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Friday, November 21, 2014         

HAWAII'S BACK YARD


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An adventure of prehistoric proportions

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

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The location manager knew what he wanted audiences to see when the fictitious Costa Rican setting for the mega-budget movie he was working on first appeared on the silver screen. "A secluded, super-awesome site," he told Curt Lofstedt, owner of Island Helicopters, who was piloting his scouting expedition over Kauai.

"I'll show you super-awesome," replied Lofstedt as he turned his chopper toward Hanapepe Valley.

There, a verdant expanse of tropical greenery unfolded below them, unmarred by roads and buildings. When 400-foot Manawaiopuna Falls came into view, Lofstedt's passenger could barely contain his excitement. "That's it!" he shouted. "It's perfect!"

Manawaiopuna made a magnificent debut in the 1993 blockbuster "Jurassic Park," and it's been commonly known as "Jurassic Falls" ever since. Most of Kauai's air tours fly over it, but because it's on private property, that was as close as sightseers could get to it until a year ago. That's when Island Helicopters launched the Jurassic Falls Landing Adventure, which touches down in Hanapepe Valley and takes passengers to the base of the falls.

"Jurassic Park helped bring back visitors after Hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai in 1992," said Lofstedt, who has lived on the island for 37 years and worked with production crews for commercials, movies and television shows for nearly as long. "That movie is seemingly just as popular today as it was when it was released 17 years ago, and many visitors are really interested in seeing the waterfall up close."

It took Island Helicopters 5 1/2 years to obtain the permit to offer the tour. Public hearings, an environmental impact assessment, geological and water surveys, and studies by experts on flora, fauna and Hawaiian history and culture were all part of the process.

JURASSIC FALLS LANDING ADVENTURE

» Check in: Lihue Airport, 3901 Mokulele Loop, Lihue, Kauai

» Offered: Daily except Sunday and Thursday

» Times: Can be scheduled between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

>> Cost: $299 (regularly $349) per person through Dec. 31, including one complimentary scenic Kauai screen saver per family; kamaaina rate is $249 (with valid Hawaii identification)

» Phone: 245-8588 on Kauai or toll-free 800-829-5999 from the other islands

>> E-mail: flight@islandhelicopters.com

» Website: www.islandhelicopters.com

» Notes: This tour lasts 75 to 85 minutes (the flight portion is 50 to 60 minutes depending on the weather, and the ground tour is 25 minutes). Passengers should be able to walk on uneven terrain, over a footbridge and up and down steps. Island Helicopters also offers a 50- to 60-minute Kauai Grand Deluxe Circle Island Tour. For both tours, passengers weighing more than 250 pounds and parties of two with a combined weight of more than 440 pounds may have to pay for an additional seat. Children ages 23 months and younger ride in their parent's lap; children 24 months and older ride in their own seat.

Once Lofstedt got the green light, the tour sold itself. Limited to six passengers, it showcases landmarks such as Nawiliwili Harbor, Waimea Canyon, the Napali Coast, Hanalei Bay, Hanalei Valley, Mount Waialeale, and Lumahai Beach and the Makana mountains ("Bali Hai"), made famous in the 1958 Hollywood musical "South Pacific."

Within 15 minutes of liftoff, the helicopter alights in Hanapepe Valley, allowing passengers to walk through the thick stands of kukui, strawberry guava, coconut, ohia lehua, mango, mountain apple and more that they've admired from the air. "Hanapepe is one of Hawaii's prettiest valleys," Lofstedt said. "It's real jungle, and there are waterfalls everywhere you look."

The pilot escorts the group along a 150-yard path to Jurassic Falls. Since only one helicopter can be on the ground at any given time, they have this pristine spot all to themselves. Eating, drinking and swimming are not allowed, and all participants must wear surgical booties over their footwear to prevent foreign species from being brought into the valley.

"Once you've visited this area you'll want to leave it the same way you found it - virtually untouched," Lofstedt said. "It's so beautiful and romantic, we've had several marriage proposals at the waterfall, and I'm happy to say all the answers have been 'Yes!'"

In his opinion, helicopters are the best aircraft for scenic tours because they can fly as low as 500 feet, hover and handle turbulence better than airplanes. "They don't have a big wing surface, which catches all the wind movement," he said. "Helicopter pilots can adjust the pitch of the rotor system's blades to smooth out turbulence."

Fascinated by aeronautics from the time he was a young boy, Lofstedt received his solo pilot license at the age of 16 - before he got his driver's license. He received helicopter training in the Army and flew combat missions during the Vietnam War, for which he received a Silver Star for valor. When he returned to civilian life, he transported geological survey teams searching for oil reservoirs on the Alaska Pipeline.

Since he founded Island Helicopters in 1980 with his wife, Bonnie, Lofstedt has flown numerous Hollywood luminaries to remote sets throughout Hawaii, including Steven Spielberg, Richard Chamberlain, Kevin Costner, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood. He even taught Harrison Ford how to fly a helicopter when the actor was on Kauai for three months in 1997 making "Six Days Seven Nights."

"I was hired to take him in and out of wherever they were filming," Lofstedt said. "He had flown airplanes before, but he wanted to learn how to fly a helicopter. So after shooting was done each day, I'd give him a lesson. He went back home, got his license and bought a helicopter."

Island Helicopters' A-Star helicopters are equipped with air conditioning and floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows for optimum viewing. Pilots personally select and "choreograph" music to complement the scenery and transmit it to passengers' Bose headsets via iPods.

"Going into Hanapepe Valley, every pilot plays the theme song for 'Jurassic Park,'" Lofstedt said. "People get goose bumps. You see tears in their eyes. The music enhances that incredible experience."

Rain, cloud patterns and changing light at different hours of the day add to the visual drama of the tour. "Just when I think I've seen Kauai at its best," Lofstedt said, "along comes something better."

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based travel writer whose travel features have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.






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