Kauai, Hawaii helicopter tour: The oldest, smallest and most picturesque Hawaiian island

​We're flying inside the crater of an enormous volcano. Fortunately, it's extinct.

Above us, the near-perpendicular walls once blasted out by red-hot lava now stream with scores of long, thin waterfalls, shining like jewels in the morning sun. Our helicopter pilot brings us close to a cliff so the blades whirl a few metres from a cascade.

Then he slows the chopper to a humming bird hover, turning 360 degrees so we get a panorama of this magical island built by the volcano locals call Mt Waialeale or "mountain of shimmering waters".

We're nearing the end of our 50-minute flight over Kauai, the oldest, smallest and most picturesque of the four main Hawaiian islands. If you do only one helicopter ride in Hawaii, reserve it until you reach Kauai (pronounced cow-wa-ee).

In less than an hour, we've not only witnessed scenery that is literally breathtaking but had a crash course (thankfully, not literally) in Kauai's geological, geographical and social history.

At the same time we've experienced film locations that have starred in some of Hollywood's biggest movies.

Five million years ago, the newborn island – created over one of the world's most enduring volcanic "hot spots" – was roughly where Hawaii's Big Island is today.

Since then, Kauai has "continentally drifted" ever closer to Japan.

Our $US180 per person adventure started with a steep climb over the jagged Ha'upu ridge. But this impressive landscape is merely an appetiser. We're now headed for a valley where

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Steven Spielberg filmed a key scene in the 1993 movie, Jurassic Park. Later we fly over the island's awe-inspiring Napali coast, which is inaccessible by road. There are only three ways of seeing this world-renowned formation. By air, by sea, or by hiking in on tortuously twisting trails.

Yet it was here, in these inhospitable cliffs and crevices, that the very first humans on Hawaii made their homes 1500 years ago. The "valleys" they chose to settle were lush with fresh water, easily defensible and abundant with fresh seafood.

Why choose here, rather than the much flatter eastern side of Kauai? No one knows.

Before reaching the Napali coast, we fly over the amazing water-scarred gem known as Waimea Canyon, dubbed "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific" by Mark Twain. Our pilot points out various movie landscapes. Four decades after he died, Elvis Presley remains Kauai's greatest tourism ambassador. Look, that's where he got married in Blue Hawaii (made in 1961, two years after Hawaii became the 50th state).

The film not only inspired the famously blue cocktail but introduced Kauai to a US tourist market. Another heartthrob, George Clooney, won a Golden Globe Best Actor award for the 2011 Oscar-nominated The Descendants, set and filmed in Kauai. Does that beach on the northern edge of Napali seem familiar? That's where Nellie Forbush sang I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair in the 1958 movie version of South Pacific. Back on terra firma, Kauai is harder to explore if you're only here for a day or two on a cruise as I was.

You can hire a car – we  saw some incredible mountain 4WD roads from the chopper. But if your cruise ship is docked at Nawiliwili harbour, there are cheaper options that probably won't appear on the list of shore excursions.

The $US25 Hop Off, Hop On service is value for money, stopping at Lydgate Beach, Wailua River where you can take a river cruise to Opaeka'a Falls that features in Blue Hawaii; Smiths Tropical Paradise, which is a botanic garden by the river; several local shops selling authentic souvenirs; a museum and a microbrewery and – my favourite – Kilohana Plantation.

By day, the bizarre historic mock-Tudor plantation house offers free rum tasting, lessons in how to make a perfect maitai plus a $US17 narrated railway tour. This year, for the first time, there's also a superb "fruit and veg safari". Here, you mount a safari-style 4WD and spend a fascinating hour learning about the various fruits and vegetables grown on Hawaii (did you know a banana plant is the largest herb in the world, while a banana is a berry?)

By night, Kilohana hosts possibly the best luau – a traditional evening feast featuring Kalua pig, poke, poi, dancing and drinking – in Hawaii.

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line.

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traveller.com.au/hawaii

CRUISE

Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America is the only cruise ship that visits four Hawaiian islands in a seven-day cruise, departing and returning every Saturday. See ncl.com/au/en/cruise-ship/pride-of-america

FLY

Island Helicopters, a Kauai-owned company, offers the only "Jurassic Falls" landing adventure as well as the full island tour. See islandhelicopters.com

TOUR

Clark's Hawaiian Tours operates the hop on, hop off bus, within walking distance of the cruise terminal. See clarkshawaiitours.com/kauai.htm

Kilohana, built in the 1930s in English Tudor style, is a superb example of the power of the now defunct sugar barons. See kilohanakauai.com

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