I wrote last week about driving the road to Hana for the first time, including the southern portion along dirt roads and past rusted barriers. But another first — despite several trips to Maui — was a helicopter tour. We toured the same eastern half over Haleakala and Hana the day before. For some reason we thought we’d get a sense of where to visit when we had the opportunity to stop our car and get out. Not true. It went by fast enough and the perspective was completely different. But it was a very unique experience that I’m glad we tried.
What really stuck with me about the experience was that as we approached some waterfalls and decided to spend time looking at them, the helicopter just stopped. We flew right up to the waterfalls, maybe 200-300 feet away, and stopped.
In a plane we would have whizzed right by at 150+ mph. Being able to stop and survey our surroundings was easily the best part of the trip. In most other ways it was similar to my experiences flying with my dad in his small propeller plane. It’s a bit cramped, and we had to wear headsets in order to block out the noise from the blade (we could hear the pilot over the intercom but couldn’t speak to him).
Our tickets were purchased in advanced through Costco, which sells 45-minute tours of Hana and Haleakala on Air Maui for $199 per person (another group of four was in our helicopter). A 60-minute tour is also available for $247, and you have the option of visiting other areas of Maui or even the nearby island of Molokai. Like most helicopter tours, they depart from the rear of the Kahului airport, which is a 20- to 40-minute drive from most resorts on the island.
As I mentioned in my review of the Hyatt Regency Maui, there also appear to be tours that leave directly from the hotel. I expect those are more expensive, but there is a discount available to Diamond members.
We arrived 30 minutes early to check-in, as requested, and since there wasn’t much else to do I went back to the parking lot to do some planespotting through the fence.
When our helicopter arrived we put on some lifejackets (not inflated, but stored in fanny packs) and headed out for a photo-op before getting into the cabin. Then it was a smooth liftoff and over the nearby cane fields as we headed south toward Wailea. Our pilot was pretty comfortable at the controls and seemed to know his job well, reeling off facts and locations as we sped over the terrain.
He was seeking out a hole in the clouds so he could ascend above the cloud layer and show us Haleakala. Remember that the clouds tend to accumulate over Wailea in the afternoon, so I recommend you go for a morning tour if you’re able to head out that early. Ours was around 11 AM.
Besides the waterfalls I mentioned earlier, the most next most impressive moment was when we surfaced above the clouds and found ourselves staring right at the Haleakala crater. Megan and I had been to Haleakala before, but we were seeing it from a very different angle. I don’t think we quite appreciated how large it was before, going on for miles and miles as if it were an entirely separate island hidden above us the whole time. We were now close to the crater’s bottom instead of looking down on it from the peak. We were also along were alongside so we could see all the smaller cones within it.
After a quick peek above, we headed back down to zoom around the east and north shores, doing the Road to Hana in reverse. First stop, the Ohe’o Gulch and Waikmoku Falls (remember, we didn’t get to see the falls on our drive).
We went into the half-circle of rock surrounding Waikmoku and turned around, getting an incredibly close look. I set down my camera to take it in, so this is as good as you get from me.
There were many other waterfalls, mostly on the east side before we went north to Hana. This one below was one of the most impressive ones, but I can’t remember the name. This is only the top half. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were 500-1,000 feet tall.
As we continued on, the island became much flatter. Surprisingly flat, actually, for an area known for all its waterfalls. You really need to drive all the way around the island. 😉 But you can see how green it is. The resort areas of Ka’anapali and Wailea get much less rainfall.
There really wasn’t much to see of Hana. As I said last week, it’s a very small town without much more than a few houses and a general store, plus two small inns. But if you want to get out there and save yourself the drive, there is an airport. Mokulele Airlines offers flights for under $100 from Kahului, as well as connecting flights from other islands. It’s something that I’ll consider in the future if I decide I want to spend a few days in Hana instead of just pass through.
Past the airport is Pi’ilanihale Heiau, an ancient Hawaiian temple and the largest on Maui. It was constructed from volcanic rock and can be viewed much closer in person if you pay for admission to Kahanu Garden, one of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens and just a few miles outside Hana.
We stayed over the water, passing by more beaches and rocky cliffs. Occasionally we’d spot parts of the Hana Highway with cars slowly moving across. There were a few pools and smaller waterfalls — no more than 20-30 feet. But nothing really stood out that we could match against what we saw by car the next day.
Finally it was time to head back. Over the farmers’ fields, with the airport in the distance, we swooped south before heading back to arrive gently on the landing pad. It was smoother than most trips by plane, closer to the action, and a lot more enjoyable than I expected. Helicopter tours certainly aren’t cheap, so I don’t expect we’ll do one on every trip to Maui. But I do recommend you try it at least once. I expect in the future we’ll get to go on one again and explore the rest of Maui as well as some of the other islands.