Today we continue our stay on the Big Island, just moving around to the other side from Hilo to Kona. Hilo is very wet, but Kona, because it is sheltered between the island’s two big volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea), Kona, which is on the island’s leeward coast enjoys near perfect weather. While we had mostly overcast skies in Hilo, in Kona it was nothing but bright sunshine. That’s why I chose to take my one helicopter flightseeing excursion on this island. I booked the Big Island Helicopter Spectacular with Blue Island Helicopters, which was an almost two hour flight that took us over the entire Big Island. In fact, we traveled over to the cruise ship dock, where we viewed the ships docked in the same place as we were yesterday.
This tour also provided us with a rare opportunity to view some molten lava. Most helicopter tours do not include this bonus. We flew over the dormant volcanoes and enjoyed the view of several huge cinder cones as well as deep craters in the earth. We viewed lava tubes that we were told extended for miles – all the way to the sea coast, and finally we were treated to a visual display like none other – a somewhat active volcano – Kilauea – which was spewing its molten lava into the sea far below. Of course, due to local regulations, we could only get so close, but our view was good enough that we could clearly see down into the deep crater in the earth where the lava was clearly visible.
Our pilot was a hoot, though I have a feeling some folks weren’t amused when he told us that this was only his second day on the job. He asked one of his passengers upfront to keep track of where we were, because he “wouldn’t want to get lost as he did on his first day on the job.” On a more serious note, he told us to just let him know if there was anything he could do to make our flight more special. I suggested that some heli-aerobatics might be fun, but the glares of my fellow passengers onboard were enough to shut me up on that subject.
I guess I should mention right here that anyone planning to take a flightseeing tour by helicopter will need to be weighed. The weighing is done very discretely back at the cruise ship pier – right before climbing onboard the van that will take you to the heliport. The weighing is required by FAA regulations because weight and balance are absolutely critical for helicopters. Not only are they subject to very strict maximum weights carried, but that weight must be balanced – meaning that not only are passenger weights recorded on a chart, but then each passenger is assigned a number to correspond to their weight, and those weights are phoned into the company’s base at the heliport so that they can be plugged into a special computer program that will assign seats for the flight. The seats are assigned so as to balance out all the passengers’ weights throughout the aircraft. This is why one can’t request the seat that they want. They have to take the seat the computer program assigned them to. Two people will sit up front with the pilot, while four will be in the back. Initially, I wasn’t too happy about this because it seems that I always draw one of the two middle seats in the back. When this happened to me once before way back in 2001, every photo I took during the flight had the head or nose of the woman sitting at the window. In a 45-minute flight, I got not one good photo and I was a bit burned about that. Well, this time luck was a bit more with me. While I would have still been in that same exact seat had there been four of us in the back, we only had three of us there, giving me a nice window view. I got lots of great pictures this time!
Even the ride to the heliport was interesting. Ever hear of Kona Graffiti? This is a neat art form where people gather rocks from the shoreline and then paint them a stark white color. The rocks are then arranged to spell names and words, and are mounted against the backdrop of stark black lava rock that has accumulated into small hills all along the sides of the main road on the island. As people drive along, they can read your messages. Believe it or not, none o f the messages I saw were in the slightest bit obscene and mostly had to do with religion (“Jesus Saves!”) or folks declaring their undying love for each other (“Hona & Sue – Forever and Ever”). Somehow I think the messages would have been far more colorful, not to mention offensive, back home in Philadelphia.
Once we arrived at the heliport, we received a full safety briefing before being allowed anywhere near a helicopter. Did you know that you always approach a helicopter from the front – staying away from that dangerous tail roter, while with a propeller-driven aircraft you do the opposite – staying away from the front where those huge propeller blades could slice you to bits.
Finally, we were ready to board. We walked out to the craft as a group, under the careful watch of a couple of the Blue Hawaiian people who had to keep hurrying me along as I had a perchant for stopping mid-step to snap photos.
