World's 10 Best Hot-Air Balloon Adventures

Mass ascension at Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque. Photo by Raymond Watt
By Kimberley Lovato

Busy airports and cramped middle seats can make flying a chore rather than a joy ride. Rekindle the magic of flying aboard a hot-air balloon where every seat has a view. From France's Loire Valley to Africa's Serengeti plains, here are 10 places to soar.

Photo Caption: Mass ascension at the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
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Balloon rising over Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France. Photo by France-Montgolfières
What You'll See: Located about 200 miles southwest of Paris, the Loire Valley stretches nearly 170 miles and is encrusted with more than 800 castles and manor houses. The scenery in the Loire would make Cinderella jealous, with impressive abodes, like the Château de Chenonceau, inspiring happily-ever-after dreams. Bucolic vineyards, stone villages, sunflower fields, and meandering rivers and streams add to the region's storybook appeal.

When To Go:
It's best to lift off between April and October when spring begins to green things up, the castles are open for visits, and there's less chill in the air.

Photo Caption: A balloon rises over Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley, France.
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Above the Serengeti, Tanzania. Photo by Serengeti Balloon Safaris
What You'll See: African safari meets balloon adventure in Serengeti National Park, home to the largest mammal migration in the world. Sunrise over the golden grassy plains is exquisite, as are the estimated two million wildebeest, 500,000 gazelle, and 250,000 zebra that roam the region. You may also spy leopards, lions, hippos, giraffes, and other wild animals.

When To Go: The moderate climate is suitable for year-round ballooning, though the migrations occur from March to May and from October to December.

Photo Caption: Float above the Serengeti in Tanzania.
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Balloons over the vineyards of Napa. Photo by Balloons Above the Valley
What You'll See: Swaths of vineyards are stitched together like a quilt. Fall pours on the color with ripe purple and green fruit ready for harvest by the nearly 600 wineries splattered across Napa Valley.

When to Go:
Aim for spring (late March to mid-May) and fall (early September to late October) when the San Francisco Bay area fog dissipates and warm weather is more predictable.

Photo Caption: Fly over the vineyards of Napa.
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Sailing over Lake Champlain, Vermont. Photo by Jason Provost
What You'll See: From the rolling foothills of the Green Mountains to the shoreline of Lake Champlain, far-reaching vistas are visible at higher altitude. At lower levels, watch for animals like the white-tailed deer and blue herons. Enjoy lofty views over church steeples, sailboats on the lake, and meandering country roads.

When To Go:
Balloons fly year-round, weather permitting, but it's hard to resist autumn, when Vermont's famed fall foliage is at its vibrant peak.

Photo Caption: Sail over -- instead of on -- Lake Champlain, Vermont.
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Hot air balloons over the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo by Royal Balloon
What You'll See: The birds have the best view over the otherworldly terrain of Cappadocia, in the central Anatolian region of Turkey. The moonscape topography of Cappadocia induces head-scratching wonder with limestone chimneys, subterranean churches, and chiseled-out dwellings. Vineyard plots green with growth are interspersed between rock formations striped in shades of red, orange, green, and black, while winter's snow-dusted landscape has an ethereal allure.

When To Go: You'll avoid the summer heat and crowds by visiting from April to May or from September to October, when the weather is ideal.

Photo Caption: Hot-air balloons over the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey
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Overlooking Istria, Croatia. Photo by Kimberley Lovato
What You'll See: Leave terra firma, and you'll see why Istria is called "The Croatian Tuscany." Patchwork plots of grapevines and olive groves hug rolling hills, and thick oak forests hide the region's coveted truffles. Perched hilltop towns, like Motuvun, and its 13th-century Romanesque-Gothic bell tower and crenulated crown are magnificent from above.

When to Go: The arrowhead-shaped peninsula in northwest Croatia, bordering Italy and Slovenia, enjoys short winters and hot, dry summers. Ballooning is especially popular in September and October, when temperatures dip and crowds dissipate.

Photo Caption: Overlooking Istria, Croatia
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Feeling small over the Alps. Photo by France Balloons
What You'll See: Mountain landscapes against a cerulean sky are the hallmark of this flight of fancy. Float above typical Swiss chalets and villages dwarfed beneath the imposing jagged peaks of Gstaad. During the annual International Balloon Festival in Chateau d'Oex, held the last week of January, dozens of brightly colored balloons from around the world fill the alpine sky.

When To Go: Winter is when this small village in the Swiss Alps really heats up. Not only renowned for its winter sports, the Gstaad region is a mountain ballooner's dream -- thanks to an exceptional microclimate and superb flying conditions.

Photo Caption: Feeling small over the Alps
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Golden sunrise over the Yarra Valley, Australia. Photo by Global Ballooning Pty Ltd.
What You'll See: About an hour's drive from Melbourne, the Yarra Valley is in Australia's pioneering wine region that kick-started Victoria's viticulture industry. Soak in uninterrupted views over the Yarra River and across undulating hills and vines, then look toward the blue-tinged peaks of the Great Divide in the distance. The valley's nooks and crannies harbor wineries and an occasional kangaroo to hop up your spirits.

When To Go:
Balloons fly year-round, but autumn months (March, April, and May in the Southern Hemisphere) are most desirable, when grape leaves are dipped in fall color and harvest activity buzzes.

Photo Caption: Catch the sunrise over the Yarra Valley, Australia.
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Flying low over the jungle canopy in Muelle, San Carlos, Costa Rica. Photo by Serendipity Adventures
What You'll See: Balloons rise above cloud clusters and tropical forests, and swoop close enough to the jungle canopy to touch the treetops. You'll also skim over sugarcane fields, orange and pineapple plantations, and rivers. The majestic Arenal Volcano in the distance is visible on clear days.

When to Go: Located only 8 degrees above the equator, and cooled by two coastlines (Pacific and Caribbean), Costa Rica boasts a never-too-hot, never-too-cold climate perfect for ballooning any time of year. Muelle, 30 minutes from La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano, is the launch location for this lofty adventure.

Photo Caption: Fly low over the jungle canopy in Muelle, San Carlos, Costa Rica.
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Mass ascension at Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by Raymond Watt
What You'll See: Albuquerque is a ballooner's paradise, thanks to nearly 300 days of no-coat-required weather. During the hot-air balloon festival each October, there's nothing quite like the scene of hundreds of brightly colored globes lifting skyward.

When to Go:
Average summer highs reach 90 degrees, but mercury levels drop in fall and the spirit of ballooning soars at the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Photo Caption: Get a bird's-eye view at the annual Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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