe you see that your friend keeps pinning bar carts to her “Home Inspiration” board on Pinterest because she wants one for her dining room. A book of cocktail recipes or a few bar accessories may be great gifts to compliment her bar cart once she gets it set up.

4. Localize It
Buying locally inspired gifts is a tactic I’ve been using a lot lately. Who doesn’t love being reminded of their home town, favorite vacation destination, alma mater or even a faraway place they’ve never been before? The key to making local gifts work is subtlety — as in, no “So-and-so went to St. Somewhere, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” apparel, and certainly no touristy key chains, shot glasses or other such nonsense (unless you’re trying to be funny or your recipient is into that kind of stuff). When done right, locally inspired gifts are always well-received because they’re very thoughtful.

Here are a few examples:

  • My parents brought back some 100% Kona coffee from their trip this summer, which would make the perfect gift for a coffee-drinking, Hawaii-obsessed person (hint, hint).
  • A bottle of wine I recently discovered in Napa Valley accompanied by a wine opener or a cheese board would make a great hostess gift.
  • I picked up some pretty flamingo Christmas ornaments and dish towels when I stayed at the Flamingo in Vegas. They don’t say Flamingo on them; they just are flamingos. When I give them, I’ll say, “I thought of you in Vegas and picked this up for you at the Flamingo — isn’t it adorable?” I like to think a gift like this shows recipient she’s important to me because I keep her in mind even while I’m on vacation.
  • A few years ago, I gave my best friend’s little girl a few Jersey Shore children’s books, and she loved them! People don’t often think to buy themselves mementos from their home towns, so they make great gifts.
  • I’ve found that college grads who may be too old to stick decals to their cards always seem to appreciate the subtlety of a license plate frame.
  • A framed map of someone’s home town who has moved away would make a nice gift, too.

5. Personalize It
If you don’t feel like your gift ideas are very creative, personalizing an otherwise mundane gift makes a world of difference. There are thousands of items out there just waiting to be embroidered, etched and customized with all sorts of monograms, names, dates, birthstones, colors, etc. These days you can personalize pretty much anything, thanks to websites like CafePress and Etsy. There are a few things to keep in mind when personalizing gifts, though. First, custom items can rarely be returned, so be sure to double check spelling and confirm dates, birthdays, etc. before ordering. This would be another situation where Facebook may enable you to contact a spouse or parent of the recipient to confirm a date or find out whether someone’s middle name changed after they were married. Custom gifts also take a little more time, so plan ahead, and be prepared to order a few weeks before the holiday.

Some of my favorite personalized gifts include:

  • Monogram and name necklaces
  • Custom iPhone cases
  • Calendars and photo products (Who needs those dog breed calendars? Last year I made a calendar featuring photos of Diesel for J, and he loved it!)
  • Embroidered totes, men’s shirts, linens, etc.

6. Give a Gift Card
Gift cards are the easiest, quickest, least risky gifts to get your hands on, which is why they seem to have a reputation for being the last resort gift or the gift that lazy people give. I don’t necessarily agree — I think gift cards can be great gifts. They say, “It’s the thought that counts,” and the key to successfully giving gift cards is just that. You still have to think before you choose the gift card. If you just grab the Target gift card at the register, it’s extremely likely the recipient is going to use it for groceries, cat litter and paper towels. If you want your gift to be remembered, try to think outside the box a little.

Here are some great gift card ideas:

  • Choose a gift card to a restaurant you visit regularly that perhaps the recipient hasn’t discovered yet. Include a copy of the menu with some notes on your favorite dishes and drinks and the best nights to visit the restaurant.
  • With books, music and movies becoming more and more digitized, gift cards are unavoidable when giving the gift of entertainment. Give an iTunes gift card, along with a list of songs that remind you of the person you’re giving it to. Or give a Kindle-lover an Amazon gift card accompanied by a few suggestions about what to read on his or her upcoming vacation.
  • Purchase a gift card to a salon or spa. If it’s one you frequently visit, and pass along the names of your regular facialist or massage therapist. Go a step further — let the staff know your friend is coming in, and tip ahead to ensure she receives VIP customer service while she’s there.

I’d like to end this post with one of my all-time best gifts ever. I can’t take all the credit for it because I think it may have been my mom’s idea. In 2006, I got my hands on three dresses custom-made for my grandmother years and years ago. I posed for a photo in each one, framed the prints, and gave them to my grandmother. It was Christmas, but her birthday is in December, too — I think it was a birthday gift. Either way, the prints are hanging up at her house, and the they top the list of my favorite gifts given, for sure. 🙂

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If you’re still reading this, I hope you found this list helpful. This was a long post, and I really appreciate your dedication to becoming a gift-giving guru. In fact, I’ll make you a deal. If you read this far, and you still don’t know what to give someone, e-mail me, and I’ll help you figure it out. 🙂 (Or, you could always go back and check last year’s gift guides…)

Thanks for reading, and happy holiday shopping!

What My House Would Look Like if I Could Motivate Myself to Decorate for the Holidays

By holiday fun, lifestyle 2 Comments

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It seems I’m lacking the focus necessary to decorate my house for Christmas. The thought of pulling those scratchy little tree branches out of the box they’re so neatly packed into right now just doesn’t seem very enticing at the moment.

