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By Jane Cassie

The chopper blade whirrs rhythmically with the sixties tune about wearing flowers in your hair, and from beneath my headphones I begin to hum this song that was part of my youth. It brings back memories of the psychedelic Summer of Love and the famous Haight-Ashbury district where singer Janis Joplin once claimed her fame. Though 'getting high' has a much different connotation now than it did back then, I realize that's what this trip to San Francisco is all about.

There are dozens of ways to check out this city's famous landmarks, but only one will provide a bird's eye view -and that's heli-style. San Francisco Helicopters has been offering tours since 1976 and soon after buckling up, our veteran pilot, Ron, literally gives us a lift and we're up, up and away! He doubles as an informative guide and while soaring above every shoreline and summit, provides a running commentary of our visuals below.

"To your right are the identical mounds of Twin Peaks where you'll get a great view of the city," he explains. "Second to our aerial route, of course," he adds with a grin. As well as providing a pretty panorama, we discover this site also houses a fourteen million gallon reservoir that services the fire departments and area residences.

We pass over a number of these well-known neighborhoods; Castro, Mission, Alamo and Cole Valley. Each one is unique, possessing its own personality and charm. Rows of Victorian homes link together and drape many of their hilly knolls. Streets are interspersed with playgrounds, green patches and groves of pine. From our lofty view it all looks like a miniature fantasyland.

Greenery continues -and lots of it, when we hover above the acclaimed Golden Gate Park. This thousand acre urban playground is host to fragrant gardens, tranquil lakes and a few head of bison! It's larger than Central Park in New York, and by the sound of it, is just as popular, attracting thirteen million visitors annually.

Onward we whirl over more hills and homes, to another verdant patch of land where history and beauty are rolled into one. The Presidio a.k.a. 'Eden on the edge' once served as a military post and in 1995 was taken over by the National Park Service. This historical niche and green belt that hugs up to ocean bluffs is now a natural habitat for endangered wildflowers and various birds.

Just like those red-tailed hawks and golden eagles, we glide beyond the peninsula's shoreline and over the ocean swells. The famed cables of the Golden Gate are now in clear view and are getting closer by the second. "This bridge is sixty-five stories high," Ron informs us, "so how 'bout we check out the view from beneath?" And just like a bird of prey, our Bell chopper swoops down and under the well-traveled platform that spans the sparkling bay. Within seconds, we dip, dive and do a three hundred and sixty degree loop, right over the top of this engineered marvel. It all happens so quickly and so smoothly, there's no time to bail!

A musical soundtrack is well choreographed to our tour and The Mamas & Papas calm my racing heart while singing California Dreamin.' We zoom above sapphire waves and within seconds of our kamikaze act, are hovering above another favourite tourist haunt. "Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963," Ron explains. We peer down at the forlorn-looking cellblocks where mobsters like Al Capone and 'Machine Gun Kelly' did time. "Many tried to escape," he continues, "but there's no proof that anyone was successful." Although San Francisco's main hub appears to be a short back stroke away, the icy and once shark-infested waters had warded off attempts from the most determined jailbird.

Today, this destination with its world class attractions, diverse communities and breathtaking beauty is even more alluring. We gaze down at Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 that rim the harbour, whiz over the Transamerica Pyramid and Bank Of America that frames the skyline, and 'get even higher' while buzzing above the many hills that drape this 'cool grey city of love.'


Where to stay
Hyatt Regency San Francisco
5 Embarcadero Center,
San Francisco, California, USA 94111
Tel: +1 415 788 1234 Fax: +1 415 398 2567

What to do: San Francisco Helicopter Tours:

Photo captions
1. Pilot Ron doubles as an informative guide and while soaring above every shoreline and summit (Photo: Brent Cassie)
2. Heli over the city (Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Helicopters)
3. Flying above the famed cables of the Golden Gate (Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Helicopters)
4. We hover above Alcatraz (Photo: Brent Cassie)
5. Preparing to 'get high' over San Francisco (Photo: Brent Cassie)

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