After having lived on Oahu for almost two years, there were few items left remaining on my bucket list. However, there was one experience I had been dreaming of having the opportunity to take on for a while. It was the experience of an open-door helicopter tour of Oahu.
Ridges on ridges!
I knew the island would look unbelievable from the air and couldn’t wait to see the spine of the island from a birds-eye view. I organized the photography-specific open-door helicopter tour of Oahu. They are one of the few tour operators on the island who allow doors off and run specialty photography flights. This means your pilot will happily double back or fly to the exact position you need for your composition. You can communicate to the pilot via the headset and ask him to swivel, go backward and maneuver so you have the right angle for different shots. On a general flight, you will cruise past locations once and if you don’t get the shot it’s tough luck and the tour moves on.
We went for the open door helicopter tour of Oahu just after sunrise, hoping for some soft lighting. I love vibrant blues when they clash against the strong green tones of the mountains. That’s why I chose sunrise to mid-morning for the flight rather than a golden hour flight. it turned out to be a perfect decision. The weather was a little stormy so the lighting was forgivingly soft on the landscape and I even was able to shoot some thunderstorms raging over the island of Oahu from the safety of the sunny ocean.
A solo sail boat in Ala Moana
A storm rages over Kaneohe
The hard part about a doors-off helicopter tour of Oahu is that the weather changes quickly and is quite unpredictable as you will see in my photos below. On Oahu, we had sunshine, a rainbow, storms and thick clouds all within an hour. This rapid change in conditions coupled with the constant movement of the helicopter makes shooting an exciting challenge.
Pali Puka Hike
Fittingly, the first scene out of the airport to shoot was Ala Moana, my local beach for over 2 years. Looking down on this beach out of our open door helicopter filled with me so much nostalgia, I almost forgot I was holding a camera until I quickly grabbed the first frame of what would be an epic hour of photography and sightseeing.
We cruised straight over Waikiki, watching surfers catch waves from directly above, too high to notice the craziness of the strip. It almost seems like a peaceful beach district from the air. Looks can be deceiving. If you are just interested in flying over Waikiki there is an awesome tour option that is still doors off but is a specialized sunset Waikiki tour, which can be pretty epic at golden hour.
Flying over Diamond Head and Koko Head Crater was a good memory from the doors off helicopter tour of Oahu. It’s hard to fully grasp the nature of the entire crater from a hike or a viewpoint. Being high enough and far enough out from the volcanic craters gave us so much more perspective to fully understand the grandeur of these formations.
Koko Head Crater
East Coast of Oahu
The sad perspective of how close the dolphins of ‘Seaworld’ are to the actual sea.
We headed inland to explore the Koolau Mountain Range. I knew this was going to be epic and I wasn’t let down. It was ridges on ridges as Josh, our pilot, slowed down the helicopter so we could hang our feet out and enjoy a few minutes of relaxing with the fresh air blowing in our faces while we stared down at the Stairway To Heaven (Haiku Stairs) Hike. This is why a doors off helicopter tour of Oahu is the way to go. Moments like this were the highlight of the flight.
Stairway to Heaven
Highways in Hawaii are better!
Kaneohe Sandbar was our refuge as we watched a storm rage over Kualoa Valley. It was quite surreal to cruise in the sunshine over the ocean while we watched a storm pour down on land.
My favorite part of the doors off helicopter tour of Oahu was over my favorite part of the island. Kahana Bay. The Crouching Lion Hike gives good views of Kahana Bay but I’ve never felt more satisfied than clicking my shutter as we rounded the corner and had a dead-on view into Kahana Bay with a dark storm brewing in the background.
I even asked our pilot Josh, to double-back for a second pass. That’s the beauty of a photography tour. It is still an island tour essentially but the pilot is doing their best to get you good angles for photos, not just a good view. Josh didn’t blink any time we requested a double-pass or to hang our feet out of the helicopter and was all for the adventure and down to help us grab the photos we had our heart set on.
Crouching Lion Hike
My favorite shot of the flight!
My open-door helicopter tour of Oahu had been unreal and I loved that we were chasing storms and watching rain funnels the whole trip. There are a few different helicopter tour options on Oahu and they vary in price and where exactly they fly.
Where to stay on Oahu
Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort (Overall Favorite): In the heart of Waikiki, this high-end resort is right on the beach. Luxury rooms overlooking the beach, a private lagoon and a free fireworks and dance performance show. Hilton is easily the most recognizable hotel on the Island. Kids can kayak, swim and snorkel with no worries.
Sheraton Waikiki (Luxury): A luxury resort with the most amazing infinity pool on the island, which overlooks the beach. The bar and nightclub at the Sheraton is a great place to relax after a long day of island adventures.
Ewa Hotel Waikiki: (Value): Hotels in Waikiki can be expensive. Deciding where to stay on Oahu can be difficult if you don’t have much cash. Luckily, there is an accommodation option on the edge of Waikiki that is excellent value. Ewa Hotel is just one block back from the beach and is just over $150 USD. If you are like me, I never swim in the hotel pool anyway.
Waikiki Beachside Hostel (Budget Choice): A budget alternative, which is still in an amazing location. Walking distance to Waikiki beach and a central location to base yourself for a week of adventures. You can grab a dorm room for under $35 a night within walking distance to Waikiki surf beach.
Disney Aulani Resort (Family Choice): This is a resort your kids will never forget. It honestly feels like a theme park at times with just how many pools and activities are available. If you can afford it, this is the #1 place to stay for families on Oahu. A huge lazy river/tire tube lagoon is probably the highlight of the resort although the water slides and private beach aren’t too far behind.