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I can’t remember if Smart Box and Wonder Box existed in the U.S. and Canada before I moved to France. I don’t remember them at all, so I am inclined to say that they hadn’t yet hit the North American market, and I’m not sure if they or their ilk are popular now. I imagine so. Not much escapes the American marketplace.

But for those of you who aren’t sure what I am talking about let me back step a moment. A French company called Smart Box introduced a new concept of gift cards just before I moved to Paris five years ago. These gifts boxes come in many types: culinary evenings with chefs, wine tastings at vineyards, various sporting activities, short vacations – like the one mentioned in the title – to one of the beautiful château hotels/inns in France. The most popular variety I’ve found is the dinner for two at a restaurant of gastronomique delight.

Over the past few years, these gift boxes have intensified in popularity. I’d bet by now that every Frenchman has given such a gift at least once since its conception. (That’s about 60M!) They have become, over here in France at least, quite the perfect solution to the “I haven’t the faintest idea what to get my parents-in-law for Christmas!” dilemma. In fact, a few years ago, my husband and I were the very grateful recipients of three such gifts in a spance of a few weeks. This in practice meant that both our birthday dinners that year plus our anniversary celebration were graciously bestowed upon us by friends and family. It was a delightful treat.

The principle for the boxes is that the gift company, Smart Box for instance, has contacts with hotels, restaurants, sports activity planners, etc, all over the country. The recipient simply makes a reservation for before the expiration date (usually 6 months to one year after reception) and let the company know you will be using a “SmartBox.” Sometimes a restaurant will have a special menu for the gift boxes; sometimes there is a flute of Champagne awaiting you at the table or in your hotel room. It’s a great way for restaurants and hotels and event companies to attract new customers. My husband and I have discovered many new spots through these gifts, which we otherwise might never have ventured toward.

At first I thought the idea a little cheap in the thoughtfulness category. After all, they are one-size-fits-all gifts. But then I began to realize that what the giver offers is not just a dinner out or a weekend away. They are giving a luxury many of us usually wouldn’t gift to ourselves. In France in particular, given the Frenchman’s appreciation of the finer delights of gastronomy, the giving and receiving of a night at an excellent French chef’s table is anything but a slight.

There are a few drawbacks, however. The expiration date can creep up on you if you aren’t careful and then you have to rush around making the reservations before you lose the whole opportunity. Likewise, some of the restaurants won’t take gift box reservations on the weekend, or the hotels during special occasions like Valentine’s Day or New Years. This can be a blessing in disguise, though, as attentive service at an elegant Michelin two-tar restaurant on a slow Tuesday evening is rather enjoyable.

In France, there are a few companies who offer these sorts of all-in-one gifts. When I first came here five years ago, the Smart Box was in its infancy. To my knowledge it was the pioneer of such gift packages.

Wonder Box was introduced to me this weekend by my husband’s godfather who very generously gave us a weekend for two in a château (Châteaux & belles demeures). Doesn’t everything sounds better in French? 🙂

If you know someone coming over to France for a special occasion, a 40th or 50th birthday perhaps, a silver anniversary, a girlfriends’ reunion week in Paris, or simply for a vacation, this might be the perfect Christmas gift in which they may indulge while on their séjour in France.

I put the links below for the different boxes here in France. Some have sister sites in various countries and I’ve added a few as well. If I can be of any assistance with the French, please don’t hesitate. It would be a pleasure.

Smart Box USA

Smart Box Canada

Smart Box France

Wonder Box Châteaux & belles demeures (This is the one we have the pleasure of trying this winter. I’ll let you know how it is!)

Wonder Box France – Neat idea: Package La Vie de Chateau where your choice of 140 châteaux opens its doors to a couple to live a night drenched in the history of the Kings of France and their nobles, includes dinner and breakfast.

Happy Travels!

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