Sunday, May 13, 2012

Chasing The Clouds With Morning Star Balloons

Daren Wilde always had his eye to the sky. But after piloting T-37s and T-1A Jayhawks for the USAF, he was up in the air about what aeronautical challenge to tackle next.

Wilde is sharing his saga with 11 passengers standing in a wicker gondola that’s attached to a 100ft tall bright red balloon filled with 245,000cft of air. It’s just another day at the office for the aeronaut owner of Morning Star Balloons in Park City, UT.

As a newbie, I had my qualms. But the aerial trek proves to be the polar opposite of what I envisioned. I’m not alone. We’re collectively in awe of how this experience is downright therapeutic.

Our journey is calm, quiet and smooth. It’s also warmer than on the ground thanks to a propane-fueled burner that Wilde frequently blasts for lift.

Gently floating at 1,420ft, we spot fields, wildlife and estate homes with the Wasatch Mountains and Park City as a backdrop. Since it’s summer, ski runs are bare. Yet, that makes it easier to differentiate Utah Olympic Park, Deer Valley, Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort.

Wilde explains that since balloons rely on air currents, he can’t precisely nail down our landing site pre-flight. We’re not concerned. A chase crew follows us below, tapping into maps, two-way radios and visual contact.

Since we land before they arrive, teamwork mode kicks in as two hulky passengers hop out and work as crew. Wilde encourages participation, whether it’s rolling out the balloon before lifting off or harnessing it in after landing.

“When you’re trying to bring a group of people together, there’s nothing like a little adventure or a situation that needs handling,” says Wilde. “Once they’ve conquered the balloon together, they’ve developed camaraderie. It’s a fun activity that can be shared across all levels of leadership or organizational structure.”

Back on terra firma, we toast to our lofty fete as Wilde presents each of us with a “Certificate of Ascension” and recites the Balloonist’s Prayer.

Kicking Back in Bucerias

Lola Perez is a pint-sized bundle of spunk that makes it her mission to greet guests arriving at Las Casitas del Mar. The friendly Chihuahua – along with her older sis Lucy, and her human parents Robin and Rick – are naturals at making travelers feel more like lifelong friends who’ve come to “catch up” and laze at their Bucerias hideaway.

On the heels of a busy three-night stay in Puerto Vallarta’s hotel zone, I was smitten right off the bat with this sweet slice of easy-going paradise. Twelve miles up the Banderas Bay coast from Puerto Vallarta International Airport (PVR) in Riviera Nayarit, the private, gated retreat exemplifies the slower paced attitude you’d expect of a small fishing village.

When the ex-pats purchased their one-acre lot in 1992, they recognized that Bucerias was short on casita-style accommodations. “It was more about private homes, apartments and a few smaller hotels,” says Rick. “Once we opened in 1995, we became a nice option for those wanting to stay longer and have homey comforts.”

Robin and Lola led me to Casa Ballena, one of three detached two-bedroom brick and tile cottages. All are individually decorated with traditional furnishings, artwork and pottery the couple collected from their travels throughout Mexico.

With generous size, ample sunlight filtering in and WIFI access, I instantly fantasized about nesting indefinitely. Apparently, others do as well. Robin and Rick see an enviable 60 % repeat business booking anywhere from one or two weeks to a month. And the majority of this loyal cadre comes from the Western U.S. and Canada.

Spacious bedrooms feature an air conditioner and ceiling fan, with living and dining areas cooled by ceiling fans. Separated from the living room by a dining bar, my kitchen was decked out with everything I needed – pots, pans, cooking utensils, silverware, dinnerware, full-size refrigerator, oven with range, microwave, blender and ample bottled water. And while there’s a dining table with chairs inside, each cottage has a second set for al fresco grazing on its private patio.

In a separate two-level structure, the Casa Pez Vela upper-floor suite is accessible via an exterior stairway. This is the grandest, with its expansive living area, full kitchen, two bedrooms each featuring a bath/shower, and lavish private terrace looking toward the ocean and across the courtyard. Tucked away on the first-floor are two one-bedroom suites with the same interior touches.

As a common gathering area within the cozy enclave, the well-manicured courtyard is filled with coconut palms, mango trees and colorful hibiscus shrubs. At its centerpiece is a cobalt-blue tiled mosaic swimming pool and gazebo with shaded seating, barbecue grill, wet bar and bathrooms. “What’s really nice is how guests who don’t know each other end up sharing pot luck dinners in the courtyard,” said Rick.

Looking directly across the cobblestone Calle Lazaro Cardenas, it’s nothing but palms, gently breaking waves and an occasional standup paddler off the uncluttered beach. The five-mile stretch earns a thumbs up for swimming, bodysurfing, boogie boarding and surfing.

Eco-tourism also rocks the area, with everything from bird watching and sunset turtle releases to ziplining in a subtropical jungle. Vallarta Adventures arranges major excursions throughout the region, or you sign up at Scott’s Tours across the calle. For golfers, El Tigre and Flamingos serve up championship courses in adjacent Nuevo Vallarta.

Rick notes that the full kitchens are key. “Depending on what time they arrive, a lot of our guests just go around the corner to Mary Paz Market to pick up the essentials,” he says. There’s also a Mega, Walmart and Merkabastos between the airport and Bucerias for more extensive shelf stocking.

And for those who prefer to avoid cooking, coffee shops and casual eateries are abundant along Lazaro Cardenas. That roster expands exponentially when you head a few blocks further toward the colorful market and main square.