A Bird's-Eye View - Page 3

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On the other side of the United States, South Florida is another flightseeing hot spot. For $229, Seaplanes of Key West offers a four-hour trip from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park (accessible only by boat or plane). The park consists of seven tiny islands ringed by white sandy beaches, coral reefs, and the warm Gulf waters.

On the trip over, planes fly low—about 500 feet above the water—allowing passengers to spy down on the Flats, an area that runs 20 miles west of Key West and has water so shallow that on most days sharks, sting rays, and even the occasional porpoise can be spotted. You'll also see a handful of unoccupied mangrove islands and a region known as the Quicksands, where famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher unearthed a pair of Spanish galleons. Most of the lost gold was scooped up long ago, but a pair of sunken ships (a World War II destroyer and one of Fisher's salvage boats) can still be seen from the air.

The final destination of the 35-minute flight is Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Originally the centerpiece of what was to be a massive fortress, construction on the fort began in 1846. But those plans were soon scrapped and Fort Jefferson sat in decay until 1935 when President Franklin Roosevelt made it a national monument. That designation was upped to National Park in 1992, and today it's an ideal venue for birdwatching and snorkeling.

Seaplanes of Key West trips provide all the necessary gear to get in the water, which at less than ten feet deep is ideal for spotting tropical fish and colorful coral. Just remember to book your trip for early in the morning or late in the day. Otherwise you'll have to share the island paradise with the throngs of people who arrive by ferryboat. (Seaplanes of Key West; 305-294-0709)

If people watching is what you're looking for, check out a big city flightseeing trip. Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and many other major North American urban centers have air-tour outfitters. In New York, $200 buys a 20-minute helicopter flight that includes views of all five boroughs, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan's famous skyscrapers, and Yankee Stadium. If you just want to cruise over Lady Liberty, an eight-minute ride runs $110. (Liberty Helicopter; 212-967-6464)

Boston-based Heliops offers its own cityscape tour that includes 35 minutes for $299, or, for $185, you can spend 25 minutes looking down on the picturesque South Shore with its lighthouses, fishing boats, sandy beaches, and Plymouth Harbor's famed Mayflower replica ship. This trip can also be booked for sunset. (Heliops; 617-571-6117)

Van Nuys, California–based Hollywood Aviators offers a mix of fixed-wing tours, including its 50-minute, $105 Inland Jaunt where you'll get a low-altitude perspective of the Santa Monica Mountains, Universal Studios, downtown Los Angeles, and the famed Hollywood sign. They even have a special "Take the Controls" package that, for $99, includes a preflight briefing, half-hour flight with an FAA-certified instructor where you actually get to fly the plane, and a certificate commemorating your first time at the controls. You can double the flight time for $75 more. (Hollywood Aviators; 818-994-2004)

Further west, in Hawaii, there's yet another full menu of flightseeing options. Here, airplanes and helicopters provide captivating views of active volcanoes, rocky shorelines, leafy mountainsides, and roaring waterfalls. For $100, Wings over Kauai will take you on a 60-minute circumnavigation of the pristine island known for the Na Pali coastline and Wailua Waterfall. For $365, you can see Maui, the Big Island, and Volcanoes National Park during a two hour, 15 minute tour. (Wings over Kauai; 808-635-0815)

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