When one of your friends says they’re going on vacation to Hawaii, they’re usually talking about one of the major islands. Chances are their destination is Oahu, Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island, all of which have a sophisticated tourism infrastructure. They’re probably not talking about Hawaii’s the archipelago’s westernmost isle: Niihau, Hawaii’s “forbidden island.”
At just 70 square miles and home to around 70 permanent residents, Niihau is a private Hawaiian island with no paved roads, no indoor plumbing, and, best of all, no crowds. Electricity is a relatively new development. To get around on the private Hawaiian island, residents travel by bicycle or on foot.
The island has its own unique culture and is home to the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the most endangered seal in the world. Because it has virtually no tourism infrastructure, its beaches and natural habitats are pristine. Although it may sound mysterious and even inhospitable, it isn’t really as “forbidden” as its name suggests. Here’s everything you need to know about Hawaii’s least-visited island.
How Niihau became the forbidden island
Like an old family estate, the island of Niihau has been passed down from generation to generation for more than 150 years. The island was purchased from King Kamehameha IV for $10,000 in 1864 by Scottish widower Elizabeth Sinclair. Before the sale, however, the king requested that Sinclair always keep the best interests of the local Hawaiians in mind and to lend them assistance whenever possible. Now, the island is maintained by Bruce Robinson, Sinclair’s great-great-grandson, and the family has done its best to honor the king’s request.
When Westerners started colonizing the other Hawaiian islands, ousting the indigenous monarchy, the family rejected this colonization by secluding itself from the outside world. Aubrey Robinson, one of Sinclair’s descendants, prohibited outsiders from coming to the island in 1915, partly to protect native Niihauans from contracting foreign diseases.
Although the government of Hawaii endeavored throughout the 20th century to bring Niihau into the fold, turn it into a state park, and introduce the Niihauans to “civilization,” the Robinsons resisted state control. The fight continues to this day, but ultimately the family has been successful, and it remains the largest Hawaiian private island — and the only place in the world where the primary language of residents is native Hawaiian.
The current-day people of Niihau
As a result of its separation from the rest of Hawaii, Niihau has developed its own distinct culture and lifestyle. Most residents speak both English and the local Niihau dialect, and spend their days fishing and hunting. Modern technology is a rarity on the island, with no internet, stores, paved roads, cars, or indoor plumbing, and the school is the only one in the country to be powered entirely by solar energy. Due to the Robinson family’s strict Calvinist beliefs, there are also several social restrictions in place. Guns and alcohol are prohibited on the island, and men aren’t allowed to wear earrings or grow out their hair.
The Robinson family has kept its promise to Kamehameha IV to take care of its inhabitants. Supplies are brought to the island each week by the Robinsons from Kauai (the nearest island), and full-time work for residents is guaranteed on the Niihau Ranch. Though the ranch ceased operating as an actual ranch in 1999, it’s still part of the island’s nascent tourism program.
Niihau tours from Kauai
Niihau’s “forbidden island” nickname sounds intimidating, but it’s not as prohibitive as you might think — though it earned the name for good reason. Due to a polio epidemic in 1952, the island was closed off to visitors to protect its residents from contracting the disease. And it worked. Niihau managed to avoid any cases — probably because the Robinson family required visitors to have a doctors note to land on the island, effectively preventing any average citizens or infected visitors from stepping ashore.
Though the nickname stuck, luckily visiting the island is no longer forbidden. But it’s not exactly simple. There are no ferry services taxiing tourists to Niihau from the other islands, and as you’d expect, no flights to Niihau, either. So you only have two options for setting foot on the island: take a helicopter tour from Kauai or reserve a spot on a hunting safari. Though there are a few other ways to get close to the island without touching it.
Helicopter tours of Niihau
You can reserve a helicopter tour (for a minimum of five people) directly from the tourism company of Niihau. Tours include your heli ride to the island, a beach landing, and several hours to snorkel or relax on the beach — plus snacks and drinks. You’ll need to contact Nihau Helicopters, Inc. to arrange your private tour, which starts at $465 per person. The helicopter office is located in the town of Kaumakani on Highway 50 in Kauai, about 30 minutes from the airport.
If you don’t want to land on the island but would prefer to just see it, you can book a tour with one of Kauai’s helicopter tour companies, which do various tours of Kauai’s coastlines (and inland sites, like the area where they filmed many of the scenes from 1993’s Jurassic Park). Those tours are more affordable, with companies like Blue Hawaiian, Island Helicopters, and Sunshine Helicopters offering tours starting at $339, $249, and $294, respectively.
Niihau hunting safaris
The second method of accessing Niihau is through a hunting safari (Niihau’s gun prohibition apparently doesn’t apply to hunting rifles). First, you’ll need to make sure you have a Hawaii Hunter Education Wallet Card, which you can only get buy completing a Hawaii hunter education course. Alternatively, if you already have a hunting license in your state, you can fill out an exemption request. From there, you’ll need to email the hunting safari company, run by the Robinson family, for details. Pricing varies, but the least-expensive fee is for non-hunting observers, which is around $800. Fees include transportation via helicopter from Kauai
Wild Polynesian boar and hybrid feral sheep are the island’s main game. What you’re allowed to pursue and what you’re allowed to bring back all impact the price, so be sure to email the family at NiihauIsland@hawaii.net for more information well in advance of your preferred date. There’s a little information on the island’s official website, but you’ll need to contact the company regardless as all tours are private and bespoke.
If you do visit Niihau by helicopter or safari, don’t expect to encounter any local residents. Access to many parts of the island is restricted to visitors, so during your ground visit, you’ll likely find yourself on a deserted beach with little opportunity for straying very far.
Niihau boat tours from Kauai
For those eager who would like to get a taste of Niihau, but who don’t have the money or desire to book one of the above tours, there is an alternative. You can take a sightseeing boat tour from companies like Holoholo Kauai Boat Tours or Blue Dolphin Kauai, which includes a crossing of the channel to Niihau. Although landing on the coast of Niihau is forbidden, the boats usually moor just offshore, where guests can snorkel or bask in the sun with views of Niihau. Most tours also include breakfast, lunch and snacks, plus snorkeling gear, educational narration by the guides, and the chance to spot wildlife around Niihau.
Scuba diving near Niihau
If you’re a certified diver, you can book a trip to Niihau’s many dive sites. Popular underwater sites around the island include Puu Muu, where divers can swim through the state’s longest underwater lava tubes, and Stairway to Heaven and Pyramid Point Drift, both known for sharks and seals. Companies like Explore Kauai Scuba and Bubbles Below Scuba Charters offer various tours and packages for divers who want to see Niihau’s underwater attractions. SeaSport Divers also offers a dive tour with an option to snorkel, in case your group is a mix of divers and non-divers.