With so many traditional holiday gift items hung up somewhere in the supply chain pipeline, this might be the time to opt for wrapping-optional gifts that open the doors to experiences all year long. They don’t even involve a visit from UPS, FedEx, or Amazon. For the last few years, we’ve been buying memberships in local nonprofit organizations, favoring those that maintain a variety of sites. It has made us feel good to support the institutions. We’ve also enjoyed the benefit of not having to reach for a credit card to pay for admission when we arrived for a visit. It’s true that many organizations maintain some properties where admission is free or by donation, but we probably wouldn’t have discovered many of the off-the-beaten-path gems without the newsletters and emails that come with membership.
Here are a few choices that should offer something for everyone on your gift list.
If your giftees drew hope during the pandemic lockdown by identifying the feathered creatures flocking to their backyard birdfeeders, maybe it’s time to send them farther afield with gift memberships to Mass Audubon. Founded in 1896 as one of the earliest state Audubon societies in the country, the organization is a national leader in wildlife conservation and maintains more than 60 wildlife sanctuaries around the state.
This organizational focus on the outdoors is a perfect fit with the realities of social distancing, and the incessant mutability of nature is a welcome change from streaming Netflix series for the third time. Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats center in Newburyport is a great winter spot to look for bald eagles and eider ducks. The Wellfleet Bay sanctuary on Cape Cod is a-twitter with migrating warblers in the spring, while the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton features bobolink-filled grasslands in summer and a concentration of migratory ducks in the late fall. Rubber boots, tweed vests, and binoculars are optional.
Memberships begin under age 30 $25, individual $50, family $70. (New individual and family memberships are $35 if purchased through November 30.) massaudubon.org
When most people think of The Trustees, they think of Crane Beach in Ipswich, one of the nicest New England swimming beaches outside Cape Cod. But that particular sandy strand is just one of more than 120 properties across Massachusetts belonging to The Trustees. In addition to such dramatic landscapes as World’s End in Hingham and cultural sites like the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln and Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, The Trustees oversee a huge range of other properties.
We spent the last year exploring some of the smaller, more quirky corners of the Massachusetts landscape, such as the geological oddities of Dexter Drumlin in Lancaster and the rocky knolls of Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield. Anglers gravitate to the trout-filled waters of the Swift River Reservation in Petersham. This property along the largest tributary to the Quabbin Reservoir includes nine miles of trails and old roads in woods populated by deer, raccoons, porcupines, bears, bobcats, and coyotes. Poetry fans might prefer the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington.
The Trustees also offer discounts to members at the organization’s three campgrounds and three inns, which include the modernist Guest House at Field Farm in Williamstown and the posh Inn at Castle Hill in Ipswich. In the Berkshires, only members can purchase season passes at Notchview Nordic ski area. They also get a discount on daily trail passes.
Memberships begin at senior $45, individual $50, senior family $60, family $70. thetrustees.org
Historic New England
Membership in HNE is perfect for history buffs who like poking around in old houses — and hearing tales of the people who lived in them. The organization was founded in 1910 as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and has evolved as the keeper of our region’s collective memory. Its 38 properties are spread among Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Each has a story to tell.
Many of the homes are grand mansions. Beauport in Gloucester, the Governor John Langdon House in Portsmouth, N.H., and Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Conn., certainly fit the bill. Yet others are yeoman homes, like the 1664 Jackson House also in Portsmouth, N.H., or the 1678 Coffin House in Newbury. Each captures a slice of New England’s past.
HNE enlivens its properties with all sorts of interesting interpretive programs. The organization has assembled quirky exhibitons such as those chronicling the early history of aviation and the mid-century heyday of downtown shopping. It also sponsors farm markets at some properties and organizes visits for children to see farm operations in different seasons.
Memberships begin at student $25, individual $50, household $65. historicnewengland.org
America the Beautiful Pass
If your history buffs or outdoors enthusiasts are ready to expand their horizons, the America the Beautiful Pass is literally just the ticket to more than 2,000 properties across the country. It covers admissions and day-use fees at all National Park Service sites as well as national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands, and other federal recreation sites. In practical terms, one pass covers up to four adults at Acadia National Park or the Cape Cod National Seashore — or the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in New Hampshire, for that matter. The list could keep anyone busy for life. You could toss in the 112-page Passport to Your National Parks book ($12.95) so recipients can get it stamped at every location.
Annual passes are adults $80, seniors $20; senior lifetime pass $80. store.usgs.gov/pass/index.html, shop.americasnationalparks.org/store/
North American Reciprocal Museum Association
We know what we’re giving ourselves this holiday season. We’ve just discovered what we think of as the ‶all the museums you can eat″ program. About 1,100 institutions in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and El Salvador participate in the NARM association. Purchase an elevated level of membership in any one to receive free admission (or member’s admission price) to all the others. In New England, that includes the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the Worcester Art Museum, the Portland Museum of Art, the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., and the New Britain (Conn.) Museum of American Art. And that’s just a start.
Membership levels with NARM privileges vary, depending on the home institution, but usually range from $125-$250. narmassociation.org
Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon at email@example.com.
Patricia Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.