Jumping Ship: Sidetrippin’ in Napa by Hot Air Balloon


napa Valley Hot air balloon 2 by Judy Cuervo

It began with a photo:  Three vibrant hot air balloons set against an aqua-colored sky.  Below, the vineyards of Napa Valley stretched like an emerald patchwork quilt, gently unfolding from the distant mountains.

The dream of a flight with Napa Valley Balloons couldn’t have been better timed.  My Crystal Symphony cruise was on the horizon, a 7-day sailing that would include an overnight stay in San Francisco, just a 90 minute distance from the balloon’s Yountville, CA launch site. 

But there was a dilemma.  The gentle breezes that allow these magnificent craft to float serenely above Napa typically occur just before daybreak.  During our December sailing, that would mean a departure from the ship of 4:30 a.m. (earlier in the summer months).  My husband’s and my status as non-drivers compounded the problem when we realized a round-trip taxi fare from San Francisco to Yountville would break the bank at more than $600.

Solution?:  We’d jump ship.

Now, it takes a lot to lure me away from Crystal Symphony, but with the wind and a 48-hour San Francisco call beckoning, I set to work like a mini-shore excursion office devising a holiday within a holiday–an overnight hotel stay and the until-now elusive balloon flight.

The ship’s 10:00 a.m. arrival at San Francisco matched up nicely with the 11:10 a.m. departure of the Baylink ferry to Vallejo, just a short walk from Symphony.  A pleasant hour sail aboard this clean and comfortable vessel was part of the fun, passing San Francisco highpoints like Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf along the way.  And at $26 round trip, the Baylink ferry is a bargain.

Upon arrival in Vallejo, the economy-minded can set off for Napa Valley aboard the Vine bus that, for $2.15, meanders past all the towns you’ve seen in small print on labels affixed to your favorite wines:  Napa, Sonoma, Yountville, Calistoga.  Or splurge $70, and cut the bus’ 90 minute travel time in half, by calling a car service for transportation from Vallejo.

On our journey, Yountville was the destination, specifically Villagio Inn & Spa, a Tuscan-inspired paradise of stucco and stone.   I could have spent a year at this property indulging in its world-class spa, shopping at its innovative and quirky shops, and dining at Bottega, a rustic Italian restaurant owned by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello.

Napa Valley Hot Air BalloonVillagio is a celebration for the senses.  Lush and landscaped, guests are soothed by the tranquil surroundings and the serenade of waters cascading over the 400’ watercourse that lines the paths to the sumptuously appointed rooms.  Inhale, and you’ll likely catch a trace of the heady fragrance of wood smoke wafting from the working fireplaces that are a focal point of many of Villagio’s accommodations.

As if a spacious suite, king size bed dressed with fine linens, fireplace, vanity area with double sinks and lighted makeup mirror, and private balcony aren’t enough, standard at Villagio is a complimentary bottle of premium wine, an in-room coffee maker and separate espresso maker.

While our short stay prevented us from experiencing any of the treatments at Spa Villagio, we couldn’t resist popping in en route to our 6:00 p.m. dinner reservation at Bottega.  Just a peek at the facilities was calming, imagining myself in an inviting treatment room (I’ll take one with a fireplace, please) that mirrored the Tuscan feel of the property.  The flattering lighting, hypnotic soundtrack and—oh!—that intoxicating fragrance made me wish that Bottega wasn’t expecting us in 10 minutes.

There was a Northern California chill in the air as we approached Bottega, yet the heated outdoor lounge was occupied and, inside, even on a Tuesday, the restaurant was buzzing, snippets of conversation revealing the hottest topic was—no surprise—wine.  A few bar patrons though bucked that trend with martinis, uniquely served in metal glasses to retain an icy temperature until the final sip.

Chiarello has filled Bottega’s menu with comforting selections and superb wines.  Complimented by a sauvignon blanc that originated on local vines, I enjoyed a salad of organic greens, blue cheese, and delicious candied hazlenuts, the latter a delightful change from the typical candied pecans.   Main course was a smoky fire-roasted whole branzino, filleted for me and stuffed with lemon slices and sweet and savory vegetables.  It was only our early wake up call that convinced us to skip dessert.

Thanks to our local accommodations, our 6:45 a.m. pick up by Yountville-based Napa Valley Balloons was painless (although we had to forego the lavish complimentary breakfast buffet offered by Villagio).  First stop?  Etoile, a Michelin-starred restaurant located on the grounds of Domaine Chandon, for Continental breakfast and an opportunity to meet the people who would share our 16-person basket.   Fifteen minutes later, we were off for the three-minute drive to the launch site of “Tequila,” the name of the rainbow-hued balloon that would carry us above the valley.

As we drove up, Tequila and her basket were sprawled listlessly across the field while a small team and the heat of a liquid propane torch breathed life into her fire-proof (and thank God for that, considering how much hairspray I use) nylon shell.   To oversimplify the science of balloon flight, as the air inside the balloon becomes hotter than the air outside, and when the weight of the air inside plus the weight of the balloon and its passengers is less than the weight of the same volume of air outside, the craft will begin to float.

And float we did!  Six inches off the ground…a foot….three feet…  Slowly, serenely, we were aloft, timed perfectly to catch a magnificent sunrise over the distant mountains.  Below and before us was an aerial view of the brilliant golds, crimsons and emeralds of wintertime Napa Valley, the precise rows of its vineyards and gently rolling hills interrupted only by elaborate chateaus.   It was a moment I wanted to capture forever and since Napa Valley Balloons is the only Napa balloon company that offers in flight photos (thanks to an ingenious cable-mounted camera and remote shutter), I was able to.

I should probably mention here that I’m not a fan of heights.  I’m anxious in airplanes, edgy on bridges and you simply can’t pay me enough to visit the Grand Canyon Skywalk.  Yet, nestled within Tequila’s 4’ high basket, enthralled by pilot Bob’s entertaining and informative narrative, I felt better than protected.  I felt there was nothing I needed protection from (no wonder Napa Valley Balloons was trusted to fly Chelsea Clinton!).  No turbulence.  No bumps.  Not even a sensation of movement.  Even as we rose to a staggering 2,000’ altitude, calm and silence prevailed, punctuated only by the occasional wooosh of the propane torch.

What goes up, must come down and after an hour’s flight, Tequila began descending.  Pilot Bob provided a thorough briefing and pointed out his target landing spot in a field ahead.  Lower, lower, lower, ooops!  Missed it.  Up again (nobody complained) and off to an alternate site, scurrying members of the ballooning staff who had assembled to assist with landing and were now rushing over to our new target.  Bump, bump, bump…and we were on the ground and off to the final segment of a Napa Valley Balloons experience: a Champagne Breakfast.

Jubilant, and certainly more awake than we’d been for our early-morning coffee stop, we returned to Etoile to find our post-flight breakfast was a lavish one befitting the restaurant’s Michelin-star standards.  Not a buffet, but served, individual platters heaped high with hearty scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and hash browns and accompanied by unlimited—and I mean unlimited—champagne.    And why not?   We were celebrating one of the most exhilarating experiences we’d ever had and none of us—not one—had sung that stupid Fifth Dimension song.

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