That’s Entertainment: Cabana Cocktails

Expert insight into hosting a posh poolside party

Rich Wilkie and Steven Stolman host a poolside party. Photography by Nick Mele
Rich Wilkie and Steven Stolman host a poolside party. Photography by Nick Mele

Ever since in-ground swimming pools began to appear on residential properties, poolside entertaining has been a popular pastime. Whether guests are actually in the water or simply gathering at water’s edge, there’s something intrinsically relaxed about this particular mise-en-scène. All one has to do is look at style-centric photography—from Slim Aarons’ iconic shots to those organized by Hollywood press agents at places like The Beverly Hills Hotel—to understand the allure of socializing near a sparkling body of chlorinated water. Add to this a little architectural element such as a pool house or its more modest cousin, the cabana, and you’ve got a perfect venue for a party.

Many Palm Beach condos have cabanas that are separately deeded, especially if they are blessed with generous decks or beach access. They range from glorified storage units to full-on entertaining spaces with bathrooms, wet bars, and air conditioning, which—given the nature of a cabana—seems like an exercise in futility.

PBI_Stolman_Cabana_056 Photo by Nick Mele

Our own cabana is something in-between. It has a powder room and a separate shower, along with a wet bar and an undercounter fridge, but that’s about it. Because it’s only protected from the elements by a set of accordion shutters, the sun and salt air wreak havoc; we’ve seen settees decompose before our eyes and barstools rust practically overnight. Rather than fight it, our strategy is to keep decor to a minimum and use the most weather-resistant furnishings we can find.

PBI_Stolman_Cabana_044Still, we love having our little poolside snug and enjoy sharing it with others. Early on, I found a wonderful photo of a very young Lilly and Peter Pulitzer and their pet monkey, Goony. In the background is a stunning sailfish mounted on the wall. And wouldn’t you know it, Amazon sells realistic replicas of exactly the same fish. Who could resist? Other decorative elements include carved coconut heads from the Bahamas and, for a little touch of kitsch, photos of select cast members from the 1960s TV show Gilligan’s Island. It’s not haute decor, but it makes us happy and guests seem to enjoy it—especially when cocktails are involved.

Tips for a Successful Cabana Cocktail Gathering

Regardless of whether you go electronic or printed, choose a lively, aquatic-themed invitation, something that sets the tone and can act as inspiration for every other creative decision. Be clear that it will be an outdoor event, as that will inform guests’ clothing choices. Memories of COVID and its wrath are still fresh, and an alfresco venue can go a long way in reassuring attendees that they will be safe and comfortable.

PBI_Stolman_Cabana_042 Photo by Nick Mele

Hire a bartender at the very least. A server, who can pass hors d’oeuvres and continuously bus the area, is also a good idea. There’s nothing worse than not being able to be a guest at your own party because you are too busy making drinks or passing a tray. Provide your bartender with a crisp T-shirt that matches the invitation and allow him or her to wear shorts and sneakers.

Invest in stylish 3 disposable plastic barware. It is pool-side, after all. One broken glass can spell disaster, not just for you and your guests but, if you live in a condo, for your neighbors too. The pool will have to be closed and drained, and you will most likely be forced to move. Just don’t do it.

PBI_Stolman_Cabana_080 Photo by Nick Mele

Continue your theme with a little bit of decor. It can be as subtle as cocktail napkins that coordinate with the invitation or a few outdoor throw pillows to scatter around the area. A little effort can reap big dividends.

Pay attention to lighting. Real candles invariably blowout, and glass hurricanes or
lanterns present the same breakage threat as glass barware. But there are all sorts of battery-operated or rechargeable outdoor lighting options, from giant glowing plastic globes to petite café lamps.

Serve the simplest food imaginable, photo by Nick MeleServe the simplest food imaginable. Chips and dip are always a hit. A crudités basket is a nice gesture, but often goes untouched. Be sensible with your menu and consider that you will have limited refrigeration, along with the distinct possibility of a stiff breeze or bugs. This is not the time or place for an extravagant cheeseboard, no matter what Pinterest tells you. However, if you own a chafing dish, cocktail weenies and a good, strong mustard are always a crowd-pleaser. Be sure to have an obvious receptacle for used toothpicks—many folks don’t consider this.

Have enough ice. This can be your bartender’s responsibility, but buy twice as much as you think you’ll need. Whether you are just serving rosé and sparkling water or a full bar, stock it generously and invest in a nice wine cooler. Always have something for non-imbibers too—avoid anything too sweet or syrupy. Save the blender drinks, and forget about signature cocktails. Well-meaning guests accept the signature cocktail, take one sip, and immediately look for a place to discretely stash it before making a beeline to the bar for a real drink.

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