California 2016 Pt. 3 Away Up and Down Under

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Melanie, Betty and I had decided months earlier to indulge our bucket-list desire for a hot-air balloon ride. I investigated and was most impressed with Napa Valley Aloft  Balloon Rides, and though it was expensive and somewhat scary sounding, we utilized our group bravery and made reservations.The 3 of us headed out pre-dawn for the super  quaint little town of Yountville for our hot-air balloon adventure.

What an adventure it was! There were about 60 people going up in 5 balloons. We all loaded up in vans and headed out about 30 miles to the launch site in Pope Valley which is their secondary site  when Napa is fogged in. It may have been their fall back location but it took us over beautiful vineyards and stunning scenery.

Our driver and pilot Jay was a very spry 70 year old who had started the business and was about to make his 10,000th flight. He was so interesting and informative and the ride was an absolutely breathtaking experience. Each balloon was trucked out to to the site. They were already laid out on tarps and in the process of being inflated by the crew when we arrived.  Each balloon has a basket or gondola that holds 12 people and there is 1 smaller balloon for private rides, apparently popular for proposals. As the balloon inflates it moves to an upright position and the passengers climb into the basket using footholds in the end. You stand up in the basket and look over the side.

Each of the balloons is named after a dance. Ours was CanCan and we thought it appropriate that we had the french girl. I know this sounds stupid but I never really gave a lot of thought about what a balloon ride was really like.What I did think was that you go up in the air, you go for a ride and you go back down. Though obvious now, I realize that you go up or down dependent on the addition or release of hot air controlled by the pilot. Watching and listening to Jay as he  guided the balloon into layers of wind and directed our flight by opening the burner to heat the air  or venting the hot air  was fascinating. He watched the directions of the other balloons, used landmarks , and employed such high-tech methods as literally spitting into the wind. The most awesome and kind of weird thing about a balloon ride is that  you feel very grounded because you are standing in the gondola and you really have very little sensation of flying or going up or down except in relation to the scenery below and the other balloons in the air. You are simply floating in air and it is a fabulous feeling! I have always loved the feel of the wind on my face and this extraordinary experience gave me a new level of appreciation as I lift my face to the blessing that is a cool breeze!

As you can see from the photos, it was an experience of a lifetime and a great start to Melanie’s birthday. We went back to the cottage and got packed up, then had brunch in Sonoma at The Girl and the Fig. We did a couple more wineries as we made our way back home to SF feeling happily exhausted and wined out. It was a weekend of many amazing experiences that I will always treasure!

We ended our adventures in California with an overnight trip to Monterey where we stayed right on Fisherman’s Wharf at Portola Hotel.  Both Melanie and I wanted to go to Monterey because she lived there for 2 years and I had very fond memories of my visit there to see them in 1973. At that time I was in nursing school in Atlanta, and California was like no place I had ever seen, so of course the area was very romanticized in my memory. Forty three years later it is much more developed and not quite as exotic as it seemed then. The area was still really beautiful and the bay was mesmerizing to watch.

Unlike SF Bay which is rather daunting with it’s wildness and ferocity, Monterey Bay seems much more calm with accessible beaches, lots of kayakers and otters and seals often seen floating in the kelp beds. We had a delicious seafood dinner at Scales Seafood and walked along the wharf as the moon rose over the bay. The next morning we had a wonderful breakfast experience at Crepes of Brittany just outside the hotel. From there we took the trolley to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and had a great time in all the varied exhibits. We had a fantastic lunch at The Fish Hopper with views of the bay on Cannery Row and surprisingly had the same waiter we had the night before at Scales. I had a stunning crab, mango and avocado tower salad and we toasted a bittersweet end to the adventures.

We headed home and spent our last evening in as we got all packed and ready for an early morning flight back east and back to reality .  California never dissappoints and Barry and Llorente made it an unforgettable adventure! As I reflect on all the unique experiences of those 10 days I close my eyes and lift my face to the beauty that we just saw, to all the fun, to all the great food and wine and to all the laughter shared with great friends.

Lift your face, Cindy

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