We’ve written previously about spending time on the water in Kauai, including how to explore the towering 4,000 ft cliffs and caves of the remarkable Napali Coast at sea level. But our most recent visit offered an altogether different perspective, as we took to the skies for a bird’s eye view of the island’s dramatic topography.
The Hawaiian island of Kauai is ringed by a more-or-less horseshoe shaped highway, with the gap in its northwest corner bridged by the remote and rugged Napali Coast. Here, in a region impenetrable to all but the hardiest of hikers, the only land access is via the strenuous 11-mile Kalalau Trail, one of the Hawaiian Islands’ most challenging walks. Crossing five deep valleys, along treacherous ridge lines, past waterfalls, sheer drops and and fast-flowing streams, the trail eventually ends at Kalalau beach; a renowned stretch of sand which features on almost every postcard on the island. But while the hike will bring you closer to nature, the only way to get a true sense of Kauai’s incredible geology is to experience it from the air, either by helicopter or small plane. Opting for the former – swayed by the helicopter’s ability to fly closer to waterfalls and deeper into canyons and craters – we took off from Lihue airport on an hour-long tour, circling over Nawiliwili Bay before heading inland towards the mystical Hanapepe Valley.
Flying over the interior’s dense jungle canopy, it’s immediately apparent how the Garden Isle got its name. Even under drizzly grey skies the forests below are a bright, relentless patchwork of green, flickering almost neon with every burst of sunshine. Gazing down upon this more-or-less horizontal plateau, I was entirely unprepared for the moment we soared over a ridge line and the ground dropped away beneath us, unveiling a vertical otherworld of seemingly bottomless cliffs against which the shadow of our chopper appeared like a pinprick.
Shimmering strands of water trickled down vast living walls and disappeared into the abyss, but they were merely a prelude to what lay ahead: the gushing waters of Manawaiopuna Falls – famous for its star turn in Jurassic Park – followed by multi-hued Waimea Canyon; the “˜Grand Canyon of the Pacific’, and onwards over the plunging valleys and sculptural folds of the Napali coast; the sight of which had me gripping my seat in awe.
A sweep along the coastline revealed steeple-like rock formations, pristine beaches and hidden coves and, in the near distance, the north shore town of Hanalei with its gently curving bay. But this glimpse of civilisation was short-lived, as our pilot Barrett steered us back inland towards the trip’s final highlight: Mount Waialeale – an ancient shield volcano and one of the wettest spots on earth.
Not for the faint of heart, these next few minutes saw us descend unfathomably deep into the volcano’s moss-green crater until we were almost entirely enveloped by 5,000-foot cliffs laced with yet more ribbon-like waterfalls; an experience made all the more surreal by the fleeting emergence and disappearance of rainbows through the ever-shifting clouds of silvery mist. It’s a fitting finale to this extraordinary flight over a remote and magical landscape. Shaped by nature over millions of years and still virtually untouched by humankind, this was the Hawaii of my imagination brought vividly to life – only more heart-stoppingly thrilling than I’d ever dared hope.
Several different helicopter tour companies operate on Kauai. We opted for Blue Hawaiian Helicopters‘ 55-minute ECO Adventure tour in an Eco-Star helicopter which costs $239.38, or $210.65 if you book online 5 days or more in advance. Flights depart from Kauai’s main airport at Lihue.
Eco-star helicopters are built for tourism and feature large wraparound windows for superior visibility. Keen photographers should bear in mind that the amount of glass can sometimes lead to reflection issues, so it’s important to wear dark colours to minimise this. Blue Hawaiian will provide black t-shirts for those not suitably attired, and we did not have any problems getting reasonable shots. If you’re a serious or professional photographer, however, there are “˜doors-off’ helicopter tours available through other companies.
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