My Favorite Activity EVER in Ithaca, NY: Hot Air Ballooning With Southern Tier Balloons
Ballooning should be on EVERYONE'S bucket list!
Growing up, I spent at least a week -- usually more! -- almost every summer in Upstate New York. And there are countless amazing things to do there: hiking Taughannock Falls; swimming at Buttermilk Falls; getting in (or on) the lake; and wine trails, to name a few.
But one of the best Ithaca adventures I’ve ever had, hands down, was my flight with Southern Tier Balloon Tours.
Hot air ballooning had been on my bucket list for, like, ever. But it’s expensive! I spent a long time kind of passively waiting for the right deal or sale or Groupon to come along. But eventually, I realized something:
I could spend my whole life waiting for it to cost less. But it probably never will.
Then I realized something else:
I’d gladly pay $100 to ride in a hot air balloon. So... why wouldn’t I pay $200?
I mean, it’s something I really wanted to do. And I'd done some research -- it’s not like I’d be able to fly for less than $200 anyplace else! Even when I was traveling in Southeast Asia this past winter, I couldn’t find a company that was operating for less that $200 per head.
I recently wrote 8 Reasons to Spend MORE, Not LESS, Money -- and one of the reasons was balloon-related. What else would I spend that extra $100 on?
No, seriously. What? A new dress? A night of food and drinking alcohol with friends? That’s dumb! What not just check a total major item off my bucket list?
Besides, they say you don't regret the things you do. You regret the things you don't do. Case in point:
How much would it suck to miss out on THAT? (#IthacaIsGorges).
Another reason I was interested in checking out Southern Tier is because I knew my mom had a bucket list -- and ballooning was on it. I asked her, and she seemed nervous... but excited.
So I contacted the company and asked how old their oldest passenger ever had been.
“96,” they told me. “And it wasn’t a problem at all. She loved it!”
If some 96-year-old could do it, I knew my mom, despite a minor foot/ankle issue, definitely could.
Her brothers and sisters couldn't believe it when we told them we were going! “You’re not really going to do it, are you, Evelyn?” they asked her over wine and cheese and blues music at the Buttonwood Winery. They thought we were making a joke!
Well, the joke was on them!
Because eight hours later, we were watching the sunrise from Stewart Park as Dar, our pilot, and the crew assembled the balloon. Young and adventurous, I kind of wanted to get involved..
As if reading my mind, Dar announced, “I need two volunteers who don’t mind a little wind!” Next thing I knew:
I know anyone could have done what I did... but it still felt really cool to be involved in the process. (Of course, if you don't want to help out, you don't have to. My mom certainly didn't.)
Once the balloon was full of air, we needed to add heat. As Dar connected the fuel tanks, I mentioned my mom’s ankle issue. “She might need extra help climbing into the basket.”
“I can do you one better,” he said with a smile.
Rather than have her climb into the basket after it was standing upright, he showed her how to slide in while it was on its side:
Once the air got hot, the balloon stood upright -- and the other seven passengers climbed in. And before too long, we were up, up and away!
I highly recommend listening to this song as you continue reading about my adventure, because this is exactly what I felt like:
We slowly ascended over ducks and geese and fish and fields...
Then we flew over Stewart Park, where I had fond memories of playing, merry-go-rounding, and feeding the geese (aka "poop machines"). Soon, we were floating gracefully along Cayuga Lake.
It wasn't the sunniest day anyone's ever had... but it didn't matter. In fact, I was glad for the slight haze, which kept the sun out of our eyes, cut out any glare on the water, and kept the temperature nice and moderate.
I'd advised my mom to wear a hat, since tall people sometimes feel the heat on the tops of their heads. She didn't bring one on the trip, so I let her wear mine. I'm 6'0, and not having a hat didn't bother me one bit.
That surprised me a little. Another thing that surprised me... was that we could see fish. HUGE fish -- maybe they were carp or giant trout or something. I don't even know. I just know they were huge enough that we could see them from hundreds of feet above, swimming just below the surface or jumping up into the air.
("Next time, I'm bringing my fishing pole," I joked. Except I actually might...)
And then! Speaking of the whole "DIY" thing... this happened!
Another wonderful part of hot air ballooning is the perfect calm. I mean, sure, there's noise when they blast the hot air. But between blasts, there's complete stillness and silence.
It's not windy at all -- you move at the same speed of the wind, so the only time you feel it is when you change altitudes, and therefore velocity (there are different wind currents throughout the Finger Lakes region). You don't even feel like you're moving much. You can see trees getting bigger or smaller, but you never feel like you're rising or falling.
After floating along the lake for a long time, we rose a few hundred feet, into another wind current, and changed directions. We flew along the bank of the lake until, suddenly -- an opening in the trees! A waterfall!
I didn't get a picture of that, because I was too immersed in the ride to even think of photos in that moment. But it was glorious.
But, I mean... even just looking at the balloon is glorious. Who hasn't stared in awe from the ground at a passing balloon? Now imagine seeing one up close -- or standing inside or right below one!
My one regret is not packing a selfie stick for the trip. People love to hate on selfie sticks... but when you're in a balloon, it really helps you capture the scene. Here's one of my favorite photos I took:
Now imagine how cool it would have been if I could have extended my phone just a little more beyond the basket:
Or! Even better! What if I'd had a selfie stick and a GoPro -- which has an ultra-wide lens, so you can fit entire scenes and panoramas into a single shot:
If you want to have the latest and greatest, go for the GoPro Hero5 ($399) -- otherwise, the HERO+ ($152.99) is a perfectly amazing camera for documenting adventures and outings -- it's what I normally use. (Ballooning was a last-minute decision, and I didn't pack any photography equipment, sadly.)
Both versions do incredibly well in mixed- and super-bright lighting. (No small feet for a camera.) They do... okay... in low light. And if you want an all-around, low-cost but still amazing travel camera, I love the Nikon COOLPIX S9900 Digital Camera with 30x Optical Zoom and Built-In WiFi. Here's why.
Towards the end of the flight, calm turned to excitement -- balloons mostly go where the wind blows, so it's hard to predict exactly where you're going to land. Our pilot was in frequent communication with his ground crew to keep them close.
We'd tentatively planned to land at the Kendal, so as we got near, we let some hot air out:
And began our descent:
You can see the crew pulling up in the beginning of that video -- but we just missed the landing.
So we radioed down and told them to start driving south. About five minutes later, we assumed landing position (you basically just bend your knees and lean back against the basket) and felt a slight bump as the basket landed... at the mall!
(I was told later that a parking lot landing is very unusual.)
As we were landing, several onlookers gathered to watch the magic that is hot air ballooning.
Next, the crew packed up the entire balloon and basket -- and we were invited to help as much (or little) as we wanted.
And next came....
A champagne toast!
Hey, it was 5:00 somewhere!
And, anyway, I think that day, we'd all done more before 10am than most people do in their whole day. And we'd just checked a total major item off our bucket list.
I can definitely toast to that.
Want to know more about hot air ballooning in the Finger Lakes? Visit Southern Tier Balloon Tours -- they operate two daily tours out of Ithaca, Binghamton, and Owego.
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Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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