The gift of experiences: The present of your presence

Gift giving has never been easier -- gift cards are almost universally acceptable, and consumables are always well-received. For this guide to holiday presents, however, 83 Degrees highlights something more local, more hands-on, and perhaps more meaningful: The gift of experiences. The present of your presence.

From museum passes to state park picnics, “staycations” to sporting events, here are some of our favorite ideas for giving the gift of an experience in Tampa Bay during this holiday season.

Staycation in the city (or by the beach)

Give the gift of a local vacation to a loved one, with no car rental or plane ticket purchase necessary. 

Book a weekend at boutique hotels in downtown Tampa or St. Pete like the renovated courthouse Le Meridien, which offers an old-timey elegance in both lobby and restaurant, or DTSP’s balmy Beach Drive hotel, Birchwood, home to rooftop bar and cocktail lounge The Canopy. Enjoy views of a sunset over Tampa Bay after strolling around the city and taking in the parks, museums or shopping opportunities.

In South Tampa, the Epicurean Hotel offers guests bicycles to ride down to and along waterfront Bayshore Boulevard, as well as a restaurant featuring herbs grown in-house and a chic rooftop lounge with cocktails and small bites. For a more decadent “staycation,” head to the famous 1920s-era St. Pete Beach icon, the Loews Don CeSar resort, and enjoy a day of lounging on the beach just outside the pink palace.

See the 83 Degrees feature stories ‘Experience 24 Hours on the streets of Downtown Tampa’ and ‘Experience 24 hours on the streets of Downtown St. Pete’ for a recap of just how many walkable destinations one can explore in the heart of our local cities.

Eat, drink and be merry

Skip gift cards for well-known corporate establishments, and instead gift a friend or family members the treat of a meal at one of Tampa’s many respected local eateries. From the Acropolis Greek Tavern, which has grown to include a new location on Kennedy Boulevard near downtown Tampa, to DTSP’s always-vibrant Red Mesa Cantina, dozens of restaurants and cafes in Tampa Bay could make a unique location for a special holiday meal. 

Bring something new to the table with a lunchtime meal and espresso at St. Pete mainstay Mazzaro’s Italian Market, or fresh bread and desserts at Alessi Bakery, which has served the Tampa area for more than 100 years.

For a night out, Vietnamese restaurant La V and Tampa Heights restaurant Ulele offer takes on fusion menus, while local eateries like Noble Crust Pizza and Datz serve up classic dishes. New noodle shop Ichicoro Ramen in Seminole Heights and Japanese Kitchen Dosunco, located in South Tampa, each offer a twist on traditional Japanese ramen, a dish that is growing in popularity across the country. Or try the Edison Food+Drink Lab on Kennedy Boulevard near downtown Tampa or Del Frisco's Grille in the Westshore area for a rooftop fresh air atmosphere.

If you’re up for a longer jaunt, trek on out to Pearl in the Grove in Dade City, where The Underground Salad, Fried Green Tomato Caprese and Pappardelle Pearl pasta can fill your tummies while you take satisfaction in the kind of home cooking that makes it worth the drive. 

Or for a special treat, get to The Black Pearl in Dunedin or Villa Bellini in Clearwater or Dulcet Restaurant in New Port Richey or Cafe Zuppina in Lakeland. The Bay area is home to so many restaurants to satisfy every taste. 

Meals plus in foodie town

Interested in gifting more than a meal? Head to the hip Locale Market, located in downtown St. Pete’s Sundial, and shop local eats and treats or have food prepared fresh. After sitting outside and enjoying the goods, finish the evening off with a walk in North Straub Park or stop by a local brewery or pub – Cycle Brewing and The Ale and The Witch are close by. 

On the east side of the Bay, head to the Ybor Eats food stand for fresh edible concoctions and some locally made goods, like homemade desserts from Le’Anns Cheesecakes And More. Next, walk to Coppertail Brewing or Cigar City Cider and Mead to wash it all down with a local craft beverage.

If the idea of local breweries is appealing, turn your gift into a tour of Tampa or St. Petersburg beer by jumping on board the Tampa Bay Brew Bus: sit back, relax, and enjoy drinks both at destination breweries, and on board.

Wine enthusiasts will enjoy wine flights or tours at establishments like Cru Cellars or Annata. Cheese Please in South Tampa creates specialty-pairing events for wine, cheese, and beer; see the tasting schedule here. Or head on over to the Westshore area for Flights and Flatbreads at Seasons 52. Or go on out to Tampa International Airport for a pour at First Flight, where you can watch people and spend some time wandering touristy shops.

For a true wine experience, arrange a day trip out to Keel & Curley Winery in Plant City; tours require a reservation, but beer and wine tastings do not. 

Get out and play!

Gifts of experience are easily tailored to individual interests, whether they lean toward the great outdoors or exploring museums. 

Annual memberships to local destinations like The Florida Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Glazer Children’s Museum, the Tampa Bay History Center or Lowry Park Zoo, can make a thoughtful and useful gift for families to spend time together. Art lovers might appreciate a membership and special visit with the gift-giver to the Florida Museum Of Photographic Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg or the Dali Museum.

Tampa Theatre passes and tickets to a special event or performance at the Straz Center or Mahaffey Theater make a year-round treat. For sports lovers, tickets to Tampa Bay Lightning, Buccaneers or Rays games are a thoughtful gesture.

Those who favor time in the outdoors can enjoy the gift of a physical activity, like paddle-boarding or snorkeling, at Fort De Soto Park; or along Hillsborough River, canoeing and kayaking with Canoe Escape. In downtown Tampa, take a ride on Tampa Bay Water Bikes or chartered boats and enjoy a dolphin’s-eye view of the city. Or put together a plan to ride bicycles with family or friends in a local county park, along the Pinellas Trail or across the Courtney Campbell Causeway

Water lovers can enjoy ferry rides to well-preserved Caladesi Island from Honeymoon Island State Park; shell-covered, beachy Anclote Key from Tarpon Springs; or bird sanctuary Egmont Key from Fort De Soto park. Pack a picnic basket lunch (perhaps from Mazzaro’s) for your adventure, and include newly purchased Florida State Park passes. Or get tickets to spend a day with one of the many charter fishing boats or sunset cruises available. 

Back in the city, The Great Escape Room in downtown Tampa challenges friends and strangers alike to escape from a locked room by working together to solve puzzles within a time limit. Head to the scavenger hunt-style game with groups of 1-10. Can You Escape, located in Tampa suburb Town N’ Country, offers a similar game, with themed rooms like “London” and “Medieval” putting a unique spin on the experience. 

Giving the gift of experience can be a way to make presents more memorable. Not sure which experience to gift? A certificate or gift card tailored to personal interests could be the key: massages, yoga classes, cooking classes, sailing lessons or paddleboard lessons are just a few specialty items that local Tampa Bay area businesses offer. 

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Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.