World's Coolest Helicopter Rides
Veteran helicopter pilot Chip Kalvin refuses to retire. After clocking 10,000 hours above Alaska’s glaciers and ice fields, he’s still hooked on the thrill of helicopter flying. And he’s not alone. “People often come back from one of my flights and say, ‘That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen or done in my life.’”
That’s hardly surprising. Helicopter rides reward the traveler with an incredible aerial perspective, thanks to their ability to fly lower than planes and hover over points of interest. And you don’t need to travel far from home—or shell out a small fortune—for this experience. Helicopter sightseeing excursions can be surprisingly reasonable, considering their bucket-list nature and the bragging rights that come with them.
Take thundering Victoria Falls, for instance, which stretches 5,600 feet between the Zambia and Zimbabwe borders. It’s a site that’s literally too big to appreciate at ground level. So rather than trekking around this awe-inspiring natural phenomenon, New York photographer’s agent Emily McNeil booked her first helicopter ride. “I had no idea the scale of the falls until we flew over,” she says. “Seeing how the Zambezi River winds through the landscape, nourishing the land and then falling over the rocks…. I may not have taken a breath again until we touched down.”
It’s not only natural sights that have the ability to take your breath away when seen from a chopper. In Hong Kong, a chaotic metropolis of skyscrapers and jet-setters, you can indulge the impulse to rise above it all by taking a helicopter ride on the Peninsula Hotel’s whirlybird. You’ll soar over the world’s tallest hotel (the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong) and the lavish homes studding Victoria Peak, as ships ply the harbor far below. This 15-minute joyride may well be the most thrilling part of your entire vacation and the story you can’t stop sharing. And to take advantage of this opportunity, you don’t even have to be a guest of the hotel.
The common denominator? Once you’ve taken one of these amazing helicopter rides, you won’t see the earth in the same way.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The world’s largest barrier reef extends 1,600 miles along the Coral Sea off Australia’s northeast coast. It nurtures diverse marine life—and even the occasional romance. Sydney-based personal assistant Amy Harrison got engaged during a helicopter tour over the reef. “We hovered over the famous heart reef, where my boyfriend presented me with a sapphire ring,” she says. “The pilot was caught off-guard and jolted the helicopter slightly, but he was pretty happy for us!”
The Ride: Hamilton Island Air’s Whitehaven Beach Picnic experience goes over the Whitsundays Islands and reef then lands at Whitehaven Beach for a champagne picnic.
$433 per person for two hours, includes picnic with sparkling wine, beach gear, and hotel pickup. Whitehaven Photo Scenic: $215 per person for 20 minutes.
Grand Canyon, AZ
You’ve peered into the Grand Canyon from the South Rim, you’ve traipsed down its vertiginous sides on a mule, you’ve even gingerly ventured out onto the cantilevered glass Grand Canyon Skywalk. But you haven’t truly appreciated “one of the great sights which every American should see” (as Theodore Roosevelt put it) until you’ve buzzed over in a helicopter.
The Ride: A Grand Kingdom tour from the South Rim with Papillon Helicopter Tours takes in the forested North Rim, the dramatic Dragon Corridor, and the Little Colorado Confluence—regarded as a sacred place by the Hopi Indians.
$258 per person for 45–50 minutes.
The east-meets-west allure of cosmopolitan Hong Kong doesn’t wane, no matter who’s in power. In a city full of skyscrapers and jet-setters, it’s only natural to want to rise above it all. Helicopter rides take in sights like Kowloon Bay, Victoria Peak, and the glittering skyline.
The Ride: The swanky Peninsula Hotel is the only hotel in town with its own helicopter and helipad. Guests get priority, but anyone can book a joyride.
$107 per person for 15 minutes, based on six passengers ($642 total).
Amalfi Coast, Italy
Ischia—a volcanic island in the Bay of Naples inhabited since the time of the Phoenicians—is the launching point for flights over some of Italy’s most famous attractions. You’ll soar above the craggy island of Capri, the Amalfi Coast, Naples, and the remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the two towns buried under ash when Vesuvius erupted in 9 B.C. Then get up close to the vengeful mountain itself, which is still active, although it hasn’t erupted since 1944.
The Ride: The tour with SAM Helicopters passes over Sorrento, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the summit of Vesuvius.
$525 per person for 50 minutes based on six passengers ($3,150 total).
Alaska’s sheer numbers are telling: more than three million lakes, 16,000 square miles of glacier ice, and 34,000 miles of shoreline. But they don’t mean much until you’ve witnessed it all from a great height. Juneau, in the state’s southeast, is an ideal launching pad for flights over the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier, one of Alaska’s premier attractions.
