Seeking a balloon's eye view in the Alps

Email|Print| Text size + By Alan Behr
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2004

GSTAAD, Switzerland -- To make matters more interesting on this, my annual visit to the Alps, I wasn't planning to just ski down the mountains like any Tom, Dick, or Herminator, but to fly over them like a soap bubble over a picket fence.

I mean fly in a hot-air balloon, just as did the first passengers in a Montgolfier balloon in 1783. Of those passengers -- a sheep, a rooster, and a duck -- only the duck could fly without assistance, but all of them made it. Why not try it myself? So my wife, Julie, and I came here to southwest Switzerland, where she could ski and I could fly in the annual hot-air balloon festival.

Leading up to our trip, the weather was Julie's biggest worry. At 3,450 feet of altitude, with its highest sport peak, Les Diablerets, topping out at 10,530 feet, Gstaad is low by Alpine standards, and therefore has a reputation for unpredictable conditions. In the weeks before we left, Julie spent much time peering through the resort's mountaintop webcam.

''Ah-hah!" she shouted one night in January. ''Snow!"

Friends had said the Grand Hotel Bellevue was the best hotel in Gstaad, and indeed it turned out to have the best hotel service we have ever received in the Alps, which is where good hotel service was practically invented.

Where you stay in Gstaad is more important than in most alpine resorts, because Gstaad is about being in Gstaad first, and about skiing second. A sophisticated crowd has been coming here for generations, a large percentage of them to stay in their own vacation chalets. After 9/11, Gstaad, nearly alone among resorts, saw an increase in population, as Greek ship owners and other foreign nationals who own property here followed that time-honored tradition of the endangered rich: When the going gets tough, the smart go to Switzerland.

In most ski resorts, visitors in parkas charge in and out of sport shops, looking to replace lost ski gloves. On the main street in Gstaad, women in furs are led by energetic lap dogs past boutiques with names you find on Fifth Avenue in New York and the Avenue Montaigne in Paris.

Contrary to Julie's greatest fear, it actually snowed quite a bit, and I saw, in the distance, the hot-air balloons rise into the sky.

''That's why we're here," I reminded her.

''Speak for yourself," she answered.

She had to admit that I chose well this time. Gstaad's mountains are well-served by lifts that empty onto long and picturesque intermediate runs tailor-made for people of our ability: full-bore average.

Meanwhile, the absence of a sporting focus to Gstaad (there were no lift lines) turned out to be partially illusory. You don't see skiers and snowboarders carrying equipment to the slopes because you have to drive to the slopes. That is because Gstaad isn't just one resort but a series of linked resort communities forming a jagged, 18-mile line from the German-speaking part of Switzerland into the French-speaking part.

It was over dinner at the Palace hotel that night that the good news arrived: Tomorrow would see a break in the weather, and the balloons would fly.

Because the balloon launch pad was an open field in the town of Chteau-d'Oex, just over the French-speaking border, our Gstaad ski passes were valid on the nearby mountain. The rich blue on blue of an Alpine sky stretched to the distant horizon, and multicolored balloons sailed into that blue.

We had a quick lunch at a local restaurant, the language, dcor, and the languid atmosphere now 100 percent French. Julie went off to ski, and I registered to fly with Michael Evans, a pilot from Bristol, England.

One by one, trailers backed into the balloon corral, disgorging propane tanks, baskets, and, rolled into what looked like oversized dough balls, the balloons themselves. Each balloon was laid out and a fan was brought in to blow air into it; burners were ignited, hissing fire. As the fan-blown air heated, the balloons billowed until they looked like beached whales. Then they rose, five or six at once, each raising itself above the ground unsteadily, like a foal learning to stand, until it just floated away.

I was enraptured but still earthbound.

''Where is Mike Evans?" I asked Caroline, my contact at a booth that served as the ticket counter.

''He's coming back from his morning flight," she said, and she kept saying it each time I asked. All the while, balloons ascended in clusters, as if a giant had tossed gumdrops toward the sun.

Finally, Evans and his team, which included three young boys, arrived. I helped unload and set up the balloon and basket.

''Get ready," one of Mike's colleagues told me.

I left to buy my ticket.

''Oh, I don't think so," said Caroline. ''It doesn't look good for any more flights today."

''What do you mean?" I asked. ''It's as sunny as Ft. Lauderdale and nearly as warm."

''Ah, yes, but the winds have shifted. The last balloons headed toward the mountains. You see, the helicopters have to rescue them."

From a concealed recess, two choppers lumbered aloft, their rotors swirling up cyclones of loose snow. The machines cut loose and charged toward the mountains.

''They won't let us go," Evans confirmed. ''I'm awfully sorry, but ballooning is unpredictable."

''I'm relieved you didn't go under those circumstances," my wife said later. ''You could have been injured or worse."

We were seated at Prado, the gourmet restaurant at the Bellevue. A guitarist played folk tunes and classics. Cedric, our youthful waiter, served us an Alpine consomm, followed by filet of sole. We were drinking a bottle of St. Saphorin, a white wine that, like so many from Switzerland, is a treat that is all but unobtainable in the United States.

''I have to say," said Julie, ''Gstaad is one of the most charming places where we've ever skied. And you're still alive and still have the $300 for a balloon ticket."

Alan Behr is a freelance writer in New York.

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