Balloons, Wine Draw Revelers to Historic Long Branch


(Saturday, November 11, 2006 3:03 PM EST)

Ever dream of flying in a hot-air balloon? Itching to try Virginia's wines?

If so, Clarke County in late October is the place you want to be. The Shenandoah Hot Air Balloon and Wine Festival festively delivered this eclectic mix of activities, and more, at its 10th anniversary celebration, held this year from Oct. 20-22.

The annual festival takes place on the 400 acres of land at Historic Long Branch, and is a fund-raiser to help maintain the property.

Although festival organizers believe that every year is special, this year's 10th anniversary celebration called for more attention. It was publicized much more than in the past, and attendance was between 30,000 and 40,000 people.

“[The festival] was more widely advertised than ever before - as far north as Bethesda,” said R. Ben Weber, the event's marketing coordinator. “This is a great way for Clarke County to showcase its assets.”

Thirty-five hot-air-balloon pilots attended; some of them have flown at the festival every year for the past decade. High winds kept almost all the balloons on the ground on Oct. 19, but as the weekend's weather became more mild, more balloons took to the skies.

Each balloon that launched excited the crowd, but some of the favorites included “Oggy the Sea Serpent,” which stands 138 feet tall when inflated, and “Pengwind,” a giant, tear-drop-shaped penguin with a penguin chick on the back.

Also present at the festival was cluster-balloon pilot John Ninomiya, on his States of Enlightenment tour.

Ninomiya's goal is to complete a helium-cluster-balloon flight in each state across the nation. Launching from three to five states per year, he expects to complete the project in 10 to 15 years.

Sixteen Virginia wineries were reperesented at the festival this year, each with its own booth. For $5, wine enthusiasts received a glass and could sample the region's offerings all afternoon.

Other activities at the festival included monster truck rides, lawn mower races, tours of the Long Branch historic mansion, and powered parachute demonstrations. And for those who just wanted to take it easy and sit on the grass in the sun, live music was a treat to listen to.

The festival traditionally runs for three days. Tickets can be purchased for the whole weekend, or for individual days.

For more information on Historic Long Branch or the festival, see the Web site at

They look so placid from far away, but those who had the chance to get an up-close look at the hot-air balloons, and perhaps even hitch a ride in one, realized immediately that vast experience and skill was required to make these gentle giants of the sky operate with safety and precision.
(Photo by Kristen Armstrong)

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