Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Holiday Gift Guide: Skip the stuff and buy your friends and family cool experiences

Just what you needed. Another decorative vase. Another pair of whimsical socks. Another oven mitt shaped like a pig.

It can be fun to get stuff, of course. But this holiday, we've decided to focus on experiences. There's nothing better than living life with someone you care about, experiencing something new and making memories, (not to mention a slew of great new Facebook photos you can share for decades).

Our critics and writers have scoured Tampa Bay to find cool experience gift suggestions, from spa days to cooking classes to flight lessons and concerts. Because while that electronic picture frame catches dust in your closet, you could be jumping out of a plane.


LARA CERRI | Times (2013)

Lanny Calhoun, second from left, shows off a large spoon full of stuffing as she watches over the leftover turkey soup at the 9th Annual Wishbone U at Publix Apron's Cooking School Sunday.

Cooking classes are an ideal combination of adventure and comfort, which is what makes them a great gift. You get to learn something new, and then you get to eat the finished product. Cooking classes have been around forever, but the education component of culinary experiences seems to have expanded from cooking stores like Sur La Table to all levels of the food industry. Locally, there's the demonstration on dairy-free holiday recipes at Clearwater's specialty grocery store Nature's Food Patch, pastry chef Michael Ostrander's hands-on classes at St. Pete Bakery, large-scale classes at Tampa's food-themed Epicurean Hotel and even Healthy Cooking Classes at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. There are classes for confident and novice cooks alike, some that allow you to cut, poach and plate your entire meal and others that are purely demonstrative. Almost all reward you with food. I attended three different cooking classes to get a glimpse of the wide variety. To read the full story, go to

Publix Aprons Cooking School: Classes, both demonstrations and hands-on, are held almost every day of the week. $45 and up per person. 7835 Gunn Highway, Tampa. (813) 926-4465.

Bok Tower Gardens: There are three "Healthy Cooking Classes" scheduled: Sushi & Champagne, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 1; Low-Cal Pizza and Piadina, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 20; Beans, Beans the Magical Fruit!, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 2. $30 per person. 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales. (863) 676-1408.

Sur La Table: Classes, most hands-on, are held almost every day of the week. $49 and up per person. 711 S Dakota Ave., Tampa. (813) 258-8601.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor


SCOTT KEELER | Times (2008)

A Cessna 172 SP lands at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg. Flying lessons or just a single flight is one option for gift giving this year.

Harness the power of a deal: A little cash can go a long way toward an experience gift with the help of crowd savings websites like Groupon and Living Social. A recent check of Groupon's "things to do" category returned nearly 700 deals, most local (and extending to Orlando, if you're up for a little trip). Some are familiar, like discounts on concert tickets, meals and admission to the Dalí Museum. But there are off-the-wall options you might never have considered.

Flight lessons: Sky's the limit for gifting! If you know someone who is all about a little adventure, put them in the cockpit. Last year, my family did this for Dad, who had always wanted to fly a helicopter, and he loved it. Local companies offering Groupons for flight lessons include First Landings Aviation in Plant City, Tampa Bay Aviation in Clearwater and American Aviation Flight Academy in Brooksville. $54-$99. And if you're not too sure about your giftee's driving skills, SimCenter Tampa Bay in Clearwater offers a ride in an outer-space simulator for $45-$89, and several companies offer deals on skydiving.

Painting: Okay, so some folks just want to stay grounded, preferably with a drink in hand. By now, most of us have been to one of those a-drink-and-a-guided-painting-class nights because they're easy to enjoy. Some are BYOB, some are at bars and restaurants. Options for those classes, including "the original Paint Nite," abound on Groupon, but more traditional art classes are available too. Some even offer deals for two or more, so you can share the experience. $15-$120.

A getaway: Show me a person who doesn't need a getaway after 2016. Groupon Getaway deals vary from nights at local hotels ($35-$129) that could make a decent staycation to airfare and accommodation-inclusive trips to other continents (seen recently: $699 trips to Ireland, Iceland or Columbia). Several family members could pitch in.

Caitlin E. O'Conner, Times entertainment news editor


DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2015)

A family visiting from Illinois looks for clues while searching for a way out of the Tampa Bay Escape Room in downtown Clearwater.

It's time to get out of your comfort zone and place your loved ones in the heart of a challenge. On the greens, on the water or locked in a small room.

Escape Rooms: Nearly a dozen of these interactive puzzle attractions have opened in Tampa Bay over the past two years. Groups of players are "locked" in a room and forced to make sense of the clues and items around them in order to get out. It's quite a bonding experience. Rabbit Hole Escape Games has rooms themed "The Bermuda Triangle" and "Space Mining," while Can You Escape? features "The Office" and "The Medieval Adventure." $28-$29. Can You Escape is at 5811 Memorial Highway, Suite 206, Tampa. $28. (813) 789-8101. Rabbit Hole is at 5120 N Florida Ave., Tampa. (813) 236-9202.

