It’s 4:15 in the morning, and there’s a knock at our door.
My groggy brain can only come up with two possible reasons for a knock at this hour: The hotel is on fire or the pizza delivery guy’s ridiculously late.
Then it hits me. Hot air ballooning.
We’re about to jump in a hot air balloon and soar over the sweeping valleys of Cappadocia, Turkey. This area of the world is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with homes and churches carved into fairy chimneys as early as the 4th century.
Rick Steeves calls ballooning in Cappadocia “a travel experience of a lifetime“, and I’m itching to see if he’s right.
The next half hour is a whirlwind, with a minibus ride, a fresh fruit and pastry breakfast, a safety briefing, and another short ride out to the launch site.
Just watching the balloons get ready for the flight is worth getting up at 4:15 in the morning.
Giant fans roar and fill the balloon with air, and four year old Jordan and Charles are dwarfed standing in the mouth of the balloon as Cole and I cover our ears against the fan’s drone.
When it’s time to heat the air inside the balloon, I’m standing 20 feet away, but the fire from the balloon’s burners flushes my cheeks as the crew strains to hold the massive balloon open.
We’re flying with Butterfly Balloons. Their crew, just for our balloon with 16 passengers, numbers over six people.
Take off is spectacular, as our enormous balloon rises like a feather in the crisp air. The burners roar with the effort of heating the air in the balloon.
We rush forward to the edge of a canyon and I hold my breath as the balloon glides past the edge, just as the sun rises over Goreme’s otherworldly rock formations.
Rick Steves was dead on right.
We’ve camped in the Moroccan desert, dived the Great Barrier reef, and watched wild orangutans in the jungles of Indonesia. This is on par with any of those travel experiences.
We glide along in the morning light, as our pilot Mustafa guides us over the town of Goreme and along Pigeon Valley.
The fairy chimneys and rock houses of Goreme were beautiful on the ground, but the scope of Cappadocia’s fairy tale landscape is even more breathtaking from above.
It’s utterly silent in the balloon when the burners turn off and we move with the wind across Cappadocia. We swoon pass above the Castle of Ortahisar, a 86 m rock chimney riddled with doors cut into its stone surface.
This part of Cappadocia seems to have escaped most of the tourism, as cave houses nearby are used to store citrus fruits, rather than house tourists.
We’ve lucked out with our pilot, Mustafa Turgut, who’s one of the most experienced pilots in the area and who’s taught many of the pilots sharing the sky with us this morning. He cracks jokes as he skims so close over treetops that Cole reaches down and grabs a leaf from the branches.
Pilot Mustafa wryly repeats his primary safety rule “Don’t get out of the basket“.
He expertly turns the balloon every so often so everyone inside can take photos as we glide past phallic shaped fairy chimneys bathed in the early morning’s golden light.
As the sun rises, we ascend and get a good look at the hot air balloons gliding over the valley. We try to count, coming up with nearly a hundred balloons dotting the skyline.
I don’t want this to end.
But it’s time to go back to the earth.
As we descend, Mustafa lets Cole have a hand pulling the ropes to maneuver the balloon. Cole hurls all of his 55 pounds into the task, and as we move to the landing area we see Butterfly Balloon’s trucks racing to meet us.
Mustafa orders us to assume our landing position, with our backs to the landing site, and feet perched up against the side of the basket.
I brace for a hard bump, but it never comes.
Instead, we plop down gently on the grass as Butterfly’s crew swarms around the balloon, ropes swirling as they tie us down and begin to deflate the balloon.
I hop out, elated from the flight, and sad to be back on terra firma. Meanwhile, Mustafa’s taken Cole to help, and Cole bounces around on the deflating balloon, delighted.
Somehow, in the short 10 minutes since we’ve landed, Mustafa and his crew have set the balloon basket gently in the trailer behind the truck, decorated it with flowers, and prepared a table set with a white tablecloth, champagne glasses and a celebratory cake.
They’ve even found time to neatly fold the balloon and pose for a photo with the kids on top of the balloon.
Mustafa raises a glass of champagne to toast the flight, a tradition said to be started by the Mongolfier brothers who piloted the first hot air balloon flight in 1783.
There’s chilled orange juice for the kids (and mimosas for us), and then we’re off in the minivan back to our cozy cave hotel (yes, a cave hotel, more on that in a later post).
Only a couple of hours have passed, and I’m back in my comfy bed, snuggling in as daylight warms the rest of the world.
We flew with Butterfly Balloons, one of the most respected and popular balloon companies in Goreme, and highly recommend them. Check out Butterfly Balloons on their website or Facebook or read their reviews on TripAdvisor.
Cost: A one hour flight costs around $175 Euro per person (children are half price), and includes minibus transfer to and from the hotel, a delicious light breakfast of fresh fruit, pastries and drinks, and champagne after the flight.
What to bring: A camera, warm clothes to ward off the early morning chill, and sturdy shoes for climbing in and out of the basket.
Where: Hot air balloon flights depart from the town of Goreme, in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey.
Getting There: Flights from Istanbul to the city of Kayseri run every day, and cost as little as 30 USD one way with AtlasJet, Pegasus or Turkish Airlines. Check flights on Expedia. It’s an hour bus ride from Kayseri to Goreme.
Turkish Airlines has flights from from Istanbul to Nevsihir, a smaller city only 12 km from Goreme. Check flights to Nevsihir on Expedia.