The Ride: Temsco Tours takes passengers up over glaciers and remote ice fields, with stops to explore the scenery and even a nearby dogsled camp.
Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter and Guided Walk: $265 per person for 55 minutes. Pilot’s Choice Tour: $409 per person for 80 minutes.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia
Locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders.” These falls straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, reaching 5,600 feet across and plummeting from a height of 360 feet. Scottish explorer David Livingstone made this natural wonder famous around the globe after spotting it in the mid-1800s—and would likely envy today’s explorers, who can swoop over the monumental gorges by helicopter.
The Ride: Safari Par Excellence (or SafPar) offers two “Helicopter Flips” over the falls, one from the Zimbabwe side, one from Zambia.
$133 per person for 12–23 minutes; $248 per person for 25 minutes.
The 50th state lays claim to some of America’s most dramatic scenery, from rainforests to black-sand beaches. “The Big Island is more than twice the size of the other Hawaiian Islands combined, so the helicopter tours are a perfect opportunity to see the island in its entirety,” says Jaisy Jardine, director of public relations at the Fairmont Orchid, whose guests often request the tours.
The Ride: Blue Hawaiian’s “Circle of Fire Plus Waterfalls” flies over the Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting continuously since 1983, as well as rainforests and waterfalls. Pilots monitor the viewing spots where lava may be moving that day, a phenomenon that can change hourly.
$196 per person for a 50-minute tour.
Rio de Janeiro
Escape the tourists thronging the most visited city in South America by taking off (literally) on a whirlwind tour of Rio’s landmarks, including Ipanema Beach and the statue of Christ the Redeemer, one of the world’s most photographed man-made sights—which you can capture from an unusual vantage point.
The Ride: Helisight flies over the lagoon, Ipanema, Copacabana, the Maracanã Soccer Stadium, and Sugarloaf.
$313 per person for 12 minutes.
Royal Davui Resort, Fiji
Guests of the exclusive Fijian resort Royal Davui—16 villas take up an entire 10-acre island—arrive in style via a helicopter flight from the capital, Nadi, a service booked through the resort. It’s the first in a series of indulgences: private cliff-top plunge pools, in-room spa treatments, and fresh seafood beneath the restaurant’s banyan tree.
The Ride: The Island Hoppers helicopter takes off from Nadi, passing gorges and rolling green hills then the azure waters of Beqa Lagoon and a landing on the resort’s poolside helipad.
$700 per person for one hour.
With its futuristic buildings and fashion-forward locals, Japan’s capital is plenty to take in just from street level. So what about from the air? Find out on a quick trip over iconic city sights like Tokyo Tower, the Imperial Palace, and trendy neighborhoods Ginza and Shinjuku.
The Ride: The Tokyo City Cruise with Excel Air Service buzzes the metropolis on both day and evening flights.
$125 per person for a 15-minute day flight; $150 per person for night tours.
This British Overseas Territory ticks all the tropical idyll boxes: palm trees, white sand, and clear cerulean seas. The 40 islands are 550 miles southeast of Miami and have an annual tourist population that far outnumbers full-time residents. Treat yourself to a flightseeing tour that perfectly showcases the islands’ beauty.
The Ride: During the Cays tour with Jetstream Helicopters, you’ll fly along the north shore and take in Iguana Island, Pine Cay, Delis Cay, and Parrot Cay (watch out for famous marine resident JoJo the dolphin), then return via the south side of the islands.
From $245 per person for 20 minutes.
Columbia Mountains, Canada
This mountain range in southeastern British Columbia is popular for summer walks, when the landscape explodes with wildflowers. If you want to get your adrenaline pumping, turn to Canadian Mountain Holidays. Founded by Austrian mountaineer Hans Gmoser in 1959, this tour company was the first to offer both heli-skiing and heli-hiking. Guests board a helicopter daily to travel between their lodge and scenic points on remote mountain ridges.
The Ride: The “Two Night Short Escapes” depart in early July, with guests staying at the Bobbie Burns Lodge. Included are transfers from Banff/Calgary, accommodations, all meals, hiking equipment, and guided tours by helicopter and on the ridgelines with certified guides.
$1,730 per person for a two-night escape.
Laikipia Plateau, Kenya
Teeming with wildlife, Laikipia is a jumping-off point for airborne excursions to explore the lake-covered eroded volcano Mount Kenya and Ol Lolokwe, a sheer mountain sacred to Northern Kenya’s Samburu people. Along the way, passengers get a bird’s-eye view of animal patterns below along the vast savannas of the Northern Frontier District.
The Ride: U.K.-based Original Travel collects guests from their lodge and whisks them off on a heli-safari that includes either a champagne breakfast or cocktails.
$1,269 per person for three hours based on four passengers ($5,079 total).