A&E

Holidays: It's the thought that counts

Creativity creates 'wow' gifts, experiences

One of the eight gifts listed this year in the Neiman Marcus annual Fantasy Gifts catalog is called "Fancy Flying." It details a falconry experience complete with "bespoke" accoutrements such as a 20-karat gold-plated perch.

Fantasy? Not entirely. A Palo Alto couple created a similar, albeit lower-key, experience for themselves on a trip celebrating their daughter's 40th birthday. Original, creative, high-end gifts are delighting many local residents.

The falconry experience took place in the Cotswolds, where the family rented a home, complete with copper bathtub, and where a chef came one night to prepare a special English meal, with smashed peas, Yorkshire pudding and a sticky toffee pudding that the wife described as "to die for."

Some Internet research on TripAdvisor led them to West of England Falconry, near Bath, where falconer Jay Marshall gave the participants instructions. "We put on vests," said the wife. "On our left hand we put on a thick glove and were told to keep our right hand firmly over the right pocket" — in which they had the supply of baby chick gizzards. She then described how they were led into a field surrounded by a forest. With a piece of bait transferred to the left hand, arm outstretched, the "beautiful, beautiful birds swoop down at enormous speed" to take the bait. One bird perched on her head for a bit. "A sort of falcon fascinator," she said. "We were there for about two hours and I would do it again in a heartbeat."

Yet another avian-like experience was the birthday gift of fighter jet lessons a Woodside woman gave to her husband. Her husband, although not a professional pilot, was certified and was a member of the Swedish equivalent to our Special Forces. He has bona fides as an excellent skier, (helicopter skiing in Canada), competitive parachute jumping, horseback riding (fox hunting in Ireland). You get the picture.

The wife said that she had had the opportunity to ride in a fighter jet in New Zealand and was looking for a similar experience for her husband. "But I knew that he wouldn't want to be taken for a ride. That's not the way he's wired. He would want to take the wheel." Quite by chance, she met someone at a party who introduced her to Peter Zaccagnino, a certified instructor who owns his own L-39 jet and who gives lessons in Heber, Utah.

What started out as a gift of three lessons, at $2,500 each, has now blossomed into "at least 12 more, in which he has learned to take off, land and do all kinds of maneuvers," she said. The couple, who decided years ago to give each other experiences rather than gifts, has also enjoyed white-water rafting down the Carnali River in Nepal and private polo lessons in Palm Springs.

Nine months before their 40th wedding anniversary, an Atherton glass collector decided to commission a piece for his wife from the glass artist Emily Brock, whose miniatures the couple had long admired. "The theme was four decades, so I told her I wanted to represent four places we love," said the husband.

The result is a sort of four-roomed glass doll house. One "room" is a fall scene in Central Park in New York, another, the counter in the Paris restaurant L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, another, the couple's family room (including the miniature glass collection) and, finally, their as yet unfinished dream house in Martha's Vineyard. "Emily was very clever in her execution, right down to the lamb chops and cocktail my wife always orders," he said.

Since Emily Brock lives in New Mexico, the piece was fabricated using photographs, either taken by the husband or found on the Internet. "The only thing she had some trouble with was the color of the family-room sofa," said the husband.

"I also asked the artist if she could somehow incorporate all the memories we have of these places, said the husband. The result is a memory drawer that pulls out from each section. Each drawer contains a piece of glass with an etched list.

The piece cost $20,000. "It was shipped, intact," said the husband. "Every time we look at it, we smile."

If your imagination needs a creative boost, there is always that Neiman Marcus catalog. "Ginger Reeder, vp of public relations in Dallas, works all year round selecting the Fantasy Gifts," said Samantha Hartwell, manager of public relations in the Palo Alto store. The Fantasy Gifts are found in the Christmas Book 2013, called "The Heart of Giving." The first catalog was published in 1926, and the Fantasy Gifts were introduced in 1959 by the Marcus Brothers as a publicity coup.

The most expensive gift this year is "Roughing It" and includes not only a 25-karat rough Forevermark diamond, but also an edifying trip to the De Beers headquarters in London, and the opportunity to design your own piece of jewelry with a New York-based jewelry designer. Price tag: $1.8 million.

"The cars always sell out within the first 24 hours," Hartwell said. This year, they are featuring a 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante, one of only 10 in the world. "And the His and Hers are always popular," she added. "In 1967 it was His and Hers camels."

This year each Neiman Marcus store will donate a portion of the proceeds from each Fantasy Gift purchase to the Heart of Neiman Marcus Foundation, from which each store will in turn donate funds. The Palo Alto Neiman Marcus store selected Stanford LIVE, the production company behind the Bing Concert Hall, which provides musical experiences for K-12 in this community.

As for next year, Hartwell says that Ginger Reeder is probably hard at work on that right now!

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