A Peek Inside Niihau: Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island”

Apart from exclusive tours, this living time capsule is closed to the public

Aerial View Lehua and Niihau
Aerial View Lehua and Niihau. James L. Amos / Getty Images

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It’s hard to imagine that just 17 miles from the beachside resorts of Kauai island, there exists a small stretch of land that has remained untouched since the days of early Hawaii. For Kauai residents, the image of Niihau island rising from the ocean horizon is an all too familiar one, though most will never set foot on its shores.

The bulk of Niihau is restricted to its 70 full-time residents and their families or to those who received a coveted invitation from the family who has owned the 69-square-mile island since 1864. There are no paved roads, hospitals, police stations, grocery stores, or indoor plumbing. Residents rely on rainwater catching systems for water and a handful of solar panels for electricity, procuring their meals from the land by hunting, fishing, or farming. This unspoiled ecosystem is a haven for many of the state’s endangered or vulnerable species, while the island’s residents contribute to preserving the Hawaiian language and culture with their dedication to living the lifestyle of their ancestors.

For those who dream of experiencing perhaps the most exclusive island destination on earth, the family that owns the island has opened up portions of Niihau to small tours. However, a visit won’t come without a hefty price tag and certainly more than a few restrictions.

Niihau's History

According to the Niihau Cultural Heritage Foundation, the history of Niihau has been passed down throughout the generations by way of traditional Hawaiian chants. The legend goes that the volcano goddess Pele made her first home on the island of Niihau before moving down the island chain to Hawaii Island. Geologically speaking, Niihau is believed to have been formed by a secondary volcanic vent after the Kauai volcano began erupting.

Niihau’s first great chief was Kahelelani, followed by Kā‘eo, and then Kaumuali‘i, born in 1790. Kaumuali‘i became king of Kauai and Niihau, the last two islands to become united under the rule of Kamehameha I in 1810.

In 1863, the Sinclair family came to Honolulu from New Zealand in search of land to purchase for ranching and were offered Niihau by King Kamehameha IV. After Kamehameha IV passed away in November of that year, his brother Kamehameha V completed the transaction in 1864 for the purchase price of $10,000, granting James McHutchison Sinclair and Francis Sinclair ownership of the entire island.

A group of men, women, and children on Puuwai Beach on Niihau, taken by Francis Sinclair in 1885.
Auckland War Memorial Museum Library Catalogue / Wikimedia Commons

When the Sinclairs purchased the island in 1864, they committed to maintaining Niihau's Hawaiian culture. Brothers Bruce and Keith Robinson, descendants of the Sinclairs, own the island today, and they have continued to protect the island from the pressures of the outside world. In an interview with the New York Times, Keith Robinson revealed the words that Kamehameha spoke as he signed the contract in 1864: ''Niihau is yours. But the day may come when Hawaiians are not as strong in Hawaii as they are now. When that day comes, please do what you can to help them.''

Bringing alcohol, tobacco, or guns onto the island is strictly forbidden and risks eviction, and in the past, the family has required all residents to attend church on Sundays. The island first earned its “forbidden” status in the 1930s, when the Robinsons completely cut off visits to Niihau to protect inhabitants from new diseases, including measles and, later, polio. 

The Language of Niihau

Niihau is the only place in the world where Hawaiian is still the primary language; the island has its own unique dialect (Olelo Kanaka Niihau) spoken within the community that differs slightly from the traditional Hawaiian language (Olelo Hawaii). The Niihau dialect is closer to the original Hawaiian language that predates the missionary arrivals to the islands, who altered the language while documenting it.

How Residents Live

Historically, Niihau residents always had access to full-time employment through the Niihau cattle ranch, but employment opportunities became much more sparse when the ranch closed in 1999. People who couldn’t secure employment in the school turned to making and selling Niihau shell leis, a practice that has helped preserve the island's culture. Some of the pieces sell for thousands of dollars. Limited employment opportunities have resulted in a declining population; the 2010 census showed 170 full-time residents on the island, while today, the population is estimated to be around 70.

It is not uncommon for Niihauans to regularly travel back and forth between Kauai and Niihau for things like groceries and work. In fact, the island’s population is known to fluctuate pretty dramatically during the summer months when school is out, and families go off-island to travel and visit loved ones. Sometimes the population dips as low as 30 people.

