Hot air ballooning is a very popular activity in Sonoma County; and admittedly there's no shortage of outfitters that offer scenic flights over the Northern California vineyards, toast landings with champagne, and serve up scrumptious post-flight meals. Not surprisingly, hot air balloons are not exactly wheelchair accessible; in fact, you have to be able to climb up over the gondola to get aboard. That was until last fall, when Mike Kijak of Up and Away Ballooning (tel. 707/836-0171; www.up-away.com) brought the country's first wheelchair-accessible hot air balloon to Sonoma. Thanks to his efforts, everyone can now enjoy this exhilarating sport.
Mike starts out his ballooning days early at the Santa Rosa Airport, where he gives passengers an overview of the day. MikeÂ?s accessible balloon features a fold-down door, which allows for roll-on access; however because of weight restrictions, power wheelchair-users must transfer to MikeÂ?s manual wheelchair for the flight. Safety is also a top concern at Up and Away, so the gondola is equipped with tie-downs, a shoulder harness and even a safety cushion.
While you're up in the sky, you'll have an unobstructed view, thanks to the wheelchair-height Lexan windows in the gondola. The only bad thing about the flight is that it's over before you know it! And although the gondola was designed to be wheelchair-accessible, it's also great for slow walkers or others who are unable to climb aboard a standard gondola.
After touch down, passengers ride in a caravan to the Kendall Jackson Winery (tel. 707/571-8100; www.kj.com), where they're treated to a specially prepared picnic brunch. Mike gets up early to put together the coffee cake, quiche, fresh strawberries and Sonoma cheese picnic, that's accompanied with coffee, orange juice and sparkling wine. There's level access to the picnic area, and the meal is the perfect accompaniment to the flight
A Little Vino
After brunch, passengers are treated to a complimentary wine tasting at Kendall Jackson, which features level access to the tasting room and a barrier-free back patio. There are also hard-packed dirt trails through the adjacent culinary garden, which is packed full of ideas for your home garden, so save some time for a short garden stroll.
If youÂ?re still up for tasting more wines, then head on up to Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery (tel. 707/823-436; www.marimarestate.com) in Sebastopol. ThereÂ?s level access to their hilltop tasting room, with barrier-free pathways to the public spaces. The tasting room, dining room and patio all reflect the Catalan style and tradition of the winery -- a winery that's especially known for its Pinot Noirs. And you just can't beat the view of the surrounding vineyards from the patio.
Located in nearby Guerneville, The Creekside Inn (tel. 707/869-3623; www.creeksideinn.com) is a great place to overnight. Surrounded by a redwood forest, this 28-room property features plenty of accessible parking, barrier-free access to the office and elevator access to the second floor.
The Lark Cottage is the most accessible unit, with wide doorways and barrier-free pathways. The spacious bathroom is equipped with a roll-in shower with a fold-down shower seat, a hand-held showerhead, shower grab bars, a roll-under sink and toilet grab bars on the back and side walls.
Access to the public areas is good too at the Creekside Inn, with a lift available for the pool and hot tub. There's also a barbeque area with level access and an accessible picnic table. With the Russian River flowing in the background, it's an ideal location to sip a glass of wine and enjoy the natural beauty of Sonoma County.
Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of 22 Accessible Road Trips; Driving Vacations for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. he blogs regularly about accessible travel issues at www.barrierfreetravels.com.