The Christmas tree stands proudly, showering a splash of sparkle in the corner of our living room. The hairline on the silver tinsel has recessed in recent years, the metaphor “silver fox” makes me giggle out loud as I rummage through the box of decorations. I habitually call Pumpkin a silver fox in a tongue-in-cheek manner that receives disapproving glances from the man in question.
Deeper within the drawer, I catch the reflection of the fairy lights, intertwined around tinsel chains. I dab down the specks of dust that feel much too at home on their bauble abodes. Breaking from the norm, this year’s tree is not of the pulseless variety, the multiplying pine cones on our floor attesting to that, the ravenous slurp of water it guzzles greedily amazes me, as I top up the dry pot each evening after work.
Like me, my tree is a work in progress. It lives its life the way we live ours, living for the day with no end goal plotted, floating along gleefully wherever the wind takes it, living one hell of an adventure in the process. Beneath all these Christmas trees in the Christmas movies and on the seasonal cards, lie stacks of boxed gifts, shrouded in ribbons and bows, like the Instagram babies so often used as props by their millennial Mums.
Gifts, it would appear, have forever been synonymous with boxes and tangible parcels; but for me, the most alluring gifts and the most cherished have been wholly intangible. How do you package up the feeling of swimming hand in hand with your spouse, beside giant sea turtles with wise, docile eyes? Where do you put that ribbon on a Vietnamese grandmother, who teaches you how to assemble the delectable summer rolls that her grandmother taught her to make, when she was just a toddler?
These glowing moments will remain with me far longer than any expensive dresses or smart phones and this is why there are fewer parcels under my tree than ever before, as I consolidate my progressive move from boxed gifts to inspiring thoughtful experiences. And in case it’s not already abundantly obvious , I’m a travel fanatic so these are predominantly travel experiences. Old friends of the blog may recall the Christmas travel gift guides that I wrote in the past (here’s the other one) but this year, in keeping with my philosophy of moments over materials, I wanted to share my travel gift experience guide instead.
A ‘Moments over Materials’ Gift Experience Guide
Whether you share my mindset or you are simply short of ideas for tangible items, whether you feel your loved one already has everything they need and simply want to break the mould with something different or you’ve simply left it too late to buy that 45th pair of socks no one really actually needed, fear not, I hope I have a travel gift experience for the travel fanatic in your life.
Almost all of the experiences featured here have been tried and tested by yours truly, nearly all self funded or given to me by my loved ones and where there have been any collaborations, I have declared them at the end.
Advertisers may well use the slogan “Happy Shopping” but as someone so passionate about travelling, exploring and thoughtful spending, my own Christmas shopping motto instead is all about “Happy Experiencing.”
A Hot Air Balloon Ride
They say we should save the best till last but I’ve gone straight in with it because for me, my first and only hot air balloon ride was one of the most spectacular experiences I have ever had. Mine took place in the ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar, a highly spiritual destination, filled with old pagodas that we saw as we sailed in a balloon at sunrise gazing downwards.
Granted, this is far from your ordinary gift affair & the exorbitant prices make it more suitable for the milestone birthday, the significant anniversary gift or the honeymoon but either way, a hot air balloon is a travel experience that, for me, completely lived up to the magic but where you do it is almost as important as doing it in the first place. There are locations all over the world but if Santa needs any blow out gift ideas for the future, the dream includes a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia, Turkey and over the Serengeti in Tanzania 🙂
Quite a few foodies reside among my blog audience (and real life tribe for that matter) and for you people, cookery classes have saved my bacon (mind the pun) on more than one occasion when I have needed gift experience ideas. In Hoi An, Vietnam, we booked a local Vietnamese cooking class at a small family-run cafe, using exquisite local ingredients, just as we did in Bali.
If you want to splash the cash, book a private cookery class or keep it economical with a group class. Many of these cookery classes abroad start with a guided walk to a local food market, allowing guests to glimpse specialty ingredients from the locals who grow them.
Know a pasta lover heading to Italy, or a curry-addict taking a gap year in India? Perhaps you have a Mum, like mine, who hates clutter, can cook any curry in the world but has never made brioche.
That kind of Mum or Dad would do well at a fun bread-making class in London that proved (damn those puns!) to be a delightful way to spend a few hours together culminating in some delicious carby treats for the journey home. In the last year, I’ve used the Bread Ahead bakery classes for two family gifts – doughnut making for my sister and sweet bread baking for Mum.
Art and Craft Classes
We mustn’t forget that not everyone is a foodie, however. For many, a McChicken sandwich is all the gourmet delight one needs but perhaps some of these people may prefer a more arty outlet for their festive gifts.
