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Some of the 28 balloons participating in the 7th Annual Cathedral City Hot Air Balloon Festival & Food Truck Fiesta are inflated on the driving range at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage. Photo by Jerry Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Seeing the Coachella Valley from above

Perhaps the most exciting moments of a hot air balloon ride are the few seconds after the support crew releases the tether lines and the ground begins to fall away.

Liftoff can be almost imperceptible, as it was on a recent November Saturday. We were about 50 feet off the ground before I peered over the side of the thick wicker passenger basket and realized we were aloft.

Our pilot, Justin, took eight passengers into the early morning sky and over the emerald-green driving range at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage.

The manicured landscape dropped further and further away, giving us a well-defined sense of the topography of the Coachella Valley. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains, glowing gold with the morning sun, nearly surrounded us, creating an elliptical-shaped valley.

Like a picture postcard, a full moon, on its way to the darker half of the earth, hung above the mountains, allowing us to see the sun rise and the moon set.

Our flight alternated between total quiet and the noise created by the blast of the fiery burner that kept us aloft. We watched the scene below; an unnaturally verdant golf course eventually became the gray roofs of large homes, swimming pools and subdivision roads, then a sandy desert dotted with creosote bushes. We grazed several of the bushes as we descended, and while still moving forward, came to a bumpy stop.

In the French tradition (the first balloon pilots were French), Justin brought out the champagne, sparkling cider and orange juice, and we toasted our adventure.

Our balloon was one of 28 participating in the 7th Annual Cathedral City Hot Air Balloon Festival & Food Truck Fiesta, held the weekend before Thanksgiving. Balloon-themed activities were staged throughout the weekend at the Westin resort, at Agua Caliente Casinos (both event sponsors), and in Cathedral City. Most of the activities are family-oriented and free.

In 2019, “more than 10,000 people attended the weekend festival,” said Cindy Wilkinson, who with her husband, Steve, founded the festival eight years ago. (The festival was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) This year’s event also marks the 40th year that the Wilkinsons have operated their hot air balloon company, Fantasy Balloon Flights.

“Steve is the balloonmeister” Cindy said, “the person who maintains contact with the Federal Aviation Administration during the festival.”

The festival used to be held in February over Presidents Day weekend, and Cindy remembered two occasions when balloon ascensions were put on hold. 

“Twice, President Obama flew into the valley and that means we can’t fly.”

My husband and I were headquartered for the weekend at the family-friendly Westin Mission Hills, in the final stages of a $15 million renovation, including a $1.3 million water slide expected to be completed by late December.

The Kids’ Club opens this week. Rooms are spacious, and a new spa offers multiple services and treatments. The grounds are pedestrian- and dog-friendly, but electric carts are available if needed.

Quite fun is the resort’s new duckpin bowling alley, the “pickle ball of bowling.” Same concept as bowling but with smaller pins (suspended on strings) and wooden balls (no holes). After playing, I concluded that it takes a bit more finesse than conventional bowling, but with the small balls, the game is kid-friendly. The origin of duckpins is murky, but it probably began in the 1890s.

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