This tour service operates out of both the Kona and Hilo airports. We opted for the Big Island Circle Tour out of Kona since that is the side of the island we were staying. Our primary reason for taking an air tour of the Big Island was to see the lava flow at the Kilauea Volcano and the Pu’u O’o vent as the current eruption is in a remote area inland and outside of the Volcanoes National Park proper. The tour did not disappoint us!
We opted to take our air tour of the Big Island early in our two week vacation, at 7am while our bodies were still on Midwest time. Getting up at 5am was far less offensive to the senses than it would have been during our last few days in Hawaii. Doing any tour, by plane or helicopter, is best early in the morning because of the afternoon clouds that seem to roll in from the ocean to the north. We were rewarded with an outstanding morning to fly, plus our seven passenger fixed wing plane only had the two of us plus the pilot. It was very comfortable allowing for full access to the windows for photos and video. It was especially nice as I got to sit in the seat directly behind the pilot where there is a window that has a hinged opening to allow you to shoot photos and video without the potential for window glass glare. Each passenger had noise-canceling headsets with a microphone allowing for good two-way communication with the pilot and other passengers.
Once we had our safety briefing from our pilot Shawn, we were ready for take off. I had to laugh at the "inflatable air ring" that we had to strap around our waists "in the event of a water landing"...aka CRASH! Like the little yellow life preserver was going to be much use if we crash into the Pacific Ocean. The take off was smooth, heading to the south. As we flew over the various sites, Shawn provided narration of what we were seeing. Both David and I enjoyed having the opportunity to see from the sky many of the landmarks throughout the Big Island that we had seen or visited by land. The view of the macadamia nut and coffee farms along the southern coast of Kona were very impressive.
As we approached the Volcanoes National Park area, you could see the centuries of lava flows, many on top of previous eruptions. Then off in the distance, we could see the stream and fumes coming out of the current Pu’u O’o vent. It was breathtaking, literally. Fortunately, my asthma is not so bad that it created a true respiratory concern, but others should carefully evaluate their own medical limitations as the sulfur smelling "VOG" can really adversely affect one’s breathing capabilities. FYI, VOG is a mixture of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and water vapor (steam).
As we flew over the open volcano rim, it was almost surreal! Our pilot took the plane within a few hundred feet of the crater. I was able to snap several photos as David was videoing the entire experience. As we flew out to the current lava flow, I could feel the heat radiating up from the earth and through the opened photog’s window. I was surprised at how much of the heat I could feel. Because we were flying over this area around 7:45am, the red glow was not evident in many areas of the flow. There were some places, however, where you could see the glow quite vividly. Photos do not do justice to the sight was were treated to!
From the Volcano, we continued our trip towards Hilo. There we flew over two of the most well known waterfalls on the Big Island. Rainbow Falls provides ground visitors with a lovely rainbow view in the early morning. During our fly over, I caught a quick 15 or 20 second glimpse of the rainbow and was able to snap a photo before losing the view. The other waterfalls in the area are Akaka Falls on the outskirts of Hilo. Flying over this landmark really didn’t do justice to the size and beauty of Akaka Falls. While interesting to see from the sky, I would still recommend a road trip to this area.
As we traveled northerly, we got to see the huge oceanfront cliffs and valleys including Laupahoehoe Point where in 1946 a tsunami killed over 20 school children when the waves flushed through the narrow valley. We also had a bird’s eye view of the Waipi’o and Pololu Valleys. Leaving the north Kohala Coast, the flight proceeded through an area of noticeable climate and environmental change. So noticeable, the turbulence was significant and a bit concerning. Fortunately, Shawn gave us advanced warning and told us it was expected and not as bad as it might first seem. HA – easy for him to say!
Returning to the Kona Airport, we could see our resort up on the hillside above Waikoloa. We also saw the beautiful beaches along the Kohala and North Kona Coast . . . many of which were our favorite secluded snorkel areas. The landing was smooth and uneventful, ending our two hour adventure.
We thoroughly enjoyed our Circle Island Air Tour with Island Hoppers. The normal price is right at $300 per person. With the Entertainment Book, you can get a 25% discount. They also offer discounts at their website (www.fly-hawaii.com). If you do a timeshare tour, you can pick up this tour for around $170 per person if the resort participates in the "Diamond Discount" card.
In addition to the Circle Island Tour, they do offer other tours including a 45 minute tour of just the Volcanoes National Park area. Additional information and pricing can be found on their website (above).
Postscript: I am saddened to report that Island Hoppers lost a plane along with its pilot and two passengers on Tuesday, June 17, 2008. The cause of the crash into the Mauna Loa mountainside is still under NTSB investigation.