This week, I’m serving as a paid spokesperson for Hilton HHonors’ Seven Tickets to Paradise Sweepstakes. The contest, open to Hilton HHonors members through Aug. 31, features seven prize packages to destinations ranging from Bali to Palm Springs to a location of your choice. I previewed one of the prizes, the “Your Ticket To Dine,” in Napa Valley this past weekend.
My first foray into hot air ballooning was….exciting. Exciting, as in our balloon ran into a tree.
Don’t get me wrong. If you read that post from 2010, you’ll see that the momentary crash into the branches was more funny than scary. I see one of the other travel writers from that trip at least once a year, and every time we laugh over the experience. I did wonder, however, about the safety logistics of using a balloon that had multiple holes in it. The trip overall seemed a little bush league.
So when I found out that we’d be going on a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley last weekend, I wasn’t necessarily apprehensive. But I did want to see how the operators there would handle things. Hot air ballooning is big business in Napa; our balloon driver said that only Cappadocia, Turkey, has more demand for rides.
We awoke at 5 a.m. to get over to the Marriott, where Balloons Above the Valley sets up shop. I was surprised at the sheer number of tourists interested in ballooning on this summer Saturday: there were around 80 people by the time we set off. That being said, the company did a good job of dividing customers up by pilot and all 8 of us in our group were assigned the same balloon.
We arrived at the field, where most of the balloons were almost ready to go (another change from my last trip, where we had to sit around and wait for the balloon to inflate). Once I saw the basket, I didn’t worry about feeling crowded; it was divided into compartments so you’d be with only 2-3 other people. We hopped in with no problems, and up we went.
Floating in a balloon can be a little disconcerting for the first few minutes.You particularly need to get used to the blasts of hot air that flame out overhead. But once you’re up, you focus more on the scenery than the distance down. Your hand starts to relax on the rope. And in Napa, we had the extra excitement of seeing all of the other balloons around us.
Our pilot was noticably experienced, and entertained us by pointing out some of the famous vineyards and mansions 2,000 feet below. I asked him if he’d ever run a balloon into a tree and he laughed. He did defend our operator, though, by reminding us that once you’re up, pilots don’t have a lot of control over the balloon. That’s why it’s so important to go out only when conditions are optimal.
Our landing, on a small hillside, was smooth (and we didn’t have to help the operator roll up the balloon). Instead, we headed to the Marriott for a champagne brunch.
Ballooning is not a cheap activity, but there are some ways to save money. Generally, the smaller the basket, the more that you’ll pay. While private balloon rides for 2 are about $475, the price goes down to $220-$230 for larger groups. You can save even more by going on a weekday, when prices in a group basket drop to under $200.
I talked to a beaming couple who had been in another section of the balloon. They had come to Napa for her birthday, and going up in a balloon was one of her bucket list items. Her smile told it all. “So was it worth it?” I asked. “Definitely,” she said. And I agree.
Some info about the contest: Balloon rides aren’t included in the prize package, but if you win, I’d highly recommend using part of the $1,000 that you’d receive toward the activity. You also receive airfare to Napa Valley and five nights at Embassy Suites (plus 500,000 Hilton HHonors points that you can use for vacations in the future!).
Besides the contest, Hilton HHonors is also offering a Great Getaway sale, where you can save up to 40 percent on stays completed by Sept. 30. It’s good at any of the 10 brands in the Hilton Worldwide portfolio. Book before Sept. 10.