Golf: The world-renowned Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor is home to the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship and one of Golf magazine's "Top 100 Courses You Can Play." If you know a golfer who has been seriously good this year, you can treat them to playing where some of the world's finest professionals play. The resort offers a Preferred Golf Package, which includes a room, a round of golf per night of stay, breakfasts, a clinic and other amenities starting at $538 a night. 36750 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor. (727) 942-2000.

eBoats: This fleet of electric-powered hourly rental boats launches from the Tampa Convention Center, giving out-of-towners and locals a relaxing new perspective on the downtown waterfront. Cruise under the lighted Platt Street and Kennedy Boulevard bridges or navigate along the edge of Davis Islands to get a look at Derek Jeter's multimillion-dollar mansion. The comfortable boats seat up to 10 people. Bring food and drinks aboard (adult beverages are allowed), or dock along the Hillsborough to grab a meal at Ricks on the River or Ulele. Gift cards are available. $50 to $90/hour. 333 S Franklin St., Tampa. (813) 767-2245.

Christopher Spata, Times staff writer


Matt Sayles | Invision via AP

Bruno Mars, center, performs "24K Magic" at the American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Nov. 20 in Los Angeles.

How to have a merry musical Christmas in two easy steps:

1. Buy your beloved a concert ticket.

2. Buy two, so you can go along.

But which 2017 show is the right fit for you both? Here are some suggestions. Price points listed are the cheapest seats.

Holiday party

For youngsters (or party-hearty oldsters), there are plenty of hot pop acts coming to Amalie Arena, including the Weeknd (May 12, $35.75), Shawn Mendes (July 25, $43.75) and Bruno Mars (Oct. 19, $41.25). Or book a surprise trip to Orlando for Florida Georgia Line (Jan. 28, $50) or Ariana Grande (April 15, $26.96) at the Amway Center. Or for just a hint of Hamilton flair, check out Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. at the Straz Center (March 19, $35.50).

Push boundaries

Give the gift of experimentation by turning someone on to music they might not have heard before, whether it's the dizzying alt-pop of Twenty One Pilots (Feb. 28, Amalie Arena, $35.75), the forceful indie hip hop of Run the Jewels (Jan. 24, Jannus Live, $25) or the powerhouse retro soul of St. Paul and the Broken Bones (March 24, Jannus Live, $25). And you can't go wrong giving a two-day ticket to Tampa's eclectic Gasparilla Music Festival (March 11-12, $40), headlined by Cage the Elephant.

Old reliables

It's hard to beat a classic, and there are plenty of those coming, too. At the Mahaffey Theater, you've got Smokey Robinson (Feb. 9, $59.50) and Loretta Lynn (Feb. 17, $35.50). Ruth Eckerd Hall is hosting a cool tribute to the Band's The Last Waltz with Warren Haynes, Michael McDonald, Jamey Johnson, Don Was and more (Jan. 23, $53.75). And at Amalie Arena, you'll find Pink Floyd's Roger Waters (July 11, $51.25) and country stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw (Oct. 20, $69.50).

Jay Cridlin, Times pop music/culture critic


Brian Blanco | St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

The historic Safety Harbor Resort & Spa is popular for visitors and locals alike.

No offense, but the gift of some time away from the responsibilities at home is the best. Throw in a massage and a facial? Bliss.

If you're looking to go big ($100 and way up):

Safety Harbor Spa: Offers half day ($179) and full day ($325) packages that include use of the facilities for the day. 105 N Bayshore Drive, Safety Harbor. (888) 237-8772.

Spa Oceana at Loews Don CeSar: Packages start at $260, though even just a pedicure ($55-$65) at the luxe resort is memorable and lovely. 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. (727) 360-1881.

On a tighter budget? Nearly every nail salon offers gift certificates, and many offer manicure/pedicure combos for $50 to $60. Add a 20 percent tip to the total to alleviate the need for cash on hand.

Even tighter budget? Let's try free. Make a coupon for free time for the other half of your parenting duo or your stressed-out mom or dad friend. The coupon should offer to either remove self and children from the home or allow the recipient to get out for a few hours. No kids and still no time? The coupon could offer guilt-free time to play Xbox or binge-watch the show of their choice. Artistic skills not required for the coupon, but appreciated nonetheless.

Ellen E. Clarke, Times staff writer


Courtesy of the Florida State Fair Authority

Tickets to the Florida State Fair would make an excellent holiday gift.

Chances are, your gift recipient would love to spend more time with you and have some fun doing it.

