The best way to see the volcano is from on high, in a helicopter. This bird's-eye view puts the enormity of it all into perspective. No two ways about it--this is an extraordinary way to see the red. The best helicopter firm is * Blue Hawaiian Helicopter (tel. 800/745-BLUE or 808/886-1768; www.bluehawaiian.com), the Cadillac of helicopter tour companies. This professionally run, locally based company has an excellent safety record, comfortable, top-of-the-line 'copters, and pilots who are extremely knowledgeable about everything from vulcanology to Hawaii lore. The company flies out of both Hilo and Waikoloa (Hilo is cheaper because it's closer). The Circle of Fire/Waterfalls 50-minute flight from Hilo takes you to the volcano and past waterfalls, valleys, and remote beaches for $130 per person; the 70-minute East Island Epic, a tour of rain forests, waterfalls, and the volcano, is $175 per person. From Waikoloa, there's the Kohala Coast Adventure, a 50-minute flight over the Kohala Mountains and remote valleys for $135 per person (volcano not included); or--my favorite--the 2-hour Big Island Spectacular, starring the volcano, tropical valleys, Hamakua Coast waterfalls, and the Kohala Mountains, for $290 (worth every penny).
If you'd prefer a fixed-wing aircraft, try Big Island Air (tel. 808/329-4868),which offers 1-hour volcano tours from Kona Airport in a twin-engine, air-conditioned airplane for $135 per person.