NAPA, CA. - I was afraid I’d be afraid.
As someone who experiences vertigo, I don’t do well with heights. Light-headedness, dizziness and the sweats hit me when I’m near the edge of any kind of drop off (I really didn’t do well looking over Hoover Dam).
And yet, here I was, about 100 metres off the ground and rising fast in a hot air balloon — and loving every second of it.
The cool breeze blowing through my hair, the rising sun warming my face and the whoosh of the propane burner behind me all seemed to relax and soothe while I soaked in the amazing views in every direction.
Vertigo was the last thing on my mind.
After researching several companies offering balloon rides in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys, my wife and I settled on one where we would be most likely to get a smaller balloon (fewer people on board).
Our aim was to be two of four or maybe six max. We thought this would give us a more intimate, relaxed experience with better sightlines. Since we were celebrating our anniversary, we thought this would be a nice start to a special day.
We booked our flight weeks in advance, but there are no guarantees on the number of passengers or the flight path until the morning of the actual trip. And with a liftoff time of 6 a.m., that leaves little chance to change plans. So we just hoped for the best.
Clutching our coffees and struggling to stay awake en route to the meeting point, we talked about how crazy it was to be getting up at 5 a.m. on our vacation; and how we just hoped the balloon wouldn’t be packed.
Above: From high above Napa, you see wine life being played out.
The flight team met us on time and we watched as the numbers grew — 4, 5, 6, 8 — with two still to show.
Two balloons were being set up and passengers were encouraged to help lay out the balloon envelope so it can be filled with the hot air from the propane burner.
Balloons are typically ‘sized’ to the weight of the passengers: larger balloons have more hot air capacity to provide the lift needed to carry the greater weight of more (or larger) passengers.
In our case there was one larger balloon and one smaller — the larger for six to eight passengers and the smaller for two to four. Six of our companions were chosen for the larger balloon and we got the smaller one, but we had to wait for two latecomers.
We watched our sister balloon silently drift skyward for a few moments. Then, much to our delight, our pilot said that the conditions were perfect so we couldn’t wait any longer. The three of us made our way skyward.
Whether at 100 or 300 metres, the views are spectacular. And even though ascents and descents can be quite rapid, you can’t really feel the speed.
It’s quite magical — the floating and calmness of your journey.
The ground seems to whiz past at highway speed, yet the sensation is that you’re moving at a snail’s pace.
Flying high over the “Heart of the Upper Napa Valley” over Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga, everything beneath looks like those miniature landscapes you’ve seen in model railway setups — tiny buildings, trees, roads and people.
The colours are vivid, saturated with the warm light of the rising sun. Postcard views surround us and we feel as if we can touch the clouds.
We swoop down closer to the famous Robert Mondavi Vineyards and Winery, and watch as legions of what look like tiny ants get ready for the busy day ahead.
Left: The grapes hang heavy on California’s vines. Right: Flying high above California’s vineyards is a great sensation.
Later, we hover over the ultra-chic Opus One Winery, which looks like some secret military complex or spaceport.
There are countless other vineyards on the hour long flight, and eventually we land on a service road of one of the smaller private vineyards much to the delight of the owners.
After the pilot determines the best spot to touch down, she alerts her ground team by walkie-talkie and directs their “chase vehicle” to meet us.
As is the custom, we join the passengers from our sister balloon for a wonderful local artisan breakfast at a nearby boutique restaurant where we share stories and celebrate our accomplishment.
We’re all awarded “flight certificates” from the pilots and we salute our adventure with a customary champagne toast — a tradition begun by French ballooning pioneers as a gesture of friendship to the farmers whose fields they dropped in on.
This experience took me to new heights — and I wasn’t even afraid.