The World's Top 10 Aerial Tours
The hum of the single-engine Cessna fills your ears as you ascend above the Peruvian high desert. Below you, flat expanses of dry, brown earth extend in every direction, punctuated only by twisting dry riverbeds…a lifeless landscape. Then the plane banks, and over the intercom the pilot directs you to look at what appear to be just another set of curving, squiggly lines. But then, as you watch, the lines start to come to life, to form a definitive shape…with a spread-finned tail at one end, a gaping mouth at the other, and an eye in the middle, staring up at you: it’s a giant line drawing of a whale, carved right into the landscape.
An aerial tour is the only way to fully appreciate Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs, known as the Nazca lines; the 2,000-year-old depictions of animals and geometric figures can be miles long—much too immense to be seen from the ground. But though these earth-etchings are some of the most dramatic sights you’ll ever see from the air, there’s plenty of other scenery around the world best viewed from on high.
Most anyone who’s spent an hour playing with Google Earth already knows the fascination of observing places from above. When seen from a bird’s-eye perspective, even familiar land- and cityscapes become completely new, with colors, patterns, and geographical features you’d never known existed until you hovered above them.
So it makes sense that aerial tours—otherwise known as “flightseeing” trips—have become more popular and more specialized over the past few years. Many operators, such as the Wasilla-based Sky Trekking Alaska, have broadened their offerings considerably as customer enthusiasm has grown.
“The interest in seeing Alaska from the air has now evolved into trips that…include camping in national parks, visiting remote native villages, and enjoying bed and breakfast accommodations” over multiday flights, says Sky Trekking Alaska spokesperson Heather R. S. Oberholtzer. Most recently, the outfit has started offering Iditarod flight tours, which allow guests to track the famous dogsled race from above.
Today’s aerial tours run the gamut—taking in all kinds of scenery from a variety of airborne vehicles. Flightseeing enthusiasts can choose to take in spectacular landscapes—like the Grand Canyon or New England hillsides carpeted in fall foliage—via biplane or single-engine craft; they can also check out wildlife—like New Zealand whales or Tanzanian zebra herds—via helicopter or hot-air balloon. They can even hover above hectic cityscapes—like Tokyo’s famous neon-studded skyscrapers—in a zeppelin.
Planning ahead is important when booking an aerial tour. Some seasonal conditions—like winter snowfall and autumn’s changing leaves—are no-brainers, but there are other things to take into consideration too. Some regions have their own specific meteorological issues—like the dust that tends to hang in the air during the midday heat in the Nazca Desert, or the mini-monsoons that hit almost every summer afternoon in Australia’s tropical Whitsunday Islands.
Flightseeing trips that involve wildlife viewing can be harder to predict; they often involve flying over the right place at the right time. But since there are some animal routines that are well established—like the migration of wildebeest herds across the Serengeti every summer and fall, and the feeding patterns of sperm whales off New Zealand’s Kaikoura coast—it’s wise to talk to a tour operator about the best times to fly.
John MacPhail of Wings Over Whales, an aerial whale-watching tour based in Kaikoura, confirms this. Though “it’s not possible to predict when certain kinds of whales will be around,” MacPhail says—referring to blues, fins, humpbacks, and orcas—“sperm whales feed here all year round.” So, even on a not especially lucky sighting day, his tour participants almost always go home with full camera memory cards—and wonderful memories.
Nazca Lines Flight, Peru
The Scenery: The high, windless plateau of the Nazca Desert, one of the driest places on earth, is home to these mysterious 2,000-year-old geoglyphs. The miles-long carvings—in the shapes of animals, human figures, and trapezoidal lines that some say were meant to be runways for alien spacecraft—can really only be appreciated from above.
The Ride: In one of Mystery Peru’s Turbo Centurion Cessnas, you’ll be given a map to help orient you to the geoglyphs you’ll see from the air. During the 35-minute flight, the pilot will make numerous passes above the earth-images of whales, monkeys, geometric shapes, weird human figures, and the unexplainable lines that point in every direction.
When to Go: The Nazca Desert’s consistently dry climate means visibility is good year-round—but since a haze of dust often hovers during the height of the midday heat, plan to fly in the morning or late afternoon.
