Compared with every other form of flight, a hot-air balloon ride is the model of sweet-tempered motion. The accent is smooth and silent as the gondola lifts off the ground, yet you can't suppress the fervid rush of adrenaline as the craft surrenders to the breeze. And that's just the experience of takeoff. Moments later, you watch from a unique vantage as the world unfolds beneath you. Then it hits you: this is how man was meant to fly.
Balloon rides are as varied as there are landscapes to overlook. Float above Sonoma County with Up & Away Ballooning and gaze down at the California wine country with its veritable dreamscape of epicurean wonderment. Choose High 5 Ballooning of Derry, New Hampshire, and you see New England's dappled hills and rich wildlife. Tour with Winds Aloft Aviation and you enjoy a smorgasbord of sites, including Miami, the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades.
Since ballooning is powered by currents of air, you sense little to no wind movement, which translates into a motionless sensation creating the illusion of the earth gently rotating thousands of feet below. Some pilots will even take you to an altitude of over 5,000.
But it's not all about height. "Some of the best flying is down low," says Tony Sica of High 5 Ballooning, 40 minutes north of Boston. "By using a technique called contour flying, I can drop low enough for folks to grab a leaf or pinecone off the top of the tree lines." The owner-pilot also enjoys showing off New England's abundant wildlife. "You're almost certain to spot a small herd of deer. Barn swallows also like to pay a visit." Indeed, as most feathered critters keep their distance, these migratory songbirds like circling the gondola as if to say, "How'd you get here?" Then, with a little elevation, Sica takes you up so your eyes now focus on New Hampshire's White Mountains in all their glory.
Winds Aloft Aviation takes particular pride in a craft called Beethoven's Air. The music of its namesake German composer is an optional accompaniment to every flight, which can be chartered with up to six passengers. "Generally speaking, winds increase with altitude," says pilot Carlos Zuniga with a grin, "and I don't mind some tempo." With the terrific expanse of the Everglades, one can see the advantage of this enhanced perspective. "Besides, can you think of a better way to enjoy the master's Ninth Symphony than from the heavens?" With the Biscayne Bay vanishing in the distance like a twig down a lazy stream, one can hardly disagree.
Balloon flights cost between $200 and $300 a person for a 45- to 60-minute ride.