Seeing Kauaʻi from the air is a thrilling and singular experience that may just define your trip to the Garden Island.
While expensive, it’s the only way to see much of the island, the majority of which is privately owned. Helicopter tours are by far the most popular option: while planes can fly no lower than 1000–1500ft, helicopters are allowed to fly as low as 500ft and can hover, too. The tours are popular with honeymooners – and with everyone who loves the romance of nature.
Here’s our guide to the best plane tours and helicopter tours in Kauaʻi.
How much is a helicopter tour?
The most popular way to see Kauaʻi from the air is to take a helicopter ride. Most helicopter tour companies depart from the airport in Lihuʻe; trips generally last 60 to 90 minutes, and start at around $229. Tip: make reservations online ahead of time to save a bit of money.
How to choose a helicopter tour
It’s worth doing some careful research before choosing an operator. You’ll have to decide what kind of aircraft and tour you want (some land in neat places), and whether you want the doors on or off (some passengers like the visibility, others don’t like the exposure to wind and possibly rain).
Doors-off helicopters are the way to go if you are an avid photographer (and don't suffer from vertigo). But expect conditions that are noisy and windy – and maybe just a little bit scary. Keep in mind that on a six-seater helicopter, two people may be stuck in the middle. While you can request a window seat, it’s the captain has discretion to move people around for weight balance.
You also get to choose from big-window, little-window and bubble helicopters (the last like the ones seen on M*A*S*H). The big differences will always be visibility and noise. More-modern helicopters are quieter and generally have big windows. You always wear headphones so you can talk with fellow passengers with a lower din, but even a slight reduction in sound can make your trip more pleasant. Then again, some of the older, louder helicopters have a sweet, retro, Magnum P.I.–esque vibe that makes for a thrilling ride.
Make sure to check your operator’s weather policy before booking. Rain delays do happen, and tour routes will vary depending on rain and winds. Cancellations or postponements by operators may happen on short notice. Consider booking early during your stay, so you can reschedule for later if need be.
To check any tour company’s comprehensive safety record, consult the National Transportation Safety Board accident database.
Safety and apparel recommendations
Ideally, strap everything down (hats, phones, cameras, etc.). It can get a little cold, so bring a jacket and long pants, plus decent shoes in case your tour includes a landing.
Always approach a helicopter from the front (never the back). The captain will generally indicate which side you should board. Put your head down, and hold onto your hat, just like they do in the movies – then relax and look outward as you listen to ongoing narration from the knowledgeable pilots. You can feel free to tip them afterward, but it’s not required.
Where do helicopter tours go?
From Lihuʻe, expect to see the Nawiliwili Harbor and the Menehune Fishpond, Kipu Kai and the Tunnel of Trees, Manawaiopuna Falls in Hanapepe Valley, Olokele Canyon, Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast, North Shore beaches like Keʻe and Hanalei, and Mt Waiʻaleʻale. While the rips up impossibly steep canyons are an adrenaline junkie’s dream, it’s really the close proximity to waterfalls – many of which can only be seen from the air – that makes these trips amazing.
The tours generally follow pretty standardized routes, but you can talk with your pilot to customize your tour experience, especially if it’s just you and your family or sweetheart taking the flight. This means getting closer to (or further away from) the ground, making more acrobatic banking turns or going with a more easy-breezy approach – however way you wish to fly.
For a really unique trip, consider a tour with Niʻihau Helicopters ($465 per person), which flies over much of Niʻihau island (avoiding the population center of Puʻuwai), then ends with snorkeling off one of the island’s beaches. Lunch, snacks and drinks are included (with a five-person minimum required).
Best helicopter operators in Kaua‘i
- Island Helicopters offers a landing on top of Manawaiopuna Falls, more commonly known as Jurassic Falls.
- Mauna Loa Helicopters is noteworthy for the chance to fly with no doors...freaky but fun.
- Jack Harter Helicopters lets you take a flight with one of the pioneers of flight tourism on the island.
- Blue Hawaiian Helicopters flies high-end choppers that are said to be less noisy.
- Safari Helicopters offers an ecotour with a 40-minute stop at a wildlife refuge.
Fixed-wing scenic flights
When you can take a helicopter right to the cone of Mt Waiʻaleʻale and hover there to your heart’s content, there seems to be little point in choosing a fixed-wing aircraft to tour Kauaʻi. There is one exception, however: a tour in an open-cockpit biplane, which flies so slowly it may as well be hovering.
The combination of the romance of early aviation, the sensation of the wind and roaring engine, and the emerald tropical island sliding below – not to mention sitting so close to your cabin-mate you may as well be in an embrace – makes this many a honeymooner’s first choice.
In fact, if it were up to passengers, biplanes would probably be as popular as helicopters on Kauaʻi, but there’s currently only one company that offers these scenic flights: AirVentures Hawaii, based in Lihuʻe. The tour leaves from Lihuʻe Airport and takes you north past the Wailua River and Kilauea Lighthouse. From there, you travel up the lush Hanalei Valley, continuing over the ridge to see cascading waterfalls and 4000ft cliffs. The flight then continues north past Hanalei to the Na Pali Coast, soaring past waterfalls and canyon drops through Waimea Canyon, and back to the South Shore, where you might just spot your hotel. The company even lets you keep the cool throwback hat and goggles as a souvenir of your only-in-Kauaʻi adventure.
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