Segway tour: Those goofy scooters you see motoring around downtown are surprisingly easy to master. After just 5 minutes of spinning around an empty parking lot, my sister and I were rocking the Segway like Paul Blart, mall cop, and it was a blast. There are half a dozen operators around downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa and another half dozen running tours along the beaches. $40-$70 per tour. Check Groupon for deals.

Florida State Fair: Who doesn't love a deep-fried Twinkie or cuddling some baby chicks? The 2017 Florida State Fair is Feb. 9-20, but there's a 30 percent discount on advance ticket sales starting Dec. 1 at Print tickets from the website and tuck them in a Christmas card. New this year: Get a $30 any day unlimited ride armband or a $20 weekday armband (valid Feb. 9 and Feb. 13-16).

Attractions: A nice trend at attractions lately is the "pay for a day, come back all year" ticket. This is true at the Lowry Park Zoo, MOSI and is the concept behind Busch Gardens Fun Card. Your purchase of a one-day ticket with your loved one can be used again and again by both of you. They are good through Dec. 31 2017, and some are already on sale, giving you a month free if you buy it now. These passes sometimes include black-out dates during busy holiday weeks and don't include free parking and shopping discounts that you get with an annual pass. One option is to buy the more expensive annual pass for one member of the family to get those perks.,,

Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Times staff writer


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, who will speak at the University of Tampa's Lectores series

Books are always interactive gifts, of course. But you can add to the experience by choosing a book whose author will be appearing locally for a talk and book signing, so your gift recipient can meet the person behind the book. This year there are some terrific choices.

The University of Tampa's Lectores series: Held twice a year in conjunction with its low-residency MFA program, the series has a couple of stars kicking off its readings the first week of January. Colson Whitehead, who recently won the 2016 National Book Award for fiction for his novel The Underground Railroad, speaks on Jan. 5. On Jan. 6, Washington Post staffer David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, will talk about his nonfiction books. One of them, Thank You for Your Service, the story of young soldiers struggling with posttraumatic stress syndrome, has been made into a movie starring Miles Teller and coming to theaters in 2017. For a complete schedule of author talks, go to

Eckerd College Writers in Paradise: The college in St. Petersburg holds its annual conference every January, and there's a fine lineup there as well. Poet Richard Blanco, who read at President Barack Obama's second inauguration, is the keynote speaker, and a copy of his warm, funny memoir, The Prince of Los Cucuyos: A Miami Childhood, would make a great gift. He speaks Jan. 14. Other authors appearing that week include Laura Lippman (Wilde Lake) on Jan. 15 and Stewart O'Nan (City of Secrets) on Jan. 17; for a complete list go to

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor


Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman will perform at the Florida Orchestra's 2017 gala.

Get out of the box with a theater-themed travel, enhancing your date nights with a dinner package or trying your hand at a workshop.

The Trippers of American Stage Theatre Company take up to four excursions each year, starting with a March trip to New York. The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake follows in the summer. Two more 2017 destinations in North America or Europe will be announced soon. Previous destinations include England, Ireland, many regions in France and Italy, the Czech Republic and regions of Canada. General manager Tom Block, (727) 823-1600, ext. 208, [email protected]

Based in Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Asolo Rep Adventures Travel Club offers cruises and other excursions around the world. Travelers see Broadway shows, gain exclusive access to private homes, art galleries and backstage tours. (941) 351-9010, ext. 4702. [email protected]

If you or someone else wants to dive deeper into acting or dance, consider treating both of you to a movement workshop. The Tampa-based Creative Movement Company offers a wide range of workshops, from hip-hop and salsa to Broadway, and an even wider array in the potential applications of these classes. Besides adults and seniors, the company also has programs for preschoolers on up, abuse survivors and people with disabilities. Workshop topics include using movement to tell stories, deepen mindfulness, learn choreography or American Sign Language. (727) 265-1229. [email protected]

American Stage also offers ongoing workshops in stage and musical improv, plus a new, one-day workshop on writing and performing sketch comedy (Dec. 17). (727) 823-7529 . You might also try an eight-week, online sketch- writing course through The Second City, the Chicago company known for hatching future stars of Saturday Night Live. (727) 823-7529.

For an elegant evening, a couple of fundraisers in the music world should be especially memorable. Violinist Itzhak Perlman headlines the Florida Orchestra's Feb. 4 gala at the Mahaffey Theater, with a dinner option available. $50-$150. (727) 892-3338. On March 25 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Opera Tampa celebrates the 100th birthday of founding maestro Anton Coppola, who will be on hand to conduct. (813) 222-1275.

For any performance, don't forget the multiple dining venues at the Straz Center or the dinner-and-show packages available at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Andrew Meacham, Times performing arts critic

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