There's nothing quite like the aerial view of a waterfall crashing down a couple of thousand feet into cascading pools, or watching lava flow to the ocean as exploding clouds of steam billow into the air. You can get this bird's-eye view from a helicopter or a small plane. All operators pay strict attention to safety. So how to get the best experience for your money? Before you choose a company, be a savvy traveler and ask the right questions. What kind of aircraft do they fly? What is their safety record?
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. Hawaii Island's most premium ride is on the roomy, $3-million Eco-Star helicopter—so quiet you hardly realize you're taking off. No worries about what seat you get because there's great views from each one. Pilots offer great narration about the island but are not overly chatty. In the Waimanu Valley, the craft hovers next to 2,500-foot cliffs and dramatic, cascading waterfalls. The two-hour Big Island Spectacular also takes in Kilauea Volcano lava flows as well as the valleys. Most flights leave from their private helipad in Waikoloa, but the 50-minute Circle of Fire tour departs Hilo for the volcano's wonders. Waikoloa Heliport, Hwy. 19, Waikoloa, HI, 96738. 808/961–5600. www.bluehawaiian.com. $196.02–$495, depending on craft.
Iolani Air. These two- to six-passenger Gippsland and Cessna aircraft depart from both the Hilo and Kona airports, following the coastline all the way around for an aerial tour of the entire Big Island. You'll get a good view of fascinating geographic and historical points of interest. Four air tours are available, from a 60-minute tour of volcanoes and waterfalls (Hilo only) at $175 per person to a 2½-hour full-circle tour starting at $299. Highlights include the volcano, Waipio Valley, and the Kona Coast. 808/329–0018 or 800/538–7590. www.iolaniair.com.
Paradise Helicopters. This friendly company offers great options no one else does. On their landing tours, departing from Kona's airport, you can either touch down for a hike in a remote Kohala valley, experience a zipline, or spend a few hours exploring downtown Hilo. After flying over active lava flows, aircraft easily maneuver near the sheer valley walls of the east side. In a "doors off" adventure, four-passenger MD 500 helicopters (Hilo only) get so close, you can feel heat from the lava. Flights start at $159 for 45 minutes to $629 for deluxe, islandwide flights with landing tours. Pilots, many of whom have military backgrounds, are fun and knowledgeable. Free hotel shuttles run to and from the Kona and Hilo airports, where tours are based. 808/969–7392 or 866/876–7422. www.paradisecopters.com.