Day #57 - Up, up and Away!

We know that when we get back home and see all our friends and family again, one question were going to be asked is "What was your favourite moment?". James and I keep thinking that yea, this day was our best day or this experience was the best so far - things just keep getting more and more amazing. It was always going to be tough to pick out just one highlight.
Well today provided an experience that is definitely the strongest contender for that number 1 spot.  For both James and I ticked off a major bucket list experience that left us smiling for hours afterwards. We toured the volcanos in a helicopter!! 
Before we got to take to the skies, we picked up our friend Jose from his hotel and drove across the centre of the island towards Hilo, the "city" where our helicopter was based. We have been to Hilo twice before on our day trips and this time we got to experience the one of the key roads of the island in daylight. When we travelled the road last time, it was nighttime as we used it as our return route.
Being able to see the scenery this time was really cool. The west side of the island we've been staying on is dryer than the east side and so the landscape is a dramatic barren land with sharp hills and mountains rising up in between blackened lava flows from years gone by. 
We stopped off at Rainbow Falls again because this was one of the prettiest waterfalls we knew of and we thought Jose would appreciate it (he did). There has been some.rain since we were here on Day #53 which meant there was more water flowing over the falls and, guess what? This meant that Rainbow Falls has its own rainbow! Today was going to be a good day!
We also stopped at the stunning Hawaiian Botanical Gardens. The garden is located in a scenic valley opening out to Onomea Bay and was initially developed from 1977 to 1984 and now the valley is home to over two thousand plant species. The gardens are laid out in a semi-formal way with a path that leads you down the valley to the shore. On the way, you pass various collections, grouped by family or type. The area is a rain forest so naturally there is an abundance of lush vegetation and spectacular species all thriving and giving us the most spectacular display.
The coast was just as magical as the flowers!
When we arrived in Hilo, we had some time to kill so we took a leisurely lunch in a local park that was a Japanese Garden. Regular readers will know how much James loves a Japanese garden and this one was our fourth of the trip. Although it wasn't as spectacular as the others we have seen, it still invoked a tranquil atmosphere and had some lovely oriental structures even if it was a bit short of classic Japanese flora.

After our lunch (cheap sarnies from a newsagent style shop - we knew they would be a bit dry when we were offered sachets of mustard and mayonnaise!) We drove the short distance to the airport and located our helicopter company's base.
You could tell the staff at Safari Tours were used to dealing with nervous fliers since they were so friendly, calm and reassuring - not that any of us were nervous! We all had to be weighed so they could "weight balance" the aircraft. With all the good eating we've been doing it's a wonder I was allowed on board! We were also given the mandatory preflight safety briefing video. We've all sat through safety briefings before on aeroplanes; this helicopter briefing was quite different! 
No life jackets under your seat - you wear one around your waist! No pointing out of emergency exits - you're sat next to it! Plus no camera straps or lanyards that might get caught on a lever that jettisons the door! No need to duck under the spinning blades, they're 9ft off the ground, but please no jumping or wearing of hats! 
During the flight we wore headphones so the pilot could communicate with us (helicopters are noisy!) but of wanted to talk, we had to use a microphone and talk to everyone. So no private jokes to James about our sexy cool pilot (Chewy) then!
We were joined on our flight by newly weds Isabella and Pietro from Austria. They had only just got married that morning! It was lovely to spend some of their special day with them and I hope they took away with them great memories like we did. 
The flight itself was everything you would expect it to be. Having never been in a helicopter before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect in terms of sensations. I think the best way to describe it is swooping! We swooped off of the airfield and into the blue skies, then across the island in one graceful movement. 
As we headed inland, we saw various waterfalls that were carving their way deep into the island rocks. The river valleys were narrow and so we weren't going to get too close to the waterfall, but we were able to admire them from afar and enjoy their grace and elegance.
Further inland, we started to enjoy the main attractions - Kīlauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes. The majestic mountains gently rise up into the sky. The majority of the mountain is actually below sea level. Unlike regular non-volcanic mountains that are formed by existing land being pushed upwards so their base is at ground level, these mountains are build up from new rock and started life well below current sea levels. So the bottom of the mountain you see, isn't their true base. Think "Tip of the iceberg"! One volcano on the island, Mauna Kea Mauna rises 13,796 feet above sea level but extends about 19,700 feet below sea level to meet the deep ocean floor making its total height nearly 33,500 feet considerably higher than the Mount Everest
Here's a video montage of the flight:
On our safe return, all of us were buzzing after such an epic experience. The drive home was filled with talk of what we all had witnessed and how our perceptions of the island had changed. It's one thing to see these sights from the ground; quite another to see them from the sky! Today will live with all of us for many years to come. Plus, what a sunset to end the day!