Rise to new heights over island splendors

A helicopter ride over volcanoes and mountain crevices can be surreal

I had done all the seashore things along the beach at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel: snorkeled among the lava rocks, watched young hammerhead sharks and parrot fish cavort in the hotel's saltwater pools, and handfed sea turtles Bibb lettuce leftover from lunch, as they paddled about just a few feet from the beach.

Now I was ready for a more, well, lofty adventure.

"I want something different. Something really Hawaiian. Something I can't do in Boston," I pleaded to the hotel concierge.

"I have just the thing," she said, reaching into her desk drawer and snapping open a brochure. "Blue Hawaiian Helicopter tours. Everyone loves it."

"Three hundred dollars? That's pretty pricey."

"Worth it," she countered, "Plus it's the two-hour volcano tour."

Hot stuff! I booked the earliest flight. "All I need is a credit card number and your weight," the concierge said, smiling.

I dutifully handed over my card.

"And your weight, Mr. Young?"

"My...?"

"Weight."

"Weight?"

"Yes. That determines where you will sit in the helicopter."

I discretely wrote it on the back of my business card, shaving off only a few pounds.

"Well, now. Looks like you'll get to sit up front."

I didn't pursue the conversation.

Next morning the ocean was calm as day-old lime Jello-0, and the palms were still as a postcard. My shuttle to Blue Hawaiian picked me up at dawn for the 10-minute ride to the helipad.

Passengers had arrived and anxiously paced about, sipping hot coffee or ice water. The only laid-back soul was Pappy, a 15-year-old, live-in feline, who was neatly folded on a chair.

Six blue, $1.3 million, French-made, AS350B2 Eurocopters sat on the round tarmac like menacing dragonflies on a giant lily pad.

After a quick briefing on boarding safety and etiquette, we queued up, six per 'copter, and marched single file to the droning aircraft.

"You're in the front, Mr. Young. We want to keep the weight ..."

"Yes, thank you, I know."

Our pilot, Jeff Anderson, turned up the air conditioning and turned on the Hawaiian music piped through our state-of-the-art Bose earphones.

Suddenly we lifted off, whipping the surrounding palm trees into a frenzy, and rose into the blue sky like the opening scene in "M*A*S*H."

Pappy never so much as blinked.

Up, sideways, up again, a stomach-turning bank to the left, and off we went, music lilting in our ears.

The western side of the Big Island is parched and arid, pilot Anderson commented. A trump card for the hotels that bank the ocean, but poor for farming.

The main attraction, though, is the flight over Hawaii's Volcanic National Park. Below us, the caldron of the volcano gurgles and steams like a giant pot of Three-Alarm Chili. Great tubes of cold lava curl over the streams of molten rock as it works its way down to the sea. At water's edge, it pours into the cold surf, creating banks of steam. Some surrounding beaches are dressed in black sand created by lava that has been ground up by pummeling waves.

"There's quite a wind, but we'll dip down for a closer look," said our pilot as we banked toward the cliffs. We flew along the coast, then inland a bit, landing in Hilo for a quick hit at the snack machines while our copter refueled.

Up again, we hovered over Hilo and the surrounding agricultural town. Below, the land was lush - dotted with orchards of macadamia-nut trees, avocados, and remnants of the former king crop of the island, sugar cane.

Certainly the most spectacular vistas are the dips into the deep green crevices sliced in the mountains along the coast. Here we swept by thin waterfalls that cascaded hundreds of feet into freshwater pools below.

"Two helicopters landed down there," said our pilot, pointing to a large, flat rock below. "It was for a wedding. Clothes, I believe, were optional."

Enough of the racy stuff, it was time to head back to Waikoloa along the hotel-dotted coast. We disembarked ducking under the helicopter's blade, buzzing with excitement.

And there was Pappy who never moved, or so much as wiggled a whisker to greet us.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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