Some people joke about wanting to running away to join the circus. After my first hot air balloon ride in Napa Valley I can safely say that someday I want to run away and join a hot air balloon team!
My hot air balloon addiction began in Napa Valley. I was there on a business trip (did I mention that I have the best job ever?) and extended my trip by a few days to explore the area on my own. A hot air balloon ride has been on my bucket list ever since I saw the movie Impressions de France in the France pavilion at Epcot. If you’ve never seen that movie you’re missing out, go there and see it as soon as you can. Just thinking about it while I’m sitting here at my dining room table eating delivered pizza (it’s 9 degrees outside, we tipped the driver well) and drinking Ravenswood zinfandel I get goosebumps. That movie may have also inspired me to major in French in college, who said that Disney is only about princesses?
Back to the balloons….while hot air ballooning was always at the back of my mind my husband had no interest in it. Zero. Luckily I learned about this after we were already married and locked in. So while I was by myself in Napa Valley, one of the classic hot air balloon destinations in the world, we agreed that it would be a great time for me to check the box on my bucket list.
I told my co-workers of my plan and they were skeptical. One even told me how much he had hated his only balloon ride! So I was more than a little nervous when I showed up before dawn at the meeting place. And the first thing you do is to fill out an extended liability release form, not the most reassuring document. But no risk no gain, right? I signed the document and we were off to the launch site.
In my mind I was expecting the quintessential small basket so when we arrived and almost 20 people were loaded into each balloon basket I was a little surprised. It was a little closed in but not too bad. I climbed in and suddenly we were off! The launch was smooth and silent. Within minutes we were drifting over the vineyards of Napa Valley watching the sun come up. There were several other hot air balloons up that morning which just added to the romance and I really wished my husband was there to enjoy it with me. But I was also pretty entranced with taking photos over the edge of the basket (I tried to remember my husband’s only request- that I not get so distracted by taking photos that I fall out of the basket, not that I actually fell out of the kayak into icy waters of Doubtful Sound in New Zealand doing exactly that, but I did come close so I could understand his concern).
Tip: Ask for or position yourself in the corner spot in the basket. There’s no bad spot, but the corner offers multiple angles for better photos and views.
Our pilot had attached his GoPro to a cord suspended up by the side of the balloon and took group shots of us with a remote. The photo package was an incremental fee but it was well worth it. His shots included the background and really showed the position of the balloon over the valley. Speaking of GoPros, This was one of the few times that I would have liked to have a GoPro for the video options. I love my photos but they don’t completely capture the serenity of drifting across the valley. It was a glorious morning and the ride was over before I knew it.
Our landing was very smooth, we actually got walked through a vineyard to an open field by the chase crew. The wind wasn’t cooperating and with the cost of grapevines in Napa Valley no one wanted to take the chance of landing in the vineyard. After a champagne brunch I was off to call my family to let them know I was still alive and to continue my explorations of Napa and Sonoma Valley.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that hot air balloon ride as I drove around that day. I returned to my hotel room, exhausted from my tours and sightseeing. But I was restless, filled with the urge to balloon again. This is why I will never try any recreational drugs. I called the balloon company explaining that I was a single rider and asked if they might have room in one of their balloons over the next two days. I also confessed that I had just taken my first balloon ride with them that morning and was obsessed, they thought that was pretty funny but I think they understood. They said they would try to fit me in and to be ready to fly again in two days. I would have to show up to the launch location with no guarantee of getting to fly. This was over Labor Day weekend so I figured I would be out of luck but I was determined to give it a shot.
The next morning I drove to the meeting spot in darkness. I’m an early riser so it wasn’t bad but I had a hard time sleeping the night before from both the excitement from my first balloon ride and the nervousness of doing it again. I was definitely second guessing my decision and I wouldn’t have complained if they had told me their flights were full that morning but there was plenty of room for me. So I pushed all the doubts out of my mind, signed the release form, and climbed over the side of the basket.
Even though we launched from the same location and I was in the exact same balloon (the “Grasshopper” balloon with pilot John Barnes, I highly recommend them!) it was a completely different day. The sun wasn’t quite as bright since there was more cloud cover. While I love sunflare in my photos it was nice to have a variation and the colors of the landscape popped a little more without the intensity of the sun. We also flew a bit higher which initially made me uneasy as I thought about the materials holding us aloft, but I forced myself to relax and just enjoy the flight. And it really was another magical ride. We stuck the landing in a field a little further south than the previous trip and after the champagne breakfast (included in the tour) I said goodbye to my ballooning friends. At least until the next time!
Tip: Book your hot air balloon ride early in your vacation and book as far in advance as possible. That way if the weather doesn’t cooperate you have the option to reschedule and won’t be disappointed. I speak from experience, it happened to me in Utah. I only had one day for a ride and they canceled the trip that morning. Because it was my last day I wasn’t able to take them up on an alternate booking.
If you’re ever anywhere near Napa Valley try to get a hot air balloon flight in. It is worth every penny! Since my trip to California I did manage to get my husband up in a hot air balloon ride and while he liked it a lot more than he thought he would he definitely does not have the bug like I do. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t need any more encouragement! And when we travel I will always see if ballooning is an option, this is one bucket list item that will never be fully checked off. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you!
– Be ready for an early morning! Winds are calmer which makes for better (and safer) ballooning.
– Wear pants, dress in layers, and bring a hat (more for protection against the heat of the flames than the actual weather).
– Bring a camera and/or video camera but be aware that you can’t bring any bags/purses on the ride so put any memory cards/batteries in your pocket.
– I can’t believe I’m writing this, but put your camera down for a little while and just absorb the feeling of drifting over the earth.
– Be considerate of your fellow riders. Offer to take photos of each other.
– Ask your pilot lots of questions, the history of ballooning is fascinating.
– It is not expected but very appreciated if you tip your pilot.
– This is one kind of tour where you want to make sure that you choose your company very carefully. You’re entrusting your life to someone that you don’t know. I look at independent traveler reviews and book through trusted tour companies. I like the idea that someone else is also looking into the safety policies and would only recommend a trustworthy company. Viator offers tours with Napa Valley Balloons (the balloon company that I went with) here.