Up, up and away!

New Mexico has something with more hot air than your average politician. If you like balloons, consider a trip to Albuquerque for the International Balloon Fiesta, which runs for nine days during the first full week of October. The fiesta has been an annual event since 1972, and the city bills it as the largest hot-air balloon event in the world.

And if you think all hot-air balloons are shaped like light bulbs, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Nearly 100 of the balloons this year were special shapes: Smokey the Bear. A stagecoach. Humpty Dumpty. Even a can of air freshener. These balloons can be a little tricky to get off the ground, though, and some don't make it.

This year, the fiesta included more than 700 balloons from 41 states and more than 20 countries. The fiesta prompted about 840,000 visits to Balloon Fiesta Park, the organizer estimates, with as many as 100,000 people at some events.

"It is definitely the largest tourist event that we hold here in Albuquerque," said Tania Armenta, a spokeswoman for the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Leave the car at home

My fiancée, Jennifer, and I went to Albuquerque to visit relatives and took their suggestion to plan our trip around the fiesta in October. For two reasons, we decided to rent a car and drive to New Mexico rather than fly: We wanted to save money, and we're dumb.

We might have saved a few hundred bucks, but the effort was not worth it. The drive from Newport News, for one thing, takes about 30 hours without stops. You take Interstates 64 and 81 to Knoxville, Tenn., then get on I-40, which runs all the way to Albuquerque - more than 1,400 miles away.

And rental cars can have unexpected problems. We had to use part of our vacation time - and our own money - to repair two punctured tires and a cracked windshield.

If you drive, try to find places to stop to break up the trip. There's very little of note along much of I-40, but it does run through Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.; Oklahoma City; Little Rock, Ark.; and Amarillo, Texas.

If you fly to Albuquerque, you probably will need a car to get around town, but you might not need it to get to the fiesta. Many hotels offer shuttles to four park-and-ride lots, where school buses take you to the park. Prices could change in 2004, but the cost for a bus ride with park admission this year was $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $6 for children ages 6 to 12 and free for children under 6.

If you're on a budget, you can drive yourself. This year, parking cost $5 per vehicle, and admission was free for children 12 and under and $5 for everyone else. If you go this route, be prepared to spend a lot of time in traffic. Depending on how far your hotel is from the park, you might need as much as 30 minutes to an hour to get there.

If you'll need a hotel room, keep in mind that many hotels take reservations and fill up a year before the festival, particularly hotels close to the park. The 2004 festival will be Oct. 2-10.

Early bird

If you like to sleep in until noon while on vacation, the Balloon Fiesta might not be for you. To get there in time to see all the balloons and

watch them lift off, you should be at the park at 5:30 a.m. By 10 a.m., the morning events are pretty much over.

The timing has to do with taking advantage of the cool morning air. "Once the air warms up, it just takes more fuel to stay aloft," said Kathie Leyendecker, a spokeswoman for the fiesta organizer.

One of the nice things about the fiesta is you can mingle with the balloonists and their crews. You can find a balloon you like, watch the crew inflate it and cheer with the crowd as it leaves the ground.

You also can volunteer to be on one of the chase crews, which help the balloonists inflate and deflate their balloons. (You can get more information about being a volunteer on the balloon fiesta Web site, www.aibf.org.)

Remember that while you're heading west to the desert, it's pretty cold in the morning and at night. Bring warm clothing you can take off once the sun comes out and put back on when the sun goes down.

In the evenings, the fiesta has fireworks and "Glow-deos," where the balloonists fire their burners simultaneously to light up the balloons. Because the balloons remain on the ground and you can get close to them, these nighttime events are just as much of a spectacle as seeing 700-plus balloons lift off in the morning.

There are plenty of good eats too, with vendors hawking all kinds of vittles. If you're not particularly health-conscious, you can buy fried foods many people would never dream of frying. If you think a Hostess Twinkie has plenty of fat, wait till you have one battered and fried in oil. Some vendors also offer fried Snickers bars, fried Oreo cookies and fried cheesecake.

