Take a Flight of Fancy in a Hot Air Balloon
Many of us have dreamed about soaring in a hot air balloon over Sonoma Wine Country, and really, what better way is there to take in a birds-eye view of gardens, rolling hills, forested mountains and vineyards which, in spring, are just beginning to bud with emerald green grape leaves?
There’s something exhilarating just seeing the aircraft as it rolls out on to the ground, unpacked from a comically small case by the ground crew. Out and out and out they unfurl it, until it lays in its magnificent expanse. Then, they attach the blower, inflating it slowly and crawling inside and out to fluff it as its structure slowly reaches its average 67-foot-high span.
It billows up like rainbow cotton candy, then with a mighty roar, the air jets kick in, and the balloon strains at its rope tethers, eager to leave the ground and explore the sky.
The first time I flew, I was apprehensive. I’m no fan of heights, and certainly not of anything that swings or bob in the sky with me inside. But my pilot calmed down right away.
“Me, too,” he grinned when I explained my fears. “I’m sure not going to fly in anything like that.”
Because in fact, the propane-powered air ships are surprisingly sturdy, and unless winds get really aggressive, it’s smooth sailing, more like floating or boating. When the winds kicked up, my FAA certified pilot expertly steered the balloon to calmer spots, and we even asked him to return to the faster breezes since they were so much fun.
Usually, we don’t go too much further up than 3,000 feet in the air, relaxing in in glorious views from the chest-high brown woven basket (I joked that the cutaway holes toward the bottom of the basket make perfect viewing windows for truly nervous riders hunkered on the floor, but they’re really for footholds to climb in and out).
Seen from above, it’s remarkable how huge Sonoma County looks from the sky. Vineyards that already seem large from the ground are lattice works of intricate trellising, rolling across hills and Valley. Sheep, cows, goats, horses, llamas and even the occasional bison or llama look like toys. The sun dapples across lakes, creeks winds like ribbons through the landscape, and old barns dot the fields.
Really, the only things to keep in mind are that it’s an early morning adventure, so plan to lift off before sunrise, as early as 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. Bring a jacket, because though the propane flames powering the balloon keep things warm, the winds can cut in for a chill.
And there’s no reason everyone can’t enjoy an adventure. Up & Away of Windsor is the only hot air balloon company in the United States to offer a wheelchair accessible basket flown free-flight (not tethered to the ground). Special fold down ramps and harnessing make it easy and safe.
After the flight, which usually runs more than an hour, some balloon companies offer extras like brunch, so plan a good four or five hours start-to-finish. Up & Away, for example, hosts brunch at Kendall-Jackson Winery for warm hand-crafted quiche, strawberries hand-dipped in chocolate, fresh fruit, local cheeses, coffee cake and sparkling wine.
With Sonoma Valley Balloons of Santa Rosa, the flight stretches longer, up to four hours, finished off with a champagne toast.
Here are some places to plan a flight:
Up & Away, 800-711-2998, up-away.com.
Sonoma Valley Balloons, 707-861-6006, sonomavalleyballoons.com