The 6 Best Experience Gifts of 2020

Choose a present that doesn't come wrapped

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Our Top Picks

Best for Overall: Sur la Table - Cooking Classes

Sur la Table

Sur la Table

Even the most accomplished home cooks can learn something from a little professional instruction. Treat the foodie in your life to a memorable dinner with single-meal cooking classes.

Sur la Table, a Seattle-based kitchen retailer with more than 100 storefronts in 30-plus states, offers classes at around 80 locations. The classes—which list menus in advance, offer various themes, and tend to run for about two hours—usually cost roughly between $60 and $80 per seat, including all ingredients and access to any necessary equipment.

But your giftee doesn’t need to live near one of Sur la Table’s many outposts to get in on the fun: The cooking brand offers classes online, with individualized instruction and the convenience of preparing new dishes at home for a discounted price. Held in a password-protected Zoom meeting, online classes cost about $30 and last between 90 and 120 minutes—and with no per-seat cost, everyone at home can participate.

Included with each online course is a one-sheet with a grocery list, steps that need to be completed early (preheating ovens, bringing ingredients to room temp, or washing and drying produce), and notes to ensure the student has access to all the equipment needed.

The rotating list of themes has included Greek nights, taco classes, pan-roasted chicken dinners, and more—a tight, yet versatile selection that will help new cooks master the basics and experienced home chefs to try a new cuisine or technique.

Best for Relaxation: Woodhouse Day Spa - Spa Service

Woodhouse Day Spa

Woodhouse Day Spa

Regardless of who you’re shopping for, giving the gift of a day at the spa is usually a good choice. Atop the list of options lies Woodhouse Day Spa, a high-end franchise that operates at about 65 locations in 16 states around the country.

Lavish services like the “Woodhouse Escape,” a 110-minute signature package that includes seven different restorative treatments in one session, will leave your loved one feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. Buy a gift card and allow the recipient to choose their schedule, or make an appointment for them and pay in advance.

Guests are encouraged to arrive early: Upon entry, they are immediately greeted with a tour of the facility before changing into a robe and taking a moment to unwind in the “Quiet Room” before their first service. Here, clients enjoy beverages—teas, mimosas, coffee, and fruit-infused water—and warm neck wraps before spa technicians come calling at treatment time.

Prices vary between spa locations, so when purchasing a gift card with a particular service in mind—a manicure, massage, or facial make great gifts—be sure to check with the location nearest your recipient to ensure the amount will cover the full service. And, to make the full experience cost-free for your loved one, consider adding gratuity to the gift card amount, too.

Best for Sporting Enthusiasts: Orvis Company - Fly Fishing School

Orvis Company

Orvis Company

For the outdoorsmen in your life, look to the Orvis Company, a family-owned sporting retailer with locations throughout the United States that offers instructional experiences to fit a wide range of budgets.

Beginners and experienced anglers alike will enjoy the virtual casting instruction: a premium package costs around $200 and includes a phone call, a detailed questionnaire, and video analysis before scheduling real-time video instruction, so each lesson is tailored to the skill level of the recipient.

In-person instruction is available too, with a fly-fishing school at Orvis’ headquarters in Manchester, Vermont, and several additional locations around the country. Other programs are perfect for vacations, with single- and multi-day excursions in striking locales: For about $125, take a three-hour flats-fishing primer at Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida. For a fuller day, practice casting at Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene, where an eight-hour course will run you approximately $275 and two-day classes ring in at roughly $500.

For a memorable long weekend, wade for trout in the heart of the Catskills—packages start at roughly $2,500 for a four-day excursion at West Branch Angler Resort.

Best for Music Fans: Guitar Center - Learn Guitar

Guitar Center

Guitar Center

With more than 300 stores nationwide, Guitar Center leads the way in selling musical instruments and specialized gear in the United States, and they also offer personalized instruction for new players.

Choose from guitar, bass, drum, piano, vocal, or DJing lessons—instruction is offered online or in-person at select stores. Four, 30-minute online lessons is a great choice for beginners and cost about $120, while four, 60-minute segments are the best option for advanced students looking to grow their skills (about $240).

Select stores also offer in-person classes, which vary in price and structure based on availability. Whichever type of course you choose, Guitar Center’s payment structure makes gifting easy: Payment is collected before the lessons are scheduled, so the recipient can weigh in on the right instructor and timeline.

The flexibility allows users to learn at their own pace, spacing out sessions to make time for extra practice or by grouping them together for a more intensive experience.

Best for Creatives: Paper Source - Art Classes

Paper Source

Paper Source

Sharing a handmade card or piece of art can be a highly personalized way to say you care, but there’s something just as special in giving inventive friends the opportunity to make their own keepsakes.

Paper Source, a stationery retailer with more than 100 stores nationwide, offers a rotating schedule of craft workshops and seminars, most of which ring in at less than roughly $100—including an increasing number of online offerings.

Watercolor workshops teach beginners how to use new stroke techniques, create patterns, make collages, and more, and themed sessions, like Watercolor Florals, offer more focused instruction. Paper weaving lessons show students how to turn recycled materials into placemats, bowls, and wall-worthy works of art.

Other tutorials cover potential business ventures, like hand-lettering or homemade greeting cards. For a memorable gift that still yields the joy of a freshly-unwrapped surprise, try pairing an in-person class or online tutorial with art supplies, like a watercolor palette or a brush set.

Best for Nature Lovers: National Park Service - Parks Pass

National Park Service

National Park Service

You can’t giftwrap a day spent exploring in a park or nature reserve, but there is a way to gift that feeling—or at least make it more accessible.

For about $80, purchase an America the Beautiful pass from the National Park Service, which grants the passholder access to more than 2,000 National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and more. Good for one year of access, the America the Beautiful pass waives entry fees to the cardholder, plus, everyone in their car at parks that charge entry by vehicle, or entry for up to four companions at sites that charge per person.

A financially smart purchase for anyone who might visit parks like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite more than two or three times per year, it’s an especially exciting ticket for nature-lovers, travel nuts, and camping enthusiasts.

And, even though the pass doesn’t cover additional fees like camping, boat launching, or special tours, gifting an America the Beautiful pass has symbolic significance: With the purchase, you (and by extension, your loved one) are showing support for public lands—and helping maintain them for the next generation.

How We Chose the Best Experience Gifts

The perfect gift isn’t always one with exquisite wrapping paper and a pretty bow. Sometimes, it’s the presents you can’t wrap at all—experiences—that make the most lasting impression.

To make this list of the best experience gifts, we looked at popular hobbies, like cooking or music, and thought about how those interests might be deepened through instruction or practice. The options we selected, like cooking courses from Sur La Table or music lessons from Guitar Center, stood out for their wide availability and accessible price points: Many in-person lessons cost about $100 per session, and virtual ones are even more affordable.

Higher-end instruction, like multi-day sporting excursions from the Orvis Company, also made the list, allowing the purchaser a wide range of options in location and length of lessons. Workshops like watercolor classes at Paper Source allow the gift recipient to take home a handmade treasure.

But not every experience involves learning a skill or trying something new. A wide slate of offerings awaits at the luxurious Woodhouse Day Spa, which got top marks for customer satisfaction, thanks to the wealth of amenities included with every treatment. And, with open-ended gifts like an annual National Parks pass, your loved one can keep making memories long after the special occasion has passed.

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