It may seem excessive, but some places in the world are simply best explored by scenic flight. At many sights and cities of great scale and magnitude, the view from the ground just doesn’t reveal the full picture! Take it from us, each of the following 10 once-in-a-lifetime flights are worth the splurge. Just be sure to grab a window seat.
This two-kilometre sheet of falling water forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, where the Zambezi River plunges into a deep gorge. Seen from the ground, it’s one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls – the water’s mist and rainbows can be seen from over 20 kilometres away – and the view from the air, where the full scale of the falls is apparent, is even more astounding. Entry-level scenic flights concentrate on the falls themselves, but an upgrade gets you further downstream to the Batoka Gorges and a couple of minutes of game spotting in the Zambezi National Park, where elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and giraffes roam.
Who Flies There: United Air Charters operates from Livingstone on Zambia’s side of the falls and offers both long and short flights.
This remote national park in the far reaches of the Alaska is home to the country’s tallest peak – Mt. McKinley – plus glacial rivers, gorges, taiga forests and alpine tundra environments. Oh, and moose, caribou, grizzly bears and wolves. There’s just one road that winds around the park’s six million acres, so it’s no wonder why many tourists take to the air to cover the most ground. Helicopter or fixed-wing airplane tours allow explorers to see Mt. McKinley and other Alaska Range peaks up close, and most flights include a landing on a glacier for a quick snowball fight.
Who Flies There: Fly Denali is the only company with a permit to land on glaciers within the borders of the national park – other companies land on ice outside of the park’s boundaries.
This famous piece of carved land stretches for 277 river miles as the Colorado River winds through the deserts of Arizona, eroding the earth away up to one mile deep and 18 miles across as it flows along. Most visitors to the Canyon don’t make it past the South Rim, where a road allows for easy access – and crowds. But an airborne trip over the canyon can also include aerial views of the Vegas Strip, the Hoover Dam and the Mojave Desert, and some helicopter companies have permission to land in the canyon for a riverboat ride or a stroll on the adrenaline-rush-inducing Skywalk.
Who Flies There: Sundance Helicopter Tours takes off from Las Vegas and has a special relationship with the canyon’s local Native American tribe.
The world’s largest coral reef stretches for 2300 kilometres along the coast of Queensland, and there are plenty of tour companies operating from different points on the mainland to visit sites like the outer reaches of the reef, Green Island, the Low Isles, Whitehaven Beach and the Heart Reef. Sharks, turtles and rays can even sometimes be spotted from the air, and some companies include snorkel or dive stops on anchored pontoons. Longer flight paths can also pass over the Daintree Rainforest, the Mossman and Baron gorges and the Cairns Highlands.
Who Flies There: GBRHelicopters offers short scenic flights from Cairns and Port Douglas, reef experiences and personalized tours.
There may be no better way to get your mind around New York than from the air. The Big Apple can take tourists days to criss-cross and cover, but from above, the city’s grid pattern and distinct neighborhoods become clear. Helicopter tours leave from almost the very southern tip of Manhattan Island and whiz past, at the very least, the iconic Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and views of Lower Manhattan’s skyline which includes the new One World Trade Center building. Longer trips can include the Manhattan, Brooklyn, George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, Wall Street, the Empire State Building, Central Park, Yankee Stadium and New Jersey’s Palisades cliffs.
Who Flies There: New York Helicopter offers a 25-minute tour that ticks off all of the above NYC must-sees.
On the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are uniquely positioned between snow-covered mountain tops and sea-level rainforests. The Franz Josef Glacier extends for 12 miles and is one of the fastest moving glaciers on earth, but has been on the retreat for the last several years and is now most easily accessed by helicopter. Heli-tours will include snow landings on either of the glaciers, and some flights will take in both the Fox and the Franz Josef. Upgrades include trips to New Zealand’s highest peak – Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Who Flies There: Alpine Adventures has locations at both the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, and offers tours or either or both glaciers, as well as both Cook and Tasman mountains with landings in Westland National Park.
The granite mountains that surround Rio’s Corcovado Bay, including the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain and Corcovado with its famous Christ the Redeemer statue, just beg to be seen from above. Not to mention that a flight is the perfect way to survey the in-the-works Olympic Village and the Maracana Stadium where the 2016 Opening Ceremonies will be held. The white strips of the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches just don’t seem that crowded from the air, though the city’s biggest slum – the Rocinha Favela – does.
Who Flies There: Helisight offers tours from six to 60 minutes long leaving from two sites in the city.
The oldest of Hawaii’s islands also hosts one of the state’s most inaccessible interiors – the key to unlocking Kauai’s most beautiful sights lies in the skies above. Flights generally circle most of the island to take in the rugged and remote cliffs of the Na Pali coast, the famous Waimea Canyon (often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) and the Waialeale Crater with its 5000-foot walls and matching wispy waterfalls. Other popular sites include the Manawaiopuna waterfall which became famous for its appearance in Jurassic Park, and Hanalei Bay.
Who Flies There: Jack Harter Helicopters has been flying around the island since 1962 and offers 60- and 90-minute tours that depart from the Lihue Heliport.
Similar to Rio’s geographic propensity for a good helicopter ride, Cape Town’s mountainous coast and striking natural features are the perfect backdrop for a scenic flight. While short itineraries take in views of the city, the flat-topped Table Mountain, the Twelve Apostles and the historic Robben Island, longer trips head south to Noordhoek, Kommetjie and Fish Hoek suburbs, the Cape Point Nature Reserve and Cape Point itself – the southernmost tip of the Cape Peninsula.
Who Flies There: NAC Helicopters offers four different tour itineraries focusing on the immediate and greater city, the area’s major bays and the further reaches of the Cape Peninsula.
Some of Australia’s most iconic natural attractions – the Great Ocean Road and its famous rock formations – come alive for those who tackle the cliffy coast from the top down. From land, visitors can drive to a succession of parking lots to view small parts of the coast at a time; the landscape’s jagged erosion makes it impossible to see beyond nearby cliffs in parts. But by air, all becomes apparent. The over 250 kilometres of the road host islands, rainforests, gorges and beaches – typical flights can cover the legendary Twelve Apostles, the Shipwreck Coast, Port Campbell National Park, London Bridge and the Bay of Islands, Cape Otway and the Loch Ard Gorge.
Who Flies There: 12 Apostles Helicopters has 15-, 25- and 60-minute flights that depart from the Twelve Apostles visitor center throughout the day on demand.
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