Another View of Paradise: Touring the Caribbean by Helicopter
Photos courtesy of Caribbean Buzz Helicopters
From the air, that crystalline water turns into blue-tinted glass and all the wonders of the sea floor come into view, especially from low altitude. Skimming a coastline or hovering between islands exposes the coral towers, eagle rays and shallow shipwrecks below the surface, something you could never see by boat.
It drives me crazy when someone says they visited a Caribbean island and found themselves bored.
I was lucky. One of the first friends I made in the Caribbean was the son of a helicopter pilot. We zoomed between Tortola and Virgin Gorda, and all over the British Virgin Islands — looking down on mysterious Anegada's flamingos and brain coral, the rocky coast of Dead Chest, the salt fields of Salt Island. I was hooked. Later I met another pilot and floated between those same islands in an experimental ultralight aircraft designed for National Geographic.
Charlotte Van Heurck of Caribbean Buzz Helicopters in St. Thomas knows these routes. A typical 30-minute tour starts on the west end of St. Thomas and heads over downtown Charlotte Amalie toward the north shore of St. John past the national park, then up to the west end of Tortola. Little islets and rocks dot the sea below. The tour then swings around Jost Van Dyke and back to St. Thomas over the famed horseshoe-shaped white sand beach of Magens Bay.
“We fly low scenic flights so people get a great view of the islands, we also can go high for those looking to capture a certain viewpoint of all the islands. Tell us what you want to see and what you are looking for and we customize,” Van Heurck said.
An hour-long tour buzzes most of the BVI, she said. And an hour-and-a-half tour can make it out to Anegada — taking in almost all the islands of the USVI and BVI along the way, including Sir Richard Branson's private Necker Island, Virgin Gorda's famed The Baths and former pirate hideouts like Norman Island.
“The horseshoe reef of Anegada gets a lot of wows, as it is spectacular — as does the north shore of St. John, which is all national park. It really is phenomenal. Flying over Johnson’s Reef on a super clear day is breathtaking. Some people love to fly over their hotel, villa or cruise-ship. Others enjoy just seeing the different colors of the water,” Van Heurck said.
They can also tailor flights to such area locales as St. Maarten, Antigua, Anguilla, Vieques, Culebra and Puerto Rico.
Common sea life spotted includes turtles, dolphins, rays, whales, sharks and Anegada's endangered pink flamingoes.
Similar helicopter tours are found all over the Caribbean. Tours in Curacao show off colorful downtown Willemstad; in the Dominican Republic they offer spectacular vistas of coastlines and lush forests.
In St. Kitts you'll find an unforgettable helicopter adventure. Two dormant volcanoes sit at the guitar-shaped island's center, flanked by miles of thick “Jurassic Park” jungle and crowned with an almost constant blanket of clouds such that only a pocket sky remains between the peaks.
And it was through this narrow passage the chopper pilot took me, from the shadowed Atlantic side, over the ravines and vines of the split, and into the blazing Caribbean sunlight on the western side, where glorious Brimstone Fort sat like a ruby in a field of emeralds. If that sounds overly poetic, give it a try and see how you describe it.
Neil A. Dickinson, managing director of Antigua-based Caribbean Helicopters Ltd., flies hundreds of cruise ship passengers, hotel guests, celebrities and curious adventure seekers over Eastern Caribbean islands.
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“People marvel at the crystal clear waters and we actively enhance the experience when we can with passengers being able to view sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and, of course, coral reefs,” Dickinson said. One amazing flight path takes passengers over the largely evacuated island of Montserrat, where a volcano covered much of the inhabitable land in lava and volcanic debris. “Most people are stunned by the beauty of the aerial views, but being able to witness the actual devastation caused by pyroclastic flows leaves many people stunned and indeed in some cases speechless.”
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