An incredible view: Hawaii seen from a helicopter
Stunning coastlines and pouring lava: The Big Island seen from the air. Video courtesy of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.
As we lift off, skimming across the lunar-like surface of Hawaii's surreal Big Island, the James Bond theme song appropriately plays in our Bose headsets. I feel like a rock star, or the star of an aerial version of Mad Max.
"First time in a helicopter for anyone?" our clean-shaven pilot Marco Ernandes asks. Several passengers in the seven-seat Eco Star helicopter, specifically designed for air tours with its quiet technology, expansive cockpit and unrivalled panoramic views, excitedly raise their hands. "Me too," Ernandes, poker-faced, says. "But don't worry, I 'YouTubed' it this morning and we should be OK." His gag is well rehearsed, but still we laugh as we rise high over the rugged lava fields on the bone dry side of the island heading for the lush Kohala coastline.
Our scenic flight with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters offers an incredible perspective on how vastly different the island's microclimates are. Amazingly, we discover the Big Island has nine climate zones. One side of the island receives a massive 6350 millimetres of rainfall annually; the other a mere 203 millimetres (this is where most of the resorts are). On our 50-minute tour we are one moment gliding over the surface of the arid, jet black lava rock fields – a result of eruptions from Hualalai volcano centuries ago – with swanky five-star resorts and some of Hawaii's best golf courses dotted along the coastline. The next we're flying over lush, undulating hillside and the villages of the Pololu Valley. From our bird's eye perspective, we can see all the way to Mauna Kea, the highest point on the island at 4205 metres and the clearest place in the world to see stars in the night sky.
To the right side of the helicopter is the Hawaiian cowboy (paniolo) country, where just an hour earlier we had been drinking lattes on the verandah of the Waimea Coffee Company. Waimea (also called Kamuela), is a historic area full of rolling, green pastures still home to cattle, cowboys and ranches. The 55,000-hectare Parker Ranch – Hawaii's largest – is found here and Ernandes points it out as we make our way to the dramatic Kohala Mountains.
There is no need to announce our arrival at the spectacular 34-kilometre-long mountain range, as suddenly below us are plunging valleys, snaking rivers and gushing waterfalls spilling down to the heaving ocean. It's Jurassic Park meets the sea, as enormous cliff faces, resembling the stubs of a giant's fingers, collide with the powerful surging sea. Many consider this area to have the most spectacular scenery on the island, and apart from doing some serious trekking, an aerial view is the best way to see it.
Before us the towering sea cliffs open into the dramatically deep and meandering valleys of the Kohala Mountains. We head into the dense jungle like the Waipio Valley where waterfalls cascade thousands of metres to the valley floor below. We fly so close to the side of the mountains I can almost reach out and touch them as an accompanying Enya soundtrack, timed perfectly with the changing landscape and topography, streams through our headsets. Remnants of ancient Hawaiian settlements are still visible, and as we reach the remote north-east slope, Ernandes points out the wreckage of a World War II bomber. The bomber has lain in a ravine on the side of the remote Kohala Mountains since 1941 when it crashed in the dead of night; all those on board miraculously surviving with only minor injuries.
Landing back at Waikoloa Heliport, we are greeted with cold towels and water. We've laughed, gasped, and even cried as we soared over the dramatic, rugged Kohala Coast. If you do the tour and happen to get Ernandes as a pilot, ask him how his YouTube lessons are coming along.
TAKE A HELICOPTER THERE
A 50-minute Blue Hawaiian Kohala Coast scenic flight costs from about $390 (cheaper if booked online in advance) in an Eco Star aircraft ($298 a person in an Astar aircraft), narrated by pilots who are State of Hawaii certified tour guides. You can fly from Blue Hawaiian's Waikoloa Heliport or from Hilo Airport on Hawaii's Big Island. See bluehawaiian.com
Rooms at nearby Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel (20 minutes' drive to Blue Hawaiian's Waikoloa base) start from $349 a night, including taxes. See princeresortshawaii.com/hapuna-beach-prince-hotel
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Hawaii Tourism Oceania.