Kauai, Hawaii, lovingly known as The Garden Isle, is gorgeous from any angle, but with most of the island totally inaccessible by car, it’s best to take to the air for the truly incomparable views.
Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, is also the lushest and most varied of the bunch. Most of Kauai’s 552 square miles are totally inaccessible by road, which means that much of the island is still wildly remote and untamed. Visitors hopping from beach to beach by car will miss out on Kauai’s most majestic views via an hour-long helicopter tour.
An aerial tour is the best way to see the hidden landscapes of the Garden Isle. Helicopters are popular because they can fly at low altitudes and hover for the best views. Additionally, they are much more maneuverable than planes for exploring the island’s many valleys, gorges, and sea cliffs. Some important considerations to take into account when choosing one, include: the type of aircraft and its seating layout, length of the tour (50-95 minutes ), and whether the doors will be on or off.
Many tours depart from the airport in Lihue, then fly clockwise around the island. Soon the tour leaves civilization behind, but even the aerial views of the city are beautiful. Here in the foreground is Huleia Stream and Menehune fishpond. Legend has it that Hawaii’s first and somewhat mythical people—the Menehune—built the fishpond in a single night for their princess and her brother. In the far background is Sleeping Giant, a mountain resembling a man sleeping on his back; it’s a popular hiking spot.
The southern and western sides of the island are surprisingly arid. Here you’ll find the Koaie and Poomau Canyons along with the famous Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Waimea Canyon is 10 miles long, one mile wide, and more than two-thirds of a mile deep. The gorge cuts through stratified cliffs inhabited by feral goats. The few hardy plants that survive both the goats and harsh environment glow lime green against the red-orange soils.
Most of Kauai’s aerial tours are conducted in comfortable, six-passenger A-Star (or Eco-Star) helicopters with giant floor-to-ceiling windows for jaw-dropping views. But adventure-seekers (and photographers) will much prefer the exhilarating experience of a doors-off flight in a four-passenger Hughes chopper with Jack Harter Helicopters. Prepare for buffeting winds, roaring noise, and bone-rattling vibration, but the overwhelming views suppress any discomfort.
Kauai’s climate is incredibly varied for such a small patch of land. The windward northern and eastern sides of the island command much of the rain. Most of the remaining moisture buckets down over the island’s mountainous interior, making the leeward south and west very dry. As the tour circles clockwise from west to north, bare, sandy slopes give way to blankets of green in every conceivable hue, draping terrain that’s almost beyond the imagination.
The Nualolo Valley is near the western gateway to the Napali Coast, where sea cliffs tower thousands of feet above the Pacific Ocean. Just inland from the coast is the hiker’s paradise of Kokee State Park. Here, dozens of trails crisscross canyons, forests, swamps, and ridgelines, where you’ll find plenty of spectacular views of the rugged Kalalau, Honopu, and Nualolo Valleys.
Nestled like a hidden gem in the Napali Coast is one of the most majestic beaches in the world—Honopu Beach. It’s actually two beaches sheltered by 1,200-foot cliffs and separated by a massive stone arch carved by the relentless winter north-shore surf. You’re not likely to see much of a crowd on this secluded beach because the only legal way to visit is by swimming, either from a boat anchored offshore or from Kalalau Beach a few miles away. Oh, and the only way to get to Kalalau Beach is to hike or kayak for 11 miles.
The Kalalau Trail that leads to Kalalau Beach is the most famous in all of Hawaii. It’s a punishing but spectacular 11-mile backpacking trail that routes adventurous trekkers up and down extreme seaside cliffs and over narrow hairpin ledges before arriving at a remote beach campsite in paradise. Permits for the hike are limited and must be booked far in advance, but everyone can get a taste for the trail by walking the first section to Hanakapiai Beach, pictured here on the right. An extension of this day-hike leads inland through the valley to mesmerizing Hanakapiai Falls.
Kee Beach is literally the end of the road for cars on the north shore. Visitors that aren’t tackling the Kalalau Trail or walking to Hanakapiai can have a perfect day here swimming and snorkeling in the turquoise waters, strolling on the long, golden beach, or enjoying a picnic in the shade of tropical trees. Keep an eye out for sea turtles!
One of the last sights before returning to Lihue is Mount Waialeale, which is among the rainiest places on Earth. Understandably, the peak is usually hemmed in by thick clouds, but helicopters can navigate into the Waialeale Crater, an amphitheater-like formation where waterfalls pour down lush, 3,000-foot cliffs all around. It’s the perfect end to an incredible aerial tour.
INSIDER TIPOn a doors-off helicopter tour, the wind is powerful, so no loose items are allowed and secure footwear is required. Cameras and even phones need to be attached with a neck or wrist strap. Also, a jacket, warm shirt, and long pants are recommended.