Iditarod Flight, Alaska
The Scenery: The 1,161-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the punishing contest that matches dogsledding teams against savage weather and brutal terrain, is amazing to watch from above. During Sky Trekking Alaska’s 12-day tour, you’ll spend part of each day tracking the mushers and teams, and also flightsee around other Alaskan landmarks.
The Ride: Sky Trekking Alaska’s Cessnas and DeHavilland Beavers are equipped with skis that allow them to land in remote snowfield checkpoints along the Iditarod Trail. As well as flying over the race and dropping in at checkpoints to see the dogsled teams up close, you’ll fly around Mount McKinley, mountain passes, and small settlements and outposts (where you’ll stay overnight). You’ll also work as a handler at the starting chute of the race, ride a snowmobile, and visit the kennels of champion sled dogs.
When to Go: The Iditarod starts on the first Saturday in March, and the length depends on how fast the huskies can run. The current record is 8 days, 22 hours, set in 2002.
Zeppelin Ride Over Tokyo
The Scenery: If you’ve ever looked at a satellite photo of the earth at night, you’ll know that Tokyo is so lit up like an over-decorated Christmas tree that you can see it from space. Experiencing the cityscape’s soaring, tightly packed towers and Blade Runner-esque neon from above is infinitely more peaceful than trying to navigate them on foot.
The Ride: On a Zeppelin Tours airship, you don’t exactly take off; rather, you gently float away from the ground (with the aid of engine power). The 90-minute flight gives you the same quiet airborne hang-time sensation of a balloon ride—but unlike a hot-air balloon, a zeppelin can maneuver in any direction, and the pilot is able to fly along at 45 miles per hour (which still seems almost motionless from a few thousand feet above).
When to Go: It’s best to book a flight that leaves in the late afternoon, for both the sunset and the sight of Tokyo’s neon lights flickering to life.
Serengeti Balloon Safari
The Scenery: The savannas, woodlands, and wetlands of the Serengeti are striking all by themselves—but are most famous for the enormous animal populations they support. Here, herds of zebra graze and giraffes nibble at high tree branches; jackals skulk through the bush, lions pant in the shade, and hippos bathe in rivers.
The Flight: Your balloon lifts off over the Serengeti at sunrise, then silently skims over the tops of umbrella trees and rises over the vast Serengit, the Masai word for “endless plains.” After the one-hour flight, there are toasts with champagne and a full English breakfast served on tables set up under a shade tree. The flights are open to anyone, but it’s much easier for guests who are staying at one of the Serengeti’s luxury lodges, like Serengeti Sopa Lodge or Kirawira Luxury Tented Camp.
When to Go: Although Tanzania’s weather is good for ballooning all year, you should try to book your trip during the great wildebeest migration, which is considered one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth. It occurs from late May through June and then again in November and December.
Kaikoura Whale Watch Flight, New Zealand
The Scenery: The waters off Kaikoura—on the northeastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island—are prime whale-watching territory (and often too rough for whale-viewing by boat). The reason: the Hikurangi Trench, a 3,000-to-6,000-foot-deep undersea canyon that attracts squid and fish, which in turn attract sperm whales—along with occasional dusky dolphins and orca, pilot, humpback, fin, and sei whales.
The Flight: Wings Over Whales’s 30-minute flights (in either a four-seat Cessna 172 or an eight-seat Gippsland Aeronautics Airvan) boast a sperm-whale sighting rate of more than 95 percent. “The whales do not even know we are there,” says company spokesperson John MacPhail, who notes that the planes fly 500 feet above the animals. From above, however, MacPhail says, “you can see the whole whale, rather than just a small part of the whale’s back.”
When to Go: While sperm whales are local residents and can be seen throughout the year, May through June is when the humpbacks arrive to breed.
Himalayas by Balloon, Nepal
The Scenery: Floating over Nepal’s Katmandu Valley, not only can you look down over monasteries, stupas (Buddhist monuments), and terraced rice paddies; you can look around you at the snow-covered peaks of the world’s tallest mountain range—including Ganesh, Langtang, and Gauri Shankar, and rising above them all, Mount Everest.
