Bhutan by helicopter.
In Bhutan, a new itinerary from the COMO group includes one of the most captivating helicopter flights on the planet.
Most people’s experience of Bhutan from on high comes with their Drukair flight’s nailbiting approach to Paro Airport, considered to be one of the most challenging places anywhere for a passenger jet to land. Those making the high-altitude descent may understandably fail to appreciate the scenery, which is a shame, for Bhutan, with its deep-cut valleys and serrated Himalayan peaks, is a wonder to behold, especially from an elevated perspective.
And that’s where COMO Hotels & Resorts’ newly launched Scenic Heli-Adventure comes in. Combining aerial tours of western Bhutan with stays at the group’s luxe lodges in Paro and Punakha, the six-night itinerary is destined to earn a place on every flightseers’ bucket list. As for return visitors like myself, taking in the kingdom’s lush river valleys, stupas, and (monastic fortresses) from a bird’s-eye perspective is like seeing the country again for the first time.
The flying begins on the third day of the trip, when the helicopter—a seven-passenger Airbus H130 operated by Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services, the country’s fledging air ambulance fleet—takes off from Paro for a 45-minute flight north to the remote village of Laya. Nestled more than 4,100 meters above sea level in the foothills of the Himalayas, Laya is framed by some of the kingdom’s highest peaks (among them, Tongshanjiabu, at 7,207 meters). It’s also home to the semi-nomadic Layap people, a relatively affluent community that harvests cordyceps, a rare fungus used in traditional medicine. Foreigners are extremely rare here, so expect to be greeted by curious locals with trains of pack ponies and mules in tow.
After a picnic lunch, it’s back into the helicopter for the flight south to Punakha Valley, soaring over the sacred peaks of Jigme Dorji National Park en route. The next day, adventure is limited to solid ground from your base at COMO Uma Punakha, save for those who opt for white-water rafting on the Mo Chu river. But one last flight awaits on the leg back to Paro for the last two nights of the tour. The highlight? A fly-by photo op of the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery, a cliff-side aerie you’d otherwise have to hike for two hours to see up close.
Above, from left: One of Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services’ choppers outside Laya village, not far from the border with China; a Layap girl.