I know several people who have been to Russia but none who had ever painted Russian dolls so these classes are met with real intrigue and curiosity. If you are looking to surprise your loved one with a totally quirky, whimsical activity on their travels, it doesn’t get much more unpredictable than this.
Unique Unexpected Stays
Tell someone that you are taking them away for the weekend and they will most probably be dreaming themselves away to a hotel stay or a cosy Air BnB. What they probably won’t be imagining, though, is a night in a tiny shepherd’s hut complete with log fire & private kitchen – or a transparent bubble abode with a forest Jacuzzi in southern France? I booked my bubble hotel glamping experience through Tinggly, who carry a plethora of gift experirence inspo in their armoury, making it easier than ever to nab an ultimate travel gift experience. Additionally, for those highly picky, impossible-to-please people in your life (we all know a few right?!) the gift packages you can book through them allow the recipient to choose their own experience so if you aren’t a gambler and want to play it safe without risk, this could be just the ticket.
These two stays that fell within only two months of each other this year were among the most memorable escapes of my life. The shepherd’s hut was Pumpkin’s birthday mystery and he has a frustrating habit of always being able to psychologically intercept a surprise but despite numerous hints & guesses, this remained a head-scratcher right till the moment we pulled up.
A Birds Eye View
I am a city girl. ‘London landmarks’ is in the tag line of my blog home page and my blog is stuffed full of London-based activities. For me, one of the quintessential ways to see any city is to see it as the birds do. Cities like London, Tokyo and New York have no shortage of locations from where they boast their shimmering skyline views, sometimes with fares that would make your jaw drop.
Despite having been to the Shard in London at least a dozen times, it took a gift voucher from our families before we finally made it to the top to absorb The View from the Shard. Enhance your voucher with the champagne inclusion for the win so that your loved ones can sip on bubbles whilst standing on the viewing platform of the tallest building in Europe.
A ride on the London Eye is a longer standing but worthy alternative for a view. Like many things in London, neither are particularly cheap but if you are assembling a more economical DIY London day out gift experience of your own, the Sky Garden is a wonderful free alternative for a skyline view from the heart of the financial district of London – just make sure you sign up in good time.
And of course, a beautiful viewpoint isn’t the exclusive right of a capital city. Across the world, smaller cities boast glorious views, many of which are lesser known and come as even more of a delectable surprise. This year, I found it whilst being transported upright on the BAI360 in Brighton for my anniversary weekend, city views in the sunshine to my left and sweeping sea views, sliced by jetties, to my right.
Climbing an Iconic Landmark
If it all sounds a bit sedentary so far and you would prefer to burn a few more calories, a more active way to catch a great view is to climb an iconic landmark – legally of course; I am not for one moment, suggesting that you climb up the walls of Buckingham Palace and give Queenie a surprise.
Many moons ago, Pumpkin climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge, recently brought to mainstream media attention after Prince Harry did the same. For his Christmas present last year, I kept things a little closer to home with a voucher to climb the O2 in London instead.
We booked the sunset climb (again, it comes with a champagne option if you wish), professional photographers capture the moment for you and you are rewarded with the elusive opportunity to see London from the ceiling of the building that was built for the turn of the Millenium and has evolved ever since. At Christmas time, you can even book a climb that will be accompanied by carol singing from a choir at the summit.
If you wish to make a swanky night of it, head to the Peninsula restaurant at the Intercontinental to continue the assault of skyline views but you might wish to change out of your boiler suit before you do that.
Afraid of heights and heaving at the prospect of standing on rooves or floating in balloons in the sky? For the active travel enthusiasts, who prefer to keep your feet on the ground, a guided walking tour is something most travellers will have participated in at some stage. Whilst you might not think a sightseeing walking tour sounds like an inspiring travel gift experience in its own right, have a little think outside the box and look for niche tours that cater to the specific interests of the travel lover in your life.
The street art tour in Buenos Aires that I went on, for example, just like the one I took my best friend on in Camden were filled with visually stimulating murals and introduced me to neighbourhoods I had been totally unfamiliar with beforehand. Similarly, for those foodie lovers who are more skilled at eating than cooking (guilty as charged,) a food tour is a wonderful way to ingratiate oneself with a new place.
If you are purchasing a food tour experience on someone else’s behalf, my tip is to arrange it early on during a holiday, though, as it leaves enough time to return back to the restaurants discovered o the tour. It was on these very tours that I saw bread made underground in Marrakech, indulged in a coffee and dessert tour of Budapest and even found myself on a free food tour in Sofia, Bulgaria. Not all travel gift experiences have to cost money.
