Captain Cook Never Sailed Here

The Forbidden Island, Niihau

May 24, 2001
Outside Magazine

Niihau, the most remote of Hawaii's principal islands, sometimes seems as much marketing concept as getaway, its "forbiddenness" making it both difficult to visit and, simultaneously, desirable. For 200 hundred years, it didn't accept visitors unless they were shipwrecked. Today, owned by the famously paternalistic Robinson cattle ranching family, it remains extraordinarily isolated, home to only about 230 native Hawaiians, 8,000 wild boars, 12,000 wild sheep, and no alcohol (the island is dry). It's also a stubborn redoubt of Hawaiian culture. Most of the residents speak dialect. They work for the Robinsons. They live in houses without running water or indoor plumbing. And many of them leave Niihau rarely, if at all.
All of which makes a visit to the island memorable but troubling. This is Hawaii as fiercely private fiefdom. It's also Hawaii as collective tourism dream: beautiful, sun-drenched, undeveloped. Should you decide to visit, Niihau Helicopters will take you from Burns Field, on Kauai, to Niihau's Keanahaki Bay (approx. $250 per person; 808-335-3500). You can beachcomb and snorkel until the helicopter returns three hours later. By prior arrangement through the helicopter company, residents will wander over from Puuwai, the largest village, to sell exquisite Niihauan shell leis. Since money isn't used on the island, you'll need to pay for any purchase through the pilot, who'll redistribute the profits later in the form of goods.

If you're uncomfortable with the rules of Niihau, set as they are by the unseen Robinsons, you can still enjoy the island's unspoiled nature by remaining nearby—but offshore. Less than a mile north of Niihau, at the half-sunken crater island called Lehua, is one of the finest, least-known dive sites in Hawaii. It's also, appropriately, forbidding, though not forbidden. Manta rays and tiger sharks call these waters home, swimming with invading humans over shadowy drop-offs and huge underwater caverns.