Flying the good ship Eureka is a unique experience, in the true sense of the word. This Zeppelin NT (“NT” stands for New Technology), operated by Bay Area-based Airship Ventures is the world’s largest airship –15 feet longer than a Boeing 747.
As it arrives at a field at Oakland Airport, its rotors whirring, the dirigible dwarfs our group of 12 passengers lined up two-by-two waiting to board (since the airship must retain neutral gravity, two passengers must disembark before two others can board). Adding to the adventure, the zeppelin can’t just simply take off — the winds have to be favorable, meaning passengers might have to wait for an hour or so, or book another day, if conditions aren’t cooperating. Fortunately for us this day, all systems are go. We cautiously climb a ladder of five moving steps and take our seats in the roomy cabin. Almost immediately we are lifting off, gliding serenely and almost noiselessly over the Oakland Coliseum, the former Naval Air Station Alameda and gleaming Lake Merritt, all framed by the glittering cobalt waters of the Bay. Airborne at only 1,000 feet, we are close enough to the ground to get a clear, detailed view of everything, yet high enough to feel as if we are truly flying. Cars don’t look like ants, as they do from an airplane; they look like toys. And cargo containers at the Port of Oakland appear to be Lego bricks just waiting to be fashioned into some extravagant edifice.
Cruising at 35 mph, we can clearly make out swimming pools, homes, basketball courts and parks and on the Oakland-Alameda Estuary, three freighters waiting to unload their cargo. Treasure Island looks like a jigsaw puzzle that you could actually do and Alcatraz Island sits as always, placidly, like its solitary, somber self. Soon, we are over the Bay Bridge and a host of triangular sails of pleasure craft are below, and then there is the San Francisco skyline, as if etched in marble, the Transamerica pyramid looming high into the sky. Into view comes the Marina and Crissy Field and the 1915 Palace of Fine Arts where, in the movie Vertigo, Scottie strolls with Judy, a shop girl who is a dead ringer for the woman he really loves, Madeleine. And then, of course, the sight we are all waiting for: the Golden Gate Bridge, suspended in the air, enigmatic, beguiling, bathed in sun. Then it is over to Marin County, its tree-studded peninsula of Belvedere and all those wooden houses perched precariously on the Sausalito hills, lucky enough to look at San Francisco and the bridge every day.
Everyone jostles for photos, which are difficult to take because of the sun’s glare on the plastic windows. No matter, the experience on Eureka proves to be a memorable sail through the clouds.
“Eureka” Zeppelin NT: Just the facts
Eureka has 12 seats, each with an oversized window (two of the windows can be opened for unobstructed photos). Another spot for photos is from a large window in the rear which allows a 180-degree view. The views are almost panoramic and you can stand up and move without bumping your head on the ceiling.
Flying out of Moffett Field near San Jose, Monterey Peninsula Airport and Long Beach Airport, Eureka also flies half-hour, hour and two-hour trips over Silicon Valley, the Monterey Coast (on weekends), Los Angeles and Orange County along with day-long tours down the California coast. The Los Angeles itinerary includes an aerial tour of the famous back lots of all of the major studios (Disney, Dreamworks, NBC, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Brothers), The Hollywood Bowl, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and a close-up buzz by the famous Hollywood sign.
Booking: Call 650-969-8100, www.airshipventures.com. (30-minute tour, $199 plus tax; 60-minute tour, $495, 120-minute tour, $990. Now marking Eureka’s first year of operation, Airship Ventures is offering special prices on its tours: Through Nov. 30, buy one ticket, get another at half price.
*Additional photography by Achim Mende.
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