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Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i, otherworldly

Ask any one that has traveled to a Hawaiian island and the most frequently offered advice is to do a helicopter tour of the island. We first heard this from a concierge at our resort in Maui, in 2012. Back then, the children were younger, we were new to traveling and spending so much money on such a tour sounded extravagant. Besides, it wasn’t budgeted for and so we decided against it.

This time while researching the Big Island, we knew we wanted to see the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park but our base in Kona didn’t quite allow for that to happen. We were advised to take the helicopter tours that fly over the Kilauea Caldera and other parts of the island. We went back and forth about whether to consider such a tour given the costs. In the end, Mr. JJ felt it was worth looking into.

I came across this website, https://www.lovebigisland.com/big-island-helicopter-tours/, which gave good insight into who offered such tours, what to look for on the tour and questions to ask the tour companies. I took their checklist questions and emailed the local companies. Paradise Helicopters emailed back within half an hour with all the details. They offer flights from both Hilo as well as Kona. Because of its location further away from the main heliport as well as the longer flight times to reach the lava flow, Kona flights are longer and more expensive. Flights from Kona cost $539 pp for the Experience Hawai’i tour (currently priced at $559 pp) which includes a flight path over the Kona coffee plantation, over Mauna Loa with a view of Mauna Kea, the volcanoes and the caldera, the Hamakua coast and then past the Kohala coast waterfalls back to base. All in all, about a two hour trip.  The tour company would pick us up and drop us back at the lobby of our hotel.

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Paradise Helicopters at the Kona airfield

We also checked with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. Their tours were mostly based out of Hilo and a few out of Waikoloa airport. But their prices were higher and they would not offer us a discount.

We explored the option of driving to Hilo and doing the tour from there. It would mean spending four hours or more driving to Hilo and back and the cost of renting a car for a day. Paradise Helicopters offered us a $50 discount pp which helped to lower the costs by just under 10%. After much back and forth, Mr . JJ decided it would be worth doing the tour, to see the volcanoes, if nothing else. On the first day of our stay on the resort, we met with a concierge who thought he could get better rates through the Hilton specials. Turns out, their rates were higher than what we had been quoted. So we stuck with our original plan.

After the vertigo/ nausea incidence on the snorkeling trip of the previous evening, we were all on edge about this helicopter trip. The kids and I are prone to motion sickness, as already ably proved. We did not carry anti-vertigo medicines with us. By the time we got back to the hotel, all the stores on the resort were closed and we couldn’t buy any. Our driver was to pick us up in the morning at 6:40 am. I called the helicopter company to ask if we could move to a Hilo flight but none were available for that afternoon. Cancellations have to be made prior to 24 hours and we had missed that deadline. So off we went, excited and a little nervous!

We were picked up promptly by our driver who drove us in a comfortable van to the airfield. We were accompanied by a younger couple from Portland, OR who were going to be our flight partners (six guests plus pilot). The driver was very knowledgeable about the island. He talked about the meaning and essence of the Aloha spirit and how its vital in this day and age for people to embrace it. He pointed out the thorny mesquite like Kiawe trees that were introduced by missionaries as a way of inducing the locals to wear footwear. Apparently, the native Hawaiians went barefooted until the sharp thorns from these trees made it impossible for them to do so. He also pointed out that the fine white sand on some Hawai’i beaches are the excreted products of parrot fish. The fish graze algae off the coral skeletons and while doing so, ingest large chunks of coral. They have specialized teeth that help them grind the coral which is then passed through the digestive tract and expelled as fine white sand! So the next time you are lounging on fine, white sand, know that parrot fish are happy to have provided their poop for your enjoyment! Its weird but true!

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White sand beach, Kona coastline

At the tour office, we were all signed in, then weighed. The seating arrangement in the copter is evenly distributed based on weight. After a bit of a wait, we were led into a small room where the pilot met with us, gave an overview of the tour, and a security briefing with Do’s and Dont’s. Eventually, we were led outside to the tarmac where our helicopter stood waiting. The crew assigned us our seating positions. Mr. JJ had a seat in the front next to the pilot and boy! was he thrilled!! I sat with my back to the pilot with Missy JJ across from me and Sonny JJ next to her. Of the couple with us, the gentleman sat on my side, facing his wife who was next to Sonny JJ. They both shared one bank of windows and Missy JJ and I shared the other.

We had been asked to wear dark clothes to help prevent reflection while taking photos from the helicopter. We also wore a little thicker clothes since I thought we might be cold as we flew higher. We were all given headsets with two-way communications and we tested those out before the flight. Despite these, the noise from the helicopter was quite significant. At the outset, it felt cool in the cabin but as we flew higher and the morning sun rose with us, it became warmer.

