The Hawaiian Islands are full of must-do activities, but it's pretty hard to top an extended, first-person look at molten lava.
"You can see it a zillion times on the TV or in movies, but when you see it in real life it's a whole different viewing experience, and it does make a big difference," said Calvin Dorn, owner of Paradise Helicopters. "Watching molten lava flowing like water always gets people excited."
On a recent visit to the Big Island, which is the only location in the state where intrigued viewers can get an up-close peek at an active volcano, Dorn flew a small group of us on his company's three-hour Volcano and Valley Landing Tour. A former Marine Corps pilot, Dorn's been flying helicopters for decades and exposing clients to soaring views of the Big Island since the early 1990s. He purchased what is now Paradise Helicopters in January 1999.
"Every day is different, and you're not really sure what each will bring," Dorn said of flying over the Big Island's lava fields. "But it's rare that we don't see something out there that really grabs people's attention." Hot air
Five of us were buckled snugly into the rear section of a Bell 407 helicopter; we were all sporting high-tech headphones that framed bright eyes and goofy grins. The spine-tingling aerial views were initially full of lush green and the Pacific's consummate brand of blue, but that soon gave way to a jagged expanse of black.
Wind-hurried plumes of steam and gas became more and more common, and then the unmistakable glow of molten rock lighted up an expanding fissure along the horizon.
Within minutes, we were circling above a frenzied torrent of liquid rock, surrounded on all sides by cooler, black stone. Although all we saw was a dramatically warped, oval-shaped "skylight" about 150 yards in diameter, the opening was plenty big enough to get a feel for the furious surge of igneous material racing toward the ocean.
"I always try to tell people to put the back of their hand up to the window, so they can feel that radiant heat," Dorn said of the exposed lava flow. "Unless it's completely contained within one of the tubes, you can almost always find a place where you can really feel the heat off the volcano." Highlights abound
The island of Hawaii is an extraordinarily diverse destination and home to 11 of the world's 13 climate zones. Rain forests, snow-capped mountains, black-sand beaches, towering waterfalls -- you can see all of that and a great deal more on the right Big Island day. And by the end of the three-hour tour with Paradise Helicopters, the molten lava was just one of a great many highlights. Landing in and exploring a rich valley along the Hamakua Coast was certainly another, and according to Dorn, that region is always a favorite.
"People are always amazed by just how much diversity the island has," he said. "And I'd say without a doubt, just about everybody is very impressed with the valleys and the waterfalls at the end of the trip."
In an effort to show off as much of the island as possible, Paradise Helicopters offers a range of different products, including a "Doors Off" flight and packages that enable Kona-based vacationers to explore the east side of the island without extensive driving time.
"What I really like about Paradise helicopters is they have a lot of different types of tours that they offer that are really different from some of the other vendors," said Tracie Kahikina, a concierge at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. "They've got all these relationships with people that allow them to go on private property and do these things that some of the other companies just aren't able to do."
The Volcano and Valley Landing Tour is $433.35 for adults and children. All of Paradise Helicopters products are 10% commissionable to agents. For complete details, visit www.paradisecopters.com