Awhirl over Maui


Story by Lehia Apana | Photography by Bob Bangerter

About 99 percent of the time, I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal. On this morning, however, I find myself inside the Blue Hawaiian Helicopters waiting room, hunched against the viewing window, arms crossed, fixated on the grey skies.

It has been raining all week, and while the downpour has ceased, I can’t stop staring at the smoke-colored horizon. I’ll soon be boarding a helicopter to tour Haleakala and East Maui. It’s only 9 a.m., and I’m already convinced that the day is ruined.

Moments later, I carefully settle into my seat inside one of Blue Hawaiian’s new Eco-Star choppers. I had read about this “Cadillac of helicopters” beforehand, and have lofty expectations. Mostly, though, I don’t want to break anything. With a $2 million price tag, our souped-up ride is outfitted with individual bucket seats, a wraparound glass cockpit and anti-vibration technology, among other comforts.

I slip on the noise-blocking headphones and listen to Capt. Rick Bass’s instructions. Each passenger is equipped with a microphone, and Bass, who is a state-certified tour guide as well as a pilot, encourages us to ask questions along the ride.

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“Just no karaoke, unless you’re good at it,” he jokes.

The ground crew flashes a thumbs up, and we begin to levitate. A song that sounds like something off a Zumba soundtrack flows through our headphones, signaling to me that this adventure has officially begun. By now, my pessimism has waned, and that once-empty glass is overflowing with anticipation.

We leave central Maui and head southeast towards Haleakala, gliding above the tapestry of sugarcane fields that carpet the central valley. From our lofty perspective, the action below seems to slow down. Cars crawl like worker ants along Hana Highway, and bustling Kahului seems still.

Kaho‘olawe, Lana‘i, Moloka‘i and Molokini appear in the distance, those sprawling islands dwarfed at this altitude. Capt. Bass points out that what we can see is only a fraction of the massive volcanic topography that’s rooted thousands of feet below on the ocean floor.

He identifies more highlights — Oprah Winfrey’s organic farm in Kula and the redwood forests of Polipoli State Park — luring my attention back and forth, my eyes scanning the horizon as if watching a Ping-Pong match. We approach Haleakala, the world’s third largest volcano, where clouds form like cotton balls and drift from the crater rim down the mountain’s outer slopes.

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We glide past Kaupo Gap on Haleakala’s southeastern face, hoping for a break in the overcast conditions and a peek inside the sleeping volcano, which last erupted in 1790. Capt. Bass explains that lava flows created this expansive divide as they traveled from the crater summit to the ocean. For a brief moment, we peer into the saucer-shaped crater, which nature has painted in shades of charcoal and crimson.

Despite the grey sky and stubborn cloud cover, Capt. Bass offers a silver lining to this week’s wet weather: “We’re going to see a lot of waterfalls today.”

We whirl to a neighboring valley, and within seconds, Capt. Bass’s forecast comes true. The shadowed terrain transforms into a water show fueled by seemingly endless cascades that span the mountainside. We’ve entered one of Maui’s secret places: the remote upper reaches of Manawainui Valley. I am suddenly in a different reality, and consider pinching myself, but instead grab my camera to snap proof that this place exists.

“We only get to see Manawainui like this once every blue moon,” says Capt. Bass. “We usually don’t get enough rain — but [the waterfalls] are really going off today.”

I begin counting them, but soon lose track, and rely instead on Capt. Bass, who estimates as many as thirty along this single cliff. Slender ribbons of water free-fall hundreds of feet; multitiered torrents tumble from one bluff to the next; and cascades plunge into pools so deep that it’s impossible to know where they end. According to Capt. Bass, the tallest waterfall here measures nearly 3,000 feet, higher than the world’s tallest building, the 2,722-foot-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

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It’s easy to be dazzled by thoughts of remote tropical valleys and pristine waterfalls. But once you’re hovering 4,500 feet above them, you understand the deeper seduction: witnessing the genius of nature that has shaped our island landscape. As compared to older parts of Maui, which have been carved out and manicured by nature, this area is still developing. Here at Manawainui, we see what these islands looked like thousands of years ago, no imagination required.

It’s as if I’ve won the lottery of Maui helicopter rides. I laugh at myself for having cursed the weather earlier this morning. We continue our journey, crossing over the bucolic small towns of East Maui. As we approach Hana, signs of human life emerge: tiny rooftops sprinkled across vast and verdant grassland, and Hana Bay’s horseshoe-shaped black-sand beach in the distance.

Capt. Bass turns our attention towards Pi‘ilanihale, an ancient Hawaiian heiau (temple) that was once lost to the jungle. Beginning in the early 1970s, local families restored this hidden treasure, now a National Historic Landmark. Located within Kahanu Garden, this three-acre structure is the largest of its kind in the Pacific, and is made of thousands of stones stacked up to fifty-five feet high, dwarfing every nearby structure.

This oceanfront heiau stands in contrast to its natural surroundings. Beyond its rock walls, a sprawling green lawn seems to glow next to the azure swells that slap against the lava rocks below. The structure’s exact history remains a mystery, adding a suspenseful allure to this sacred place.

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We follow the coastline back towards central Maui, where our trip began. Having grown up here, I assumed I had seen it all — or the best parts, anyway. These past fifty minutes with Blue Hawaiian have proved me wrong, revealing to me places I never knew existed and showing me familiar places from a new perspective, as if seeing them for the first time.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters offers a number of aerial tours. To book yours, call 871-8844 or (toll free) 1-800-745-2583, or visit their website:


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