The place does look nice in these photos from last year though. I’m on the fence.

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A Toast to Napa Valley

By california, lifestyle, napa valley, travel, wine 9 Comments

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Our trip within a trip to Napa Valley was full of sunshine and sparkling wine, and even though we squeezed in five wineries in two days, it felt anything but rushed. We probably could have done a bit more planning (we mostly played it by ear), and I would recommend that anyone visiting Napa on a weekend do so, but since we were there on a Monday and Tuesday after harvest, everything worked out perfectly.

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On an unseasonably warm 82-degree day, our first stop was Domaine Chandon in Yountville, where we sampled seven delightful sparkling wines in a gorgeous tasting room overlooking the vineyard. Our tasting was followed by a tour of the winery and a lesson in the méthode traditionelle — the same method used to craft champagne in France.

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I’ve toured a few wineries over the last few years (including Williamsburg Winery nearby), but none that produce sparkling wines. I loved learning about the types of grapes, the different fermentation methods, and the extra steps that go into crafting a quality champagne or sparkling wine. Making an educated choice next time I pop open a bottle will have me enjoying each sip that much more.

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Chandon’s were my favorites of all the wines I tasted on my trip. I particularly enjoyed the Brut Classic (above left), and the Sparkling Red (above right) was by far the most interesting wine I’ve ever had. But, I think my favorite was the Chandon Blanc de Noirs, whose name literally means “white from blacks”. This salmon-colored sparkling wine is made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and happens to be the designated bubbly for all White House receptions. I guess you can’t go wrong with that. =)

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Many of Chandon’s classic sparkling wines are available for purchase throughout the U.S., but others, such as the Sparkling Red and the reserve wines, are only available through the winery itself. Since vacations are a perfectly acceptable time to splurge (and New Year’s Eve is around the corner), I decided to join the wine club at Chandon. I wrote myself a note on the card that will accompany my first shipment. This is what it will say: “Cheers! This is why you go to work every day. =)”

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Next, we headed north to V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, which my cousin recommended as a great place for lunch or a snack. V. Sattui is a smaller, family-owned winery whose on-premise deli featured the most spectacular cheese selection I have ever seen. =)

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The V. Sattui winery itself has existed in Napa Valley since the mid-1970s, but the family’s wine-making business has an interesting history dating back to 1882. Perhaps that explains the older, authentic and established feel of the winery.

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At V. Sattui, we picnicked near the vines, amidst the crew crushing grapes. We snacked on New Zealand sharp cheddar, Molinari hot salame, homemade Formaggio di Carciofo (artichoke cream cheese), broccoli salad, crackers, and a bottle of Sattui Family Red.

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By mid-afternoon (which felt more like late afternoon, since we had just set the clocks back the day before), the colors in Napa Valley were unbelievable. Every shade of green, yellow, orange, red, and purple blended together under hazy, golden rays of sunlight — these pictures don’t do it any justice at all.

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We left V. Sattui and headed east across the valley to Rutherford. Surrounded by mountains with the shadow of our rental car growing long in front of us, I said, “If only we knew of a decent place to watch the sun set…”

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For our third and final stop on Monday, we chose Mumm Napa — a scenic winery featuring more sparkling wines, a fine art photography exhibit, and a tasting patio that just happened to face west. =)

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Mumm Napa’s photography exhibit caught my eye when we first began planning this trip, mainly because they have 27 Ansel Adams original prints on loan from the family displayed in their gallery. While touring the gallery, I was also blown away by the absolutely stunning photography of Susan Friedman, whose portraits of horses were on display as part of a temporary exhibit called “Quatre Femmes Photographes.” (That exhibit will remain at Mumm Napa until March 3, 2013.)

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I also wanted to visit Mumm Napa because, well, let’s just say I’m in complete agreement with Mark Twain. =) These coasters were too cute. There were about six different ones, each with a different champagne-inspired quote.

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Once seated on the patio, we tasted six more sparklers at sunset, this time learning how subtle, yet noticeable differences in the taste and texture of sparkling wines can result simply from the length of time they age. The views at sunset were perfect, and the favorite we chose to purchase at Mumm Napa was the Cuvée M.

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After three wineries in one day, we checked into the Napa River Inn, a locally-owned, boutique hotel in Downtown Napa. We had grand plans to take a nap and head out to dinner, but after sinking into the most comfortable bed ever, I was ready to crash.

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We woke the next morning to breakfast in bed, compliments of Sweetie Pies Bakery next door — quiche and coffee for me, croissant sandwich and tea for my mom, and morning buns all around. What’s a morning bun, you ask? Yeah, I had no clue either, but it was delicious.

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We spent Tuesday morning exploring downtown Calistoga before heading to Sterling Vineyards just after lunch. My mom chose Sterling because she read about the stunning views from the solar-powered tram ride you take to the winery at the top of a mountain.