Once onboard and settled in, we got on our way almost immediately. We each had our own set of headphones along with a special handheld microphone that would let us talk to the pilot and ask questions. He kept us all well engaged throughout the flight because these conversations, along with his narrative, would comprise the sound track of the video footage that was being recorded by the four onboard cameras, including one in the cockpit. We could purchase a DVD, made especially of our flight for $25.
We flew over several mountains that were emitting huge plumbs of sulfur. These were blending with the clouds so that you could almost not tell where sulfur plumbs ended and cloud began. These huge puffs of smoke were emitting from great craters formed in the earth, and while those areas were considered geologically active, they were not considered to be active volcanoes because no hot lava was evident.
I must apologize right here for the vagueness of this particular entry and its descriptions. I have to say that I spent most of this flight awestruck and the immense beauty of the natural wonders I was viewing. When I first scheduled this tour months before my cruise, I almost immediately began to experience buyer’s remorse because I felt that I had chosen the wrong island for such a tour. I was sorry I did not select Kauai, which is known as THE island for a helicopter tour. This tour, because it was almost two hours in length, was not cheap – I paid close to $500 for it, and hence, the buyer’s remorse. Well, it wasn’t long into this flight that all second thoughts were wiped away, and I was grateful I had selected the Big Island for my one aerial tour, because the things we viewed on this flight were absolutely amazing – not to mention that this was the longest and most comprehensive flightseeing tour offered on any of the islands.
We made a landing at the airport in Hilo so that our pilot could refuel (that’s one commodity you definitely don’t want to run out of!) and we could stretch our legs a bit. We were told that Blue Island has a fleet of 25 helicopters, and branches now on all the Hawaiian Islands. They just opened up their newest facility on Oahu. They maintain the highest standards for the hiring of new pilots, and when we passed a helicopter training school on our trip out to Blue Island’s heliport, our driver remarked that all the new pilots there aspire to work for Blue Hawaiian, though few of them ever will. He told us that most of Blue Hawaiian’s pilots served in Viet Nam or the Military, and some had even been test pilots. They also have to be comfortable interacting with people, because Blue Hawaiian’s pilots not only have to be skilled at their craft, but also friendly and knowledgeable about the islands and the sights on the tours which they fly.
Now that we had viewed lava and steaming sulfur, it was time to see something far different, but no less awe-inspiring. We flew over the rugged coast line and viewed some amazing waterfalls – one which was over 1,000-feet tall. We also viewed the Akaka Falls from the air – yes, those same Falls I tore my legs up trying to get to from land just the day before. We were able to fly in between the towering cliffs of the coast line to get the perfect view of this majestic 1200-foot cascading waterfall starting at the top, and working its way to the sea far below.
All too soon our adventure was nearing an end. As we headed back to Blue Hawaii’s heliport, we all were still shaking our heads at the amazing sights we had seen, many of them only viewable by air. We saw the exact same lava-spewing volcano that passengers onboard the Statendam had tried to get a view of from the open decks of our ship the night before. But we saw far more lava since we flew directly above it. We also saw some of the most beautiful natural scenery probably in all this world, much of it also only viewable by air. So I doubt any one of us felt our money was wasted. I personally think it was worth every cent, and in fact, had actually briefly considered scheduling another aerial tour, perhaps in Kauai. I discarded that idea, though, since I’ve already got a very different sort of tour scheduled for there. Besides an aerial tour is special, and should be a delightful rarity on a Hawaii cruise.
By the time we were delivered back to the dock so that we could tender back to the Statendam, it started raining – again, a rarity for Kona. It seemed a fitting end to our stay here on the Big Island. We had seen so many rare sights both in Kona and in Hilo that the rain seemed like the proverbial cherry on top of our wonderful stay here.
Nothing much going on onboard ship last night, at least nothing that interested our little band of merrymakers. A couple of drinks in the Ocean Bar, dinner in the Lido, and early to bed. It’s a “school night,” as Trisha and Virgil say – a full day in Lahaina, Maui, and a whole bunch of new adventures tomorrow!