Flying in a helicopter over a volcano.
I would say this is item three or so on the list (after seeing the Aurora Borealis and Paul McCartney in concert), so getting the chance to take it off the list is kind of a big deal. Turns out Hilo is a mecca for helicopter tours and it has a small airport that most of the companies operate out of.
But first! Interesting facts!
Hawai'i is the largest and the southeastern-most of the Hawaiian islands. It is known as the "Big Island" to reduce confusion between island and the state. Hawaiʻi was the home island of Paiʻea Kamehameha, later known as Kamehameha the Great. Kamehameha united most of the Hawaiian islands under his rule in 1795, after several years of war, and gave the kingdom and the island chain the name of his native island.
The Island of Hawaiʻi is built from five separate shield volcanoes that erupted somewhat sequentially, one overlapping the other. Two of them are currently active, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. Kilauea is the volcano that we flew across, it has been erupting continuously since 1983 and is part of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.
After the ship docked, we were just a quick cab ride away from Hilo Airport and then it was just a matter of finding the right company's tour desk. We had arranged to fly in a four seater helicopter (well, five with the pilot) and the company had to weigh us to determine the best distribution of our weight in the copter. After that bit of humiliation (thankfully they didn't announce our weight or anything like that), we were sent back to a little waiting room to watch a safety video and wait for the helicopter to return from the earlier morning tour.
We then walked over to the airfield, suited up with a floatation packet that wrapped around our waist and a headphone/microphone combination, and watched the helicopters fly back in. I have to admit at this point that I was starting to get a little nervous. Not terrified or anything, and more excited than scared, but still. My stomach was definitely doing a little tango.
But then it was time to climb into the helicopter, take our places and prepare for take-off. We were lucky in several ways: it wasn't actively raining right where we were (the side of Hilo with the airport is one of the wettest places in the US), and we were able to see real, red flowing lava! According to the pilot, that's actually pretty rare.
The view was not what I expected. Instead of your cliche cone-shaped volcano with lava pouring down the sides....
....Kīlauea is more like a huge gradually inclining lava field. I think the lava bubbles up from cracks in the earth itself (instead of the flowing out of the tip of a mountain), and gradually makes its way down to the ocean. It releases huge steam clouds when it hits the water, and results in Hawaii being the only state that is actually getting bigger every year! When the lava cools...presto, more land.
Lava steaming as it hits the ocean!
After spending a lot of time flying over the lava and the spot where it hits the ocean, we turned back towards the city of Hilo and flew over some beautiful waterfalls. The pilot was very chatty, as were we, and according to him we were one of the most fun groups he has ever had. I am sure he says that to all the girls, but he made a point of telling us that the group immediately before us rode in almost total silence...which is pretty boring for him. I think he appreciated all our bad jokes. And Monique's squeals of terror whenever he would quickly turn the copter. As for me, as soon as we got into the air, all my fear immediately evaporated and I just enjoyed the hell out of the ride.
We were totally the most fun group.
But it turns out our adventure wasn't over. When we got back to the ground we figured it would be a piece of cake to grab a cab to take us back to the port area. It was an airport, there are always cabs at an airport, right?
After waiting 15 minutes and seeing zero cabs, I started calling around to local taxi companies. It was a Sunday and the first one I called didn't operate on Sundays (....ok) and the second one the woman was downright rude to me. Apparently she has driven out to the airport to pick up people before and they have gotten other cabs before she got there and just left. My assurances that we would wait for her were not sufficient for her to "waste the gas to get out there." So she hung up on me. Now that's customer service!
At this point we were approaching the 45 minute mark of waiting. Kent and Monique went off to see if any of the rental car shuttles would be willing to take us (no dice), but then they noticed a car dropping off a guy at the curbside for a flight. In typical Kent fashion, he walked right up to the driver and told him we would pay $20 if they would give us a ride back to the port.
And that's how we ended up essentially hitchhiking with a very nice young stereotypically hippie stoner twenty-something couple. They did not rob, attack, or otherwise harm us, and were instead super fun and lovely to talk to. They were basically the poster children for stoner beach bums though. We had a laugh over that, believe me. No doubt what they were going to spend the $20 on. And it makes for a nice story, right? Don't tell me Mom though.
After getting back to the port, I decided to spend some time on the nearly-empty ship relaxing and taking advantage of the empty chairs in the solarium. Awwww....now that's a vacation. Later that night, around 10:30, the ship ended up sailing past the part of the island where the lava hits the ocean; the same part we had flown over earlier that day. We got some stunning photos of the lava at night. At least I did. The old ladies who were standing next to me and didn't know how to operate their digital cameras...not so much. But I did them a solid and took pictures with their cameras for all of them. Even the one who was standing on a chair behind me and figured it was ok to put her hand on my head to help her keep her balance. It's called personal space, lady.
Moe and I are ready for the helicopter!
Kent and I held down the backseats of the copter.
Looking out over the lava field.
Hey, that's our ride!
Macademia nut fields near Hilo.
Coming up next time, snorkeling adventure and dolphins on the other side of Hawai'i!