The annual migration from Washington now begins in earnest: Folks leave for cool breezes, lazy days and a trashy beach book. For many in this 9-to-9 town, August is the only time to really kick back, relax and recharge. It's also when people spend extended time with family and friends, which brings us to the delicate role of being a summer house guest.

The invitation to visit has been extended and accepted, the non-refundable tickets purchased, the bags packed. So there's just one more thing to do: bring what is somewhat fussily referred to as a hostess gift.

A hostess gift, which can be for a man or a woman, shows your appreciation for the hospitality offered. This is trickier than it first appears: For dinner, a bottle of wine or flowers will suffice. But what do you give close friends who house, feed and entertain you for days?

"I would definitely bring something, in addition to myself," says consultant Neil Rochlani. "Probably some sort of alcohol--liquor or wine. Or flowers. Or both."

"I'd probably ask somebody what to get, but I'd get something," says market analyst Stuart Adler. "Maybe a fruit basket? Or housewares, kitchen-type stuff."

Dorothy McSweeny, the new chair of the District's Commission on the Arts and Humanities, recently visited friends in Ireland. The McSweenys arrived bearing a framed painting--a sentimental choice they knew would please their hosts. And they stopped at a local market.

"We bought cakes, Irish bread and jam," McSweeny says. "My ulterior motive was that I hoped they'd serve them. And they did."

Truth is, food and drink are the most popular choices for summer house gifts because they work on so many levels.

Food or wine can be consumed during the vacation--a contribution, of sorts, to the holiday. Just because you are staying for free doesn't mean you shouldn't discreetly pitch in. Hosting a house full of people--three meals a day--can become an expensive proposition.

"Wine," says Connie Robertson. "It's a social offering, a friendly thank-you for inviting me."

"Candles! I can't believe you didn't think of that first!" says Brandi Hurless, who, along with Robertson and pal Cheri Graffuis, is visiting Washington from Idaho this week for a gift candle convention. "I'd bring some fruit- or flower-scented summer candles in a holder that would be appropriate for a patio."

"I usually take a basket I've put together," says Graffuis. "Kind of theme baskets with something I know they like."

An offering of serious food--shrimp, smoked salmon, steaks, coffees, fine chocolates and other gourmet goodies--is always a good idea. Wine, champagne and liquor are even better choices because they don't spoil and can be used any time.

Food and drink are also smart choices because many people rent a summer place, which means the gift should be something that can be consumed on site or easily transported back home. This applies whether the rental is in Rehoboth or Rome.

Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, is renting a house in France this August and invited a dozen friends to drop by. The perfect gift, he says, would be books.

"In the case of Provence--books on France, art of the area, the influence of the Romans," he says. "I'd read them while I was there."

His pal and sometime tennis partner, the American Enterprise Institute's Norm Ornstein, agreed with the book concept, but added a personal stamp. "I would bring cookbooks on regional cooking," he says. "And foods of the area to cook a meal. You want to do your part."

"One of the most intimate things in life is a meal with good friends," says Jasinowski.

Some visits demand something more. One house guest this summer is headed for a rented castle in Europe. There's a staff, so food and wine might be redundant.

The choice was a small, high-tech camera, film and enough batteries to snap away during the trip and create a photo album of memories. Other grown-up toys in the same vein include waterproof radios for beach listening. For one week-long stay, one couple gave a collection of 10 discs, filling an old farmhouse with the strains of both Beethoven and the Beach Boys.

If the hosts own the summer place, one option is a warm-weather gadget: an ice cream maker and fixings, or a blender and margarita mix. Another good choice is a wooden croquet set, a hammock, or outdoor lights or lanterns.

Of course, most friends really just want your company. "Generally speaking, men don't care," says entrepreneur Morton Bender, who owns a summer house in Rehoboth. "I'm a bad recipient. So something for my wife or son."

The perfect summer hostess gift? Bender votes for anything from Tiffany's. "It doesn't have to be expensive," he says. "If you send something from Tiffany's in that blue box, they ooh and coo."

Works in winter, too.