Have you ever visited a place with great natural beauty and wondered what it would look like from above? Getting a 360 degree view from the top of a tower or a ride in a helicopter is great, but nothing compares to the wonderful feeling you get from a ride in a hot air balloon. Beautiful places are always popular with tourists, but there are a few that are so stunning from above, that those who have been fortunate enough to take a balloon ride over them say that it was a ride of a lifetime. If you ever find yourself in one of the following places, you won’t want to miss out on a chance to go ballooning. There’s something about the romance and adventure of these locations that ties in perfectly with the experience of a balloon ride.
Cappadocia, Turkey – Fairy Chimneys and Cave Dwellings
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/58789412@N00/2932107000/If you can go ballooning over just one location in your lifetime, this would be it. The surreal landscape of Cappadocia is packed with towering rock formations, and a hot air balloon ride can feel like you’re threading the eye of a needle. This is a place where nature’s artwork and mankind’s ingenuity meet. The landscape was formed thousands of years ago, when lava from a group of volcanoes blanketed this region of central Turkey, and wind and rain carved up the soft rock into gorges, ravines and the famous “fairy chimneys”. These curious structures look like mushrooms, with the stalk made of soft stone and a cap made of hard rock.
Greeks, Assyrians, Persians and Hittites of pre-Hellenistic times first populated the region, but it was Christians who came here to hide before Christianity was accepted as a religion. They carved homes, store rooms, churches and even complete cities into the natural rock formations.
Goreme, a town in this region is the best place for Cappadocia balloon tours. The balloon will soar over vineyards and orchards, and gently but precisely thread through the fields of fairy chimneys before touching down to let you explore the region on foot.
Loire Valley, France – Chateaux of the Renaissance
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/drb62/492091333/This seat of the Renaissance movement was where Parisian aristocracy built their chateaux to escape to. By the end of the Hundred Years' War between the French and British, these fortress-like castles were rebuilt as pleasure palaces and the area became known as the cradle of the French language and a welcoming home for the painters and sculptures of the 19th century. Even Leonardo d Vinci spent his last years in this region.
The romance of the past can be felt while floating above the gorgeous chateaux and gardens of the Loire valley in a hot air balloon. Along with the stunning architecture, you can take in the lush farms, orchards and vineyards fed by the Loire River. This region of Central France oozes romance, sophistication and elegance and is not a stranger to hot air balloon weddings! After a balloon flight, visitors can toast a special occasion with bubbly produced in a local vineyard.
Maasai Mara, Kenya – Follow the Migration
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/26116471@N03/6839883783/This National Reserve in South West Kenya is an extension of the Serengeti in Tanzania, and its name is taken from the Maasai people who inhabit this region. It is only one area of a greater ecosystem that is home to the “Big Five”, i.e. elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard and lion, and sees the migration of the wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and topis from the Serengeti. But these are not all – giraffes, crocodiles, hippopotami and more are also found here. The annual migration happens between July and October and is the best time to book a vacation here.
While land safaris are well known, can you imagine what it must look like from a balloon safari, when a herd of animals stampedes across the flat plains? There are many safari lodges that offer their guests a chance to go ballooning once during their vacation. Since all vegetation here is sparse and low, balloons can fly quite low, so you can quite an intimate view of the animals.
Bagan, Myanmar – Stupas, Temples and Monasteries
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nitsuga/140366293/Bagan is probably the least known destination on this list, as Myanmar places severe restrictions on travellers and human rights observers have boycotted travel to the country. This city in the Mandalay region of Myanmar (Burma) was the capital of Pagan between the 9th and 13th centuries. Pagan was the precursor to the collective regions of modern-day Myanmar. During its most prosperous time, over 10,000 stupas, temples and monasteries were built just in the area surrounding Bagan. These monuments are as old as the very famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and although not as magnificent individually, collectively they are a sight to behold. Having witnessed numerous earthquakes over the years, only 2200 of them survive to this day. In the 1990s, the military government restored many of the standing monuments, but did such a poor job of it that experts say that the effort damaged any chance of Bagan being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Taking a balloon ride over this magical ancient kingdom is an experience unlike any other, with the river Irrawady weaving through the arid plain filled with religious monuments. Even Marco Polo once said that Bagan was ‘"one of the finest sights in the world".
