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I had seen The Big Island from deep below sea level, I had seen it from the ground, I had seen it from the mountain-top. But I wanted to get higher.

When Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours invited me on their Circle of Fire Tour, I didn’t need much convincing to say yes. But it certainly didn’t hurt that National Geographic named Blue Hawaiian the best out of Hawaii’s many helicopter companies, or that The Travel Channel named the company’s aerial tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as number one in the “Top Ten World’s Best Helicopter Experiences.” The Circle of Fire tour promised to bring me to the most geologically active environment on earth — Kilauea volcano, which has been continuously erupting since 1983.

So on my last day on The Big Island, I checked in at the Hilo Airport twice — once to fly up in a helicopter and once to fly away in a plane. I signed a waiver, stood on a scale that logged my weight into the computer while kindly not flashing it to me (a computer algorithm decides where each passenger sits based on weight distribution), and then was led into a briefing room. Here, we watched a video on helicopter safety and received our seat assignments before heading right out to the runway.

Blue Hawaiian HelicopterThere’s plenty that makes Blue Hawaiian stand out from its competitors, but the factor that makes the greatest impact is the model of helicopter itself — something I didn’t appreciate until much later. The Eco-Star is the Mercedes of tour helicopters yet at the time I took this tour it was the only helicopter I’d ever been on, so I had nothing to compare it to. Since, I’ve been on another and can vouch that the Eco-Star provided an exponentially better experience. Each of the seven passengers has a First Class seat thanks to individual seats and plenty of personal space, raised seating in the rear, and wrap-around glass in the cockpit providing a 180 degree view. This is the first ever helicopter designed specifically for touring, and at the whistle-worthy cost of over $2 million dollars each!

Blue Hawaiian Helicopter

Blue Hawaiian Helicopter

Taking off in the helicopter was surreal. I expected the drama and impact of a plane lift-off, but instead it felt like we were in a hovercraft floating into the atmosphere. I could barely tell if we had left the ground! I expected to be slightly nervous considering the near mental-breakdown I had on the small plane in Oahu, but I didn’t feel a thing except excitement and amazement at the technology that had us soaring over the island.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Each of us in the helicopter wore noise-blocking headphones with built-in speakers so we could communicate with each other and our informative pilot — every Blue Hawaiian pilot is a State of Hawaii Certified Tour Guide. My six fellow passengers were all part of one Spanish-speaking family, so while they chattered to each other I had the perfect opportunity to eavesdrop and see how my six year’s worth of Spanish language education held up after years of neglect. Answer: not well.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Slowly, the residential and farming communities outside of Hilo began to show signs of the unstoppable volcano activity that is simply a factor of life on this rumbling island.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Soon, steam appeared in the distance and I knew we were getting close to the highlight of the entire tour — a glimpse inside the Pu’u O’o Vent. This epicenter of volcanic activity began erupting in 1986 and by the year 1992 had left 200 homes in wreckage and added 300 acres of new land the The Big Island. As we closed in on the vent, classic music reached a crescendo in my headphones and though it’s the kind of cliché that would make my former travel writing professor sigh, it truly did take my breath away.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

And we were not the only ones there to enjoy it. See those little black dots in the distance? Those are other helicopters! They gave a real sense of perspective to how massive the Kilauea volcano we were circling truly was.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

We circled a few times so that each person in the helicopter could get an unobstructed view. As we gravitated closer and closer to the source of the steam, we saw it! — flashes of angry red magma, glowing and bubbling before cooling and hardening to a dark brown or black lava form.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Needless to say, it was the highlight of the tour, highlight of my day, and one of the highlights of my overall trip. It is a rare privilege to see lava in its most colorful form.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the vent and towards the East Rift Zone, where ecosystems and communities have been devastated by the overwhelming and endless rivers of molten lava. For the most part, we witnessed fields of lava layers as wide as our eyes stretched. Occasionally though, islands of life remained — a patch of the forest that formerly covered the area, or a short stretch of highway with a bright blue car’s carcass frozen in time by lava.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Below the upper layer of dark and hardened lava flows a stream of liquid magma. My favorite moments were those where we got a glimpse of it, through rogue steam vents or collapsed windows through which we got another peek at that stunning shade of magma orange.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Eventually, we reached the coastline — a boundary that is ever-changing thanks to the two billion cubic yards of lava that have been added to the island since 1983. At certain times of year, liquid lava flows into the sea creating a spectacular show that people travel from far and wide to see.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

On our way back towards Hilo, we passed a beautiful waterfall that due to its location on private land can only be viewed from the air. Again, I’m a sucker for a soundtrack and perfectly timed music pumping through my headphones made everything even more beautiful.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

At one point I realized not everyone enjoys helicopters as much as I was. Between the popularity of air tours and a frequent aerial Drug Enforcement Administration presence, some Hawaii residents have gone so far as to start groups aimed at quieting the skies. Others take a more subtle approach — painting their roofs with hilariously blunt insults.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

As we spotted the urban markers of Hilo in the distance, I couldn’t believe how much we had seen in just a 45-50 minute tour. We’d gone from The Big Island’s biggest city to its most active volcano to its ravaged coastline to its lush waterfall-filled forests and back again.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

And there was one final treat in store. Hilo, unfortunately dubbed “the rainiest city in America,” was flashing me blue skies and a clear teal ocean for the first time since I’d arrived on the island. It was quite the welcome sight.

