Wine Country Shenanigans - Day 4

November 10th, 2013

At this point, I'm like a broken little china doll.  The Demon Cold is pretty much gone, but I have the back issue and have had intermittent headaches and...you really don't care one lick about this.  Do you??  You're here for one thing.

A story about flying in a hot air balloon.


A few days before we left for Napa, I was showing Mom the itinerary.  We had one day free to do whatever we wanted.  But I had gotten the itinerary pretty late in the game, so I didn't even research what we wanted to do.  As I showed Mom the hotel online, there was a link to a hot air balloon company.  "Haha!!"  We both pretty much laughed it off.  "It sure would be cool to do one day..."  We looked at the pricing.  Just cause.  It was in the low $200's.  Which...expensive.  No doubt.  But we kept it in mind.  Just in case.  Cause...it was something.

We were going to talk to the concierge on Thursday.  We didn't.  But we kept talking about a balloon.  On Friday after breakfast, we wandered the streets for a bit before we started on our excursions.  And as we passed by the front desk, we saw the concierge was there.  So we asked about the balloon ride.  She had two companies.  Both were in the area.  Both had similar pricing.  Both had a champagne breakfast afterwards.  One had pictures that would be sent after the flight.  Cool.

At the end of the conversation, we thanked the lady and went for some wine tastings.  But the balloon ride lingered.  When we came back from the wineries, I looked at Mom and said, "Are we going to do this or not??  If we are, let's do it."


Fast forward to Sunday morning.  Mom and I were ready and waiting in the hotel lobby at 610am.  A little van picked us up and drove us to the Domaine Chandon winery, which ended up being around the corner and up a hill from our hotel.  It was here where we learned what balloon we'd be on (Big Blue) and who our driver would be (Kim).  We hunkered down with some pastries and waited for the  moment to arrive.


Turns out, there was a bit of fog in the area around Yountville, so instead of taking off in the parking lot of the winery where we were, we were going to an alternate point in another valley...about 45 minutes away.  So eye hopped in the busses and went along on our merry way.  And man...it was a long 45 minutes.  We were all more than ready to do something.  Anything.


Napa Valley Balloons consisted of six balloons (at least today).  Each balloon held 12-16 people (but as they liked to say, could have fit 16-20 people).  And all of the balloons were filled up this morning.  As we drove in, three of the balloons were nearly filled with air.  We went to our assigned balloon and that's where the magic really started to happen.


The first test of the balloon was getting into it.  The balloon was sectioned into five different areas.  Four sections were for the regular folk.  The middle was for the pilot.  We maneuvered into a section, then had to do a bit of climbing over and into the basket.  And quite honestly, this was the part that concerned me most of all.  Because, if I hadn't been so rudely interrupted at the beginning of this post, I could have continued with the story about how I am a broken individual.  And my back is not doing so well.  It is hard enough to get out of a chair after sitting for a while.  How did I hurt my back, you ask??  First up...thank you for caring.  But my answer is...no freaking idea.  When I was in the car on Thursday morning, I remember saying to Mom and Dad that it felt like I had a sciatica situation brewing.  Four days later, I just knew my back was out of whack.  And I'd already called for a chiropractor appointment for when I get back to real life on Tuesday.

But back to the story (pun...appreciated, but not intended).  I was concerned about getting into the basket.  Luckily, there was enough room to maneuver around the footholds.  And I think I slid more into the basket instead  of stepping gracefully into it.  The basket itself came about waist or mid-torso height.  There was no reason to be concerned someone would fall out of it.  Not that there was a concern, though there could have been.


We were given the safety rules for the flight.  And we were told how to brace ourselves for landing.  Once we had the rules, we were ready to go.  Kim shot the balloon full of air and with a small jolt, we started moving.


That jolt was the only time we felt anything on the flight.  Hot air ballooning was the smoothest thing ever.  We were all busy looking above us at the balloons decorating the sky that we didn't realize we were up amongst them.  From here, we spent the next hour taking pictures and marveling at the fact that we were quietly soaring 1400 feet above the earth.  Kim, the pilot, was a bit of a character.  He said he has been a pilot since 1979 (or so).  He went on a flight and loved it so much that but he end of the week, he'd bought a balloon.  Spoiler Alert - I did not go out and buy a balloon.


I took about 225 pictures during this hour long ride.  They all seem to be the same, really.  Scenery with balloon.  Scenery with two balloons.  Scenery with three balloons.  Close up of balloon.  Close up of two balloons.  Repeat.  And every picture was amazing.  Mom and I kept looking at each other in wonder.  