Wadi Rum, Jordan – Valley of the Moon
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40987041@N07/3774829066/While Petra is Jordan’s star attraction, Wadi Rum quietly attracts more adventure-seeking tourists. This southern Jordanian area of several valleys, naturally cut from sandstone and granite rock, has been used as a film location for several movies, including Lawrence of Arabia and Red Planet. Many ancient cultures like the Nabateans inhabited this region and left their mark in the form of temples, graffiti and rock art. Today, local Bedouins live in concrete structures and goat-hair tents in the village of Rum and manage and develop most tourism activities, which include Arab horse riding, rock climbing, trekking and camping under the stars.
The towering hills (jebels) of Wadi Rum cast shadows on the desert floor with the changing angles of the sun, making the hours just after sunrise a perfect time to go ballooning over the enthralling landscape. The fragile ecosystem showcases gently rolling dunes and staggering rock formations painted on the pink desert below and capped by a brilliantly blue sky above.
Luxor, Egypt – World’s Greatest Open Air Museum
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalegillard/2300777539/Luxor in Southern or Upper Egypt is the site of the ancient city of Thebes and where temple complex ruins still stand today. Necropolis stands exactly opposite and on the other side of the Nile River. This is the site of more temples, monuments and tombs and where the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens stand. Thebes was the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom and a centre of learning, art and religion, but the city started to gain importance long before that, with monarchs from the Old Kingdom and onwards being buried in the necropolis. However, it was only at the start of the New Kingdom, when the god Amun became the main deity of the region and several impressive monuments were built to honor him. Through the years, dynasties kept adding to existing monuments and building new ones to honor their own kings.
The views over Luxor from a hot air balloon are unbeatable, with the sheer scale and grandiosity of the monuments able to impress even the most jaded traveller. Most flight locations are from the West Bank and take place early in the morning, enabling you to take in the views without the crowds and desert heat.
Napa Valley, U.S.A. – A Lot of Wine
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chadh-flickr/643094898/Napa and Sonoma make up North America’s premiere wine destination that is often called Napa Valley. Since the 1960s this wine region has been ranked on par with those of France, Italy, Portugal and Spain in terms of quantity and quality of wine production. The first vineyard was planted in the 1840s and the first commercial winery opened in 1859. This was also when the great silver rush started and the gold rush in the rest of California was at its height, so wine was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Vineyard pests and Prohibition were additional problems that kept the wine industry struggling. It was only when Prohibition ended that the industry had a rebirth and continued to grow to its current status.
The Napa Valley is only second behind Cappadocia in terms of hot air balloon traffic, but when it comes to providing more than just ballooning for regular tourists, this destination is top of the list. It is a magnet for competitive balloonists, as hot air balloon festivals are held at various points in the valley. Catching a glimpse of the picturesque region at the stroke of dawn is a great way to start the day, while a gourmet breakfast topped off with local champagne at the end of the ride gives you a hint of the indulgences waiting for you.
When you're up in the air, don't miss a chance to take great photos. It is an ideal opportunity for taking panorama shots. For the best setup, try a D-SLR and a prime lens. However, a good point-and-click for travel photography is fine too.
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Once you've taken some stunning landscape photos from your hot air balloon, try using the tilt-shift photography technique on some of them using Photoshop or a free online software. The results will be pretty spectacular!
Read more about Cappadocia's history from prehistoric times to Byzantine rule, and from its Seljuk and Ottoman rule to its early and modern tourism.
Read more about Cappadocia's attractions...