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Hot air balloons over Napa Valley

January 30, 2012

A blast of fire heats up the air inside the hot air balloon

Who does not want to float over the serene vineyards of Napa Valley, in a hot air balloon!? We’ve been wanting to do this ever since we found out about it and we finally got our chance last weekend! It turned out to be the perfect way to celebrate a birthday and make a special day all the more memorable!

Reflections of another hot air balloon as it floats by us

Hot air balloons are not your typical adrenalin-pumping thrill-seeking activity like sky-diving or bungee-jumping. But it’s still an adventure, all the same! Seeing the balloon being inflated, with blasts of hot air from a fire-breathing apparatus, seeing the balloon slowly stand upright, getting into a basket that appears to be tied to the balloon with flimsy looking ropes, hearing and seeing the fire-breathers as they blast huge tongues of roaring flames into the balloon to heat the air, sensing the rise of the balloon, slow but steady, as we are gently lifted off the ground – it is not a yank that you feel at the pit of your stomach, but more of a gasp which involuntarily escapes your throat as you see the ground receding – trees soon start to look like broccoli underneath your feet and before you know it, you’re high up in the sky, floating underneath a bubble of heated air!

Scenic views from the hot air balloon

The views were unlike any we had seen from a plane or any other flying machine! The hot air balloon ride affords a more intimate view of the scenery, bringing with it a feeling of “so near yet so far”. Everything seems within hands reach, even though now the tree-tops are reduced to looking like small bushes, and the hills which were imposing in their height now look like tiny sand-hills created by playful children. Clusters of small matchbox-sized houses give a sense of scale to the immense scene in front of us. We definitely felt the sheer bliss of literally floating freely, miles above the ground!

Napa Valley Balloons

There are several balloon outfits in Napa Valley, all of which have rave reviews on Yelp. We went with Napa Valley Balloons in Yountville for the following reasons –

  1. They had consistently best reviews (4.5 stars out of 5 on Yelp) amongst all the companies (Balloons Above the Valley, Napa Valley Drifters, Napa Valley Aloft)
  2. They have an awesome website which provides a ton of info on the actual experience
  3. They appeared less likely to change the venue from Napa Valley to Winters (unlike reviews for some of the other companies, who apparently always go to Winters instead of Napa due to fog even if other hot air balloons are flying over Napa)
  4. They offered a reasonable price for the entire experience, which included –
    1. Hot air balloon ride of one hour in the air
    2. Champagne Brunch after the balloon ride
    3. Onboard camera to take photos of us in the air
  5. Their customer service was uber friendly, they answered all our questions in detail and were very easy to make a reservation with!

Glorious sunlit vineyards of Napa Valley

All in all, it was one of the best experiences we could have asked for! We decided to drive to Napa from the South Bay the morning of the hot air balloon ride. In hindsight, it might have been more comfortable to stay in Napa overnight and skip the 1.45 hour drive from the Bay Area to Napa Valley, but this was just a minor inconvenience for us. It meant a very early wake-up call (precisely 4AM!), and planning to get ready and be on the road by 4:45AM since check-in was at 6:45AM in Domaine Chandon in Yountville (20miles from Downtown Napa). We were sleepy, but all that drowsiness vanished upon check-in, the coffee and friendly crew definitely helped!

Tiny matchbox houses!

We were delighted to hear that the weather was crystal clear over Napa (which meant no cancellations or change in venue) and soon we were off to the adjacent golf course where our hot air balloon was gently being inflated. As soon as we saw the balloon, all our sleepiness completely vanished and was replaced by bubbling excitement! The basket attached to the hot-air balloon is huge and can easily hold 10-12 people, including the pilot. There were several other couples, most of them celebrating a special occasion like a birthday or a honeymoon or anniversary, and it was great to see all their smiling faces, glowing with excitement.

Don’t the tree tops look just like broccoli?

We watched the balloon get inflated by the ground crew, and soon it was standing upright. Time to get into the basket! We climbed in and stood on our toes in excitement, waiting for the basket to rise up, which it soon did! We barely felt anything! The balloon rose higher and higher … soon, the road we had driven up on seemed just like a twisted ribbon in the distance, the hills around us were glowing, reflecting the rays of the rising sun, the tree-tops started looking like florets of broccoli, and the bay in the distance shimmered for all it was worth.

A view of Golden Gate bridge from our hot air balloon! The air was that clear!

Our pilot Gabe was super friendly and knowledgeable. He pointed out all the interesting sights – the air was so fabulously clear that we could even see as far as the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco! It was unbelievable! We saw Mount Tamalpais, Bay Bridge, nearby towns, and even downtown San Francisco buildings shimmering like a mirage across the bay. The balloon floated around gently, a cool breeze ruffling our hair now and then, as the balloon went up to different heights and came down close to the tree tops to manage the speed which varies according to the wind intensity at different heights. Everybody was quiet, enjoying their surroundings, the peacefulness of the ride, no engines, no loud propellers, no noisy wind speed. Just the occasional blast of fire to keep the air hot inside the balloon, and the gentle breeze bringing with it sounds of everyday life – birds chirping in the vineyards, cars whizzing down below on the freeway, the warm rays of the sun on our toasty faces.

More hot air balloons getting set up

It did not seem like we were going very fast in the balloon, but Gabe’s onboard GPS said otherwise! We reached speeds of 35mph which is blazing fast for a hot air balloon! These balloons typically average 12-15mph apparently, but looks like we were definitely blazing along like a racecar! Although we didn’t feel like we were going fast anywhere. It was just a gentle floating movement, Gabe kept turning around the balloon so everybody on board could get 360 degree views as we moved along. The sun was coming up over the horizon and soon everything was bathed in a golden light. It was incredibly beautiful and serene. Everybody on board were as excited as little children on and adventure when we saw the shadow of our balloon sharp and clear on the field below.

Our shadow floating by gently

We floated over vineyards, ponds, hills, orchards … we saw an owl which flew off as soon as we neared it’s tree-home, we laughed at a rabbit which seemed spooked by the floating balloon, he darted in between the vineyard rows like a energizer bunny, we saw a blue-tinged crane make a graceful landing, we saw a lot of white birds which were flying in from the bay in search of breakfast in the orchards and vineyards, we saw other hot-air balloons take flight and float around gracefully, no doubt the people in the basket feeling the same sense of peace and wonder that we were experiencing.

After our flight which took well over an hour, we got ready to land. We had heard the landings could get rough, but our pilot did a great job. We barely felt a jerk, and were soon being gently helped out of the basket by the ground crew, who’re called the “chasers” since they follow the hot air balloon from the ground to pick us up in their vans after we land. Although our take-off point had been just a minute away from Domaine Chandon, we had flown out so far that it took us well over 20mins to drive back!

Tasty champagne brunch at Domaine Chandon after the hot air balloon ride

We headed to Domaine Chandon for a magnificent champagne brunch. After being up since 4AM in the morning, our appetites were ravenous. We tucked into a tasty breakfast and toasted with mimosas to our fun adventure. We got to meet some of the other couples during brunch and even got a “birthday group” photo with all the birthday boys and girls – there were 5 of them, all sharing their birthday on the same day or the previous day!

Azure bliss

It was incredibly exciting to float in a hot air balloon over Napa Valley for the first time ever! We hope our next hot air balloon ride will be over the magnificent savannah’s of Africa, watching the wild beasts of the jungle go about their daily routines.

For now, it’s one item checked off of our bucketlist and 2012 is off to a fabulous start!

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