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Shopping for bragging rights

Aerial dogfighting. Wine-making. Zeppelin tours. It's possible to box up the experience of a lifetime.

November 21, 2012|By Adam Tschorn | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Giving the gift of adventure.
Giving the gift of adventure. (Kerry Lemon / For The Times )

In the ever-escalating effort to bestow the ultimate holiday gift (come on, admit you feel the urge to be at least a little bit competitive about it), the tendency is to focus myopically on the material. That's all well and good as long as there are sports-stadium naming rights, moon rocks or French vineyards to be bought.

The downside, of course, is running the risk that one's fantastic gift will be overshadowed by someone else's even bigger display of seasonal largesse. Why go to all the trouble, for example, of cloning your wife's favorite pet only to have your thoughtfulness all but forgotten the second she finds out your father-in-law has given her a South Pacific archipelago?

No, bringing your A-game means going beyond the physical and exploring the experiential to bestow a memorable one-of-a-kind holiday gift.

If you've got more money than imagination, use Neiman Marcus' annual Fantasy Gifts list as a jumping-off point. This year's nifty gifties include a $250,000 dinner for 10 prepared in the recipient's home by a quartet of world-famous chefs, including Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller; a $30,000 walk-on role in Broadway's "Annie: The Musical" and a water-propelled jetpack worthy of James Bond with an 80-mile range, 30-foot flight ceiling and $99,500 sticker price (lessons included).

Once you start thinking outside of the gift box, you'll realize the sky's the limit — literally, if you decide to treat the aspiring Ice Man or Maverick on your list to some aerial dogfighting through an outfit such as Sky Combat Ace, which offers a 50-minute taste of the fighter-pilot experience for $1,499 for a single passenger (or $999 per person for two passengers) out of the Henderson Executive Airport in Nevada, with pickup and drop-off service at hotels on the Las Vegas strip. Or, if you want to give the gift of altitude with less attitude, consider one of Airship Ventures' two-hour zeppelin tours that will send that lucky someone soaring serenely above Long Beach, Beverly Hills and downtown L.A., affording a bird's-eye view of landmarks such as the Hollywood sign and Dodger Stadium ($950 per person plus taxes and fees).

At a minimum, an experiential gift will leave the recipient with a brag-worthy tale to tell and a photo or video of the memory for the mantel. But there are also "two-fers" — experiential gifts that keep on giving many times over. For instance, there's the Judd's Hill Bottle Blending Day Camp in Napa, which sends each participant home with three to 12 bottles of self-blended Bordeaux-style wine ($225 to $695). Or glass-blowing at Revolution Glass Studio in El Segundo, where take-homes include blow-your-own paperweights, drink tumblers or holiday ornaments (one-day classes $275, two-day workshops $495).

Or you might give a shopping experience to rival Julia Roberts' retail run in "Pretty Woman," which could net your recipient a whole new wardrobe. This is one of the experiential packages offered through the Montage Beverly Hills (sister properties offer opportunities to hang 10 with surf legends or hit the slopes with an Olympic skier). All the gifter needs to do is provide some guidance (garment sizes, photos, color preferences) and check the giftee into the hotel. Professional wardrobe stylist Joseph Katz does the rest, curating a closet full of high-end clothes, shoes and handbags plucked from the boutiques on nearby Rodeo Drive for the lucky lady or gentleman to try — and perhaps buy — all in the luxury setting of a private room. Rates start at $1,790 per night for a room and half-day consultation — not including the cost of purchased clothes.

Although by nature indulgent, an experiential gift needn't be over-the-top expensive, especially if you've put some thought behind it. For the drinking buddy who can't tell a screwdriver from a Sazerac, you might consider gifting a crash course in mixology (such as the Elemental Mixology abbreviated drinks course, which includes learning the basics in two four-hour sessions for $175). The noise-loving nephew with the Beats by Dre headphones surgically attached to his skull might crack a smile when he finds out he's headed for a one-hour private lesson mixing it up with the pros at the decade-old Scratch DJ Academy founded by the late Jam Master Jay of Run DMC. Currently $125 buys a private, one-hour lesson for two — take-home software included — at academy locations in Los Angeles, New York City and Miami.

Of course, there are a couple of caveats when it comes to giving an experience that cannot easily be thrown into the office white elephant gift exchange. First, be sure to think it through — and talk it through with the potential experience provider — so that a generous gesture doesn't accidentally become a mutual embarrassment. For example: Does that zip on a zeppelin come with a weight limit? (Airship Ventures, for example, requires individual passengers weigh 300 pounds or less, due to the way the crafts are boarded.) Are you giving bartending lessons to a recovering alcoholic? Is your spouse inexplicably afraid of molten glass?

Second, make sure the gift you give has no expiration date. The last experience anyone wants is the pressure to use it or lose it.

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