Niihau: the Forbidden Island
Niihau (pronounced NEE-EE-HOW) is the smallest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands. It covers an area of about 70 square miles about 18 miles southwest from Kauai across the Kaulakahi Channel. Consisting of one extinct volcano that had a large landslide on the east, Niihau is about 4.9 million years old. Home to the pristine beaches where few people, even Hawaiians from other islands, have ever set foot on the island of Niihau.
Purchased by the Sinclair Family
Niihau’s reputation is well deserved. For nearly a century and a half, the privately owned island has been off limits to outsiders, earning it the nickname the “Forbidden Island”. In 1864, Elizabeth Sinclair purchased the island, along with parts of Kauai, for $10,000 in gold from King Kamehameha V for the purpose of raising cattle and sheep. She had originally offered $6,000, but the King asked for more after learning how valuable land was from other foreigners.
Believing that Niihau was lush and green, Sinclair chose Niihau over other options she had considered on Oahu, including the then swamplands of Waikiki and Pearl Harbor. Following two years of heavy rains brought by the Kona Storms, Niihau appeared to be the perfect place to start a new ranch. What the Sinclair family didn’t know is that the King really sold them land lying in the rain shadow of Kauai. A land that was arid and unforgiving, only getting about a dozen inched of rain per year. An island who was subject to long periods of drought and not at all suitable to sustain a ranch.
When the King sold Niihau to the Sinclair family he made it very clear that the native Hawaiians were now their subjects. They were to take care of them the best that they could for the” rest of time”. Vowing to preserve Niihau’s traditional Hawaiian culture and language, Elizabeth Sinclair and her descendants, the Robinson family, have continued to honor that commitment.
A Land Frozen in Time
Niihau has maintained its original, traditional Hawaiian lifestyle, the kahiki lifestyle, since the 1800s and earlier. Even though the island is under extreme pressure from the outside world to change, the people of the island work hard to preserve this piece of untouched Hawaiian culture. The outside world has become an unwelcome guest.
At this time, Niihau has fewer than 200 permanent residents, nearly all of Native Hawaiian descent, who live in the island’s main settlement of Puuwai. All residents live rent-free, but there is no phone service, no automobiles, and no paved roads. Horses and bicycles are the main form of transportation. There are no power lines with solar providing all electricity. There is no plumbing or running water with all water coming from a rainwater catchment system. With no general stores or hotels, all supplies must be purchased from neighboring islands and shipped over by barge.
Residents still speak the Hawaiian language as their first language as part of the original agreement with the Sinclair Family to help preserve the Hawaiian culture and tradition of the islands. Niihau is now the only island in the world where Hawaiian is spoken as the primary language with English being second.
When the island was first purchased in the 1800s, the lifestyle of the Niihau people was similar to life on the other Hawaiian Islands in rural areas. Grass huts were the common residence and fishing was the main food source. Ohana or family was the center of life.
To this day, the people live off the land on Niihau. Fish are a large staple of the Niihau diet. Free meat is provided through hunting wild boar and eland. Everyone gathers and grows their own fruit and vegetables. Smoking and drinking are not allowed on Niihau.
Niihau Shell Lei
In an effort to preserve a lifestyle unlike anywhere else in Hawaii, Niihau has taken on a few income generating avenues to be able to pay their taxes to the State of Hawaii and purchase their supplies. One of these ways is through selling the cherished Niihau shell lei. A highly preserved aspect of Hawaiian culture, the Niihau shell lei has now developed into an art not replicated anywhere else in the world.
Origins of the Niihau shell lei have been lost over the years, but there is evidence of its existence dating back to when Captain James Cook first arrived in Hawaii in 1778. Today, the Niihau shell lei have become a symbol of Hawaiian elegance worn by both men and women. Some elaborate Niihau shell leis are valued at thousands of dollars.
Niihau beaches are known for their tiny shells, pupu, that wash ashore during the winter months. The women of Niihau collect momi, kahelelani, and laiki shells to create complex leis, earrings, and bracelets to be sold in select gift shops around Kauai. In 2004, a bill was signed to protect Niihau shell leis from counterfeiting- a sign of Hawaii’s great love and admiration for these wearable works of art.
Sinclair’s grandson, Aubrey Robinson, closed Niihau to visitors in 1915. His grandsons and current co-owners of Niihau, Keith and Bruce Robinson, have continued to uphold this decision. Even relatives of Niihau’s inhabitants can only visit by special permission. To this day, very few people ever get to visit the island.
However, there is no real mystery in being able to visit Niihau. A pristine island of one of the most-coveted travel destinations in the world, it is no surprise that one would want to visit. The mystery is in knowing how to do it.
Niihau Helicopters (another financial avenue for the island’s owners), offer half-day helicopter and beach tours to the island. These tours are for the sole purpose to give visitors a glimpse into an unspoiled Hawaiian Island. Any contact between tourists and native Niihauans is prohibited to respect their privacy and desire to live untouched from the outside world.
Another way to visit Niihau is through Holo Holo Charter’s Na Pali Coast and Niihau Super Tour. Being the only Kauai boat tour allowed to visit the island, you will be taken to Niihau for a view from the deck, a little talk story, and to snorkel nearby.
As the keepers of Niihau, the Robinsons have worked hard to protect the island and its residents. They have upheld the family promise made in 1864 to the King to take care of the people of Niihau as their own and continue to do so, today. Through this promise and dedication, the island of Niihau has remained one of the purest places left untouched in the world.
Have you ever been to Niihau?
All photography by Kimmy Hayes © 2013.