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Catch a wave and lots of raves with a tasty buffet on the beach

Of all the joys of summer, spending the day by the beach -- whether it's beside an ocean, lake, river, pond or bay -- is at the top of the list. It is a perfect, uncomplicated pleasure to enjoy with family and friends. This year, put on your sunscreen, pack a picnic and invite some friends to join you for a memorable party at the beach of your choice.

While a spontaneous day trip can be wonderful, a little advance planning goes a long way when hosting a party on the beach. Start by scouting out the perfect location ahead of time, so that there will be no last-minute surprises. If you're planning to grill, find out local regulations about building a fire. Make sure to check the weather report and, where applicable, the tide tables.Since the beach and the sunset provide the perfect backdrop for a party, you won't need to do much in the way of decoration. Focus on making your guests comfortable and presenting the food beautifully.

Most people will bring their own waterside necessities, but you should bring extras. Pack some guest beach towels or blankets, sunscreen, a few wide-brimmed hats and insect repellent. It's always a good idea to have a flashlight, matches and a first-aid kit, just in case.

Instead of serving the meal on the sand, set up a buffet table under a canopy. Have a few friends help you carry a simple folding table to the beach. Cover it with a cheerful cotton cloth. Collect stones on the beach to weight the cloth's corners so it doesn't blow away in a breeze.

For the canopy, stretch a tarp between four wooden poles or tall branches driven into the sand. To provide your guests with more shade, bring along several beach umbrellas. Indispensable for any day at the beach, oversized umbrellas can be found in many local housewares stores. An old- fashioned version made of French ticking-stripe fabric is available through Martha By Mail (call 800-950-7130 or visit www.marthabymail.com for more information).

When the sun goes down, illuminate the area with pillar candles set inside enamel buckets weighed with sand, portable oil lanterns or tiki torches. If you suspect mosquitoes will be a problem, look for citronella candles or citronella oil for the lamps. The picnic

Keep the food simple and portable. Consider asking each guest to bring a dish rather than preparing everything yourself. A cold soup, such as gazpacho, can be made ahead of time and stored in a thermal jug or wide-mouth jar. It makes a surprising and refreshing first course. Pour it into cups and give one to each guest to sip as you set up the buffet.

A selection of salads, an oversized sandwich that can be sliced and shared by a group and grilled or fried chicken (prepared at home) are all good choices for the main meal. Dessert can be as simple as fresh fruit and cookies and brownies or classic campfire s'mores.

Whatever you serve, food safety is crucial. Make sure any perishables are kept cold until you serve them. After the meal is served, don't leave food to languish on the buffet. Bring lots of ice -- more than you think you'll need -- in insulated coolers.

Pile ice into a galvanized washtub to chill soft drinks (and beer or wine, if alcohol is permitted on site). You can give the washtub a fun tropical look by draping it with grass hula skirts, which you'll find in novelty stores.

Instead of disposable tableware, stock up on inexpensive, reusable items, such as enamel plates, sturdy plastic tumblers and lightweight flatware. Wrap individual settings of flatware in cotton napkins or pretty patterned dish cloths. Not only will this make a nicer presentation, but you'll cut down on the amount of refuse.

Don't forget essential tools such as serving spoons, a pocket knife, a corkscrew, and basics such as salt, pepper and sugar. Also take large plastic garbage bags to carry trash and dirty dishes home at the end of the day. Separate any recyclable trash to bring home and place in your recycling bin. Beach activities

If there will be children at the party, it's a good idea to come up with a few activities to keep them occupied as the adults socialize. Fortunately, the beach provides plenty of entertainment.

Bring along containers and buckets with varied shapes and start a sandcastle contest. Encourage games of Frisbee and volleyball. If you're at an ocean beach, consider looking for seashells. This is an activity that's enjoyable and educational for children and adults. You might want to bring a book to help identify the shells.

Children can collect favorites shells or rocks to use for projects back at home. Shells and other beach treasures can be glued to picture frames, boxes or flowerpots, or strung on a cord for a necklace. Or you can ask the kids to find a perfect shell or two to give to guests as a souvenir of the day.

Consider bringing along several disposable waterproof cameras. Ask a few of the water-shy children to be the official party photographers. After the event, have multiple prints made of photos, and send the best shots to your guests.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent to Stewart by electronic mail. Her address is:

mstewart@marthastewart.com. Please include your name and daytime telephone number. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.