Northern California's wine country boasts more than just wineries. Of course, the area offers tourists a chance to visit vineyards and learn about wine, but you also get to explore the beautiful landscape. Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino are home to diverse wildlife, the beautiful Russian River, state parks, mountain ranges, beaches and forests. What better way to take in all that scenery than floating high above it in a hot air balloon?
Balloon tours are a whimsical way to take in these breathtaking views. Since hot air balloons don't have a steering mechanism, you literally go where the wind takes you. Balloon enthusiasts say that the unique feeling from riding in a balloon is different from standing on top of a tall building. You don't feel like you're up high, because the panoramic view alters your perspective.
Not only does a balloon tour give you a birds-eye view, but the ride itself is also an experience. Most balloon tour groups encourage riders to help with inflating and deflating the balloon, and end the journey with a champagne toast and a picnic lunch. You can opt for a balloon tour as a side trip on its own or incorporate it into a larger tour of wine country.
First thing in the morning is the best time of day to launch a balloon ride, and a standard balloon trip takes around four to five hours: about an hour on each end to inflate and deflate the balloon plus around two hours in the air.
Some tour companies offer full vacation packages that include a balloon ride. You can find packages that include overnight stays at local vineyards or that incorporate other wine tour adventures, like a Jeep tour of the countryside. Tour packages can also include walking, hiking, biking, horseback tours, photo ops and even art workshops.
The tour you choose depends a lot on the number of people in your group. Balloons can hold around two to 12 passengers, so it's important to look for one that can accommodate your party. Some companies can work with large groups, launching you in more than one balloon, while others will allow privacy for small groups or even couples, though usually at a price premium.
Since balloon tours start out early in the morning, you need to be prepared for a temperature change on your ride. You'll be chilly as the balloon launches, but once you're up in the air, things will warm up quickly as the sun gets higher in the sky. Opt for a few layers so you can shed them as you warm up.
No matter how you plan your wine country balloon tour, don't forget to pack your camera, so you can capture the magic!
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