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Aerial Tours

There's nothing quite like the aerial view of a waterfall that drops a couple thousand feet into natural pools, or seeing lava flow to the ocean, where clouds of steam billow into the air. You can get this bird's-eye view from a helicopter or a small fixed-wing aircraft. Although there have been a few cases of pilots violating flight paths and altitudes over resident communities in recent years, most operators are reputable and fly with strict adherence to FAA safety rules. How to get the best experience for your money? Before you hire a company, be a savvy traveler and ask the right questions. What kind of aircraft do they fly? Do they have two-way headsets so you can talk with the pilot? What is their safety record?

Iolani Air. These two- to six-passenger Gippsland and Cessna aircraft depart from both the Hilo and Kona airports, following the coastline all the way around for a view of the entire Big Island. You'll get a good view from every seat of fascinating geographic and historical points of interest. Four air tours are available, from a 60-minute tour of volcanoes and waterfalls at $175 per person to a 2½-hour full-circle tour starting at $289 per person. Highlights include the Waipio Valley and the Kona Coast. PHONE: 808/329-0018 or 800/538-7590. www.iolaniair.com.

Paradise Helicopters. This friendly company offers some great options no one else does. On landing tours, departing from Kona Airport, you can either touch down for a hike in a remote Hamakua Valley, take a zip-line tour, or have lunch in Hilo. After taking you over the volcano's lava flows, the aircraft easily maneuver near sheer valley walls, ensuring breathtaking views. In the four-passenger MD 500 helicopters (departing Hilo only) you can experience a very cool "doors off" adventure where you can even feel the heat from the volcano. Flights start at $200 for a 50-minute flight to $495 for a three-hour landing tour. Pilots, many of whom have Coast Guard backgrounds, are fun and knowledgeable. Free shuttles available to and from the Kona and Hilo airports, where tours are based. PHONE: 808/969-7392 or 866/876-7422. www.paradisecopters.com.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. Without a doubt, this is Hawaii's most comfortable ride. It's not every day you can climb aboard a brand-spanking-new $3-million-dollar Eco-Star helicopter—a gorgeous craft so quiet you hardly realize you're taking off. It's very roomy so you aren't crammed in with other guests, and there are great views from every seat. Pilots are knowledgeable about the island, but are not overly chatty. You'll fly into the Waimanu Valley, hovering next to 2,500-foot cliffs and dramatic, cascading waterfalls which will take your breath away. The two-hour Big Island Spectacular also takes in the Kilauea Volcano lava flows. Prices start at $196.02 and go up to $495 per person (depending on the type of craft). Most flights depart from their private helipad in Waikoloa. Waikoloa Heliport, Hwy. 19, Waikoloa, HI, 96738. PHONE: 808/961-5600. www.bluehawaiian.com.

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