In a moment of uncharacteristic bravado, I had agreed to view the stunning geological marvels of the Hawaiian island of Kauai from the awesome perspective of a Hughes 500 helicopter - flying with the doors off. This would provide a unique opportunity to commune with nature at altitudes of up to 4,000ft.
My objective was to get a first hand bird's-eye view of the dense jungle which persuaded Steven Spielberg to choose this location as the ideal habitat for his fictional dinosaurs in the monster movie Jurassic Park. Kauai was also used as the location for King Kong, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Flies, Fantasy Island and, more recently, Harrison Ford's Six Days/Seven Nights.
As we soared effortlessly over the huge russet and lavender chasm that is Waimea Canyon (described by Mark Twain as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific), I began to feel almost light-headed with the elation of hovering like a bird over such incredible feats of mother nature.
Flying at 120mph towards the misty, jagged, emerald-green peaks of Mount Waialeale (by reputation the rainiest place on earth), I was brought back to reality sharply by a strong gust of wind which knocked us sideways. I realised my palms were sweating as I tightened my fingers around a rather worn and flimsy cord handgrip. Checking my seat belt, my mind kept returning to the pre-flight safety briefing, when I had been asked to remove my hat. During the previous week someone's hat had blown into the tail rotor and forced an emergency landing.
Pacific trade winds frequently create strong gusts, particularly around the mountain tops. "It is just the Hawaiian gods reminding us that they are still here," drawled my totally unfazed pilot, as we swooped up the jagged cliffs of the Na Pali coastline, across rivers sparkling in the sunlight, huge waterfalls and deserted beaches.
Kauai (pronounced "ka-wa-i", not "cow-eye") is the northernmost of the main Hawaiian islands. Roughly circular, it is 32 miles in diameter and known locally as both the garden isle and the island of discovery. Exotic tropical flowers bloom everywhere - hibiscus, plumeria, bougainvillaea - attracting brightly coloured butterflies in abundance.
In the film Blue Hawaii, Elvis Presley got married in the wedding chapel of Kauai's Coco Palms Hotel and, back in the Fifties, Mitzi Gaynor sung about "washing that man right out of her hair" in the classic musical South Pacific, filmed in Kauai's Hanalei Bay. For couples planning to tie the knot, there are more than 20 companies specialising in exotic wedding locations. The nuptial arrangements can be pre-booked though tour operators in the UK.
The island has distinct microclimates, from the hot, sandy western plains to the cool mountain forests in Kokee. The south shore and the west coast are always sunnier and drier than the northern coastline and the eastern foothills, where colourful rainbows can be viewed almost every day.
There are more than 1,000 waterfalls and scores of freshwater lakes throughout Kauai, which is the only inhabited Hawaiian island with navigable rivers. On the east side, the Wailua River State Park is the launching area for boat tours and a popular site for water-skiing, outrigger canoe paddling, kayaking and fishing.
No high-rise buildings exist in Kauai and those gaudy pests of modern beach life - jet skis and para-gliding - are banned throughout the island. Most of the islanders are so laid back that it is easy to forget that Kauai is still part of the USA. The air is unpolluted and everyone I met seemed to be exceptionally friendly and hospitable. It was all a wonderful contrast to the rat race of Los Angeles that I had left on the previous day, where motorists have perfected road rage almost to an art form.
The island's traditional sugar industry has created a diverse multicultural population. Labourers from China first came in the mid-1800s and others arrived later from Portugal, Puerto Rico, Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
The atmosphere was summed up for me by a road sign pinned to a tree in one of the smaller villages, imploring motorists to slow down. It read simply: "You Go Fast, You Got No Style." Frequently, I had to brake while families of chickens with numerous tiny chicks in tow, ambled across the road. The ravages of Hurricane Iniki released thousands of these birds from captivity in 1992 and since then they have multiplied rapidly, scratching an apparently healthy life in the wild. Eggs don't come any more free range than this.
Hikers could be seen heading off in all directions. The island is well mapped and there are plenty of signed trails leading through dense woodland to otherwise inaccessible white-sand beaches. But don't drink the water from the freshwater streams, which can contain bugs that would quickly ruin your holiday. Hiking is also permitted in Waimea Canyon State Parks, where you can watch tropical birds soaring beneath you and goats bleating above you. Whale-watching off the south coast is popular during the winter months (January to March) and there is good surfing at Hanalei Bay.
Several reefs provide ideal sites for snorkelling and diving, often just off the beach with stalls renting good quality fins, masks and snorkels for as little as pounds 2 a day. There are a number of excellent camp sites and several companies which organise horseback trails.
Because of its extraordinary diversity, Kauai attracts visitors from every age group with a broad variety of interests. There is accommodation to suit most tastes and pockets. As mud-spattered back-packers emerge from rainforest trails, honeymooners cruise in rented sports convertibles and well-heeled golfers head for manicured fairways from five-star resort hotels.
There are six championship golf courses, created by leading designers including Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones Jr, which feature some spectacular holes played across cliff tops with the huge surf of the Pacific Ocean crashing below.
Only when I stepped inside the island's over-the-top five-star resort complexes was it brought home to me that I really was still in America. Hyatt, Marriott, Castle Resorts and Sheraton each operate extravagant hostelries with massive swimming pools, spa complexes and impeccable service - at a price.
Whatever your budget, don't miss the brilliant orange sunsets of Hanalei Bay. Watching the locals swim out to catch the early evening surf, while sipping a Mai Tai cocktail as the sun sinks slowly behind South Pacific's "Bali Hai" is the best stress-reliever imaginable.
Air New Zealand (tel: 0181-741 2299) offers flights from London to Honolulu via Los Angeles from pounds 470 return. Hawaiian Airlines (tel: 01753 664406) operates hourly services to Lihue airport, Kauai, from Honolulu. United Airlines (tel: 0845 8444 777) operates flights from London to Honolulu and non-stop flights from Los Angeles to Kauai. American Airlines (tel: 0345 789 789) offers flights from the UK to Honolulu. Hawaiian Dream (tel: 0181-470 1181) offers seven nights at the Hanalei Bay Resort Hotel from pounds 995, including return flights from the UK and transfers. Other tour operators featuring Hawaii include North American Travel Service (tel: 01132 461 466), Jetlife (tel: 01322 614 801) and Page & Moy (tel: 0116-250 7575).
WHERE TO STAY
Reservations for the major resort properties can be made with Castle Resorts (tel: 01933 31 57 01); Hyatt (tel: 0345 581 666); Marriott (tel: 0800 221 222) and Sheraton (tel: 0800 353 535).
Inter-Island Helicopters (tel: 001 808 335 5009) operates flights with the doors off. The cost of a two-hour trip, including the rock pool landing and sandwich lunch is $225 (pounds 138) per person.
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (tel: 0181-941 4009; fax: 0181- 941 4011) can give telephone advice and will send an information pack for pounds 2.50 (to cover postage and packing).Reuse content