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.”
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.
There’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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.