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Clearly, she forgot about my motion sickness, slight claustrophobia and panic attacks during our ride in a pod to the top of the St. Louis Arch when I said, “I don’t ever want to do anything like that again.” But, there I was, dangling from a cable in a tiny metal box that was about 95 million degrees in the blazing sunshine with nothing to hang on to… Luckily, there was a glass of pinot grigio in my hand less than three minutes after we left the base of the mountain. So, I suppose it was worth it — the wines and the views were sublime.

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At Sterling, we took a leisurely self-paced tour of the winery, receiving tastes of six different wines along the way. The cool thing about this winery is that it was built to cater to visitors. The Greek-inspired architecture and white stucco were beautiful and unexpected, and walkways and terraces offered brilliant views of Napa Valley in all directions. My mom (having recently traveled to London) took a particular interest in winery’s eight bells from London’s Church of St. Dunstans-in-the-East, whose tolling can be heard down through the valley on the quarter hour.

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And this is me procrastinating just a tad longer at the top to avoid getting back in the dangling tram car. =) (Note: Do not let my irrational fear of the tram prevent you from visiting this winery — it’s gorgeous!)

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Let’s take a little break from all this wine talk. Let’s talk about the Old Faithful Geyser of California. My mom convinced me to go see this geyser by falsifying information — she said it was 16 feet in diameter and would shoot champagne more than 30 yards into the sky! Actually, I’m kidding. She didn’t say that. She said they had Tennessee Fainting Goats, which they did, but unfortunately, they weren’t frightened enough the geyser (or me) to topple over for my entertainment.

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After we left the geyser, we took a long, winding drive over the mountains to Geyserville (which is about an hour from Downtown Napa) was to have dinner at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. (Note: The geyser was not in Geyserville. The geyser was in Calistoga.) Our visit to the Coppola winery was another result of our lack of planning (I made the dinner reservations without looking at a map); however I’m extremely glad we went because it was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

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We arrived at the Coppola property around dusk. It was a little too early for our dinner reservation at RUSTIC, so we roamed around the property until the sun went down, and then we headed inside to browse the gift shop and the movie gallery. The winery holds a collection of fabulous Coppola movie memorabilia, including Don Corleone’s desk and the original script from The Godfather, costumes from Dracula, and model ships from Sofia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette.

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One of the best things about this trip’s schedule being shifted around (because of Hurricane Sandy) was the fact that we ended up in Napa Valley on a Tuesday because Tuesdays just happen to be A Tavola night at RUSTIC, which was our main reason for visiting.

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A tavola means “to the table” in Italian, and our meal worked like this: The waitstaff came around with serving dishes full of salads, appetizers, pastas, pizzas, meats, seafoods and desserts, and we chose what we wanted to eat. It kind of reminded me of tapas or dim sum, but with Italian food. We sampled at least 10 different dishes, all of which were completely different from anything on the normal RUSTIC menu. My absolute favorite dish was a braised short rib and blue cheese ravioli — amazing! The Francis Ford Coppola Winery produces more than 40 wines, but in keeping with the sparkling theme of our trip, I opted for the Sofia Blanc de Blancs with dinner.

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To top off the night, who showed up for a drink at the bar? None other than Francis himself! I’m not annoying enough to ask celebrities if I can get a picture taken with them, but I did have a chance to introduce myself, shake his hand, and tell him that his movies, his wines and his restaurant are excellent.

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And that’s about it. The next morning, we drove back down to enjoy our last day in San Francisco (which I’ll post about soon). Of course, once I returned home, I went straight to Total Wine to pick up all my favorites from the trip. I think I’ll have to plan a little champagne brunch soon to share them with my friends. =)

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I hope you enjoyed this post and were able to get some useful information out of it. I’d love to visit Napa again sometime. Have you been there? Do you have any favorite wineries I should add to my list for next time?

One Last Beach Day

By fall, life's a beach, lifestyle, outfits, style, summer, virginia beach, weather 2 Comments

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It was bright, sunny and 82 degrees this afternoon, so J and I rode our bikes to the beach. I wasn’t expecting the water to be warm enough for swimming, but it was perfect. Not to be deterred by lack of a swimsuit and a towel, I waded out into the salty Atlantic in my dress. I thought it was a novel idea at first — the kind of thing you only see in movies or magazine photo shoots. But after awhile, I realized it was the rare sort of day where you find lots of people in the ocean with their clothes on. It was as if we all flocked to the beach a few hours ahead of the cold front, expecting the water to be freezing. The realization we were wrong, coupled with the fact that the temperature is going to take a 20-degree tumble overnight, made taking one last dip somewhat irresistible…dresses, shorts, jeans or otherwise.

I’ll still be holding out for a few more warm days, but if today truly was the last beach day of 2012, I’m glad I managed to spend an hour walking along the water’s edge enjoying it. =)

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to autumn taking the reins, so I can wear boots and plaid flannel, cook chili with J, and not have to worry about mosquitoes outside. =)

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So Long, Sweet Summer

By life's a beach, lifestyle, music, summer One Comment

From sunny days to balmy nights, sparkling champagne to salt-rimmed margaritas, sunrise bike rides to sunset drives, sandy feet to suntanned skin…it was a summer to remember as one of the best. (Except for maybe the shingles.)

Until next year — cheers. =)

Music: I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes – The Drifters