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Experiences ~ The Gifts that Keep on Giving

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Whether it’s gift-giving for a holiday, birthday or an observance, we all have a relative or close friend (or it might even be you) who either has enough stuff or poses a challenge regarding choosing the right gift.

So, what does one do in these situations?

Simple - you gift them with an experience.

From animal encounters to creating something of your own, there are experiences for nearly all ages and interests found throughout the South.

For the animal lover

• Meet a penguin and learn more about the creature at Penguin Encounter in the Aquarium Pyramid at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas. As a bonus, watch as they create artwork for you.

• Among the tours at Columbia, S.C.’s Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens Backstage include learning about the feeding and caring of sea lions. Pay attention, or you might get splashed!

• The Sloth Experience at Hattiesburg (Miss.) Zoo allows you to help feed a sloth and possibly an up-close encounter, depending on the sloth’s temperature.

• Zoo Tampa offers various encounters that include the African Elephant Behind-the-Scenes tour featuring sitting in on a training session and more.

• Opt for behind-the-scene tours at facilities like St. Louis (Mo.) Aquarium, Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island and Clearwater (Fla.) Aquarium.

• Spot dolphins in Panama City Beach, Fla., or whales in Virginia Beach, Va. Take part in a guided swim with manatees in the “Manatee Capital of the World ~” Crystal River, Florida.

• Go horseback riding with such groups as Wild Rose Equine Center in Dearborn, Mo., Trackrock Stables in Blairsville, Ga., Shelby Farms Stables in Memphis, Tenn., Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington and Red Fern Riding Center in Shelbyville, Ky. Kick up a little sand riding on the beach through Broke-A-Toe on Port St. Joe, Fla., C Ponies in Bradenton, Fla., Inlet Point Plantation in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, and in Loudoun County, Virginia.

• And regarding horses, there are various tours to select from at Keeneland in Lexington and Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville. Don’t forget about the horse farm tours, either. Check out the Farm Tours of Ocala (Fla.) or the various operations in Lexington, Ky.

• Take a walk or trek with a llama pal through ShangriLlama in Royse City, Texas, Smoky Mountain Llama Treks in Cosby, Tenn., Divine Llama Vineyards in East Bend, N.C., or Lower Sherwood Farm in Charlottesville, Va.

For the thrill seeker

• Take a guided walking tour along the catwalk under the New River Gorge Bridge with Bridge Walk in Lansing, WVa.

• Zip line through Palo Duro Canyon with Palo Duro Canyon Adventure Park in Canyon, Texas, or zoom over crocodiles and gators at St. Augustine (Fla.) Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

• Oh, and speaking of gators, get personal with them on the Adventure Tours or Gator Night Shine at Gatorland in Kissimmee, Fla.

• Up, up and away ... go skydiving with Skydive Galveston (Texas) or Skydive Alabama in Vinemont. Hang glide or paraglide with Lookout Mountain Flight Park in Rising Fawn, Ga. Want the rush but in a controlled area? Check out iFly Indoor Skydiving with locations in Missouri, Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.

• Get a bird's-eye view of the Smokies with Scenic Helicopter Tours. They even have options for unique and custom experiences.

• Experience Chattooga River’s (along the Georgia-South Carolina border) Class IV - V rapids on a guided ride with Nantahala Outdoor Center, putting in at the outpost near Clayton, Ga.

• Go zip lining underground in Louisville (Ky.) Mega Cavern.

• Feel all the thrills when riding the Rail Runner Mountain Coaster at Anakeesta in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The single-rail mountain coaster is said to be the first of its kind in the country.

• Get down and dirty through a wild cave tour at Cosmic Cavern in Berryville, Ark., Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio, Texas, Raccoon Mountain Caverns in Chattanooga, Tenn., Hidden River Cave in Horse Cave, Ky., and Lost World Caverns in Lewisburg, WVa.

• Go Zorbing along one of the three tracks at the Outdoor Gravity Park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

• Take on climbing or learn the art of bouldering at High Point Climbing and Fitness in Memphis, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Huntsville, Birmingham, Ala.

