Shops and Gifts

Dinner at Forbes Island

If you're seeking an exotic holiday foray but your credit card is a bit, um, maxed out, the solution may be this wallet-friendly alternative to the Caribbean just off the coast of Fisherman's Wharf. Island chieftain Forbes Kiddoo himself picks you up in his launch at Pier 41, and before you know it you're on his palm-strewn artificial isle, sipping a mai tai. Take in the fabulous views of the city, the bridge, and the bay from atop the lighthouse, then enjoy an elegant candlelit supper in the bamboo-lined dining room. There's even a Nemo-esque bar a league or two below sea level where you can toast your brief yet refreshing getaway. 951-4900 for details.

Mechanics' Institute membership

Cannery Wine Cellars.
James Sanders
Cannery Wine Cellars.
Lark in the Morning.
James Sanders
Lark in the Morning.

The Mechanics' Institute was established in 1855 as a center for adult education and cultural advancement at a time when the city had little of either. One of its founding principles was the formation of a library, and today 165,000 volumes on every conceivable subject take up two floors of the Mechanics' Institute Building at Post and Market. The members-only setting is hushed, pristine, and ambient with brass rails, burnished wood, comfortable armchairs and the pleasant smell of a used bookstore. The institute also hosts poetry readings, lectures, reading groups, writers' workshops, and salon-like movie nights, and its chess room offers grandmaster lectures and Tuesday night tournaments. Annual membership is $75 and includes free admission to many institute events. 393-0105 for details.

OMIZU Floatation and Massage

In order to escape the mundane stresses of everyday life, the modern San Franciscan has two places to go: in or out. For those looking to venture far, far away from quotidian reality without leaving the city limits, OMIZU proprietor Molly Hammer offers a variety of packages combining isolation tank sessions with massage. Inspired by a yearlong stay in Japan, Hammer has integrated Eastern-style décor alongside the metal capsules within which the user floats atop Epsom-salt-saturated waters and momentarily shuts herself off from all sense perception. "Frequent Floater" packages run from $135 to $275 (for up to ten 90-minute sessions), while a combination 60-minute float and massage combo runs $100. First-timers should allow some extra time for a shower and a brief orientation, and everyone gets to finish up with a cup of tea. By appointment only. For location and additional info, call 596-6517 or e-mail mollt@omizusf.com

Hang gliding gift certificates

A short sprint, a big jump, and you're in the air, soaring on the wind, with eye-popping ocean views spreading out beneath you. That is, if you don't screw up and crash into a cliff. Maximize your chances of survival by consulting the experts at the San Francisco Hang Gliding Center, who promise they can teach you to fly in just one day. An afternoon's session includes instruction on the ins and outs of leaping off a mountain with fabric wings on your back, though first-timers will soar in tandem with an instructor. Flights land on Stinson Beach and packages include a video of the experience. They don't come cheap, though -- gift certificates run from $285 to $325, with extras like T-shirts and a champagne toast for the fearless flyer costing extra. Daily by appointment, (510) 528-2300, www.sfhanggliding.com

SPCA gift certificates

If you're going to put a puppy or kitten underneath somebody's Christmas tree, better shell out for what the new pet owner reallyneeds. Gift certificates from San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can be used for T-shirts and notecards, but most pet owners will want to turn them in for exams, neutering and spaying, microchip identifiers, and (for dogs) training and obedience classes. Since the SPCA's prices are already rock-bottom, that gift certificate goes a long way. And proceeds help fund the organization's numerous animal care programs, from the veterinary hospital to animal therapy and the no-kill Maddie's Pet Adoption Center. $25-150; 554-3024 or (800) 211-7722, www.sfspca.org

S.F. Museum of Modern Art membership

Here's one of those great gifts that lasts much longer than the holiday season. And admittedly, it isn't totally selfless, since membership entitles a cardholder to free museum admission for themselves and a guest (that means you) for a year. Stay in good with your buddy and be among the first to check out new exhibits (including previews) and attend members-only events. There are also discounts at the always-fab SFMOMA MuseumStore. Right now they're running a holiday special, too: Purchase a $65 membership and receive 20 percent off of additional memberships. 151 Third St. (at Mission), 357-4076

One-month Muni pass

Way cheaper than a plane ticket to Thailand, and much longer-lasting than a dinner at Delfina, a Muni pass offers unlimited access to our beautiful home by the bay. It can open up a new world of possibilities -- not to mention interesting smells. Foggy trips to the beach and adventures in detached overhead wires await you. An adult pass costs $45 for 33 days (the first three days of each month are a gift from the city). Visit www.sfmuni.com or call 415-673-MUNI for a complete list of purchasing locations, including downtown stations and corner stores in a neighborhood near you.

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