Image: Hot-air balloon
Courtesy of France Montgolfières
France's Loire Valley is the locale of picture postcards, thanks to its rolling countryside, copious vineyards and the nearly 800 châteaux and manor houses dotting the region.
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updated 10/29/2011 12:55:40 PM ET 2011-10-29T16:55:40

Adding hot-air balloon rides to your trip always helps lift your spirits.

Pure magic: That’s what most travelers experience as they soar high above some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, suspended in a basket beneath a huge, colorful balloon. This is flight at its most simple and elegant. And it’s no longer an extravagance.

Slideshow: Best places for balloon rides

Balloon trips have gained in popularity over the years, thanks in part to advances in technology (burners and fabrics) that have translated into lower per-person prices over the last decade. Hot-air balloon vacations are now accessible to more and more people. But it’s only recent history that has seen a rise (pun intended) in manned flights.

Riding in a hot-air balloon is an exhilarating and surprisingly non-stressful experience, according to Jane Janvier, a balloon pilot and partner at France Montgolfieres. “You cannot get vertigo in a balloon. It is like a filming platform with a 360-degree view that is stationary while the world slowly drifts by,” she explains.

Going with the wind is very metaphoric and poetic, but it’s also literal when it comes to balloons, which are shepherded by the breeze. Thus, says Janvier, you have almost no sensation of movement. “You can carry a candle and the flame won’t go out,” she says. “You are the wind.”

The lofty concept of filling an envelope with hot air and letting it rise toward the heavens dates as far back as A.D. 220, when the Chinese used candlelit floating lamps made of rice paper, called Kongming lanterns, for military signaling. It wasn’t until 1783, when French brothers Étienne and Joseph Montgolfier hovered over Paris for 20 minutes, that the idea for passenger flights was born.

Today, hundreds of thousands of airborne adventurers each year ascend into the wide blue yonder to experience flying the way it was meant to be.

Experiencing a travel destination from the air offers a new perspective, often paired with a local experience. Take a visit to the Loire Valley of France up a notch with a balloon ride and tour of a château after landing. The view of wildlife from the air over the Serengeti in Tanzania cannot be matched from the ground.

Perhaps you prefer to experience hot-air balloons with two feet planted firmly on the earth. A balloon festival — such as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta — where hundreds of hot-air balloons gather, race and participate in events is sure to inspire.

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Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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