• Get behind the wheel of a BMW with the driving experience classes in Spartanburg, S.C., or Corvette at NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Ky.

For the outdoor enthusiast

• Hike, bike, canoe, dark sky gaze ... experience nearly everything outdoor-wise at a state park. However, some offer unique experiences. For instance, dig for rocks, minerals and even diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Ark., or go tree-climbing at Panola Mountain State Park in Stonecrest, Ga. In South Carolina, SCUBA on Lake Jocassee at Devils Fork State Park in Salem, while in North Carolina, learn how to fly a stunt kite at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, and in Kentucky, spot the moonbow at Cumberland Falls State Park in Corbin.

• Go off-roading on an ATV. Banning Mills in Whitesburg, Ga., offers the Extreme Eco-Spider ATV Adventure, where you can ride single or tandem on the guided tour. Foxfire Mountain in Sevierville, Tenn., also has a guided ATV tour. Over at Wilderness Rider Buffalo Ranch and Adventure Park in Kingston, Ark., choose to go on a guided 6 x 6 tour or rent your own and let the provided park map be the guide.

Rent an ATV and head out on one of the eight distinctive trails that make up the Hatfield-McCoy Trails. As one of the nation’s most extensive trail systems, it winds through multi counties in southern West Virginia, where many famous feuds between the two families took place.

• Get on the water with Cajun Country Swamp Tours in Breaux Bridge, La., and explore Cypress Island/Lake Martin Swamp. Take an eco-cruise tour with Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport or aboard the Lady Jane in Brunswick, Ga. Learn how shrimp goes from net to plate with Biloxi (Miss.) Cruise Company.

• Go on a bioluminescence paddle with GeoTrippin in St. Augustine or B.K. Adventure in Titusville, Fla.

• Delve into the history and stories of all the blooms within Jackson County, N.C. and the Southern Appalachia region on a guided walk with Bigelow’s Botanical Excursions.

• Paddle through the Gorge Underground (Rogers, Ky.) in a clear bottom kayak.

• Learn how to surf on Cocoa Beach, Fla., or North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands.

• Exploring Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge or a salt marsh are just a few of the eco trips offered by WiSE - Wilderness Southeast based in Savannah, Ga.

• Take a snow skiing class in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

For the foodie

• Make sausage in Hermann, Mo., taste cheese in Austin, mix a cocktail in New Orleans, sip coffee in Atlanta, bake biscuits in Nashville, Tenn., or Charleston, S.C., and create sweets in Johnson City, Tenn., or Charlotte, N.C.

• Find the perfect cooking class in places such as the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Miss., Mansion of Forsyth Park in Savannah, Ga., Bodacious in Pensacola, Fla., or Cooking at the Cottage in Louisville, Ky.

• The bourbon lover will appreciate a chance to take part in any one of the classes and events along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

• And for those who rather eat than cook, there’s All About Baton Rouge (La.) Food Tour, Cajun Food Tours in Lafayette, La., SceneThat Downtown Food Tour in Huntsville, Ala., and Wilmington (N.C.) Downtown Tasting Tour by Taste Carolina.

For the hobbyist

• Create a glass piece at Mohawk Steel and Glass in Hattiesburg, Miss., or blow a glass ornament or paperweight at iGNiS Glass Studio in Chattanooga, Tenn.

• Blow a beer, wine or whiskey glass at Pretentious Glass in Knoxville, Tenn., or shape a glass piece at Tamarack in Beckley, WVa.

• Take a fiber art class with Lasso The Moon Alpaca Farm in Blairsville, Ga.

• Mark the calendar for Hands On Gatlinburg, May 5-7, 2023, as artists and crafters in the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community hold workshops and classes.

• Ignite creativity with a class or workshop at Lowe Mill Arts or Burritt on the Mountain Folk School in Huntsville, Ala., John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., or Penland (N.C.) School of Craft.

Alabama Chanin in Florence offers DIY kits, workshops and more with their School of Making.

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