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Big Island Helicopter Tour

This tour was the perfect send off from my time on The Big Island, and with its myriad of firsts — first time in a helicopter, first time seeing liquid lava — it was one of the high points of my week there. At $240.90 (inc. taxes and fees), this is definitely a splurge. But I found that in Hawaii, the high cost of big-ticket activities like scuba diving with manta rays, skydiving, and this, helicopter touring, was offset by all the days of free of nearly free activities — hiking, hitting the National Park, exploring the quirky towns and beaches. And if you’re looking for a souvenir, Blue Hawaiian makes a live DVD recording of ever flight, which may be purchased afterwards for $25.

What sets Blue Hawaiian apart, other than its highly trained pilots, long-standing reputation, overflowing collection of tourism awards and that they are the go-to guys for aerial shots in Hollywood movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Jurassic Park and Pearl Harbor, are the helicopters themselves. Unlike other helicopter models, the Eco-Star ensures that there is NO bad seat. I’d rather pay $240 for a guaranteed amazing view than save a small percentage and gamble that I might have a cramped spot with no view. A Big Island helicopter tour is a bucket-list worthy activity — you might as well go with the best!

Big Island Helicopter Tour

Have you ever been in a helicopter before? I think I might just be addicted!

 Many thanks to Blue Hawaiian for providing me with a complimentary helicopter tour. They did not request that I write a favorable review —  as always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

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33 Comments...
  • Kathryn Allen
    December 12 2012

    WOWOWOWOWOWOW!!!
    The photo with the shadow image of the pilot is crazy good!

    Yes, I also love helo’s, as they are called by the military personnel that ferried us volunteers to remote medical sites in Indonesia.

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      Look at you, dropping your international-helicopter-riding-medical-volunteer experience into casual conversation like that 🙂

  • Erica
    December 12 2012

    The volcano is what would get me. I’m yet to see actual LAVA and I’ve been to around 5! I would be DROOLING!
    Erica recently posted..Exposure: I Like to Pretend I’m a Model

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      I found out on my last day on the island that there were tours you could do where you could actually go within ARMS REACH of flowing lava. I almost changed my flight to do it that night (!) but the price (around $150 I believe) deterred me.

  • Ashley of Ashley Abroad
    December 12 2012

    I would totally do this! It would be a major splurge, but how can you miss out on seeing lava like that? Great photos as well 🙂
    Ashley of Ashley Abroad recently posted..A Miracle Thanksgiving in France

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience! I’m with you on that 🙂

  • Ayngelina
    December 12 2012

    I never really thought about how residents wouldn’t like the helicopters, I guess it is an inconvenience but I would still want to do this.
    Ayngelina recently posted..Untouched Okanagan

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      Yeah I can sympathize with them however there are annoyances and drawbacks to living anywhere, and people are going to want to see volcanoes and things from the air and the DEA is going to keep doing its thing. The newer models of helicopters, like the one I was in, are significantly less noisy than old ones… so hopefully as time goes on the noise annoyance will decrease.

  • TammyOnTheMove
    December 12 2012

    Looove helicopter flights. Done one over the Iguassu falls and was giggling of excitement the entire flight. Did you just use a telezoom lense or is the helicopter flying really close to the actual ground? The pictures are amazing!
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..12 unusual ways of using bananas

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      Thanks Tammy! The helicopter flew pretty low, I think I remember down to about 500 feet. I was using both my Canon s100 point and shoot and my Canon dSLR T2i. Of course after hauling my zoom lens all the way to Hawaii I forgot to bring it for this flight, but my regular lens is a 15-85mm so that did the trick! Oh and a flight over Iguassu sounds AMAZING! I’m going to have to add that to my South America wish-list.

  • Gaelyn
    December 12 2012

    What a spectacular way to see the island. I like to ride in helicopters and with all those windows this one really looks terrific.

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      I think the only way to have a better view would have been to go doors-off! This was really spectacular.