It was exciting as the helicopter took off and the ground fell away. The crisp winter morning sun greeted us. We flew first over the Kona coffee plantations before making our way over the slopes of Hualalei and then Mauna Loa. We could see Mauna Kea and its pristine snow-capped peaks in the distance with the dome of the observatories gleaming in the sunlight. The pilot kept up a steady stream of information about the areas we were flying over. We could ask questions and hear responses from the pilot as well as each other.

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Long spine of Mauna Loa
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Mauna Kea with her observatories

He pointed out the two different types of lava, the ‘A’a, which is sharp, rough and crumbly and the Pahoehoe, which is smooth and billowy like brownies. We saw the long spine of Mauna Loa, “long mountain”. Did you know that Mauna Loa is the world’s largest active volcano and extends over 50% of the island? Mauna Kea, on the other hand, means white mountain because of the snow on its peak. It’s the tallest mountain, rising a dominant 10,000 meters or over 30,000 feet from its ocean floor base to the summit. We also caught a glimpse of the HI-SEAS exploration project that NASA conducts.

Next up, we saw what we came for: the volcanoes park. It was amazing to see the lava flow in some areas and the caldera. The area is devoid of all vegetation and the stark black beauty of the volcanic rocks stand in sharp contrast to the glittering ocean blue and the golden sun. It was getting hotter inside our cabin and Missy JJ was starting to feel nauseous with the circles we were making, trying to get a closer view of the volcanoes.

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Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i
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Caldera at the Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i

Eventually, we left the volcanoes area to fly across the Western portion of the island, which is full of vegetation and greenery. The pilot told us about the Ohia trees, native Hawaiian plants, now facing threat of destruction from a fungus called Ceratocystis. Apparently, since 2013, vast acres of such trees have been destroyed within a few days to weeks, resulting in Rapid Ohia Death Syndrome. Efforts are being made now to help control and prevent this deadly disease. Read about the native legend surrounding the Ohia tree here.

The pilot also gave us information on yet another native species of trees called the Acacia Koa. Once widespread in the Hawaiian islands, today only about 10% of this species are left intact. Grazing by non natives animals like cattle as well as over-harvesting for the highly rated wood from this tree have led to the unfortunate loss of this native species. Efforts are now being made to restore these trees by planting more and harvesting less.

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Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i
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Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i
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Terrain at the Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i

Did you know that the only endemic Hawaiian mammal is the Hoary bat? This bat is now federally protected under the endangered species act.

We then learnt about the heydays of the sugar industry on the Hawaiian island. From 1830s to 1992, sugar mills and plantations saw a huge rise and eventual fall in profits, resulting in mass migration from other nations, plenty of local employment opportunities and a once flourishing economy. However, all that came to an end in 1992 when the last sugar mill closed for good.

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Verdant green of the western coast, Hawai’i

From here we flew out to the Kohala coast where we saw amazing waterfalls, dropping in narrow veils over thousands of feet, their water droplets forming sparking diamonds in the glittering sunlight. There is something wistful and mystical about this place, when viewed from several feet in the sky, surrounded by the interplay of verdant greens and sparkling blues, of black cliffs and white peaked waves. This then, was the time to put away the camera and focus on enjoying the scintillating beauty of the world around us, as waves crashed into rocks and birds played in the air currents and time came to a standstill. It struck me then that this trip had been totally worth it. Yes, it was a lot of money. Yes, we had been bothered by motion sickness and the warmth in the cabin but the children, mercifully for them, went to sleep about 2/3rd of the way into the tour. But what we saw and learnt about the island, its eleven different ecological systems, its legends, its hopes and aspirations, its successes and failures, was worth every single penny we paid.

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Kohala coast, Hawai’i
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Kohala Coast, Hawai’i
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Contrast this with the lunar like landscape of the Volcanoes National Park

After a safe and smooth landing, and the customary photos, we tipped the pilot and were dropped back at the hotel. For lunch, we returned to the Lagoon grill for burgers and fries. It was such a large meal, we didn’t feel hungry until late for dinner. We changed into our swim clothes and made our way to the Kona pool. The kids went on the water slides a few times and lounged in the heated pools. After a relaxing afternoon spent poolside, we returned to the room for one last view of the legendary sunset.

For dinner, we took the shuttle bus to the Queens Marketplace. Our plan was to eat at Charley’s Thai. Although the restaurant was small and crowded, we were willing to wait our turn patiently. And in the end, were well rewarded for our patience. The menu had a variety of options and the food was excellent with just the right taste and flavor, and a very friendly waitress, to boot.

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Simply stunning beauty!

After a quick second trip to the local grocery store for breakfast items, we returned to the hotel, happy to call it a day. And what a day it had been!