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 fixed-wing 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 premier flight is on the roomy, $3-million Eco-Star helicopter—so smooth and quiet you hardly realize you're taking off. No worries about what seat you get because there are great views from each. Pilots are also state of Hawaii–certified tour guides, so they are very knowledgeable and experienced but not overly chatty. In the breathtaking Waimanu Valley, the helicopter hovers amazingly close to 2,600-foot cliffs and cascading waterfalls. The two-hour Big Island Spectacular also takes in Kilauea Volcano lava flows as well as the valleys; you can even choose an optional waterfall landing as part of it. Most tours leave from Blue Hawaiian's Waikoloa heliport, but the 50-minute Circle of Fire tour departs from Hilo for the volcano's wonders. Tours on the company's A-Star helicopters are less expensive. Waikoloa Heliport, Hwy. 19, Waikoloa, Hawaii, 96738. 808/961–5600; www.bluehawaiian.com. From $259.
Paradise Helicopters. This locally owned adventure tour company offers numerous helicopter tour options, many of which are completely unique. The "Doors-off Lava & Rainforests Adventure" shows guests Hilo’s rain forests and Waianuenue (Rainbow Falls) before getting you so close to the lava flows that you can feel the heat, while the Sunset Experience allows you to experience glowing lava plus a Kona sunset over Puuhonua o Honaunau. Pilots, many of whom have military backgrounds, are fun and knowledgeable. The only helicopter company in Hawaii certified by the Hawaii Ecotour Association, Paradise offers you the option to offset your tour's carbon footprint by having a tree planted in Hawaii for each ride you take. Hawaii. 808/969–7392; 866/876–7422; www.paradisecopters.com. From $274.
Safari Helicopters. Based at the Hilo airport, Safari offers a 45-minute tour of the volcanic activity, craters, and lava tree forest or a 60-minute tour that visits these attractions plus the waterfalls. Book online for substantial discounts. Hilo International Airport, 2350 Kekuanaoa St., Hilo, Hawaii, 96720. 808/969–1259; www.safarihelicopters.com. From $189.
Big Island Air Tours. This small company, in business since the 1980s, offers fixed-wing tours of the island, including a circle island, Kilauea sunset tour, or Maui-Big Island tour. They also feature charter or cargo service between all the major islands except Kauai. This is a good alternative to the pricier helicopter tours. 808/329–4868; www.bigislandair.com. From $345.