We started seeing a few balloons descend.  At this point, it was fascinating to pay attention to the pilot.  I don't say watch, because why would I watch this guy if I can watch the scenery??  Kim was on his walkie talkie and trying to coordinate the crew on the ground.  Because this was a different flight plan than normal, the ground crew was not only in charge of following the balloon and making sure they were on the ground and ready to catch us, but they were also in charge of getting permission for us to land.  Yeah.  Permission.

He's waiting for us.  For US!!

Apparently, we had permission.  We all faced Kim and grabbed the blue cording like he asked.  And the basket slowly reached the ground.  Our part in the landing was over.  The three guys that grabbed the basket and made sure it didn't pitch forward and send us all tumbling to the ground...their jobs were much harder.

They're working harder than we were.

The basket stayed upright (on the ride back, one guy said his daughter was in a basket that did pitch forward.  She broke a tooth.  I was beyond happy he didn't share that particular story before or during our ride) and the balloon began to deflate.  At this point we just had to get out of the basket.  Not as easy as going into the basket.  But I won't go into the gory details.  We had to go back to the winery for breakfast.

By the time we were back, we were hungry.  We walked into the winery and were handed a Mimosa.  We were also told to come back for refills.  Ok.  I may have gone back three additional times.  Mimosa!!  The breakfast buffet was served.  And it was really, really tasty.  Eggs and sausage and bacon and such.  It was a nice change of pace from the hotel breakfast.  Though that could have been the hunger and the Mimosa talking.

One thing that caught us off guard was that we didn't actually pay for the flight until we were ready to leave.  Which was convenient for Mom, since she didn't bring her wallet.  I kid, I kid.  But we did have to pay at the end.  If you want to go on the balloons, bring a credit card with you.  But no baggage, cause there isn't any room on the balloon.

Once we were back at the hotel, we kind of hung around for a while.  We did look for the Bears/Lions game (unsuccessfully), but we mostly just lounged.  Our next event for the day wasn't until dinner.  So it was time to figure out what we were able to get at the spa.

Turns out, we could go in the spa, hang out in the hot tub, visit the steam room and sauna, and just generally lounge about.  So we did.  It was nice to just hang around and let your brain melt away.  We spent time in the hot tub, then took some small naps on the lounge chairs outside.  I wished there was champagne in the lounge, but I guess they need a spa to be "healthy."  It also was good I didn't have anything, since I wasn't feeling all that great after the hot tub.  I think the early wake up and the general lack of sleep finally caught up to me.  So for the rest of the afternoon, I quietly lounged.  A low grade migraine was my constant.  Until the wine started pouring.

We had one final event to attend for our trip.  Dinner at the Stag's Leap Wine Cellar. We all dressed up (I was the only one wearing color, btw...everyone wore black or dark colors) and boarded the bus to our final winery.  We left the bus and were handed a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (which is obviously the way every winery started during this trip.  I know now, Mom enjoys Sauvignon Blanc).  A few moments of mingling and we were walking through the winery through to the actual wine cellar.  Or the salt cave.


Pink dress and polka dots.  Yep.  Totally me.

This is the second place that had an underground cave situation.  As Travis, our guide from Flora Springs put it, it's space that the tax guys can't find.  Underground keeps the barrels cool without actual air conditioning.  The guide at Stag's Leap showed off the beautiful caves, including the pendulum that keeps time with the Earth's axis. 

But what we were really there for was dinner.  We started off with duck confit, then went with a butter lettuce salad, continued with a short rib, and finally ended with a chocolate and pecan tart.  It was all so, so good.  But it was so much food.  And the hard part was dealing with the fruit flies in the cave.  Look, I get the fruit fly thing.  And several guides in the last three days mentioned this is a thing.  But, man...the flies were all over the place.  If you didn't cover your drink, the flies were all up and in the wine.  I'm sure I drank a fly or two, but as I did on the last few days, I just didn't drink as much as I thought I would.  Then again, I am still a puny mess, so it's probably best I didn't go too crazy.

Before we knew it, the day was over and we were back at the hotel.  Mom and I quietly packed up and cozied in for the night.  We were on our way home tomorrow.  And I think we were both ready to go.  Not that we couldn't have stayed for another day or two.  We could totally have found additional adventures.  But we were tired and ready for our own timezone.  Though the hotel's bed was pretty damn comfy...

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