Just cook, dive or drive it
Steven Krasicki, executive chef of Altitude Restaurant at Sydney's Shangri-La hotel.
Stuck for a Christmas gift idea for the beloved who has everything? Consider giving them an "experience". There are literally hundreds of options from hot air ballooning, to skydiving, massage, cooking, diving and driving. Executive Style profiles three popular options.
1. City scuba
I'm three metres underwater, listening to the roar of my own breathing, and concentrating – hard – on staying horizontal.
Scuba diving is a great way to get away from the pressures of work.
It's after five, I've had a full day at my desk and now, under the gentle waves of Sydney's Camp Cove, I find myself drifting, being tugged by gentle currents and feeling, frankly, as far from the office as is humanly possible.
I'm on a PADI Discover Scuba Diving course, a happy medium between committing to a full PADI certification and the surface joys of snorkelling. Introductory dives, like this one with Bondive, last around 20 minutes, offering a complete novice a taste of the submerged life – and it's rarely not followed by a bigger bite into the subterranean world of scuba diving.
Peter Michie knows city life all-too-well. A criminal prosecutor for 20 years, four years ago he packed it all in to dip a toe into the water of his true love, diving. Now, the diving instructor spends his days taking everyone from time-pressed city-types to curious tourists underwater. The harbour is his training ground, the beach his office.
Driving a Formula Ford is the closest most people will ever get to Formula 1.
We drive from my work to Vaucluse and, before the backdrop of Sydney's skyline, I am taught the mechanics of scuba.
After changing into my wetsuit and far-heavier-than-expected gear, within moments I'm bobbing, floating, then submerging and reminding myself to breathe. It's unlike anything I've tried; taking each breath feels unnatural, a connection to the daring-do of legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau and a salutary lesson to slow down, breathe with control, listen to the body.
We see baby stingrays and an eel. My legs seem to have a buoyancy of their own, and I feel the cold seep of water gradually creeping through my neoprene layers. The visibility is unexpectedly clear. Just a few kilometres away, cars sit bumper-to-bumper in the city.
Aquatic protection zones and changes to deep water outfalls mean that city-accessible diving has done an about-turn in the last 15 years - from a no-go zone to a playground in itself. And Sydney is responding. Michie says his market was once almost entirely comprised of inbound international tourists. Increasingly now it's locals, especially time-poor professionals who appreciate the other-worldly sensory deprivation and calming isolation of aquatic life.
The beauty of diving is that you don't need to be super fit, or even a very strong swimmer. There are no phones, no background noise; only an odd, but relaxing, weightlessness.
And, to those of you who may harbour fears of the odd shark, Michie, who has more than 2000 dives under his belt, laughs. "Virtually nothing in Sydney water is dangerous unless you go and pull it by the tail."
• Bondive offers day-long PADI Discover Scuba Diving courses, which include lifts to and from the dive site, all gear, a meal and two introductory dives for $650. Go to bondive.com.au
DAISY DUMAS was a guest of Bondive.
2. The amazing race
If it's adrenalin you're after, there are few bigger rushes than strapping yourself into a real racing car and hitting the track.
You can choose to sit beside an experienced racing driver in a tin-top V8-powered supercar for an appreciation of the speed and skill involved in top-flite touring car racing. Or you can drive yourself.
If harnessing all the power and weight of a big V8 seems daunting, downsize to the most pure form of racing on the planet - an open-wheel Formula Ford.
Formula Fords make about the same amount of power as a humble Ford Fiesta, but with a kerb weight of 500kg - about one-third of the Fiesta - that's where the resemblance ends.
They're capable of topping out at more than 200km/h – if the driver chooses. And it's up to you, because Formula Ford come-and-try days allow drivers to lap at their own pace, after a briefing and a sighting lap in a road car with experienced driving instructors.
You're suited up in the full kit, from full-face helmet and triple-layered flameproof suit down to proper narrow-gauge racing boots, then strapped into the compact cockpit. Your bottom is now just inches off the deck and your arms and legs stretch in front to a tiny steering wheel and a narrow pedal box. Forget about automatic transmissions; this is a manual-only affair with a rifle bolt-like four-speed shifter next to the steering wheel and a tiny clutch pedal with a narrow take-up point that makes quick shifts a bit of an artform.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of driving open-wheelers is just that – your front wheels are right in front of you, and you can judge exactly where you are placing them on a racetrack in a way that's impossible to emulate in a road car. It's the closest to driving a Formula 1 car that most of we mere mortals will ever come.
It takes a few laps to dial into the super-sharp steering, finicky clutch and the sound and feel of the wind slapping your helmet, but each time you slot home a gear without a complaining graunch from the gearbox the experience becomes more and more addictive.
• Formula Ford experience days can be purchased from websites including redballoon.com.au or adrenalin.com.au and are held at various racetracks in many states. Prices start from around $260 for five laps.
3. Make me a chef
If a glass of bubbles in one hand, a fresh piece of pasta in the other and a view of Sydney Harbour aren't enough to persuade even the most novice chef into cooking, we suggest moving along.
Altitude's cookery courses are perhaps the most decadent way around to learn to roll pasta, gut a fresh fish, whip up a Jerusalem artichoke puree and stuff a tortellini. From the sous chefs on hand to having the washing-up taken care of, it's a stylish cooking class mixed with an equally stylish lunch, all perched at 36 storeys above the city.
The Shangri-La's private dining room, complete with its 270-degree vista, is converted into your private kitchen. The hotel's executive chef, Steve Krasicki of Masterchef fame, is the appointed master of ceremonies.
The menu is a moveable feast, sliding from theme to theme depending on seasonality and availability. It's a rambunctious affair, helped along by drinks and Steve's larrikin humour, not to mention the breezy sophistication of the place - there's nothing parochially Home Ec about these cookery classes.
We work through our menu, comparing sublime tortellinis to pasta fails, making a hash of the onions and praising one participant's mastery of fish filleting.
But, beyond the expert knife wielding and step-by-step cheats' guide to restaurant-style food, the day's piece de resistance has to be the two-course lunch: the dishes you've attempted, cooked by the pros, straight from beyond the swinging doors.
No lumps, no shell shards, no fish bone, no burnt bits – just good food, well done, and wine flowing.
Sessions officially last for around three hours but have been known to go on and on ... or, at least, until the one-hat restaurant needs to turn tables over for the evening's first sitting.
• Altitude's 'Make Me a Chef' once-monthly group classes cost $135 per person. Sparkling wine, apron, recipe cards and two-course lunch included. Go to www.shangri-la.com/sydney/shangrila/dining/offers/details/makemeachefcookingclassataltituderestaurant or phone (02) 9250 6123.
DAISY DUMAS was a guest of Altitude.