Owing to volcanic topography, some of the most beautiful places in Hawaii are inaccessible by ground. Helicopters solve that problem, and an exciting part of any trip to the islands is an aerial trip that affords truly remarkable views.
On previous visits, we have flown in helicopters to remote parts of the stunning Waipio Valley on the north coast of the Big Island and over the dramatic terrain of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This time, we took to the air to enjoy spectacular vistas of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon.
Most of the operators on Kauai fly out of Lihue Airport, but that was inconvenient, as we were on the north coast in Princeville at the St. Regis — construction on the road to Lihue meant a round-trip drive that would eat up a good part of the day. Fortunately, a first-rate outfit called Sunshine Helicopters operates out of the small Princeville airport, so with the strong endorsement of the St. Regis concierge, we booked.
The crew at Sunshine stresses safety, and gave us a thorough briefing on what to expect in the air (including the delightfully named “aloha bags,” used in the event of air sickness). Formalities concluded, we walked out to our AStar helicopter, a six-passenger craft with big bubble windows, took our seats and strapped in. We all donned headphones, which carried the young pilot’s narration and a mercifully inoffensive ambient music soundtrack.
Although we’ve experienced it many times, lifting off in a copter is a true thrill — the multi-ton craft escapes gravity and slowly ascends, transforming the normal world into a vast diorama. Off we flew over the mellow green ranchland of Kauai, which quickly yielded to a rugged terrain of valleys and gorges carved by the incredible amount of rain that falls on the island every year (one area receives more than 400 inches a year, making it the wettest spot on earth).
Early on, we flew into a valley where a towering cataract awaited, its waters pouring several hundred feet into a small turquoise pool (the setting for an early shot in Jurassic Park). From here, we dashed across the island to the mile-wide Waimea Canyon, created millennia ago when a massive earthquake diverted several rivers into one. Although not on the same scale as the Grand Canyon, its striking layers of ever-changing colors draw comparisons to its famous mainland cousin.
Our route was cleverly choreographed to maximize the visual surprises — coming over hills to panoramic vistas, arcing around cliffs to find waterfalls, cresting peaks to see the Pacific stretched before us. Soaring over a steep vertical cliff, we encountered the startlingly crenellated landscape of the Na Pali Coast. Covered in rich green vegetation, undulating waves of rock sweep down to the azure ocean; they are one of the great sights of the islands.
We then followed the coast over some beautiful beaches, including Nurse’s Beach (Nellie Forbush had a scene here in the movie South Pacific), and the sweeping arc of Hanalei Bay. Here, on the western headland, we could see the St. Regis, looking like a white Lego set. This brought us to the end of a superb 45-minute adventure.
After we landed and disembarked, the staff at Sunshine reminded us that we could purchase a DVD of the flight: There are fore and aft cameras on the helicopters, as well as one inside. We couldn’t resist, and enjoyed it when it arrived at our home 10 days later. It was certainly fun to watch, but not as good as the real thing.
Sunshine Helicopters, Kauai tours, $229 in the FX Star helicopter, $274 in the larger WhisperStar model. Tel. (866) 501-7738. (Save $39 if you book online.)