The Flight: Once your nine-story-tall balloon lifts off, you’ll float across the valley for between one and two hours. You’ll reach a flying altitude of almost 10,000 feet—which may be too high for comfort if you’re prone to altitude sickness or not yet acclimated to the Katmandu Valley’s thin oxygen.
When to Go: October–November and March–April are the best times of the year for ballooning (and traveling) in Nepal; the most popular ballooning trips leave in the early morning to catch the spectacular sunrise as it lights up the mountains.
The Scenery: Remote, frozen Antarctica is the most pristine and least explored continent on the planet. Getting here—never mind exploring—can be extremely challenging, so the only way to do a day trip is to fly. From above, you’ll have spectacular views over ice-encrusted mountains and massive icebergs.
The Flight: Croydon Travel in association with Qantas runs 11-hour round-trip flights on Boeing 747 passenger jets, leaving from Melbourne and Sydney. Four hours is spent flying over the Antarctic scenery at 10,000 feet with the pilot making sweeping figure-eight loops over all of the best landmarks—some of which are mountains that close the altitude gap to 2,000 feet. During the “dead time” flying to and from Australia, Antarctica experts host discussions on natural history and environmental topics.
When to Go: The very limited flights are offered in December and January this year and next, and need to be booked well in advance. Especially popular is the New Year’s Eve flight, where passengers are the first to see the first sunrise of the New Year while singing “Auld Lang Syne” and dancing in the aisles.
Great Barrier Reef/Whitsunday Islands Flight, Australia
The Scenery: The largest coral reef complex in the world (covering more than 217,000 square miles), Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is scattered with jewel-like islands—most famously the tropical Whitsunday group. From above, you can see these sugar-sanded, palm-studded islands (many of them uninhabited) in all their beauty. And if the flight leaves you longing to dig your toes in the sand, don’t worry—you’ll get to do that too.
The Flight: Flights depart from Whitsunday Airport in the mainland town of Airlie Beach. After looking down at the brilliant colors of the Great Barrier Reef from a classic Cessna or DeHavilland Beaver floatplane, you’ll descend—and land on water—right off the stunning, powdery Whitehaven Beach, the Whitsundays’ most famous. There, you can wander along the four-mile crescent of sand, or strip down to your swimsuit for a swim or snorkel.
When to Go: Anytime you can. The Whitsunday Islands have gorgeous tropical weather almost all year round—although Southern Hemisphere summers (December–March) may bring some brief afternoon rain showers.
New England Autumn Foliage Flights, Maine
The Scenery: The gorgeous autumn colors of New England’s broadleaf trees—mostly maples, oaks, birches, and beeches—have drawn crowds of leaf-peepers for decades. And while hiking among the colors (and crunching leaves underfoot) has plenty to recommend it, nothing quite compares to seeing the majesty of whole mountainsides carpeted with fiery shades of red, orange, and yellow.
The Flight: Katahdin Air Service, based in central Maine (along the southern edge of the North Maine Woods), offers scenic tours ranging from half-hour flights to overnight getaways where you’re dropped via floatplane at a lakeside cabin for fly-fishing and canoeing (and picked up a few days later).
When to Go: Early to mid October is the time to go for Maine (if you’re planning to hit the more southerly states—New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts—you can wait another week or two). Since peak foliage weeks vary a bit from year to year, though, check the Weather Channel about first frosts and fall foliage updates when planning your trip.
Grand Canyon Heli-flight, Arizona
The Scenery: The 277-mile-long, mile-deep chasm that the Colorado River has spent the past six million years carving was best described by John Wesley Powell, who first navigated the canyon in 1869: “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself,” he wrote. He was right: it’s that stunning.
The Flight: After takeoff from Las Vegas in a DeHavilland Twin Otter Vistaliner, you’ll cruise over Lake Mead and Hoover Dam before arriving at Grand Canyon West, a section of the canyon where helicopter flights are permissible. From there you transfer to your craft and descend 4,000 vertical feet between striated red cliffs to the canyon floor. Upon landing you are free to explore the traditional stomping grounds of the Hualapai Indians and picnic along the riverbanks.
When to Go: The canyon is gorgeous year-round, although summer months can be punishingly hot (i.e., not great for strenuous hikes). By early December the canyon is often dusted with snow—a lovely sight that few people have experienced.
From the article The World’s Top 10 Aerial Tours