If there’s one thing that people associate most with Hawaii’s Big Island, it’s the volcanoes. To catch them in action, however, usually requires a trek to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which can amount to a full-day trip for most visitors staying on the Kona coast. For clients on a tighter schedule and those keen on getting the absolute best views available, it’s best to take flight.
That’s where Paradise Helicopters comes in. The tour operator, which operates out of Hawaii’s Big Island as well as from Oahu, offers a number of different tours designed to immerse visitors in the islands’ wide range of natural surroundings. Paradise Helicopters even flies a Doors Off With Waterfalls tour out of Hilo.
A helicopter ride is a thrilling way to experience an island’s beauty. // © 2010 Paradise Helicopters
“There are a lot of areas on the Big Island that aren’t visible or accessible without a helicopter,” Paradise Helicopters business development director Rob Payesko told me before my first-ever helicopter tour. “A helicopter ride also has a certain magic about it.”
I was booked on the three-hour Volcano and Valley Landing tour flying in and out of Kona International Airport. Our trip would take us over all five of the island’s volcanoes, beginning with Hualalai and down through the “saddle” between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, then on to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. After that, we would head to Hilo and eventually land in the Honokane Nui Valley, near Kohala, the oldest of the island’s volcanoes.
Following a short safety briefing, our group of six met with the pilot, Jesse. He explained to us in more detail about our upcoming flight, encouraging us to ask questions and talk to him throughout the trip by using our provided headsets. Before we knew it, we were outfitted with life vests and heading out to board the helicopter.
Settling into the helicopter was easy enough and, surprisingly, it was much more spacious and comfortable than I had imagined. My friend and I decided to swap seats later after the valley landing, so I was lucky enough to get a window seat for the majority of the two hours spent in flight.
Those first few seconds — where our plane gravitated upward and I could see the runway from my seat — were truly exhilarating. As we headed southeast, I could see the landscape begin to change. Ink-colored lava rocks turned into blades of prairie-like grasslands. I could even spot a bit of snow on the top of Mauna Kea. Flying toward Kilauea, I saw tiny patches of sturdy and resilient trees, growing even in the midst of the unforgiving lava fields. The only thing missing from our flight was flowing lava. We just happened to pick a day when oozes from the rift zones were nowhere to be seen, although Jesse made several attempts to circle the area surrounding Kilauea in search of bright-orange lava.
Nevertheless, the sights were unforgettable and majestic. The clouds resembled waves of surf against the backdrop of cerulean skies. After circling Kilauea, we headed north, flying over the town of Hilo where multicolored rooftops stood out from the lush green vegetation surrounding it. We spotted a number of beautiful waterfalls as we flew over the town; I only wished we could have heard the rushing sounds of the water falling, too.
My wish was granted when we made our landing in Honokane Nui. Descending into the valley was even more thrilling than the initial takeoff from Kona. All I could see was beautifully verdant vegetation all around. After landing and letting the rotor blades come to a complete stop, we stepped outside of the helicopter, and I felt like I was in a completely different world. It was a little gloomy and drizzling, but I hadn’t felt so serene in a long while. We landed near some unoccupied houses that doubled as pit stops, then explored the valley, discovering fragrant gardenia blossoms, lava rocks and a rushing stream along the way.
After an hour in the valley, we got back into the helicopter and headed for home base, but not without spotting a few humpback whales off the coast of Waikoloa. While I could see them fully from my middle seat, it was difficult to snap photos of them, unfortunately. (If your clients are avid photographers, you should suggest they pay the $50 upgrade charge for a guaranteed window seat.)
By the time we landed, I was sad to see our trip come to an end but I couldn’t wait for my next visit and, I hope, my next flight.