Q: My wife and I will have been married for 50 years this Valentine's Day, and I want to do something very special for her. She loves wine, so I was thinking we could get away to California Wine Country for a few days. Then on the big day, I want to take her on a hot-air-balloon ride. She's always said she wanted to try it, but we've never gotten around to it. I don't even know where to look for this sort of thing. She's a special gal, Peter, so I want to do this right.
–Robert Carlisle, Seattle
Robert, you old smoothie, this is a great question—and I hope all the other guys reading this are taking notes. There are actually a number of companies that offer hot-air-balloon tours in Napa and Sonoma Valley. But before you commit to one, talk to the hotels or bed-and-breakfasts where you'll be staying. These places may be able to get you a special deal on a balloon ride.
One hot-air-balloon company, called Up & Away, has a special discount for older travelers. For about $220 per person, you get an hour-long flight that features views of the Napa Valley grapevines and wildlife. The company also claims that on a clear day, you can catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco skyline. The price includes a gourmet champagne brunch at Kendall-Jackson Winery.
Balloons Above the Valley is offering an Internet Valentine's Day Special of $185 per person. The price includes transportation to and from your hotel or bed-and-breakfast, a champagne brunch, and an hour-long flight. The company also offers a ballooning and wine-tasting package for two for a little more than $550. In addition to the sunrise balloon flight, the package includes a tour of four to six private wineries—and you don't have to take the wine tour on the same day as the balloon ride.
Napa Valley Balloons, which claims to be "the company trusted to fly Chelsea Clinton," currently has a special Winter Stimulus Package with a balloon ride for $199 per person. The package gives you the hour-long ride and champagne brunch. But for $170 more per person, you can add a leisurely biking tour with stops at three or four wineries.
Hot-air ballooning offers incredible views, and if it's something your wife has always wanted to do, you should try it by all means. But before you get in a balloon, understand that bumpy landings are not uncommon, so make sure you discuss age, injuries, and disabilities with the company or pilot before you fly. And balloon pilots must be FAA-certified, so don't go aloft with someone who isn't.
One more thing, Robert—congratulations on 50 years.