For Christmas this year, my girlfriend, Mary, surprised me with a hot air balloon ride! Neither of us had ever done it before, and it was so serene. If you've never floated effortlessly through the air in a basket, I highly recommend it. The flight was a little over an hour long, and we traveled 6 miles over beautiful vineyards as the sun melted away the fog.
We got up at 5am on Saturday morning to head into Napa Valley. The launch point was V Marketplace in Yountville, CA. The fog made it questionable whether the flight would happen or not - but it quickly burned off, and work began. Prepping the balloon appeared to be an intense job!
They call this process "standing up the balloon". The baskets are on their sides until the balloon is full enough to be upright. From there, we're allowed to climb inside. Our balloon had about 10 passengers, and the basket was divided into compartments. We had a compartment to ourselves, which made it feel more like a private experience.
The thing about a hot air balloon is that control over where it goes is pretty limited. You can raise it or lower it based on how much fuel you give it, but we were really at the mercy of the wind. During initiation, it was explained that we could end up anywhere. . . though they do have a handful of target landing spots.
It was really interesting how effortlessly we left the ground. We almost didn't realize we were in the air until we noticed the vantage point changing. We were quickly seeing the landscape from a whole new perspective.
There were about 6 other balloons in the air at the same time as ours. They made the view all the more interesting.
Our pilot really gave us a range of views, taking us up high and also really low to the ground. We got to see details of the landscape that you'd never see from the road.
At one point, we got so close to a still pond that I thought we might end up landing in it - which would have been frigid.
Apparently it's a trick that balloon pilots like to do if the speed and altitude work out. They call it a "splash and dash" - where the bottom of the basket just grazes the surface of the water and then you rise again. There's a joke that if it isn't timed perfectly, passengers' feet could get wet - and then it's called a "dunk and run". Our pilot explained this while the balloon behind us attempted the same thing.
Our pilot was in constant communication with chase vehicles which would meet us on the ground at our landing spot to take us back to our cars.
The landing involved several people on the ground grabbing the basket once it was low enough and guiding us to a good place where the balloon would be protected. We ended up in a dog park, and the team laid out a huge tarp for the balloon as they wrangled it into submission.
It was an incredible experience and an amazing Christmas gift!
If you're interested in an experience like this, check out Napa Valley Aloft. They were wonderful.