If you forgo touring Kauai by helicopter, you’ll miss seeing the vast majority of its untouched ridgelines, emerald valleys, and exhilarating waterfalls. Yes, the rides are expensive ($200–$300 per person), but you’ll take home memories—not to mention photos, videos, and/or a professional DVD—of the thrilling ride over Waimea Canyon, into Kalalau Valley on Kauai’s wild Napali Coast, and across the green crater of Waialeale, laced with ribbons of water.
Most flights depart from Lihue, last about 55 to 75 minutes, and, regardless of advertising, offer essentially the same experience: narrated flights, noise-canceling headphones with two-way communication, and multi-camera videos of your ride or a pre-taped version (often a better souvenir). The risks are also about the same—Kauai’s last crash involving a sightseeing helicopter was in 2007, with many thousands of flights safely flown since. (If your pilot chooses to bypass Waialeale due to bad weather, appreciate his or her caution.) So how to distinguish among the half-dozen major operators?
Given the noise inflicted on residents, wildlife, and tranquillity-seeking hikers by flights that hover as low as 500 feet, I recommend touring with the most eco-friendly of the bunch, and most luxurious: Blue Hawaiian (www.bluehawaiian.com; tel. 800/745-2583 or 808/245-5800). Its American Eurocopter Eco-Star choppers have a unique tail design that reduces noise and fuel use, while the roomy interior has six business-class-style leather seats with premium views. The best seats are the two next to the pilot, but the raised row of rear seats won’t disappoint (keep in mind seating is usually determined by weight distribution.) The 55-minute “Eco Adventure” ride from Lihue costs $239 ($211 when booked online at least 5 days in advance), which also makes Blue Hawaiian the best value.
For those staying on the North Shore, it may be more convenient to arrange a tour with Sunshine Helicopters (www.helicopters-kauai.com; tel. 866/501-7738 or 808/270-3999). Its 40- to 50-minute flights from Princeville Airport are in quiet, roomy Whisper Star models, similar in design to Blue Hawaiian’s Eco-Stars (it flies different craft out of Lihue.) Tours cost $289 for open seating, $364 if you want to reserve an even roomier “first class” seat in the front row; it’s $249 and $324, respectively, if you book online, with an extra $10 off on flights before 8:30am or after 2pm.
Napali Coast viewed from helicopter.
Although its aircraft are not as quiet as those of Blue Hawaiian and Sunshine, two other companies have unique itineraries deserving of consideration. Island Helicopters (www.islandhelicopters.com; tel. 800/829-5999 or 808/245-8588) has exclusive rights to land at remote 350-foot Manawaiopuna Falls, nicknamed “Jurassic Falls” for its movie cameo. During your 25 minutes on the ground, you’ll hear about the geological history and rare native plants in this area of Hanapepe Valley, which like Niihau is owned by the Robinson family. In part due to landing fees and fuel costs, Island’s 75- to 85-minute Jurassic Falls Tour costs a whopping $371 ($321 booked online, plus a 4-percent credit-card fee); it leaves from Lihue Airport. Safari Helicopters (www.safarihelicopters.com; tel. 800/326-3356 or 808/246-0136) offers the 90-minute Kauai Refuge Eco-Tour ,which includes a 30- to 40-minute stopover at an otherwise inaccessible Robinson-owned site overlooking Olokele Canyon; Keith Robinson is occasionally on hand to explain his efforts to preserve rare, endemic plants here (which your landing fees subsidize). The tour costs $279 ($252 booked online) and departs from Lihue.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.