'We feel," says Hervé, "that if people have paid so much to fly with Krug we're not going to nickel and dime them about transport costs." That explains the enormous Mercedes outside my door and the uniformed driver who has come to whisk me to Heathrow. It also explains the first-class flight to Arizona for the world's newest and most expensive balloon flight, courtesy of Maison Krug.
During 2008, the French champagne house will be offering a series of luxury balloon trips all over the world; in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Tuscany, France – and Gloucestershire. At €50,000 a basketful, it's a reassuringly expensive form of travel at a time when banks are crashing and finance houses are trimming bonuses.
En route I get to catch up on every film I've missed in the past three months from the comfort of my flatbed and the bottom of a constantly refilled wine glass. It's frightening how quickly you can get used to this level of luxury. But on arrival at Phoenix Skyharbor Airport my billionaire lifestyle crashes momentarily as I queue for ever through Homeland Security. Worse, there is no chauffeur waiting to whisk me away to the most expensive weekend jaunt in the world, as promised. I join the scary queue for taxis where drivers and concierges abuse each other verbally, before securing a ride out to the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain.
Here, suddenly, my opulent weekend is back on track. The mountain glows red in the sunset and the hotel itself is hidden in surprisingly lush desert foliage. You hardly know you have arrived until your car pulls up at the small open-air reception desk and muscular young men in crisp white polos leap out exclaiming: "Hi, how are you?"
The rest of the Krug party will be arriving from New York, Paris and LA, I'm told. They will meet me for dinner. CJ, all teeth and crew-cut, drives me to my casita (a bungalow higher up the mountain). It's like a low-rise sofa showroom with mattress-sized cushions, an open fireplace and a giant black and white print of a man and a woman on a motorbike. They're probably looking for America.
Dinner is held in Scottsdale, the Beverly Hills of Phoenix. The centre of the suburb is a mall where people go to buy Louis Vuitton and Prada and Burberry. Our restaurant looks exactly like the expensive furniture shop next door except it has us sitting in it, around one of the immaculate tables. Hervé, who runs Krug in the US, is the least jet-lagged so he presides.
On my right sits Anouk, who has flown in from Krug's Paris head office that day. She looks wonderful in a tousled, world-weary French way, despite having spent a very long flight from Dallas that afternoon sandwiched between two fat Americans. "They say you never forget your first taste of Krug," she explains as my glass is filled and refilled. "But for me this is a day I want to forget. I tell you I am so tired."
The next day I'm wide awake at 4am (of course) and watch the sun come up over Paradise Valley below. The clarity of the light, the crispness of the air and the stilled silence remind me of a morning in Africa when, as Hemingway remarked, you feel as if anything is possible.
Balloon flights are always possible, but conversely they can never be taken for granted. Just about every imponderable can affect the launch of these giant paper bags. Because of winds and the late arrival of various bright young things from LA, our inaugural Krug flight doesn't happen until the afternoon. We assemble by the bellhop's desk. Of the eight clients, I seem to be the only non-US customer and the only one not in whites or pastel. Dominating the scene is Luis Barajas, the flamboyant (to use an understatement) editor and owner of Flaunt magazine. He is exuberant about being here.
"Oh my God, a balloon! I'm going to pee myself. I know I am!"
A fleet of four Range Rovers with tinted windows awaits, a black one at the front, then a white one followed by two more, in black, bringing up the rear. It looks like a presidential motorcade, especially when I notice our drivers are kitted out in regulation black and wearing shades. I'm invited into the white beast with Hervé and Greg from LA. Everyone has been talking about Greg. He drove over last night in a BMW so new it isn't on the market yet.
"So you're Greg?"
"I hear you drove over in the new BMW."
"Was that good?"
Greg thinks about this. "Yeah."
Truly, as Scott Fitzgerald said, the rich are different from you and me.
At this point our surreal convoy moves off through Paradise Valley to where the Krug balloon is waiting. "I'm glad they're in front," I tell Hervé, nodding as the black Range Rover takes the lead. "That's the one that gets blown up."
