Some of the best presents don't fit under a tree. We rounded up more than a dozen unique experiences—from sailing school to barbecue camp—that'll have them thanking you for years to come.
Let's face it: Aunt Betty does not need another Santa-emblazoned sweater. Or socks. But imagine how excited she would be to receive a trip to the studio of Southern fashion house Alabama Chanin to learn hands-on—and under designer Natalie Chanin's expert tutelage—how to make her own cotton reverse-appliqué dress. Or how thrilled your brother would be to jump barrel-first into the ins and outs of distilling bourbon. This year, save yourself a trip to the mall and give one of these special, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Even better: Go in on a group gift, or book one for yourself!
Location: Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, TX, just west of Johnson City
What it Entails: At the annual Bourbon Camp weekend, guests participate in every step of the production process—from mixing the mash to filling and waxing the bottle.
The Details: The steep $2,000 price (hello, group gift!) includes life membership in the distillery's "Old 300" club and a refundable barrel deposit. garrisonbros.com
Location: Jack's Old South Cooking School in Unadilla, GA
What it Entails: Take your cues from BBQ legend Myron Mixon, who leads a three-day course that covers the ins and outs of whole hog, ribs, chicken, brisket, and pork—all in his own backyard.
The Details: $750/person for three days (discounts apply when booking multiple seats); jacksoldsouth.com
Location: Near Asheville, NC
What it Entails: Gather wild chanterelles, morels, and more on a culinary scavenger hunt with mushroom maestro Alan Muskat. Afterward, bring your bounty to Asheville tapas joint Zambra, where your ingredients will be incorporated into a meal.
The Details: Three-hour wild food outings March-November from $50/person; dinner varies. notastelikehome.org
Location: Designer Natalie Chanin's "The Factory" in Florence, AL
What it Entails: Participants work directly with the famed designer of the Alabama Chanin couture line in a casual setting. They'll learn timeless stitching techniques, and participants in the full weekend workshop have an all-access pass to the fabric archives.
The Details: Prices for a full weekend workshop start at $1,125. One-day workshops (location varies) start at $475; alabamachanin.com
Location: Captiva Island, FL; Fort Meyers Beach, FL; St. Petersburg, FL; St. Michaels, MD
What it Entails: During six hours of hands-on experience aboard a 26-foot sailboat, learn sailing basics, from docking and steering to knot tying. There's ample time for relaxation: You choose how to divvy up those six hours over a two-day resort stay.
The Details: Rates start at $855 per person (including resort accommodations); classes offered year-round in FL, April-October in MD; offshoresailing.com
Location: South Carolina's stunning Kiawah Island—home to the 2012 PGA Championship
What it Entails: Small-group golf schools on some of America's most lauded terrain cater to all skill levels. One-day sessions include three hours of instruction; longer sessions throw in 18-hole rounds, unlimited range balls, and lunch.
The Details: One-day school, $295 per person; two-day, $925; three-day, $1,545; four-day, $1,845; kiawahresort.com
Location: The 250-acre Adventures on the Gorge resort in Southwestern West Virginia
What it Entails: Think Class V rapids and zipline canopy tours at this all-inclusive. Round out your schedule with hiking, fishing, and horseback riding.
The Details: Three-day, all-inclusive trips (three meals and up to three activities per day) from $169 per person per day; onthegorge.com
Location: The award-winning Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, GA
What it Entails: Participants spend all day with owner Jeremy Little to handcraft their own wheel of cheese from a custom recipe. From cutting the curd to molding each wheel, individuals learn every step to achieve the perfect texture and flavor.
The Details: $120 per person includes five hours of learning to make cheese, culminating with a tasting. Offered monthly; sweetgrassdairy.com
Location: Blackberry Farm, set on 4,200 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains in Walland, TN
What it Entails: Throughout the year, Blackberry's cooking school weekends and food-focused events let guests rub elbows with some of the nation's most celebrated chefs, winemakers, and culinary scholars. Kick off the year with the January Taste of the South.
The Details: January 10-13, Taste of the South, $600, not including lodging; other culinary weekends also start at $600; blackberryfarm.com
Location: Aboard the recently restored American Queen paddle wheel steamboat
What it Entails: A seven-night, Southern culture-themed cruise stops to tour plantations and historic districts between Memphis and New Orleans.
The Details: Seven-night cruises from $2,295/person double occupancy; includes excursions and hotel one night at departure port; americanqueensteamboatcompany.com
Location: The family-owned Veramar Winery in Berryville, VA, in the Shenandoah Valley
What it Entails: Tag along with winemaker Justin Bogaty to learn how juice goes from grape to glass. The experience includes a two-night stay in the vineyard owners' own home, wine-paired dinners, and seminars on everything from tasting to terroir.
The Details: May through October; $750 per person, including meals and boarding; veramar.com
Location: Fifteen/Eleven paper goods shop in Old Town Alexandria, VA
What it Entails: Dip your pen in some ink during this three-hour course and learn basic strokes of three unique writing styles in a workshop led by Michele Hatty Fritz of Meant To Be Calligraphy, whose work has garnered nationwide attention.
The Details: $215 for the three-hour course held once a month; meanttobecalligraphy.com or thehiveat1511.com
Location: Maggie Austin Cake in Alexandria, VA.
What it Entails: Individuals work with acclaimed cake designer Maggie Austin in her sun-filled studio nestled in historic Old Town Alexandria to design and create stunning decorative sugar flowers that will last for cakes to come. From classic roses to extraordinary peonies, collaboration through small class sizes and instruction for all experience levels inspire an array of gorgeous blooms in sugar form.
The Details: $450 per person for two-day classes; maggieaustincake.com or 202/448-2920
Location: The Penland School of Crafts in Penland, NC.
What it Entails: Reside in a cabin or dorm room on 400 beautiful acres of this traditional craft school, feed on fresh fixings from the Pines dining hall, and choose from eight one-week spring courses of various artistic study. Options include a photo class where students will learn location lighting techniques in a small workshop environment, taught by John Woodin, whose photographs have been displayed in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
The Details: Tuition starts at $515/week; penland.org or 828/765-2359
Location: The Houston Zoo in TX
What it Entails: Some 6,000 animals reside at the Houston Zoo, and the facility’s four full-time veterinarians are on hand to make sure every winged, gilled, two-, and four-legged creature stays healthy. Participants shadow a vet as she makes her morning rounds, which sometimes include surgical procedures.
The Details: Reservations required 21 days in advance; $350 for two participants ages 16 and up; houstonzoo.org or 713/533-6500
Location: Little Rock, AR.
What it Entails: Discover how to define personal interior style and pull together a room through this intensive three-day camp. In a workshop environment and with Tobi’s guidance, complete a project from start to finish, all while learning her best design techniques, tips, and secrets.
The Details: Starting at $2,399; designcamp.tobifairley.com or 501/868-9882
Location: The Webb Farm, a 1,300-acre, family-run working farm for four generations, in North Carolina.
What it Entails: From October through March each year, Bill and Debbie Webb warmly welcome guests to their eight-room lodge for guided quail hunts on their private preserve, three home-cooked meals a day, and evening cocktails on the wraparound porch.
The Details: Full-day quail hunt with three meals and accommodations, $980; thewebbfarm.com or 910/995-0207
Location: The San Antonio campus of The Culinary Institute of America.
What it Entails: Ambitious cooks can pick up a host of new skills in as little as a weekend, thanks to the school’s intensive, hands-on two- to five-day Culinary Boot Camps. Choose your poison: making (even more) addictive mac-and-cheese and meatloaf in a two-day Comfort Foods course, spending three days on desserts, or taking a four-day tour of American regional cuisine (among other course options).
The Details: Two-day Boot Camps from $895; ciachef.edu or 888/206-8425
Location: The John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC.
What it Entails: The John C. Campbell Folk School annually enlists hundreds of artists and craftspeople to tutor guests of its 300-acre campus. Its course book is an homage to the handmade: Classes are offered in two-, five-, or six-day stints and range from basketry to book restoration, metalwork to mixed media art.
The Details: Year-round; from $504 for a weekend course, including meals and accommodations; folkschool.org or 800/365-5724