A hot air balloon ride is an experience that has topped my travel bucket list for quite some time. Despite this fact, actually experiencing the ride is something that has eluded me for the past four years! But, that’s not to say I haven’t tried…
My first failed attempt at a balloon ride was during my honeymoon in South Africa. We booked a flight over the South African winelands of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. I imagined the view over the vineyards and mountains would be stunning… but, I can’t speak from personal experience. The flight was cancelled late the evening prior due to strong winds.
My next chance to experience hot air ballooning was on my trip to Turkey. I assured myself it was okay that I missed out in South Africa since I would be experiencing my first balloon ride in the region most famous for them – Cappadocia, Turkey. I knew I was taking a chance since my schedule only allowed for one early morning in Cappadocia, meaning I only had one shot for fly-worthy weather. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but dream about how amazing it would be to float high above the “fairy chimneys” dusted with snow. But, (you see where this is going), again, it didn’t happen. This time, the visibility was too poor for the balloons to launch.
Ballooning in Lithuania
While researching my trip to the Baltic countries, I found out that ballooning in Lithuania is popular activity for tourists. Once I realized this, I knew I would be booking a balloon ride. But, at the same time, I wasn’t holding my breath. I contacted Orobalionai to schedule my flight and found out that I had two choices: a flight over Vilnius or a flight over Trakai, an area 30 minutes west of Vilnius which is famous for its island castle. I mulled over this decision momentarily before choosing Trakai since I have a slight obsessions with castles. (What little girl didn’t dream of being a princess growing up?).
Upon my arrival to Vilnius, Lithuania, the weather looked promising. Vytautas, the founder of Orobalionai, must possess a ton of patience because I’m fairly certain I confirmed my flight with him at least ten times. The morning of, I woke up and eagerly checked my email – the confirmation from Vytautas was waiting in my inbox – he was scheduled to pick me up in an hour to head to Trakai!
“Wow. This is really happening,” I thought. And then, the nerves set in. I had ignored the anxiety which had started to creep in the night before, telling myself that the balloon flight would probably be canceled again. But, this time it wasn’t. Oh, and I have a terrible fear of heights.
For whatever reason, (thankfully) flying in airplanes doesn’t bother me, but most every other experience regarding heights triggers my anxiety. Not that this fear stops me from trekking up to viewpoints in hopes of getting great photos, it just means that my travel companions end up having to deal with helping me get (and look) down. (You can imagine how much fun they had with me when we took the cable car in Langkawi). Needless to say, the 30 minute ride to Trakai from Vilnius seemed like eternity.
Once we arrived, Vytautus and his team began to set up the balloon. About 15 minutes later, we were ready to go. (Well, the balloon was ready to go… I wasn’t certain I was ready or willing to go yet). I was surprised how small the balloon basket was, only holding six people, and I couldn’t stop imagining the tiny little balloon basket falling from the sky and dropping thousands of feet to the ground. (Clearly, I’ve always been a positive thinker). With Vytautus’ reassurances, I slowly got into the balloon, closed my eyes and held on tightly for dear life. This is it, I was going hot air ballooning in Lithuania!
Before I knew it, the balloon was floating into the air. The ascent was so graceful that I didn’t panic nearly as much as I assumed I would. In fact, the scenery was so stunningly gorgeous that I almost forgot my crippling fear of heights. (I didn’t forget long enough to unclench my death grip from the balloon basket, however).
The majority of our flight was spent zeroing in on our target – the striking island castle of Trakai. The castle is stunning, but so is the collection of deep blue lakes surrounding it.
After passing the castle we flew over a wooded area. Vytautus lowered the balloon in hopes of us catching a glimpse of some Lithuanian wildlife. Just moments after he did, we heard the snapping of twigs and saw a wild boar running through the bushes! Although the ride was only scheduled to last an hour, Vytautus flew us over the Lithuanian countryside for close to 90 minutes.
Once I realized that our ride was about to end, my anxiety peaked again. I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories regarding rough balloon landings and broken wrists. Vytautus attempted to calm my nerves and told me that the wind conditions were so favorable that the basket may even land standing up and not on its side. I forced a nervous laugh before I realized that he didn’t just crack a joke… he was serious.
Vytautus told us to hold on and slowly lowered the balloon to the ground. After a couple of bumps we were grounded. But, the fun wasn’t over yet – Vytautus told us we were about to be baptized. Huh?
The driver who had been tracking us on the ground quickly arrived to assist Vytautus with packing up the balloon. Once complete, he came over with a bottle of champagne. I was thrilled to celebrate my survival… with my favorite beverage! But, before I knew what was happening, Vytautus grabbed a strand of my hair, lit it on fire and then doused it out with the champagne. He then reached down to grab some dirt from the farm we landed on and smeared it on my forehead. Double huh?
Vytautus explained that this tradition started over 200 years ago and is used in Lithuania to celebrate a successful flight. (Hey, any tradition which includes bubbly is A-Okay with me). If you’re headed to the Baltics, I would highly recommend that you go ballooning in Lithuania, and had a fantastic experience with Vytautus of Orobalionai!
Have you flown in a hot air balloon? Where? If you haven’t, where would your dream ballooning destination be?
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Although I was a guest of Orobalionai, as always, all opinions are my own.