Farms, gardens, and historic houses that may be open only to guided tours are listed under Things to See. For boat, kayak, bicycle, and similar tours, see our section on Active Pursuits.
Don’t believe the brochures with pictures of fountains of lava and “liquid hot magma,” as Dr. Evil would say. Although there are no guarantees you’ll see red-hot lava (and for safety reasons, you’re not going to fly all that close to it), a helicopter ride offers a unique perspective on the island’s thousands of acres of hardened black lava, Kilauea’s enormous fuming caldera, and the remote, still-erupting Puu Oo vent—the likeliest place to spot flowing lava. If you’re pressed for time, a helicopter ride beats driving to the volcano and back from Kohala and Kona resorts.
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (www.bluehawaiian.com; 800/786-2583 or 808/886-1768), a professionally run, locally based company with comfortable, top-of-the-line copters and pilots who are extremely knowledgeable about everything from volcanology to Hawaii lore, flies three different tours out of Waikoloa, at Highway 19 and Waikoloa Road. The 2-hour Big Island Spectacular stars the volcano, tropical valleys, the Hamakua Coast waterfalls, and the Kohala Mountains, and costs $589 per person ($739 with 20-minute landing at remote 1,200-foot Punalulu waterfall on the Hamakua Coast). If time is money for you, and you’ve got all that money, it’s an impressive trip, If you just want to admire waterfalls, green mountains, and the deep valleys, including Waipio, of North Kohala and the Hamakua Coast, the 50-minute Kohala Coast Adventure is a less exorbitant but reliably picturesque outing, costing $279. Both tours use the somewhat quieter Eco-Star helicopters with panoramic views from the large cockpit.
Blue Hawaiian also operates out of the Hilo airport (808/961-5600), flying the 50-minute Circle of Fire Plus Waterfalls tour, which is significantly cheaper—$259 to $309—because it’s closer to the volcano and waterfalls. On the other hand, if you’re willing to drive to Hilo, you really should continue on to the national park.
The similarly professional Sunshine Helicopters (www.sunshinehelicopters.com; 866/501-7738 or 808/270-3999) offers a Volcano Deluxe Tour ★, a 105-minute ride out of the Hapuna heliport, which includes Kohala Mountains/Hamakua waterfalls. It’s also pricey: $530 for open seating, $614 reserved seating next to the pilot on the six-passenger Whisper Star choppers. Less of a splurge—and less dependent on the ooh factor of oozing lava—is Sunshine’s 30- to 40-minute Kohala/Hamakua Coast Tour, which hovers above waterfall-lined sea cliffs and the Pololu, Waimanu, and Waipio valleys, for $209.
Note: Book online for best rates; ask about AAA discounts if booking in person. On all rides, your weight may determine where you sit in the helicopter. Wear dark shades to prevent glare, and dress in light layers.
Van & Bus Tours
Intrigued by the island lifestyle? Take a delectable peek inside private residences and gardens on one of the culinary home tours of Home Tours Hawaii (www.hometourshawaii.com; 808/325-5772). Groups of 6 to 20 (maximum) travel in vans from Kona to unique properties, dining on either an island brunch on the 5-hour tour ($189) or a decadent, multi-course chocolate tasting on a 3-hour, cacao-themed tour ($99). The latter visits Kokoleka Lani (“Heavenly Chocolate”) Farm, where affable host Greg Colden also runs Kona Natural Soap Company.
Many of the outdoor-oriented, but not especially physically taxing, excursions of Hawaii Forest & Trail (www.hawaii-forest.com; 800/464-1993 or 808/331-8505) include a significant time in comfy vans heading to and from remote areas, with well-briefed guides providing narration along the way. Thus, they’re ideal for seeing a large chunk of the island without having to drive yourself. The island’s premier outfitter, this eco-friendly company also has exclusive access to many sites, including the waterfalls on its Kohala Waterfalls Adventure ($178 adults, $154 children 12 and under). Most of its dozen tours depart daily from several locations on the Kona side ($89–$249 adults, $79–$179 children). Bird watchers can choose from two exceptional tours, which include 2 to 4 miles of hiking over 4 hours ($197–$225 adults only). Tours from Hilo—exploring volcano country, Mauna Kea, or Hilo’s waterfalls ($129–$179 adults, $99–$139 children)—are perfect for cruise passengers or anyone else on the Hilo side. Note: Mauna Kea tours are restricted to ages 16 and older, due to the high elevation.
From Kailua-Kona, it’s easy to book other all-day volcano and “circle” tours, which include the black-sand Punaluu Beach, the national park, Hilo, and Waimea. I recommend the environmentally conscious, community-oriented KapohoKine Adventures (www.kapohokine.com; 808/964-1000), which offers a variety of tours from Kona and Hilo ($109–$229 adults, $99–$219 children 12 and under). Its 11-hour Waipio Valley Explorer tour, offered Monday and Wednesday through Saturday ($229 adults, $219 children, including lunch), departs from Waikoloa, with sightseeing at Rainbow Falls, Hilo Farmer’s Market, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, and Akaka Falls before the descent into Waipio Valley. For the exhilarating Lava Expedition ($129 from Hilo, $209 from Waikoloa), you must be able to hike for several miles across rough rock at night, but your starting point is even closer to the current flow than the county viewing area in Kalapana.
Note: Tipping the tour guide/driver $10 to $20 per person, depending on length and cost of the tour, is customary.
Planting a koa legacy tree
One of the most inspiring and memorable experiences I’ve had in Hawaii has been with Hawaiian Legacy Tours (www.hawaiianlegacytours.com; 877/707-8733), which allows visitors to help restore the native koa forest high above the Hamakua Coast. More koa means more native birds and less runoff, which can harm the reefs far below. Over its lifetime, the tree can also offset the carbon impact of a week’s vacation on this beautiful island. The freshly baked scones that await in the welcome center are pretty awesome, too.
After you check in at the handsomely restored ranch house in the tiny village of Umikoa (at 3,200 ft. elevation), guides in ATVs, or a Pinzgauer six-wheeler for larger groups, drive you even higher up the misty slopes of Mauna Kea, to the former personal forest of King Kamehameha the Great. Amid the new groves growing on the mountainside, where the mana (spiritual power) and beauty of your surroundings are spine-tingling, you’ll be shown how to plant a seedling. You can dedicate it to a loved one on a special commemorative certificate, and you’ll also receive its GPS coordinates, allowing you to monitor its growth via Google Earth.
The 2-hour Planters Tour, including one tree for planting, costs $140 for adults and $55 for kids 5 to 18, while the 3 1/2-hour Grand Tour, which spends more time in the nurseries and on the Umikoa Trail, costs $210 for adults and $90 for kids 5 to 18. (Children’s rates exclude a tree for planting, but additional trees may be purchased for $90 each.) Private tours and shuttles (from the Kona and Hilo airports, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, and Hilo cruise terminal) are available for additional fees.
Note: If you can’t take a tour, you can pay to have a koa ($90) or an even rarer sandalwood tree ($110) planted for you; see www.legacytrees.org for details.
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.