If you can only do one helicopter tour in the Hawaiian islands, there's no question that you should do it in Kauai. The most undeveloped of all the islands, Kauai boasts breathtaking canyons, dramatic waterfalls, stunning oceanside cliffs, and even the rainiest location on the planet.
There are many companies that run helicopter tours on the island. Island Helicopters is unique in that it is the only one that that actually stops and lets you walk around and explore the waterfall from the movie Jurassic Park. Island uses the 7-seater A-Star helicopter, by far the most commonly used helicopter for these tours. Big Hawaiian is a large outfit that uses a 7-seater Euro-Star, a more expensive helicopter that promises a bit more space, larger windows, and thus better views. Jack Harter is the oldest and most established helicopter company. The company flies both the larger A-Star helicopters and the 4-seater Hughes 500s. Mauna Loa offers private tours in their small 4-seater Robinson 44 helicopters. Their tours are considered private because if two people book a flight on a helicopter, the company will not book a stranger to fill the third empty seat in the helicopter. Essentially, you get to have a private ride (up to three passengers) with just your friends.
I chose Mauna Loa Helicopters for a number of reasons.
First, I chose a helicopter over a small airplane tour because helicopters are a lot smaller and can get closer to the sites. A helicopter can get up close to a waterfall, fly in the valley between two mountains, and overall has more precise mobility.
Second, I went with Mauna Loa Helicopters because I knew I would be guaranteed a window seat. Most of the larger 7-seater helicopters (like the A-Star or the Euro-Star) assign seating by weight in order to balance the aircraft. These planes have four seats in the back and three in the front (including the pilot's seat). What inevitably happens is that the heavier people are placed on the outside of the plane while the smaller, lighter people sit on the inside. Being a small person, I knew that if we had booked a non-private tour, I would most likely be stuck in a middle seat with far-from-ideal views of the stunning scenery.
Furthermore, the glare from the windows of these helicopters is notoriously terrible for photography, leading to my final reason for choosing Mauna Loa. Because we were really interested in photography, we needed a plane where we could fly with the DOORS OFF (!).
Yes, I know it's insane, but it's an option that both Jack Harter and Mauna Loa offer in their smaller, four-seater helicopters. You can see in the photo above, we are strapped in and ready to fly without any doors! It sounds terrifying (or absolutely amazing depending on your fear of heights), but it's really not too bad at all. There were just a few rules we had to follow:
1. No hats, headbands, scarves, or other loose objects. Cameras are OK as long as they are tethered to you!
2. No windbreakers or hoodies (maybe they will get caught or flap too much?)
3. DON'T EVER hang limbs outside the door. The helicopter can reach pretty high speeds, causing the wind to be super strong outside. You could easily get injured if you stick a limb out.
You might think it would get really cold, but I felt perfectly comfortable in just a fleece and long hiking pants. We left our sunglasses on, which was fine because they are held down tightly by the headphones that you wear during the flight. These also protect your ears from the loud sounds of the helicopter and they enable you to speak with each other.
Once we got the OK from air traffic control, we began to lift up from the ground! I had never ridden a helicopter before (especially not with an open door!), so it was very surreal and very, very cool.
We first headed over some plains towards the mountains.
The mountains of Kauai are beautifully lush and green due to the crazy amounts of rain this area of the island receives.
These rains also produce some stunning waterfalls.
Check out the cool cascade of falls from the bird's eye view above.
Because we were in a helicopter, we were able to fly low into the valley. It was so cool to be flying right in between two mountains. You can see the haze of the rain clouds right here near the rainiest spot in the world, Mount Wai'ale'ale, averaging 451 inches of rain a year.
Our next stop was Waimea Canyon, one of the most famous hiking destinations in Kauai.
Aren't the striations in the rock just beautiful?
After spending some time at Waimea Canyon, we moved onto the other most famous destination in Kauai, the Na Pali Coastline.
We flew along a portion of the famous Kalalau Trail, an 11-mile trail that goes along the coastline stopping at several waterfalls and beaches along the way. Because we wouldn't have time to hike the entire trail (our plan was to hike a shorter 8-mile loop in a few days), it was cool to see the latter parts of the trail that we knew we wouldn't see by foot.
The waves along the Na Pali coastline during the winter are extremely strong and powerful. They're so strong, in fact, that swimming is not allowed here during the winter.
Alas, it was time to head back. Our 60 minutes was up. At this point, I was starting to feel a bit motion sick (even though I had taken Bonine right before!) and was ready to land. Perhaps I needed to take an extra dose the night before.
It was an unforgettable flight.
If you plan on doing a helicopter ride, I would most definitely recommend booking the ride as early as possible during your stay in Kauai for two reasons. First, it's really nice to get an overview of the island to help you get oriented. Depending on how much time you have, it may help you decide how you want to prioritize the rest of your days. In our case, we decided to hike along the Na Pali Coastline but ran out of time to hike Waimea Canyon. We felt fortunate that we still got to see the canyon, even if only from a helicopter.
Second, helicopter rides can get canceled due to weather. You would prefer to have a few days of "buffer" in case you need to reschedule your flight due to the weather. Many suggest flying in the morning because the clouds may roll in in the afternoon. Having said that, the person at Mauna Loa Helicopters told me that you can't really predict the clouds. Additionally, some say that going during sunset is phenomenal. We ended up booking an 11AM flight, which worked out perfectly for us since we wanted to go diving in the afternoon.
I would highly, HIGHLY recommend doing a helicopter tour. Our ride cost us $274 per person, which is similar in price to most other helicopter companies. I personally loved Mauna Loa because it was so personal. It was just Bryan and me with our pilot! I also loved flying with the doors off and having a whole window seat to myself. If I'm going to pay this much for a 60-minute helicopter ride, I better have good views!
If you are prone to motion sickness, definitely take some medication. I think if I had taken an additional dose of the motion sickness medication the night before, I would have been OK for the entire flight. The pilot told us that looking through a viewfinder of an SLR can make you feel sick really fast. In hindsight, I should have just set my camera zoomed all the way out with a really deep depth of field. Then, I should have just snapped away. Next time!
This post is part of a larger series on our two week trip to Hawaii. Other posts in this series!