In 2009, I spent two weeks gallivanting around Australia where, among myriad attractions, the Great Barrier Reef fully seduced me. Off the coast of Queensland, the 1,400-mile-long ecosystem comprising 2,900 pristine, individual reefs is known to be the world’s largest coral reef system, an actual living, natural thing that can be seen entirely from outer space. Visitors to the Great Barrier Reef don’t hesitate exploring the waters, whether in glass-bottom and submersible boats or kayaks and scuba diving. At one point during my visit, I was asked if I wanted to hop on a helicopter to see the reef from above. I declined, believing the most practical way to see the destination was to actually immerse myself in it completely. After all, the whole point was being in the actual reef, right?
Passing on the helicopter ride was one of the most regretful travel decisions I’ve made. Seeing a rare and precious ecosystem in such a remote part of the world from an aerial perspective can only be a divine moment that can’t be duplicated anywhere else on earth. Even though the Great Barrier Reef is largely visited for its water activities, seeing it from above could have been a unique, breathtaking experience (and imagine the Instagram love!). To see the Great Barrier Reef from the skies, absorbing the immense scope of the natural wonder would have been exhilarating. If I have any reason to return, it’s to experience the topography of the magnificent network of reefs from above, like the thousands of visitors who do so every year. Helicopter rides over the attraction are a popular bucket list activity within a bucket list (just getting to the reefs is an adventure in itself).
Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas Resort in Queensland (Port Douglas Road, Tel: 61-7-4099-5888. www.sheratonportdouglas.com), which just completed a $40 million renovation is meeting the demand of travelers who want to see the destination by air. The resort launched airport transfer via helicopter to their helipad, and now the resort offers several helicopter tours in the area, including tours to the Great Barrier Reef. Additionally, there is an increase in the number of aircraft the destination now has within their inventory (in 20 years, the number of helicopters have tripled). Great Barrier Reef helicopters have also seen an increase in popularity due to different tours that are now available, including Sandy Cay Escape which flies passengers to a private sand island on the Great Barrier Reef with gourmet picnics.
The Great Barrier Reef isn’t the only place where helicopter sightseeing is in demand, and helicopters are not the only means of transportation to see the world off foot. Sightseeing in moving vehicles, from trains to yachts, has become the hottest way to tour the globe. The debut of new train journeys, hotels offering new ways to sightsee, and the return of glamour in travel have warranted renewed interest in travel excursions. Sightseeing in hot-air balloons, helicopters, trains, and yachts is a multi-billion-dollar industry where both parties (companies and tourists) are rewarded. Here’s a look at various ways to sightsee in style in amazing places around the world.
Perhaps the oldest form of sightseeing in the skies, hot-air balloons took flight in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers who worked at a paper factory sent a sheep, a duck, and a chicken on an eight-minute flight over France in their makeshift paper vessel. The hot-air balloon has since become a gravity-defying (and retro) way to see vast landscapes from a bird’s-eye view. It’s had such an impactful comeback that even Uber launched a service in China where users can book hot-air balloon rides (a service that is expected to eventually roll out in the US). The million-dollar industry has done wonders for several businesses that rely on hot-air balloon tourism, and many destinations across the globe are specifically known for stunning rides. Enthusiasts book vacations in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cappadocia, Turkey; Bagan, Myanmar; and the Serengeti to take flight and check it off their “basket” list. There’s even a whole lifestyle around it, where hot-air ballooners celebrate all things balloon at festivals like International Balloon Fiesta in Bristol, UK or Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival in Alabama. And when does a wedding proposal not happen in flight in a hot-air balloon while on vacation?
Several new destinations are feeling the hot-air buzz, like the Atacama Desert. For decades, San Pedro de Atacama has been known for its magnetic, starry night sky. Considered to have the clearest skies in the world due to its little light pollution and elevation, the constellations are unreal. People also keen to see the desert landscape by day, where visitors can take flight to view the lay of the land before sunset. Launched in August 2016, Balloons Over Atacama by Eastern Safaris (www.easternsafaris.com) offers daily hot-air balloon rides to experience the desert’s spectacular topography that sprawls with rugged canyons, geysers, volcanoes, salt lakes, and plenty of wildlife like flamingos. The flight lasts approximately 45 minutes, and there’s no better way to see the unobstructed sunrise over the desert landscape. LGBT travelers love the rustic-chic Alto Atacama (Camino Pukara, Suchor, Ayliu de Quitor, Tel: 56-229-12-3945. www.altoatacama.com), a terrific boutique hotel that recently underwent major renovations, including the expansion of their pampering spa. The balloon rides can be booked with Alto Atacama.
While Uber (www.uber.com) takes over the globe with car services, it also offers food delivery and pharmacy pick-up. The latest feature? Uber recently partnered with Airbus for helicopters on demand. UberCopter in São Paulo, Brazil offers flights for as little as $20 a ride. Even before Uber came up with this concept, Gotham Air took the Big Apple by its choppers, offering shared helicopter flights from JFK and Newark International Airport to Manhattan, not only cutting travel time from two hours to six minutes, but giving passengers the exhilarating thrill of flying over Manhattan.
Uber’s not the only business looking to the skies for profit. Start-up company Chopper (www.flychopper.com) in Orlando offers on-demand helicopter rides in Orlando, West Palm Beach, and Miami, going to and from airports, resorts, and restaurants. Chopper offers affluent locals and tourists a way to get from point A to point B in style, and it’s creating more than 100 jobs in the state.
While the helicopter-taxi concept may be a glimpse of the future, the helicopter ride is a fancy sightseeing option from the past. Helicopter tourism is all the rage in metropolitan cities and vast country locations, and there’s a spike in demand (tour flights in Manhattan now leave 14 times every hour during the day). Helicopter tourism is responsible for 30 million tourism dollars in NYC alone.
Among the popular places known for helicopter tours, Hawaii is the most famous with flights over rain forests, beaches, cosmopolitan cities, small towns, volcanoes, and more. The new Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina (92-1001 Olani Street, Tel: 808-679-0079. www.fourseasons.com), which opened this past summer, is the first hotel in the state to offer helicopter-ride airport pick-ups, where guests marvel at breathtaking coastal views. Some of the best helicopter rides are in the Big Island, where helicopters ascend active and dormant volcanoes and even venture to some waterfalls deep in the rain forest you can’t reach by foot.