Motion sickness for the privileged few!
How the Hell We Ended Up Doing This
Planning our trip to Hawaii was an interesting challenge. It would be my boyfriend’s first real family vacation with my kids and my mom. I wanted to make sure he and I got some time away from the family, and it was also his first time in Hawaii, so I wanted to make sure he got to do some cool stuff.
I guess I was feeling particularly flush, because one activity I offered to take everyone on was a helicopter ride. This has been on my annual list of things to do (I don’t do resolutions anymore, I only do lists of cool experiences I want to prioritize for the year) for the past 3 years, so I felt like it was time. Let me describe for you the options I was offered by our concierge, all with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters:
- Option 1: Expensive. 50 minutes. Leave from Hilo (1h 45m drive from our rental house).
- Option 2: Very expensive. 1 hour 45 minutes. Leave from Waikoloa (40 min drive from our rental house).
When going over the options with everyone, I said that we could all do Option 1, or Glenn and I could do Option 2. Well, the kids did not like the idea of driving three and a half hours round-trip to do the 50 minute flight. I can’t blame them. I didn’t really want to do that drive either. But I’m not sure they realized what they were passing up…
Bonus: you get to wear these cool personal flotation devices around your waist!
So, I booked just the two of us on the longer flight, and even paid for the special upgraded helicopter (bigger helicopter, individual seats vs. bench, floor-to-ceiling windows which increase viewing by 50%). And so, on day 3 of our vacation, we said goodbye to the family after lunch and headed up to the Waikoloa Heliport.
Just before we left, Rowan begged me to come along. I felt so guilty leaving him behind, but stuck to my guns. There was no way I’d be bringing a 7-year old along on that expensive of a flight. Sorry, kiddo.
In retrospect, eating a light lunch and then snacking on day-old malasadas in the parking lot was not a good idea. Donuts always upset my stomach (not cool, universe!), and I usually feel more nauseous the emptier my stomach is. And I didn’t bring the Sea-bands I bought on the snorkel cruise, which was a huge mistake. Pro tips #1-3: Eat a decent-sized meal about an hour before your flight, and maybe munch some saltines just before takeoff. Don’t drink a ton of fluid, or anything caffeinated – two hours in the air is longer than you think. Wear your Sea-bands.
Turns out, this particular helicopter tour was voted #1 by The Travel Channel as the “World’s Best Helicopter Thrill.” In thinking about this tour, the term “thrill” hadn’t really entered my mind. I just envisioned sweeping aerial views of volcanic eruptions, lush canyons, and towering waterfalls. You know, an awe-inspiring perspective on nature’s marvels.
So… you know how when you’re flying over the Grand Canyon in a passenger plane, the only people on the plane who can see it are the ones on *that* side of the plane, and only in the window or middle seats? Go figure, turns out that’s true on helicopters as well. You can’t see shit out the opposite side of the helicopter, and if you’re in back, you can’t see shit out the front. And apparently what people want more than anything is to come away with cool photos and videos, so the pilots are all about getting your window facing the action. Think about that. How do you get EVERY window to face the action? YOU SWOOP.
Not only do you swoop. You swoop in figure-eights. We’re talking G-forces, people. Varying speeds, dips, climbs, swerves left and right, all at the same time. Total disorientation relative to the horizon. Oh, and it’s hot. Pro tip #4: Even if you get cold with the A/C vent blowing on you during the boring 15-20 minute ride from the heliport to the volcano, DO NOT close your vent. I did. I regretted it. Being cold is vastly superior to being hot when you’re motion-sick. Go with cold.
First we went to the main cauldron of the Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting continuously – without pause – since 1983. Apparently, this is actually Madam Pele’s home. The Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park headquarters is situated at the lip of the Kilauea Caldera, which seems like a truly terrible idea. On a previous trip there, the fumes were so noxious, and the wind was blowing in such a way, that they told visitors not to be outside for more than a few minutes. From above, you wonder what genius put the visitor center right there, and if it was the same genius who thought it was smart to build a golf course and town just beyond.
The town of Volcano
Anyway, there it was. Inside the caldera was the gray, cracked Halema’uma’u Crater. Within that, you could see a black crescent where the newest flowing lava had hardened. At the center of that crescent was a round collapsed crust, steaming and sinister, with a glowing red arc on the outermost edge. Later, zooming in on my photos, I could perceive glowing orange hairline fissures throughout the crater. Apparently this glowing arc is considered a lava lake. So it’s probably much bigger than it seemed from above. The helicopters have to say pretty high above the craters, presumably so they don’t get…ya know…erupted onto?
Halema’uma’u Crater erupting
To show us all of this, the pilot cruised by with the crater on one side of the helicopter, then swooped around and back across so that the other side could see, then back again, making figure-eight patterns across the sky, each time climbing to the apex of our arc, then diving, turning, climbing, swooping, and generally – diabolically – trying to make us all vomit.
