The Big Island from Above

January 5, 2012 12 Comments »

Big Island

The coast of the Big Island is ever changing

After driving around the entire Big Island for a week I could appreciate the diversity of landscapes, however today is when the all of the puzzle pieces come together. The lava field piece connects with the rainforest piece. The brown desert piece connects to the turquoise waters of the coast. The towering mountains connecta with the fertile ranch lands and rolling hills. The wet side connecta with the dry side. Today I will be able to see the ‘Big Picture’ of the Big Island – from the sky.

I arrive early to Paradise Helicopters thanks to my childlike excitement; this is my first time in a helicopter. Considering I am eternally late to everything, the fact that I have time to kill is unusual, but I use the time to clean my camera and lenses since I am anticipating a lot of photos. It is a hot day, made worse by the fact that I am dressed entirely in black clothing. Paradise Helicopters instructed us to wear dark colors so that the glare would be reduced when shooting pictures out of the helicopter window; a great piece of advice. Soon the rest of the passengers arrive; it will be a full helicopter with 6 of us taking flight for the Hawaii Experience tour. A complete 2+ hour flight of the entire island plus a landing in a secluded valley.

We listen to our safety briefing from our pilot Koji. In addition to learning about the safety instructions, he also briefs us on our route for the day. The good news is we have perfectly clear weather and he feels we will have a good opportunity to see some lava flow from above. Upon hearing this my heart starts beating faster. Seeing actual lava flow on the Big Island is not as easy as one might think based on all of the tourism marketing materials you see about the Big Island. In fact, seeing lava flow is sort of like getting a winning lottery ticket. The only real way of increasing your odds of seeing lava flow is to see it via helicopter. Lava is constantly flowing on and under the island, however it is in remote places where cars or hikers can’t get to.

I am seated on the side of the helicopter in the back with a large ‘floor to ceiling’ well cleaned window. We are packed in tightly, it reminds me of taking the public bus in Nepal minus the live animals. I locate my headphones and the other passengers and myself take turns testing our audio.  I am ready for lift off – Roger!

Big island resort

Hawaii is colorful from above!

Koji ensures us we are all ready and the helicopter blades start up. The sensation of lifting off reminds me I forgot to take my Dramamine in my excitement this morning; I will have to tough it out. We rise up smoothly and soon we are gliding down the coastline. From above I can see the clear waters and coral formations, the perfect little golf courses, and the town of Kona. My camera clicks away in excitement.

Koji flies us between the massive volcanic mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa towards Volcanoes National Park. I have already been to the park twice by car, but this new aerial view was stunning. The great thing about traversing the island prior to taking the helicopter tour is that I know the lay of the land already, I am familiar with the roads and where they lead so it is easy to orient myself even from above.

lava flow

Lava oozes out of the Earth’s crust

We fly over the Halema’uma’u Crater and proceed to fly deeper into the park where roads no longer exist. Soon we see it – the silver flow of molten lava. I have to refocus my eyes on the details below me and when looking closely I can see the red hot outlines of the flowing lava oozing from the earth. We fly over lava tubes, lava explosions, and burning trees caught amidst the flowing lava. Koji circles around the active areas and flames with precision maneuvers ensuring that each side of the helicopter can see equally well. We do S turns, dipping down to get the best pictures possible.

molten lava

Fresh molten lava flows on the Big Island

After about 25 minutes of hovering over various lava flows, we must move on to circle the rest of the island. We leave the barren ‘other –world’ of Volcanoes Park and fly to the rainy side of the island. Dark lava rock gives way to little bits of green life below us, and eventually we are flying over a carpet of dense, green rainforest surrounding the town of Hilo.

We fly up coast to the undisturbed valleys of Waipio where the oldest part of the island is on display. Deep, lush valleys are cut into the coast line completely secluded from tourism. The only way in to one of these valleys is to hike in or be flown in. Once again Koji flies us back and forth along the coast ensuring everyone has a perfect view and then he turns and starts heading into one of the deep cut valleys. We fly by waterfalls hundreds of feet high and I feel as if I have entered a land that few people have ever seen. We snake between the valley walls and slowly Koji sets the helicopter down next to a river for a short break in this secluded landscape.

Waipio Valley

Doing a valley fly by

Big Island water fall

Multiple water falls exist all over the valleys

When I get out of the helicopter my legs rejoice finally able to stretch a little bit as well as settle my stomach on solid ground. I turn to look at my surroundings and gasp. Koji had landed us on a dime; between a river and large boulders with only 5 feet of clearance on either side. In fact the tail of the helicopter actually hangs off the river bank over the roaring river. This is one time where I am happy I have a back seat view since I would have been quite nervous if I had fully seen what an obstacle we were landing in.


Our tiny ‘landing pad’ in the valley

We have about 20 minutes to explore, stretch, and eat a snack. I walk along a path to a river and pick some fresh guava for a snack. I sit and simply enjoy the view in solitude; a unique and powerful moment to reflect upon my week on the Big Island and it’s pure beauty and many surprises. Soon we gather back up and lift off from the valley floor flying to the northern tip over the birthplace of King Kamehameha. Once again the landscape changes from lush green to brown desert. We have flown to the dry side of the island; cracked and barren land begging for water. We fly back down the coast towards Kona seeing some of the most spectacular hidden beaches and coral formations along the Kohala coast.

Big Island

The barren, dry Kohala Coast

Koji lands us back down at the airport effortlessly. The landscape puzzle is completed and our 3 hours have disappeared from me as if it was 1. It is the perfect way to put together the pieces of the Big Island; it’s diversity, beauty, anger, and energy. This island is alive!

The Good:
• One of the most unique and longest helicopter tours offered on the island.
• Loved the intricate valley landing in the middle of the tour
• Ensured that everyone could get equally great photos and views no matter what side you were seated on.
• Lots of time to see the lava! And really one of the only ways you will see lava.

The Could Be Better:
• This should come as no surprise, but I took a lot of pictures. I loved the fact that Paradise recommended you to wear dark clothing to take better pictures, however then they had a tan seat belt that they had upholstered with white fur so it would be more comfortable. I have no idea why they chose white fur – as it should have been black. Even though I was dressed in black, the seat belt was glaring in all of my photos!

Also – this was just specific to me, but don’t forget your motion sickness pills if you are prone to that sort of thing.  This is not a smooth airplane flight – there are many twists and turns!

Would I recommend it:
If you have the financial means, then I highly recommend taking a helicopter tour of the Big Island above any other island. It clearly has the most diversity of all of the islands, so to be able to see that from above is really special.  The Hawaii Experience tour was expensive ($445) , but there are many tour options at various price points.   I was very happy with Paradise Helicopters, with the pilot, and the office staff; all were very professional and were focused on safety.

More Information:
Paradise Helicopter Tours – www.


Koji and I back on solid ground

To see all photography from the tour – check out my Hawaii From Above photo album

Disclosure:  Paradise Helicopters  hosted my Hawaii Experience tour. However, all of the opinions expressed here are my own – as you know how I love to speak my mind!

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