So, we have covered gift experiences in the sky and on the ground so that leaves gift experiences in the sea (or river – I don’t discriminate.) Pumpkin and I love water based experiences from snorkelling trips and boat rides to whale watching but experience has shown us that private trips and ethical trips with high quality equipment and guides often come with a hefty price tag.
Ditch the bath bombs and socks and why not gift your travel addict an experience of snorkelling among shipwrecks or sea turtles? City break fanatics can keep things closer to home with a high speed adventure boat ride across the Thames if you’re London or UK based or planning a visit to London soon.
The Gift of Song and Dance with a Guru Dudu silent disco walking tour
Know someone in your life who could do with an hour of escapism one evening? Couldn’t we all in fact? When I discovered Guru Dudu and his silent disco in Brighton this year, it was by sheer chance and I knew absolutely nothing about the weird whimsy I was witnessing. What unfolded in front of my eyes, though, was the sheer, carefree euphoria stapled on the faces of those participating, kitted out with headsets and prancing around the streets of Brighton, as if they were unhinged.
There is something about the gift of the silent disco walking tour that is utterly uplifting and liberating. Once the headphones are on and the music is blaring, you stop caring about who is staring and about the utter fool that you resemble. The endorphins flood in in ways you never imagined possible and for those exhilarating 60 minutes, you have long forgotten the ironing load, the tax return, that stressful meeting you had at work. Suddenly, who can chant Gallileo in the most Freddy Mercury worthy voice becomes the only question that really matters? This is one of the cheapest gift experiences on the list but also one of the most unpredictable and uplifting. Unless you love a bit of Abba dancing in public, though, you may need a little glass of wine prior.
If you’d have told the childhood version of me that a day would come when I would be putting museum tickets on my list for Santa, she would have laughed in your face and refused to grow up.
I will always remember fondly the visit we made to the Imperial War Museum when we were children with my late Grandad, who was fascinated by wartime history, having been raised in colonial India. He wanted to learn about every artefact in there but bored out of my brain as a 7 year old, the best part for me was being able to buy a souvenir bookmark from the gift shop and getting to go on the tube again en route home.
Perhaps we could have engaged that 8 year old more into the idea of museums, had she known that the world is also filled with chocolate museums in Bruges, for example, Cologne and all over South America; there are pinball and hospital in the rock museums in Budapest, railway museums in York, museums filled with dinosaurs, exhibitions devoted to ice cream, even beer museums.
Here in Greenwich, London, which I call home, we even have a charming little museum dedicated solely to fans. The benefit of museum entry is that visitors can spend as little or as long as they wish inside and in the UK, most museums are free entry as well if you are on a shoestring budget. Either way, a pair of museum tickets is an affordable idea that doesn’t impose too much on someone’s vacation. What are their passions and interests? Chances are, there is a museum out that caters to it.
The fashion bloggers and Insta-posers will be horrified to hear that my first ever manicure was only a few days before my wedding and had it not been for the wedding, I may still be a manicure maiden to date. I was never one to have much interest in vanity projects and I vividly recall how utterly blissful and pampering my first spa experience was, simultaneously being so relaxed and yet as excited as a child at Christmas.
As a general rule of thumb, I still only treat myself to spa experiences either on my travels or for special occasions and in cities like London or luxury properties, spa treatment prices can be more than offputting. I have been on entire city breaks that cost less than some hotel spa treatments but there is no denying how luxurious it can feel as a rare treat.
We booked ourselves onto a couples’ spa treatment on our honeymoon in Zanzibar and an easy way to enhance a holiday for someone you love is to throw in a spa treatment, either by booking it in yourself if you know where they are staying or providing a voucher or contribution towards it for an indulgent surprise gift that they may otherwise shy away from themselves.
Its not about whether the best things come in small packages or big ones but rather about the fact that in my opinion, the best things don’t come in packages at all. As I hope I have demonstrated, sensational, thoughtful and original gifts often save you the job of any wrapping whatsoever so if you are in the midst of a frantic last minute online haul right now, fretting about what to buy over the next few days, I hope that this last minute guide to travel gift experiences might help with some ideas for the jet-setter in your life. No last minute judgement from me either, since I can neither confirm nor deny Pumpkin’s suspicions that his Up at the 02 Experience voucher was purchased on Christmas Eve last year!
Lots of love and seasons greeting from this travel mad elf.
Disclaimer My experiences with Tinggly, Thames Rockets, Camden Street Art Tours and Chocomuseo Bruges were hosted. All other activities self funded or gifts from loved ones and all views are my own.