I had just managed to convince the photographer that hot air ballooning was perfectly safe when our pilot, Dean, said he never knows where the balloon is going to land.

While this didn't really help my case, he reassured us that hot air ballooning is one of the safest ways to fly.

Dean and his comrades are the new owners of Aoraki Balloon Safaris, operating out of Methven, and luckily for them, it doesn't matter where they land — they know most of the farmers.

Our safari started out on a frost-bitten morning at 7am, bleary-eyed and cold but grateful for a clear day. Weather is everything to the pilots, and Dean explains that they are extremely cautious about the conditions they fly in. They sent up several small helium balloons to test wind conditions before choosing where to begin.

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The balloon has to be spread out and filled with air from a giant fan before it's big enough to lift the over-sized wicker basket. Assisting with the set-up actually calms passengers' nerves somewhat - once things start making logical sense our photographer felt a little more comfortable clambering into to basket for take-off.

Hot air ballooning is different to other forms of flying, largely because of the noise level. At 5000 feet, with no engine or propeller, we found a peaceful silence you don't normally find at that altitude. Because the balloon moves within the wind channels, you barely feel so much as a breeze.

This particular company began in 1992 and has chosen one of the best spots in the country to fly. The former owner, George, still helps out by following the balloons in a van, and setting up a champagne breakfast for the passengers when they land. While enjoying the bubbles after Dean's perfect (and surprisingly gentle) landing we realise why the farmers don't mind an air balloon dropping in on their land - they get a bottle of champagne from the unexpected visitors.

It turns out this is more than just good PR — when hot air balloons were originally tested in France pilots carried champagne for the bewildered farmers they encountered. At the time only aristocracy could afford such a luxury and it served to prove to superstitious land owners that they were French and not a "demon from the sky".

While it was nice to see such a quaint custom still being followed today, we were glad the balloons are no longer made of paper, silk and buttons.

CHECKLIST
Where to stay: Situated less than a two-hour drive from Christchurch, Methven has lots of cosy lodges to retreat to. We checked out Beluga Lodge, a beautiful home built in 1900 in the heart of Methven. This lodge is a haven of warmth on the winter nights, with a roaring fire and drying room for ski gear.

The owners, Arlene and James, pride themselves on quality and with their tasteful decorations, and limit of 12 guests, they have made this one of the best places to retreat to after a day on the slopes. The estate also has a garden suite and large cottage for groups.

Dinner with the stars: A new dining experience is being launched in Methven this winter.

Mt Hutt is to host Dinner with the Stars, a night of fine dining on the ski slopes. By day the Mt Hutt restaurant serves hearty breakfasts and lunches to thousands of hungry skiers. But now it's also going to open on Friday evenings throughout winter.

Held in the cosy Huber's Hutt, the diners can enjoy not only a hearty winter's meal but also the dramatic starry skies and night-time alpine atmosphere.

"Guests will enjoy a unique insight into what happens on the mountain at night," says ski area manager David Wilson.

"There is a surprising amount of activity going on. We'll even be offering guests the chance to have a ride on one of our snow groomers or on a skidoo around the mountain. For kids there will be a chance to go for a sled ride with our huskies."

Tickets include transport from Methven to Mt Hutt return as well as dinner. Numbers are restricted to 80 people per night.

Contact the groups co-ordinator by email at: groups@nzski.com or phone (03) 302 8811.

Kate Roff flew with help from Aoraki Balloon Safaris and Your Way car rentals.