Before takeoff, before green
Oh! And the music! Something you would never have even thought about! You know how they give you those cool headphones for hearing protection? Well not only can the pilot and passengers communicate through those, but they can also pipe in music to enhance your experience. On the way over to Kilauea, we listened to chill Hawaiian-esque grooves from Jack Johnson and the like. But once we got to the crater, the DJ spun up something that sounded like the score of a Bond movie. The music got your adrenaline up. It was exciting! It was sickening…
After the Halema’uma’u crater, we cruised a bit further over recent lava flows of various ages – distinguishable by whether / how much new vegetation had begun to grow – to the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent. This one was spectacular. Three areas of spewing lava, which looked like caves to me, tucked under the ledge of this crater. We swooped some more, and some more, and…you get the idea. This is when I realized I was nauseous. I searched for the horizon, tried to lean into the turns like I was riding a motorcycle, and took deep breaths.
Puʻu ʻŌʻō Vent erupting
The final area of volcanic activity was at Kamokuna, where the lava flow was entering the ocean. You can actually walk out to this point, but I doubt you’d actually see much from on land. Even from the helicopter, out over the ocean looking back toward land, we couldn’t see the lava. Just a lot of steam. And the strange murky waters surrounding what’s apparently a new peninsula growing where a 26-acre chunk of land recently broke off into the sea. This is when I realized I should re-open my A/C vent.
Kamokuna flow entering the sea
The pilot then said, “I bet you could all stand to fly straight and level for a while now.” Um, yes, please. So, north we flew, past Hilo, whereabouts I realized I also had to pee really bad. But who am I to ask for a pit stop? So we kept flying, with Mauna Kea and her observatory to our left, onward to the Hamakua Coast. Here in the Waipi’o and Waimanu Valleys, we got to see waterfalls as tall as 2,600 feet, impossibly steep cliffs covered in vegetation, and deep canyons that were beyond mysterious and verging on menacing. It was windy here, so there was some turbulence. Thanks, nature.
Mauna Kea, home to a super-bad-ass observatory which I will visit someday
The waterfalls were of course spectacular. But damn if the pilot didn’t swoop right at them! And up and down them! More than once I thought we might fly right into the cliff just so my side of the helicopter could see the falls. Dude, I’m good – just don’t kill us!
As you can tell, by this point I was growing weary of the swooping, of the whole thing, honestly. But at least I kept it together. The lady in the front seat asked for an “aloha bag.” Suddenly the cabin filled with a strong lemony scent, and the pilot opened his window. Then I looked forward and saw her bring the bag to her face. I looked out at the falls and thanked the universe that it was too noisy for me to hear what came next. The pilot got us out of the canyon, leveled off, and gently turned north again.
Here only Glenn and I could see the towering coastal cliffs, and the needle-thin waterfalls cascading down to the sea. The folks on the other side just got to look at the ocean. Sorry (not sorry) guys, no more swooping. Here we were treated to the music of Lindsey Stirling, which made me laugh. I began to picture her as Zelda, dancing through the Hawaiian jungle below.
There were some cool rocky beaches, some bizarre little settlements, a road with a 30% grade down into a canyon, and then the cliffs softened into rolling hills as we turned southwest to return to Waikoloa.
Awww, a cloud-bow!
Cattle ranches and rainbows were visible beneath us, up here in paniolo country. I couldn’t wait to get back to the heliport, and go track down some ginger ale and saltines. Soon we were making the actually-quite-exciting landing, and feeling like we accomplished something meaningful.
Speaking for myself at least, it was a mission accomplished. I don’t think I ever need to do another helicopter flight, but maybe in a decade or so I’d consider it. I texted my mom immediately to have her tell Rowan that he should be glad he didn’t come – he would’ve gotten SO SICK! Bye bye, guilt.
Bonus! Lessons Learned Regarding Photography and Videography
Turns out I was operating my camera incorrectly the entire time, so all of the thrilling video I thought I was shooting was nothing more than me toggling between viewfinder and display screen. Oops. Pro tip #5: Before you bring your nice-but-seldom-used camera on the expensive sightseeing flight with the upgraded helicopter for greater visibility, make sure you know how to operate the damn thing.
Pro tip #6: If you are not seated near a window, you might be screwed when it comes to videography. Glenn’s GoPro footage was pretty garbage, thanks to the difference in lighting from his seat in the middle of the cabin compared to the brightness outside. He got some good shots of us mugging for the camera, but when he aimed it outside, it just turned white. And you don’t get to choose your seat – they assign you a seat based on optimal weight distribution. Sorry, Charlie.
Pro tip #7: The helicopter company will happily sell you an HD video (Blu-Ray disc or USB stick) of your actual flight – including edits of video from inside the cabin, and all the chatter on your headsets – for only $40. Yeah…we opted to do this.
Related: Blue-Green Hawaii – Part 1, the Snorkel Cruise