Today I did laundry, chatted up the wild parrots on the back patio and checked email from my dining room table. A typical homebody day here in San Francisco. But a few weeks back, I experienced the thrill of a lifetime on my first hot-air balloon ride over Napa Valley. It’s time to share my featured Day Trip Tip of the Day: Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides!
After researching different companies, I settled on Aloft – mostly because they limit the number of passengers to 8-12 (instead of 16-24). I’ll admit I had a fear of people crushing me as the basket hit ground during landing. This did NOT happen – though we did land in a tree. More on that later….
Aloft had great ratings on yelp. I also scored coupons for free champagne breakfast after the ride. The company and crew did not disappoint. My friend and I arrived in the dark at 5:45 am (ouch, says the non-morning person). Lift-off times are variable depending on the time of year (starting a little later in the fall/winter months). There was a big crowd – I think five Aloft balloons went up that morning.
After checking in, we had to take a van to Pope Valley Winery because of fog (normally the balloons leave directly from the V Marketplace parking lot in Yountville). We got lucky, though, as the previous two mornings had been cancelled due to poor weather. Beware: this is a big concern in the summer. If your ride is cancelled, they can usually put you on for the next day.
Watching the grounded balloons fill with air as the sun started to peek through the valley was magical, the crowd’s excitement and anticipation palpable as we all started snapping pics with our phones. Then they put us into groups of three (each basket is divided into quadrants to hold 12 people plus space in the middle for the balloon pilot).
We climbed into the basket. It was close quarters for sure, but we felt secure. I couldn’t believe how solid it felt as we began to rise. Kinda like standing in your living room, only several thousand feet above the ground and with panoramic views.
Not much wind that day, so we moved vertically (like a slow-motion horse on a carousel) rather than horizontally. Our balloon hovered over a lake, which appeared to have an entire verdant forest just under the surface. We saw endless blue skies in one direction and a mystical band of fog creeping over the hills in the other. Pure heaven.
We floated peacefully over the valley for well over an hour in sight of the other balloons while the pilots communicated through walkie talkies. Our pilot (Jay) was cheerful, reassuring and a real pro. Landing was probably the most pulse-racing part. We came down so close to the grape vines, I felt like I could reach out and touch them. As lumbering as we felt high in the sky, the ground moved fast underneath as we approached it.
To avoid crushing grapes, we aimed for a flat dirt road at the edge of the vineyard and just missed it, our basket coming to rest in a tree down the side of a slope. It wasn’t scary – we were in good hands. The pilot directed the ground crew (two strong guys) to pull on the rope until our balloon returned to solid ground. The perfect end to our adventure!
Actually, the perfect end was the champagne brunch with pilot, crew and fellow passengers. Excellent food and conversation at Pacific Blues Cafe. Afterwards we strolled through the shops of Yountville, picking up a bottle of local wine and some amazing pastry for later at Bouchon Bakery.
I give Napa Valley Aloft and the whole experience an A+. Here are a few tips if you are considering a balloon ride excursion from San Francisco:
1. Make it an overnight trip if you can. Getting up at 4 am in SF to navigate winding roads in the dark is a drag (especially since GPS to this location is reportedly not reliable and therefore reading Aloft’s elaborate directions in the dark is a double drag).
2. Be prepared for cancellation. These rides are weather-dependent (averaging 200 rides a year). Another reason to spend the night nearby – that way it doesn’t hurt so much if you don’t get to go. Would I have hurdled that 4 am drive two days in a row? Probably not. Stay close, go back to bed, then spend the day touring wine country instead. No biggie. Aloft has a weather hotline you can call by 4:30, but if you’re coming from SF, you will already be on the road by then.
3. Wear layers: it gets HOT when the hot air blows into the balloon (feels like a strong heat lamp overhead). Travel light: there is really no room for anything other than three bodies in your small allotted corner of the basket. Bring a camera or camera phone and hold onto it (my biggest fear of the day was dropping my phone over the edge – I’m sure it happens).
4. Do the champagne brunch. Use the coupon and save $20 (which you can put towards a tip for the crew; yes, you will be encouraged to leave a tip at the end).
And my final tip for you here at the end: just do it! Yes, it’s pricey (at least $200 per person). But so worth it! Not as daring as parasailing with your legs dangling out over the ocean, but a different kind of thrill. The kind that makes you want to sing: “Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination…” – just like Willy Wonka in the Wonkavator, only with better scenery.