If you’ve been to Kauai, you’ve probably heard of Ni’ihau (pronounced “nee-ee-how”). It’s the island to the southwest of Kauai, shaped a little like a quarter rest if you’re familiar with reading music. This 72-square-mile island is home to few, and you definitely won’t find any vacation rentals, hotels, or resorts here–and that’s how the residents like it. But if you’re lucky (and willing to budget for it), you can visit for a few hours. Here are a few things to know before you go, and a sneak peek at this unique island.
Why is it forbidden?
I mean, it’s not cursed or anything, it’s just off-limits! There are several reasons why the island might be considered “forbidden.” It’s remote. There are no amenities whatsoever. There is extremely limited transportation to the island. You have to be invited to actually go there (with very few notable exceptions).
But the real reason, according to one of the owners, is because of the polio epidemic that came to the Hawaiian islands in 1952. The owners of Ni’ihau enforced a strict, two-week quarantine and required a doctor’s certificate for anyone wishing to come to the island (we’re all familiar with that kind of thing by now, right?). As you might imagine, it worked, and polio never made it to Ni’ihau.
Who owns the island?
This island is privately-owned by descendants of Elizabeth Sinclair, who purchased it for $10,000 (approximately $172,000 in 2021 USD) from King Kamehameha V in 1864 for ranching purposes. The only people who currently live there are local, Hawaiian residents whose number is somewhere between 35-200 people at any given time. The official language is Hawaiian, and the people here even speak their own unique dialict.
When Elizabeth Sinclair purchased Ni’ihau, it was with the promise that she and her family would protect the land and its residents. The current owners, Bruce and Keith Robinson, are decendants of the Sinclairs and are committed to upholding that promise over 150 years later, just as their uncle did in the 1950s with the polio epidemic.
More here: Royal History on Hawaii’s Big Island
What’s it like on the island?
Remote. Extremely remote! The people here still live without wi-fi, cell phones, doctors, restaurants, or a tourist economy. The main means of transportation for locals are on foot, by bicycle, on horseback, or beat up trucks. Residents live in the only town on the island called Pu’uwai, on the leeward side of the island, and their school is powered entirely by solar power–the only school to do so in Hawaii, and possibly in the United States!
Ni’ihau is an arid island, meaning it’s very dry there and hardly ever rains. Quite a contrast to Kaua’i, which is home to one of the wettest spots on Earth, Mount Waialeale! Ni’ihau is so dry because the island is too low to “catch” the clouds. Despite its arid climate, however, Ni’ihau is home to Hawaii’s largest lake, Lake Halali’i. It’s very often completely empty, though!
How can I visit?
You can be personally invited by the Robinsons or a full-time Ni’ihau resident, but personal invites are hard to come by. You could also take a 1/2-day helicopter tour for $465 per person (or $2600 for a private charter), or a multi-day hunting safari for $3000 per hunter per day, both with Ni’ihau Helicopters. Alternatively, you can take a full-day snorkel tour to Lehua Crater, just to the north of the island. Several companies on Kauai combine the Na’Pali Coast of Kauai and snorkeling at Lehua into a full-day tour.
Coming Soon: How YOU Can Visit Ni’ihau
What am I allowed to do there?
You’ll land at Nanina Beach, where you’ll spend about three hours. You’re free to walk up and down the beach, look for turtles and monk seals, and collect shells–yes, you even have permission to take them with you! Find something you like that happened to wash up on shore? You can also take that with you. There’s a pavillion on the beach that provides some shade, and you’ll have a lunch provided that includes your choice of sandwich, chips, a cookie, a canned soft drink, and a bottle of water.
We had a great time watching the monk seals, and we walked on lava flats jutting right out into the ocean. Some people come back to Ni’ihau on this tour again and again to simply have this deserted beach to themselves. It’s the only island from which you can see Kaua’i, so savor the views, savor the quiet, savor the moment in time where you get to stand on Hawaii’s Forbidden Island.
One of my most-viewed posts ever: 5 Things You Forgot to Pack for Hawaii
For more about Ni’ihau’s unique heritage and history, please visit the Ni’ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation website. The best way to show respect to Hawaii and its people is to develop a foundation of understanding. Hawaii is to be appreciated for its beauty uniqueness, kind people, and so much more. But appreciation goes hand in hand with respect.
Want more unique ways to experience Hawaii? Take a look at my dedicated Hawaiian Islands Page!
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