Did you know the hot air balloon was invented by the French in Paris back in 1783? The Montgolfier Brothers created a basket with an attached balloon they could fill with hot air and fly, thusly naming it a ‘Montgolfière’.
Living in Napa Valley, I’ve become accustomed to seeing a collection of colorful balloons float over my house almost every morning. It’s such a pleasure to watch them dot the valley sky as I drive to work. Gazing up at them from the ground below is one thing, but I imagine riding in one must be a completely different experience. I was curious to find out so I contacted Napa Valley Aloft, a ballooning company located in Yountville, California, and booked a reservation.
My appointment was for (gulp!) 5:35 am. What I hadn’t realized when booking was balloon rides need to occur during the early morning hours so as to take advantage of the ideal weather conditions and softer winds. The confirmation email I received clearly recommended to dress in warm, layered clothing with pants and closed-toed shoes.
The meeting point for the ride was the Vintage 1870 Marketplace in Yountville. On my way there, I discovered the serene Napa Valley landscape hidden amongst the early morning light. Everything was so peaceful and quiet. When I turned into the parking lot, their employees had already begun to set up the balloon. I was so excited and knew this morning was going to be epic. Riding a balloon is not an everyday thing you know!
After checking in, I grabbed a huge cup of coffee (I needed it) from the buffet of pastries and hot beverages provided. An employee gave us a pre-flight talk in order to prepare us for the ride and then we were separated in two groups of twelve for each balloon. It was soon time to take-flight and my group was going to be the first to lift off.
To fill the balloon or ‘Envelope’ (as it’s technically called), they first placed it on its side and then began filling the huge pocket with air. Once it was partially inflated, the burner was activated to fill up the remainder of the envelope to get it airborne, while the basket was still tethered to the ground. I was really impressed. The noise was so loud when they triggered the burner and the flames were huge! I felt so small next to the whopping and colorful balloon.
Finally, it was time to climb aboard. We hiked ourselves up over the rim of the basket as there was no other way of entry. Once inside, I figured out the basket had five separate compartments: four for the riders and one in the middle for the pilot. I had imagined it was just one giant basket with everyone co-mingled, but we were actually separated into three people per compartment.
Once the balloon was upright, our pilot Jean-Paul, activated the burner again by opening a propane valve, known as the Blast Valve. I was very close to the flame and could feel the heat on my face. Needless to say, I was a little nervous at first but then he assured me that everything was totally safe. Finally, we were aloft! Now the adventure could begin. I didn’t even notice we had left the ground as the lift-off was so smooth. Soon the marketplace beneath us became smaller and smaller as we rose into the sky.
The early morning colors were fabulous. Everything disappeared around me while I was focused on the incredible landscape below. This was a whole new visual experience for me as I had never seen the valley from this angle before. All the vineyards were perfectly aligned and separated into tiny squares.
We were surrounded by other colorful balloons in the sky that morning, making the view even more magical. The light at sunrise transformed the countryside into a work of art. I could have spent hours up there just admiring the vistas. Jean-Paul pointed out a few wineries below, such as Domaine Chandon and Laird Family Estate.
Thanks to a radio handset, our pilot was in constant communication with the handling team on the ground who were following our trajectory by car. They gave him updates about the weather, as well as the changing wind conditions. I then heard the pilot tell the ground crew we would be landing in the Trancas Crossing Park near the river. I was surprised as I had assumed we’d make a round trip, landing at the same place where we had started. Jean-Paul explained that hot air balloon rides can never be a round trip because the balloon follows the wind; you can’t fly against it. Makes perfect sense of course. As we started to lower down, the ground team was already in the park waiting for us. We glided gently over the trees and across the river. I saw the reflection of the balloon in the water…very cool!
We were only a few feet above the ground when the team caught the basket, safely guiding us to a successful landing. Once the balloon was stabilized and secured, we were able to disembark. I watched as the team quickly deflated the envelope and then expertly folded it back into itself. The flight lasted around 45-minutes in total. The vibe in the van on the ride back to the starting point was great. Everyone was so friendly and excited to share their own impression of the experience. For most of us, this was our first hot air balloon ride. We all had a blast!
My fellow riders and I smartly chose to purchase the optional post-flight Champagne brunch for $20/person when booking our reservation. And good thing we did, as it was so early when we woke up, none of us had eaten. We were all very hungry indeed! The brunch was held on the terrace of a restaurant just in front of Vintage 1870. Both groups of riders were reunited at a large table with each balloon’s pilot joining us for a delicious Mimosa—the wine provided by nearby Domaine Chandon.
There was a selection of various brunch staples on the menu and everything sounded so tempting! I ultimately chose the scrambled eggs with Italian sausage, which was really tasty by the way. Luckily, I had the opportunity to be seated right next to our pilot, so I asked him some questions about his job.
Jean-Paul was born in the States to Canadian parents, but he doesn’t speak any French. Fourteen years ago, when he was a cook, Jean-Paul decided to become a pilot and has been flying balloons ever since. Although he wakes up every morning at 4 am, he doesn’t mind. He said, “I’ve just become used to it after all these years.” Jean-Paul further explained that every ride is different. The trajectory always depends on the winds as they are guided by Mother Nature. Also, they never land in the same place for each ride. They have agreements with many of the home owners in the valley, so depending on the day’s forecast, they can land on any one of several different properties.
During the brunch, Jean-Paul gave every rider a Napa Valley Aloft lapel pin as a souvenir of their flight, which everyone proudly wore on their shirt. And after my final sip of Mimosa, it was sadly time to say goodbye.
What an incredible experience! I learned so much about ballooning and will remember this for the rest of my life. I will definitely recommend this trip to all my friends too. A hot air balloon ride should absolutely be on your Bucket List. Have a great flight!
Adventure Hot Air Balloon – $220 per person for a flight + brunch
Flight time: between 40min and 1+ hour – Whole adventure: 3- 4 hours
Marketing and Social Media Coordinator at VinoVisit.com
Originally from Bordeaux (France), I moved to the Napa Valley to work for VinoVisit.com in 2015. I just finished my trilingual Master’s degree in Wine Tourism and International Marketing and graduated with honors. As a real food and wine lover, I’m enjoying exploring the area and relating my discoveries from a very French point of view.