jon tattrie is a freelance journalist and novelist in halifax, canada. payperhack writer is the home for all his unprintable stuff - for the official website, go to www.jontattrie.ca. thoughts? share them with him at email@example.com.
and here's the Toronto Star travel article i did on taking a hot air balloon ride in the annapolis valley, followed by a vineyard tour.
Drink number one takes a bit of work to find. It starts in the pre-dawn parking lot of an Irving Big Stop gas station outside of New Minas in the Annapolis Valley. We gather around our pilot, Seth Bailey, and watch him release a balloon and track its course. Satisfied, he piles us into a dark SUV and speeds along until he finds a suitable field.
With cold hands we hold open an immense balloon as a fan inflates it with frigid morning air. It lifts sluggishly off the grass. Seth releases an open flame into the balloon and it jumps straight up. We clamber into the small wicker basket; blasts of fire lift us above the Valley. Cows, horses and llamas scatter below. A barking dog gives chase. We drift over a man standing on his back deck in his robe. He shouts a cheery hello. We shout back.
Wandering through air currents, the balloon drops to 200 feet and we skim over corn and blueberry crops. Our aerial nature tour takes us over a marshy forest, above the heads of deer, hawks and hunters. Tractors work the fields as the morning mist evaporates.
Seth breathes fire into the balloon and we soar to 1,200 feet. In an expansive glance, we take in the full length of the Bay of Fundy and the New Brunswick shore. Cape Split juts into the water; the distant villages of Parrsboro, Five Islands and Wolfville huddle in the chill.
We pass a golf course. Seth has landed there on more than one occasion, causing the golfers to politely play around him. As we approach the end of the Valley after an hour’s flight, Seth looks for a suitable landing spot amid the crops, forests and before the Minas Basin. He finds one and we return to earth. It’s a rough landing and 82-year-old Roberta piles into me, laughing. We stumble to our feet and Drink Number One appears before us: champagne. It’s a tradition as old as hot-air ballooning: toast the miracle of flight, the miracle of landing. (It’s said the early French balloonists broke out the bubbly when they alighted in the fields of alarmed farmers.)
Seth has a regular job in Halifax, but his love of hot-air ballooning inspired him to start East Coast Balloon Adventures. We are grateful for his passion.
I hop into a van promising Grape Escapes and Susan Downey trundles me along rustic lanes lined with an honour guard of trees toward the next drink. We putter across back-road bridges and through the fertile valley in a tidal landscape that has slipped from modernity’s grasp.
The road is more patches than pavement as we bump into the site for Drinks Two through Four: Domaine de Grand Pré. This is where the Annapolis Valley’s fabled shift from food crops toward vineyards began in the 1970s. The cobblestone courtyard gives a European feel to the dining and drinking area. As we tour the vines, the silence is interrupted by loud bangs designed to drive off the starlings. Apparently, starlings love grapes.
The sommelier guides us through three wines. They are increasingly delicious and I’m glad for the solid marble counter that prevents me going sideways. The ice wine astounds with its sweet, chilly goodness. It’s a very Nova Scotia product: the grapes are harvested in the dark on a frozen winter morning and turned into a lovely dessert wine. It’s difficult to get Nova Scotia’s scrumptious wines outside the province, so you must generally stand on its land to drink the blood of its vines.
We pile back into the van and wobble through the Gaspereau Valley to organic L’Acadie Vineyards. The sommelier tells us how many bubbles it takes to fill a bottle of L’Acadie sparkling wine: 56 million. L’Acadie surprised everyone in 2011 when its sparkling wine won silver at the Best Sparkling Wines in the World competition in Dijon, France. We sample a few more wines before circling for the van. My writing is sloppy, but I think I may be on Drink Seven or Eight.
Pete Luckett salutes us at the doors to Luckett Vineyards. The balding British ex-pat’s reputation ripples through this province. I heard his name in the hot air balloon as we peered down at his vineyard. He is famous in Halifax for twisting an old law banning Sunday shopping so much that the law finally gave up and let him open his Pete’s Frootique grocery store on whatever days he pleases. I first met him in 2009 when he was seeking a new business adventure. We stood in a rundown field and he shared his next dream: he wanted to open his very own vineyard.
His motto: If you can have someone smiling while you take their money, business will be good.
He opened the vineyard a few years later and today, business is good.
A red British phone booth stands in the rows between his grapes, offering free phone calls to anywhere in North America.
His hillside restaurant provides soulful views of the Valley and food that elicits worship. I forgot to write down the details of Drinks Nine through Twelve, but I remember them fondly.
I’m glad sober Susan is driving the Grape Escapes van. She, like Seth, like Pete, like everyone I’ve met here, was so enchanted by the Annapolis Valley, she started her own business to share the beauty with others.
As we hit the highway to Halifax, the vibrant splendor of the Annapolis Valley recedes. I opt for optimism and plan a return trip to tour the remainder of the Valley’s 11 vineyards.
I guess you could say I’m a Glass Half-Full kind of guy.
Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and the author of Ultimate Day Trips from Halifax.
Just the Facts
East Coast Balloon Adventures is Nova Scotia’s only hot air balloon company. They offer sunrise and sunset flights from spring to late fall. Book online at eastcoastballoonadventures.com. Grape Escapes (novascotiawinetours.com) offers a range of packaged and tailored tours through the Valley’s 11 vineyards. Go North offers similar tours, plus overnight trips. The Wolfville Magic Winery Bus leaves the Valley town for hop-on, hop-off tours of the wineries.