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Flying in Paradise
Discovering Kauai's Hidden Wonders From Above
Visitors to the Garden Isle naturally want to absorb as much of paradise as possible. Those who arrive on Kauai by jetliner get just a glimpse of the island’s breathtakingly gorgeous landscapes. However, to view the gushing waterfalls and emerald rainforest of the remote interior requires a smaller form of transportation that provides a closer perspective. A trip to the Garden Island is not complete without some form of an airborne adventure -- one of the three experiences of Kauai’s air-land-sea activity trifecta.
Kauai is blessed with wild, untouched natural beauty unlike anywhere else on earth, much completely inaccessible except by air. Ninety percent of the island is not accessible by land vehicle, and 70 percent is inaccessible by foot. Flying tours provide panoramic views of the island’s visual treasures, among them, Manawaipuna Falls, a location for Jurassic Park, the countless cascading falls of Waialeale Crater, and the famous Napali coast, with its verdant, razor-thin cliffs.
A trip around the island by air helps visitors understand the geography and decide which sides of the island they want to explore Fun in the Air flying in paradise further. From the air, a passenger observes that Kauai is a mini-continent with micro-climates ranging from desert on the West Side, to the primeval Alakai Swamp above the emerald Napali cliffs, to the Waimea “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” one of Kauai’s natural wonders.
You can embark on one of these exciting flightseeing excursions in a number of ways. Helicopter is the most common method with several companies departing from Hanapepe (West Side), Lihue (Central), and Princeville (North Shore). A flight less than an hour in length will feel rushed. Some helicopter tour companies provide noise-canceling headphones with music piped in and narration from the pilot. Some choppers have opening windows so photographers may take pictures without glare. Four and
six-passenger helicopters are available.
Flights from the Lihue Airport typically start out over Nawiliwili Harbor and the Menehune Fish Pond. According to legend, the pond was built overnight by the Menehune (little people) who inhabited Kauai before the Polynesians arrived. The helicopters then pass along Haupu Mountain Range, heading inland and westward over Hanapepe Valley, Olokele, and the dramatic Waimea Canyon. Depending on the time of day, the intensity of the sun, and the presence of clouds casting shadows, the variegated colors in the canyon’s layers range from fiery orange and rust red, to glowing copper and bronze, to pastel hues of taupe and terra cotta.
The incredible remote valleys of the Napali coast come into view next. Knife-edge ridges separate the lush valleys where the Kalalau, Hanakoa, and Hanakapiai waterfalls plunge hundreds of feet into streams on their way to kissing the ocean. Sea caves and a hanging valley have been carved out of the coastline by the incessant, pounding surf.
Leaving Napali, the chopper passes Mt. Makana, the peak portrayed as the island Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific. Below you can see Kee Beach at the end of the road on the North Shore and the beginning of the eleven-mile hiking trail to Kalalau Valley. Kee Beach is also the site of well-known beach scene between Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain from the television mini-series the Thorn Birds. The helicopter next soars over Hanalei Valley, the home of rainbows and patchwork quilts of taro fields, passing by more sparkling waterfalls on its way to the center of the island. In the center of Kauai, Mt. Waialeale -- known as “the wettest spot on earth” with over 400 inches of rain annually -- is also the location of Kawaikini Peak, 5,243 feet above sea level and the highest elevation on Kauai. From above, you can spot the “Blue Hole,” actually a pool, at the base of Mt. Waialeale, and the result of the convergence of two streams and a waterfall.
Flights departing from Princeville soar over the Hanalei Valley, the Napali Coast, and Waimea Canyon. One helicopter company provides tours of the "forbidden" island of Niihau, a private island off the west shores of Kauai (and ancestral home of Hawaiian musician Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo’ole, known for his medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World"). The only other way to see Niihau is by personal invitation. Flights to Niihau leave in the morning from Port Allen in Hanapepe for an excursion to an island untouched by development and crowds. Monk seals laze on the beach where glass balls can still wash up on the shore. Visitors spend a few hours swimming, snorkeling, beachcombing or just relaxing and sunbathing before returning to Kauai.
Helicopter tours are operated on a weather-permitting basis and reservations should be made in advance. Some companies will arrange custom tours or photo charters to specific sites. Partly cloudy skies with a little rain shouldn’t keep visitors from taking a flight. A veil of mist behind a pali (cliff) accentuates its razor-sharp edge and, as everyone knows, sun and showers are the ingredients for Kauai’s world-famous rainbows (and sometimes double rainbows).
A slower, more relaxed adventure by air is via a small, fixedwing airplane or an open cockpit biplane. Fixed-wing air tours are 45 minutes to one hour long and cover the entire island of Kauai. Also available are private charter biplanes, departing from Lihue, which allow customized flights. These planes are built to emulate aircraft from the 1930s and 1940s, but with modern modifications for safety and comfort. Standard, pre-designed sightseeing flights of the island from 30 minutes to one hour long are also available.
For those who have dreamed of being able to fly, the Ultralight "Trike" – an open-air two-person engine-powered hang glider -- emulates the experience. The Ultralight is as close to real flying (as in, "I’m a bird!") as you may ever experience. Combine the thrill of this open-air, wind-in-your-hair ride with Kauai's spectacular scenery and you have an experience better than any dream. The craft is stable, considered to be safer than hang-gliding, features the latest digital instrumentation and global positioning systems, and is engine-powered. The Ultralight takes off and lands on regular runways and has parachutes onboard for safety. If you've seen the movie Fly Away Home, the contraption that Jeff Daniels flies to lead a flock of orphaned Canadian geese home (though not on Kauai) is an Ultralight. For incredible images of Kauai taken from the vantage point of an Ultralight, check out the video, Extreme Kauai, available at http://www.bestbookshawaii.com.
One of the main reasons visitors choose Kauai as their vacation destination is the island’s incomparable natural beauty.
Having traveled to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to find Kauai, experiencing the Garden Island from above can be the literal highlight of a dream Hawaii vacation.
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