Ted Beatie - Travel Photogapher/Writer

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At a time when air travel brings to mind standing in lines and worrying about how much shampoo you have in your carry-on, there still exists a much more relaxed way to fly. Over a century before the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk, the Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot air balloon just outside of Paris. Unlike a plane, a balloon is carried along with the wind, so there is very little sense of motion, save the changing scenery below. "The unique part about ballooning is that you have to experience it to get it," describes Gary Lovell, a pilot who has been flying for over 26 years. "People will ask me before a flight what it's like, and I tell them it's a sensation that's hard to describe. Afterwards I'll ask them the same question, and they give me the same answer." Both exhilarating and peaceful, a ride in a hot air balloon typically lasts about an hour and can be experienced around the world. From Napa Valley to the Everglades, here are Traveler's picks for the best places to float away.

Santa Rosa, California

Called 'America's Tuscany', the wine country north of San Francisco is one of the most beautiful areas in which to fly. With mountains, river valleys, and rolling hills lined with vineyards, the region affords striking views any time of year. Above the Wine Country Ballooning (www.balloontours.com) offers morning flights over Sonoma that end with a full champagne brunch. Chief pilot Scott van der Horst has taken over 20,000 passengers aloft, and believes that "Flying is a metaphor for life, where the journey is the reward." In Napa, Bonaventura Balloon Company (www.bonaventuraballoons.com) also flies in the morning.

San Carlos, Costa Rica

A popular eco-tourism destination, Costa Rica has lush tropical rainforests, quaint mountain villages, white water rivers, and active volcanoes. Because so much of the diverse wildlife exists in the rainforest canopy hundreds of feet off the ground, a hot air balloon is the ideal way to view birds, iguanas, sloths, and monkeys. The only ballooning company in the country, Serendipity Adventures (www.serendipityadventures.com) launches 20 miles east of Arenal Volcano, which is often obscured by clouds from the ground, but easily able to be seen from the air.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Balloon festivals are common throughout the United States and abroad, but the largest is by far the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (www.balloonfiesta.com), which takes place during the second week of October. Upwards of 750 balloons can be seen rising into the air at once during mass ascensions on the weekends. A festival filled with pre-dawn launches, nighttime balloon glows, and races, the fiesta celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Cool morning temperatures and uniquely predictable wind patterns give Albuquerque some of the best flying conditions. Combined with the beauty of the Rio Grande river valley and the Sandia Mountains, it's no wonder that people come from all over the world to the area for ballooning. Rainbow Ryders (www.rainbowryders.com) provides rides during the event and throughout the year, complete with continental breakfast and champagne.

Seattle, Washington

While the Space Needle makes Seattle one of the most recognized skylines in America, the Emerald City has much more to offer. Sitting on the shores of island-filled Puget Sound and bordered by snow-capped peaks, the area has some of the most varied landscape in the country. "There's everything here," says Shannan Harris, a pilot for Airial Balloon Company (www.airialballoon.com), based north of the city. Flying over the Sammamish Valley to the east, Over the Rainbow (www.letsgoballooning.com) affords panoramic views of the wine country and Mount Rainier. Both offer morning and afternoon flights.

Quechee, Vermont

Few landscapes are as striking as autumn in New England, where the fall foliage creates an ever-changing tapestry of color throughout September and October. Home to the 165 foot Quechee Gorge, this picturesque village in southern Vermont "is the most beautiful place I have ever flown," says Gary Lovell of Balloons Over New England (www.balloonsovernewengland.com), which operates from Memorial Day through Halloween, flying at sunrise and sunset. In June, Father's Day brings dozens of balloons from all over the region to the Quechee Balloon Festival & Craft Fair. Balloons of Vermont (www.balloonsofvermont.com) also provides both morning and afternoon flights, year round.

Miami, Florida

The largest subtropical wilderness in the country, the Everglades are rich with wildlife. There are over 350 different species of birds, including herons, cardinals, and hawks, as well as numerous flowering plants including over 50 varieties of orchids. Usually accessed by boat, Tropical Ballooning Adventures (www.flyaballoon.com) presents fantastic sunrise views of this unique ecosystem, the Florida Keys, and Biscayne Bay. "We also fly over many fruit groves," relates owner Tom Mackie, "and can often pick mangoes and lychees right from the trees." Family owned Winds Aloft Aviation (www.miamiballoonrides.com) flies in the Redlands area, offering similar views of South Florida.

Ted Beatie