Residents use solar panels for electricity and to heat their water. The island’s school installed a 10.4-kilowatt photovoltaic power system with battery storage in December 2007 so that students could learn computer skills, but Niihau still functions without internet access.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal rests on the beach
JodiJacobson / Getty Images

Conservation Efforts on Niihau

It isn’t just the culture of Niihau that benefits from the untouched isolation the island provides, but also the plants and animals. There, native species can live and thrive undisturbed by crowds and infrastructure, much like they did before the arrival of Europeans to Hawaiian shores in the late 1770s.

Both Robinson brothers are known as avid environmentalists. They use their influence over the island to implement programs to protect the federally endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other threatened species of flora and fauna. Monk seals are one of the world's most endangered marine animals, with a total population of only 1,400 individuals. A vast majority of those seals live around uninhabited islets in the Hawaiian archipelago. Among the main islands, Niihau has one of the largest concentrations of seals.

The island is also a critical habitat for the endangered olulu plant and the Pritchardia aylmer-Robinson (named for the Robinson family), the only palm species endemic to Niihau. Keith Robinson also manages a private botanical garden on Kauai where he maintains several Native Hawaiian plants, some of which have already gone extinct in the wild.

The island on Niihau in the distance from Kauai
Zach Krings / EyeEm / Getty Images

How You Can Visit Niihau

Although there isn't an island in the state that encompasses Hawaiian culture more than Niihau, it is not a place to vacation. There are no cars, no stores, no paved roads, no indoor plumbing, and no internet. Residents combat the arid climate—Niihau only sees annual rainfall inches in the double digits compared to Kauai's triple-digit numbers—using rainwater catchers for drinking water and get their food from hunting, fishing, gathering, or farming. Widespread tourism would strain the already-limited resources that the current community and future generations need to survive.

In recent years, however, the Robinson family has opened up parts of the islands for limited, low-impact tourism opportunities. These tours are exclusive (and pricey) because maintaining privacy and seclusion from the outside world for Niihau residents remains the highest priority. The tours won’t take tourists into the main village of Puuwai or interact with the locals in any way, but rather tours bring visitors to some of the island’s most iconic beaches and landscapes for several hours at a time.

Helicopter Tours

The family began selling half-day helicopter tours to Niihau to fund the chopper itself, which is used primarily for emergency evacuation of Niihau residents. The company, known as Niihau Helicopters Inc., offers excursions with an aerial tour over Niihau before landing on one of the island’s pristine beaches (the chosen beach may change depending on factors like wind conditions).

After landing, visitors are given a few hours to explore the beach, swim, go snorkeling, or just relax and take in the unique surroundings. The tour also includes lunch and refreshments, as well as commentary from the helicopter pilot as you cruise over the island. Half-day tours run for $630 per person with a minimum of five people per tour, but chartered excursions are available for a flat rate of $3,150. 

Niihau Safaris

Also organized by the Robinson family, Niihau Safaris Ltd. was developed to help control the island’s wild boar and feral sheep populations, which have grown to unsustainable numbers since being introduced in the 1860s. Although they are technically an invasive species, these boar and sheep represent a vital food source for the island’s residents; however, as the full-time population of humans continues to fluctuate, the animals’ numbers have gotten out of control. Feral pigs and sheep can cause extreme damage to the environment through wallowing and rooting. They can destroy crops and habitats for native species and compete with native plants and animals for resources. The company continuously monitors the wild populations of boar and sheep, helping to maintain the balance between species throughout the island’s ecosystem.

Boat Tours

Although booking a boat tour is the most affordable option, it won’t get you to the island itself. A snorkel or diving trip goes as far as the smaller, uninhabited island of Lehua, located just off Niihau.

Two companies offer boat and snorkel tours to Lehua Island, Holo Holo Charters and Blue Dolphin Charters. Both snorkel tours combine Niihau with Kauai’s Na Pali Coast and range from $250 to $285 per person for a seven-hour excursion. For experienced, certified scuba divers, Seasport Divers and Fathom Five Divers also visit Lehua. Tours begin from Koloa, Kauai, and take participants across the often-rough Kaulakahi Channel to Lehua.

Article Sources
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  1. Hawaii Marine Animal Response. "Hawaiian Monk Seals." 2020.