  • Tawny of Captain and Clark
    December 13 2012

    Um, we’re going to need you to stop being so adorable. You’re making the rest of us look bad. And volcanoes? Really? How do we beat that?
    Tawny of Captain and Clark recently posted..How to do Mumbai on a Budget

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      Aw, you’re too sweet! I assure you my seatmates didn’t find me so charming when I was taking ten million selfies but REALLY only one in ten million really turn out, right? Jeez.

  • Audrey
    December 13 2012

    That’s a pretty cool way to see the volcanic activity! I can see why the residents would be kind of annoyed by all the helicopters though…
    Audrey recently posted..The EngRish Edition: Maybe, it’s Park

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      The good news is that newer models of helicopters, like the Eco Star here, are significantly quieter than older models. So hopefully as time goes on and companies begin to upgrade the friction will subside!

      • Michael
        December 13 2012

        Maybe they’ll come up with electric helicopters, which should get rid of most of the annoying sound.

        Beautiful pictures Alex.
        Michael recently posted..The Hobbit: Green Dragon Pub

        • Alex
          December 14 2012

          Each model is getting progressively quieter, so I’m hopeful in the future this won’t be a problem.

  • Oh my what gorgeous shots! I LOVED my heli ride over Kauai, but I was pretty freaked out afterwards when I heard how many crashes there are a year!!!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..The My Beautiful Adventures Earrings

    • Alex
      December 14 2012

      Uh oh, I haven’t read about that! Maybe it’s best that I didn’t. Reminds me after I did the skydive and my friend was all “Okay well now that it’s over I can tell you guys about the recent accidents that have happened!” 😮

  • Abby
    December 13 2012

    You are too amazing for words. These photos!!! I can barely get any useable ones when I take ‘copter rides, which I am newly obsessed with. And yay Hawaii! Stunning!!
    Abby recently posted..Personally welcoming Shania Twain to Vegas

    • Alex
      December 14 2012

      Awww, thanks Abby! I hope we get to ‘copter together in the future 🙂

  • Savvy Scot
    December 14 2012

    Looks amazing Alex… next challenge is to fly one yourself!
    Savvy Scot recently posted..SALLTYE – Spend A Lot Less Than You Earn

    • Alex
      December 14 2012

      Now that you mention it, there has been a recent flying lesson Groupon…

  • Sebastian @ Off-The-Path.com
    December 14 2012

    I have never flown a helicopter before and never seen lava either… Two things I need to do! I guess I will be flying to iceland soon 🙂
    Sebastian @ Off-The-Path.com recently posted..Hoteltest: Tauern Spa in Zell Am See-Kaprun, Österreich

    • Alex
      December 14 2012

      Iceland is AMAZING! I didn’t do a helicopter ride there sadly (they were $$$) but you can actually descend into a live volcano! Looked fascinating but we gave it a pass because my mom is claustrophobic. Look into it!

  • Emily in Chile
    December 14 2012

    I was not really into the idea of a helicopter tour when we went to Oahu because it just sounded like it couldn’t possibly be worth the price tag, but my dad really wanted to do it. I’m glad I let him win! We also flew with Blue Hawaiian and had a great experience, so I’d love to do it again on another island.
    Emily in Chile recently posted..Andrés Carne de Res: Bogota’s craziest restaurant

    • Alex
      December 14 2012

      I feel like I got the whole aerial view of Oahu when I went skydiving, but I’d love to do one on Kauai someday!

  • Bryan-lavapix.com
    December 23 2012

    I see your trip was in early Oct. I know because I was out on the lava flow when the lava first hit that one little section of Orchid Ave in the kipuka. I was above there a few days earlier tracking the flow from the last section of Ali’i Ave. Very nice photos. Most that people post from Heli’s are pretty bad :-)You could have hiked out to the lava without a guide. Its all common sense. If that flow were within the national parks boundary’s you could hike it 24/7. Its more of a parking issue on the Kalapana side. The flows did finally make it to the ocean but, it was short lived. This flow is very sluggish. You may or may not care but, I would watermark your photos before posting. Just something small. It draws people back to your blog when they are re-posted elsewhere. One more note, Paradise helicopters doors off tour is great too. Its a tiny rig but, you get up close and personal with the flows. I recommend heli tours to anyone visiting the Big Island. Very nice blog. Found it via my google alert for Big Island Heli tour posts.

    • Alex
      December 28 2012

      Thanks Bryan! I was worried about getting photos through the glass but it wasn’t that bad at all. I would love to do an open-door one in the future. As for hiking to the lava flow, I don’t think I have the skills, knowledge or desire to do that solo — I think I’d need someone with more local knowledge 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  • CarlaZ
    August 26 2013

    Another amazing tour! I have just add in my bucket list!

  • Tom Tailor
    May 24 2016

    Great information! Thank you for sharing.

    • Alex
      May 24 2016

      You’re welcome Tom! Are you headed to the Big Island?

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