Just how beautiful is the island of Kauai when seen from a helicopter? Short answer: So beautiful that tears ran down my face as I looked out over the NaPali Coast and the long jagged fingers, locally called “palis,” that plunged into the Pacific Ocean.
I don’t write this lightly: As a travel and outdoors writer, I go to spectacular places and tell people how to make the most of their journeys to them. None have grabbed me by the throat like Kauai, the easternmost and geologically the oldest of the Hawaiian islands.
In Your Bucket Because…
- This flight-seeing tour takes visitors from the wettest place on earth to sere canyons that look like they could be in an Arizona desert to the unique landscape of the NaPali Coast.
- That waterfall from Jurassic Park really does look like it did in the movie, and you can see it yourself.
- Much of Kauai is inaccessible wilderness: This way, you get to see it.
- Good for families and photo buffs.
The thing about Kauai, though, is that most of it – some 80 percent, in fact – is inaccessible, protected wilderness. The only way to see it is from the air. Having scuba dived off of Poipu, hiked and sailed on the NaPali Coast, kayaked and stand-up paddle-boarded on the north shore, and ridden a horse into the foothills of the Hanalei Mountains, I sort of had the idea that I’d already seen Kauai.
Not even close.
Landing at Manawaiapuna (“Jurassic Park”) Falls
I’d signed up for Island Helicopters’ waterfall landing tour, which circles Kauai, with a stop at Manawaiapuna, the waterfall made famous in Jurassic Park. Yes, that waterfall. At the front office, we signed our liability waivers, stood on a scale (don’t worry, your secret is safe with them), then took our places in the waiting area, where we were assigned seats based on our weight in order to balance the chopper. The helicopter seats six (the pilot, and five guests). I drew the seat on the back right-hand side, lucky for me, because we were going around the island mostly clockwise. We strapped ourselves in, put on big Bose headphones, and to the sound of music chosen by Isaac, our young pilot, we ascended into the sky.
Isaac is clearly a guy who loves his job, and he’s good at it, too. The helicopter moved as smoothly as the most luxurious Rolls Royce. The music he’d chosen was fittingly dramatic, an appropriate score for jagged ridgelines and pounding surf. And while he occasionally pointed out particularly interesting features or shared nuggets of information, he also gave us plenty of time to absorb what we were seeing.
We started by heading into the mountains around Kauai’s south shore, then veered into the interior, over fields that were once used to grow sugar cane, but now are used to grow taro, a local root product used in poi, the pasty condiment beloved by locals and considered a difficult-to-acquire taste by most everyone else. There isn’t much left of the sugar cane business in Kauai.
And then the music changed to that three-note motif, played over and over: John Williams’s famous score from Jurassic Park. To the building crescendo of a full orchestra, we descended alongside the towering waterfall, landed, and took a short hike to hang out at the falls for a while. Isaac showed us bits of concrete that marked where the helipad was constructed for the movie; they took off right at the base of the falls (as opposed to using our landing spot, which was maybe 50 yards away).
From Desert to Rainforest in Less than Half an Hour
A few minutes later, we climbed back in the chopper, and headed toward Waimea Canyon, a red and buff landscape so dramatically dry that we could imagine that we’d wandered off course into Arizona’s Grand Canyon. From there, we jogged over to Kauai’s remote and wild west coast, where we looked down over the NaPali cliffs, famously accessible only by intrepid hikers. That’s when the tears started. I stared fixedly out the window; this felt private. I don’t mind telling you about it now, but I wasn’t going to actually let anyone see me cry.
We continued flying around the NaPali Coast, looking down at the wakes of catamarans and the town of Hanalei, where I swear, the shoreline looks like a dragon sleeping by the sea. Going inland again, we found ourselves in Waialelale Crater, a world away from the thirsty Waimea canyonlands. It seemed we had jumped a million ecozones to find ourselves in the island’s green and fog-shrouded interior, with scores of waterfalls plummeting hundreds of feet in thin silver lines. The Hawaiian word for water is Wai; the word for wealth is Wai-wai. With some 400 inches of rain a year, this part of Kauai is the wettest place on earth. By the measure of the ancient Hawaiians, we were looking down at liquid gold.
- If you want to land at Jurassic Park falls, Island Helicopters is the only service with permission to land there. Other services offer other tours, but without the dinosaurs.
- Wear dark clothing. Light colored clothing reflects against the windows, which messes up your photos and everyone else’s.
- Take Dramamine if you are prone to motion sickness. My ride was smooth as silk, but that may not be the case if the weather is a bit unsettled.
- Make sure your camera batteries are fully charged and you have lots (and lots) of memory left on your memory card. Spares of both are always good ideas.
- If you respond to beauty like I do, bring a hankie.
The Kauai waterfall landing helicopter ride is about an hour and fifteen minutes. I was thinking that maybe after a little time had passed, it would recede in my memory, but no, the images are still burned into my mind, and they are going to stay there. Kauai by air is, quite simply, unforgettable.