Across the valley, hundreds of orbs glowed gold against the dark sky, signaling the impending break of day. Like countless flickering fireflies, each furnace inflated the colored balloons, illuminating the surrounding rose-hued hills for a fleeting moment. I sat bundled in a thick Berber blanket, fighting heavy eyes and the urge to return to my warm bed, knowing that the scene unfolding before me might be one of the most breathtaking travel experiences I would ever have.
I was in Cappadocia, an otherworldly mountainous region in Turkey, where the hillside is punctuated with cave houses, whistling winds form so-called "fairy chimney" rock formations, and one of the top bucket list experiences in the world takes place: hot air ballooning over Rose Valley.
Each morning, up to 300 multicolored balloons lift into the silent sky to see the first rays of light illuminate the valley. That morning, I was watching the event unfold from a mountaintop; the next, I would be in a basket, rising above the Turkish landscape.
If you're yet to experience hot air ballooning, this is my advice: Book a trip during the shoulder season before the crowds swell, wake up before dawn breaks, and bring your camera. You've never seen the world like this before.
The View: Skiers and snowboarders might be used to tearing down the powdery slopes in Switzerland, but hot air ballooning in Château-d'Œx offers an entirely new perspective. Drift above the silent icy landscape for a bird's-eye view of the blue-white mountains, or find a vantage point below on a mountain peak to observe the colored orbs dot the landscape.
The Logistics: Plan your trip during the International Hot-Air Balloon Festival in Château-d'Œx, a region in the southwest of Switzerland, near the French boarder. The festival takes place over nine days in January and sees roughly 100 balloons from over 20 countries take flight. Wake up early on the seventh day to see the "night-glow" show, where the balloons light their burners in the snowy valley before daybreak.
The Itinerary: The festival isn't the only reason to travel to see Château-d'Œx. Visit nearby Castle of Gruyères, then make tracks to Rochers-de-Naye on a clear day for stunning mountain views.
Atacama Desert, Chile
The View: The barren Mars-like landscape of Atacama Desert, the driest desert on earth, takes on a new character when seen from above. See the gray salt flats, glide over the dusty jagged mountains, and glimpse the sometimes snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The Logistics: Atacama Desert is located in Chile. The most common travel path is via a flight to Santiago, then a two-hour connecting flight to Calama, and, finally, an hour drive to San Pedro. It's a lengthy mission, but well worth it.
The Itinerary: Follow your 45-minute balloon ride with a trip to the colored lagoons, snow-capped volcanos, and salt flats, teeming with flocks of flamingos.
The View: The ancient pagodas in Bagan create an intricate silhouette against the morning mist, casting unique shadows against the countryside when seen from above. Unlike Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Bagan's temples are yet to be roped off from the public, so you can also sit atop a pagoda to behold others taking flight.
The Logistics: Myanmar is becoming more accessible, with South East Asian carriers adding more flights to the schedule each year. The most popular route is to fly into Yangon or Mandalay, and then take an overnight coach to the region.
The Itinerary: You'll need two to three days in Bagan to fully absorb its beauty. Spend the first day getting a feel for the landscape on a locally run horse-drawn carriage (the predominant local mode of transport in Bagan), and on day two, hire an electric bicycle to peddle around the structures at your own pace.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
The View: Book a balloon safari to watch herds scatter across the lush green plains of the Okavango Delta, and observe the African wildlife from a whole new vantage point.
The Logistics: The Okavango Delta is a world heritage site located in the northwestern region of Botswana. The time of year you visit will dictate the animals you'll see; herds of buffalo and elephants wander the plains during the winter months while birdlife is prolific over summer.
The Itinerary: A glimpse at the wildlife from above offers a tantalizing start to your African adventure. Spend the night in a luxury tent, and then head out by car to explore the area in more detail.
Napa Valley, California
The View: There's more to Napa Valley than great wines. Row upon row of grapevines create an intriguing geometric pattern against the hillside when seen from above.
The Logistics: Looking to tick off this bucket list experience without using up all your annual leave? Napa Valley is just 70 miles from most San Francisco airports, making it much more accessible than most other top ballooning destinations throughout the world.
The Itinerary: Need you ask? There are enough vineyards to keep you busy for days.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
The View: One of the biggest draws for booking a balloon safari in Tanzania rather than Botswana is the annual wildebeest migration. Watch from the sky as roughly 1.5 million wildebeest trample the ground in search of green pastures and water.
The Logistics: Time your visit according to when the herds move through Tanzania's Serengeti in January. It's calving season, which means you'll see plenty of baby animals—and predators stalking the herds.
The Itinerary: Many hot air balloon operators offer multi-day tours that include game drives through the national park, ballooning at treetop height to get a close look at the wildlife, and a tour through Ngorongoro Crater, often filled with lions and rhino, and occasionally leopards.
The View: Balloon rides over Cappadocia offer breathtaking panoramic views of the puckered, rose-tinted mountains and valleys. The world-famous "fairy chimney" rock formations can also be seen, with hints of cave house windows just visible if you squint.
The Logistics: Cappadocia is easily accessible via a short domestic flight from Istanbul. Be warned that hot air balloon rides are weather-dependant, so book your trip in advance for the day of arrival, and allow tw to three days following just in case the winds are too strong.
The Itinerary: Most tourists venture to Cappadocia for the balloon flight only, but the incredible region has so much more to offer. Dedicate a day to hiking Rose and Pidgeon Valley and be sure to see Kaymakli Underground City, a fascinating rabbit warren of rooms that was home to the cave-dwelling population.
Queenstown, New Zealand
The View: Start your day with an early morning balloon ride over picturesque Queenstown to see the sun rise over the snow-capped jagged mountains before touching down for a champagne breakfast.
The Logistics: There are direct flights from Los Angeles to Queenstown, making this balloon experience quite accessible. Tour operators collect you from your hotel, so you don't need to worry about logistics.
The Itinerary: Queensland is a nature lover's paradise. Add nearby Lake Wanaka, Milford Sound, and Lake Wakatipu to your itinerary for an unforgettable trip—and endless photo opportunities.