Filling out the day

With balloon events wrapping up by midmorning, you'll have plenty of free time during the day. Albuquerque - and Santa Fe - has plenty of art, museums, shopping and other things to see and do.

If you like shopping, check out Old Town and Nob Hill off Central Avenue (the old Route 66) in Albuquerque. Old Town has plenty of merchants that sell artwork, jewelry and other specialty items from shops inside buildings designed to mimic 18th-century architecture. Nob Hill is more modern and has plenty of nifty little shops too.

It also boasts The Flying Star, a cozy café with plenty of desserts, sandwiches and coffees - and a great atmosphere to enjoy them in.

You also could spend a day or two in Santa Fe, about 60 miles northeast of Albuqurque. The city has plenty of galleries and museums, including one dedicated to 20th-century artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

If you like wine, there are a number of small wineries around the towns.

As for restaurants, you won't have a problem finding places to fit your budget and pallet in Albuquerque. It offers chain restaurants, plenty of small family-run eateries and a number of fine-dining restaurants.

For something a little different, try Petroglyph National Monument.

This 7,200-acre park, which is jointly run by the city and the National Park Service, boasts an estimated 25,000 American Indian carvings, some of which are about 12,000 years old. Many of these aren't visible from the trail, but plenty are, and you can get close enough to touch them. But keep your hands to yourself. The downside is a heaping dose of vandalism, and an ongoing game is to try to figure out whether a particular carving dates back a few millennia or a few months.

Finally, Albuquerque has an excellent assortment of museums. If you like geology and fossils, try the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. There are plenty of cool exhibits, though kids might get tired of looking at rocks and skeletons long before you do, especially if they're fighting the sugar and carbohydrates packed into a fried Twinkie.

You also might want to visit Albuquerque's modest aquarium and garden or its zoo.

There are several niche museums in Albuquerque as well, including the American International Rattlesnake Museum, Doll Museum & Shoppe, the Museum of Archaeology and Biblical History, the New Mexico Holocaust & Intolerance Museum, and the National Atomic Museum.

So plan to spend a week or two, hit the gym a few times in anticipation of that fried Twinkie and please: Leave the car at home.

If you go ...

Here are some places you can check for more information, with a few suggestions on how to pass the time between balloon events in the morning and at night.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Inc.

This nonprofit organization organizes the fiesta. For information on the fiesta, parking and ticket prices, go to their Web site at www.aibf.org or call toll-free (888) 422-7277, extension 303. Prepare to pay a shipping and handling charge for tickets you receive by mail, but you can arrange to pick up your tickets once you arrive or print them out on your computer for free. The Web site also has information on parking for recreational vehicles, pictures of each balloon and maps.

Shopping

Since the balloon events are in the morning and at night, you'll have plenty of time for other activities during the day. Old Town, which boasts numerous buildings styled after 18th-century architecture, is one of the city's best shopping areas. For more information online, check out www.oldtownalbuquerque.com and www.albuquerqueoldtown.com. Nob Hill is more modern and has an equally impressive mix of shops. For information online, go to www.rt66central.com

Santa Fe

If you want to get out of Albuquerque for a day or two, drive about 60 miles northeast to Santa Fe, which offers plenty of art and shopping. For more information online, try: www.santafe.org

Wineries

New Mexico offers a wide variety of wines and champagnes made at small, local wineries. For more information, try the New Mexico Wine Growers Association Web site at: www.nmwine.net.

Petroglyph National Monument

If you like walking trails and want to see some ancient Native American carvings, consider Petroglyph National Monument. There's not much information on the Web site -- www.nps.gov/petr -- but if you don't find what you need there, you can call the park at (505) 899-0205.

All Things Albuquerque

If you're looking for a wide variety of things to do in Albuquerque, look over the city's convention and visitors bureau Web site at www.itsatrip.org. If you click the link for visitors, you'll find links to information on plenty of things to do, including shopping, sports, gambling, restaurants, hotels, museums and cultural events.

Christopher Schnaars can be reached at 247-4768 or by e-mail at cschnaars@dailypress.com.

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