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HAWAII BY HELICOPTER

Story and photos by

Our helicopter hugged the forested mountainside, barely skimming over a razorback saddle and, just as the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey reached a crescendo in our earphones, banked over the Waimea Canyon.

The earth, so close before, suddenly fell 1,200 metres below us. Our jaws dropped. "You only have to be scared for 45 minutes," said Phil, our helicopter pilot, with a grin. "I have to be scared all day!"

Awesome views

It wasn't fear that left us breathless, however. It was awe. We were flying over Kauai, the lushest of all the Hawaiian Islands.

Aerial view of Na Pali cliffs on Kauai
Aerial view of Na Pali cliffs on Kauai
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Swooping into the mouth jaws of the 16-kilometre-long canyon, we hung there, like an ornament, encircled by rugged cliffs striated with gold, green and copper, all around. Northwest of us, were the towering pinnacles of Na Pali, where deeply pleated cliffs fell straight into the sapphire sea like green velvet curtains hemmed with crashing white surf.

Elvis was here

Theme music from Raiders of the Lost Ark resounded in our ears. Scenes from the movie were filmed in Kauai. So were the stunning backdrops to the hang glider in the IMAX film, To Fly, and the cascading Mana Waipuna Falls in Jurassic Park.

We skimmed over Hanalei, where both taro plants and rainbows flourish, skirted the Honopu Valley, where King Kong was filmed, hovered over Lumahai Beach, well known to fans of South Pacific, and followed the sparkling Wailua River to Fern Grotto, where Elvis starred in Blue Hawaii.

The number of movies shot here is not surprising. Kauai is filled with one achingly beautiful scene after another. Even Mount Waialeale, the wettest spot on earth, is spectacular, in spite of 12 metres of annual rainfall.

Rainforest surrounds two Kauai waterfalls.
Rainforest surrounds two Kauai waterfalls.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Flying through rainbows

Dipping into its crater, we found dozens of waterfalls draped from its fern-clad sides, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. We dove underneath the low-lying clouds to the verdant Alakai Swamp, a refuge for several nearly extinct Hawaiian birds.

The sun peeked through the clouds. A serendipitous rainbow appeared.

Fuelled by moisture from Waialeale, rivers fanned out from the mountain to feed thirsty fields of sugar cane. "It takes more than 900 litres of water to produce a single pound of sugar," explained Phil.

Butterfly landing

As we thwack-thwack-thwacked our way back to our starting point, we flew over the Wailua Falls, made famous in Fantasy Island. Incredibly romantic music poured from our headphones, as our helicopter descended through puffy white clouds and landed as gently as a butterfly.

With the flexibility of hummingbirds, helicopters are ideal for exploring the Hawaiian Islands, especially the areas that are inaccessible by other means of transportation. (Most roads in Hawaii run along the perimeter encompass only the perimeter, leaving the interior virtually untouched.)

Helicopter flights enable visitors, who are short of time, to gain a tremendous appreciation of the beauty and geography of the islands.

Indelible memories

Why did we pick Kauai for our helicopter tour? We had indelible memories of our previous year's helicopter flight around Oahu.

Ala Wai Harbour in Honolulu
Ala Wai Harbour in Honolulu
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After skimming over pineapple fields in the rural interior, we marvelled at a bird's-eye-view of Honolulu: yachts in Ala Wai Harbour, sunbathers on Ala Moana Beach and skyscrapers and $20 million mansions, straight out of Architectural Digest, anchored by the magnificent Diamond Head.

World's largest dormant volcano

On another trip, this time to Maui, our helicopter pilot guided our Plexiglas bubble over macadamia nut plantations and sugar cane fields to Haleakala, the world's largest dormant volcano. As we soared to the summit to theme music from Chariots of Fire, clouds nuzzled the crater and poured over the rim like foam from a just-opened bottle of Champagne.

Diamond Head, Oahu
Diamond Head, Oahu
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We were shocked by its size — 23 kilometres in circumference, 900 metres deep and 30 square kilometres in area. After the sun rose over the rim, illuminating the white buildings of Science City, and colouring the lunar landscape a burnished brown, the pilot manoeuvred our bionic butterfly in doughnuts around the cinder cones.

Now that we've had the thrill of viewing Kauai, Oahu and Maui from the air, we're dreaming of a helicopter tour of the Big Island. It will be totally different from our previous tours.

Red hot lava

The Big Island is home to Kilauea, the world's most active volcano. If we're lucky, we'll see magma oozing out of vents in red-orange fingers that slither to the sea and skylights (broken lava tubes where magma is exposed) hotter than a blacksmith's forge.

Whether Madame Pele, the legendary goddess who resides in Kilauea, is resting or not, we'll whirl over cattle-dotted grasslands in Waimea, lush rainforests in the Waipio Valley, and waterfalls cascading over the North Kohala Coast, and fluorescent green golf courses glowing in vivid contrast to the fields of black lava. We can hardly wait.

Several helicopter companies on each island offer tours with various durations, routes and prices.



TRAVEL INFORMATION

Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau: www.gohawaii.com

For more information on the Big Island:

Hawai'i The Big Island