A Bird's-Eye View

Think you've seen Denali National Park, the Grand Canyon, and the Florida Keys? Get a whole new take on these and other iconic locales with a flightseeing tour.
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Flightseeing British Columbia
UP, UP, AND AWAY: Flightseeing near Vancouver, British Columbia  (courtesy, Harbour Air Seaplanes)

It's 8:40 on a breezy June morning, and about a dozen people are milling around the waterfront terminal of Vancouver, British Columbia–based Harbour Air Seaplanes. Most of these passengers-in-waiting are sharply dressed business types set to make the 35-minute trip across the Strait of Georgia to Victoria where another workday awaits.

The rest are more casually attired tourists. Some will board those same commuter flights, heading off to various leisure-time pursuits on Vancouver Island. Others hold tickets for one of several seaplane tours that originate from bustling Coal Harbour.

I'm in the latter group, waiting to grab a seat on the Vancouver Extended Panorama, a 45-minute flightseeing trip that, according to Harbour Air marketing literature, includes views of the "majestic mountains and expansive coastline that surround breathtaking Vancouver."

Flightseeing is an alluring, almost voyeuristic experience that both shrinks the man-made world, and lifts the curtain on nature's true grandeur, allowing you to see the otherwise un-seeable. It's also an increasingly popular vacation pastime with hundreds—if not thousands—of outfitters offering varying air tours throughout North America.

Harbour Air, for example, has 21 trips that range from simple fly-around sightseeing (like the trip I'm about to take), to multi-activity tours that include sportfishing, whale watching, or even landing on a "secret" alpine lake where a gourmet lunch is served. Prices start at about $100 for a basic half-hour panorama flight and go up to $349 for the Victoria-to-Vancouver overnight that includes roundtrip airfare and lodging in a swanky downtown Vancouver hotel. And if none of the offered tours float your seaplane, Harbour Air offers private charter service. (Harbour Air; 800-665-0212)

Unfortunately, none of this matters to me right now. Instead, the nervous-flyer within has emerged, concerned about the dark clouds looming outside the terminal's rectangular picture window. Can these tiny six-seat seaplanes actually take off when whitecaps are rippling across the harbor? Won't they reschedule our trip for a day when the sun is shining and the wind isn't ripping through the trees? Twenty minutes later my questions are answered when the small terminal's loudspeaker crackles to life. Ready or not, it's boarding time for my 9 a.m. flight.

Four other passengers and I head down Harbour Air's version of a jetway (think wooden boat dock with a gate at the top). It's there we meet our pilot, veteran airman Jim Hewson. Before taking on what Hewson calls his "summer job," he spent 35 years flying jumbo jets for Air Canada. He has that classic pilot look: mid-50s, thin silvery hair, and an unmistakable air of calm confidence. My fears immediately abate. If he's willing to fly on this less-than-ideal day, how dangerous can it be?

This notion is reinforced once onboard our DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver where Hewson runs us through a quick safety briefing. Our slightly cramped aircraft has four exit doors—two up front, two in the back—and there are life jackets for everyone. Despite the ugly image of an unscheduled swim, our pilot's measured delivery provides added assurance. Hewson's classic pilot looks are accompanied by a classic pilot's voice. Flight school must include a lesson in calming speech.

As for the windy weather, Hewson warns that we can expect a few bumps here and there, but it's nothing to worry about. Think of them as potholes in the sky, he says.

With that, we're on our way, taxiing out to a large orange buoy and then ramping up our speed. Despite the choppy runway, takeoff is smooth and it's only a handful of seconds before the water is quickly dropping away below us. I've managed to score the co-pilot's seat and the large, black headphones that come with it. I listen in as Hewson asks the control tower for permission to head eastbound and then make a left turn. The request is granted with the caveat that he not ascend past 500 feet because of other air traffic in the area.

Hewson obliges as we do a slow 180 and head northeast away from the city. Below us, joggers, walkers, and bikers are making their way around the waterfront foot path that traces sprawling Stanley Park. To the east, the Lions Gate Bridge is packed with cars making the morning commute into downtown. Off to the west, several large container ships sit at anchor, waiting their turn to come into port for drop-off or pick-up.

Soon our altitude restriction is lifted, and we slowly climb another 500 feet, moving north along the North Vancouver shoreline. Beyond this suburban community is heavily treed Grouse Mountain, where a pair of high-speed trams are already whisking tourists up to the summit and back down. Ahead lie the pale blue waters of Howe Sound, North America's southernmost fjord, which extends from West Vancouver all the way to the outdoor-sports mecca of Squamish. To our right, the Sea-to-Sky Highway winds its way toward Whistler, which, along with Vancouver, will play host to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Perched high in the sky aboard our tiny tour bus with wings, the expansive British Columbia landscape opens up, offering eye-candy in every direction. There's a lighthouse below us, jagged snowcapped mountains in the distance, and a fishing boat, surrounded by hungry seagulls, motoring back toward its dock.

Published: 28 Aug 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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