We travel like a mafia convention to an upmarket golf community, all lawns, super-rich pensioners and the tallest palms in the world. Here, a large, pristine white balloon is being inflated and celebrity TV chef Beau Macmillan is preparing canapes. We guests have our own al fresco departure lounge on the grass, eight specially built wicker chairs from which we watch the balloon's progress. Waiters in black aprons serve up bottle after bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée (£120 a throw at my local Oddbins).
In a happy haze I listen to speeches extolling the chef, the virtues of Grande Cuvée and our pilot, Chris Monk, who, like every balloonist I've ever met, is English, red-faced and cheery. Krug thinks Chris is the best there is. He's piloted everyone from King Hussein of Jordan and Richard Branson to the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Chris in turn waxes eloquently about our balloon, "the most beautiful I've ever flown". It's still an oversized paper bag full of hot air, but the basket's been covered in spotless white leather by a Parisian company. "It's the most expensive handbag in the world," says Anouk.
We clamber in when Chris is ready for us. The detail is gorgeous. The burners are in steel so polished it hurts the eyes and the leatherwork has pockets for bottles, glasses and the Krug-monogrammed canisters that carry our picnic. Last on board is Micha, our butler, who will pour out even more Grande Cuvée and introduce the food. The balloon lifts imperceptibly off the ground. As Chris puts it, we don't seem to get any higher; the ground just shrinks. Below I can see our Reservoir Dog-drivers waving bye-bye.
Micha opens up the first dish. We each have a tiny amuse bouche on a bed of white feathers. Luis and his friend pick these up and start throwing them overboard like an airborne Hansel and Gretel.
We are quickly at 2,000ft where we get a stunning view of how far Phoenix sprawls around the hills that try to hem it in. Just as the sun is gearing up for a truly magnificent set, Chris reluctantly brings us down again. The winds up there would take us into the mountains from where his ground team of "chasers" would have difficulty retrieving us.
We come down low over Scottsdale, low enough for Luis to notice the swimming pools beneath. "Did you see those pools?" he asks me, eyes popping. "Nasty!"
"Clean your pools people!" he shouts. "This is the Pool Police!"
Now the wind is taking us towards a large empty triangle of scrubland on the far side of Highway 101 and Chris isn't pleased. "Indian reservation," he growls. "They've said they'd rather we didn't land there."
Micha is just unveiling our third bouchette when Chris opts to land. With impressive skill he grazes us in over Highway 101 to the delighted hoots of cars zipping underneath. We land on waste ground and Chris reminds us our weight is what was holding the balloon down at that stage, so don't get out just yet.
Hervé and the rest of the Krug team arrive at speed with professional smiles on their faces.
"So! A balloon ride is like a grape harvest, no? Until you start, you do not know what you're going to get!" To put it another way: sorry that was only 30 minutes.
Anouk is quick to suggest that we fly again tomorrow. Luis declares he has a massage booked, so he'll decline. Anouk proposes the desert this time. Krug isn't going to "nickel and dime" about reassembling the team for a second day. It wants to send us home happy.
At 8am the next day, Chef Beau meets us an hour out of town with huevos rancheros breakfast wraps and even more bottles of Cuvée. The Krug balloon is being carefully erected in among cacti. Chris takes us up over the Carefree Highway, which is nowhere near as lyrical as the Gordon Lightfoot song, but we get to see how green the desert is. Then we descend over a truly vast new real estate development on the edge of the desert. I thought the bottom had dropped out of the American housing market, but it seems no one has told Arizona.
As we land everyone is talking about Greg and I realise the master of the monosyllable is not with us this morning. Evidently, he preferred to keep his hot date with the new BMW and is already halfway back to LA. Truly, the rich are different from you and me. And not solely, as Fitzgerald put it, because they have more money.
Krug Is in the Air (020-7245 4213; www.krug.com) will be flying champagne balloon trips in various locations around the world in 2008 at a cost of €50,000 for groups of eight. The price includes voyage, gourmet dining, champagne and butler service. International flights, transfers and accommodation cost extra.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies