Hawaii’s Not-Entirely-Forbidden Ni’ihau Island

Things to Do, Travel Tips, What's New — By jeckardt on June 4, 2011 at 2:47 am

Years went by as I watched Ni’ihau from Polihali Beach on Kaua’i. After a lifetime growing up in Hawaii I’d become intrigued with the idea of a “forbidden” and preserved island cut off from all outside contact. Being a fan of kahelelani shells helped my fascination grow of course, as I imagined beaches covered in shells and an underwater world alive with tropical fish. It seems to be human nature that we want what we cannot have, and I always dreamed of going to Ni’ihau.

Ni'ihau cliffs

For those of you who may not know, Ni’ihau, an island not far form the coast of Kaua’i, has remained privately owned by the Robinson family for generations. Purchased from King Kamehameha V for around $10,000, the family was first offered what would become Waikiki but at the time it was a swampy marsh land and not too appealing.

Years later, the family still owns Ni’ihau and runs a cattle ranch there, also allowing 120 Hawaiians to call it home. The Hawaiians can come and go as they please but no one is allowed to visit unless invited by the Ni’ihauans, or by taking a tour over the island with Ni’ihau Helicopters, a trip I was very excited and surprised to learn of recently.

Untouched Beach

So as an early Mother’s Day/birthday gift to myself I spent the $385 for the tour and hopped into the helicopter with two older couples from Las Vegas. As we got close to the island, the vertical cliffs grew visible in the distance. It was quite a spectacular approach: we flew almost straight up in front of them and popped over the ledge with the island in full view in front of us like a dramatic scene out of a movie.

For a small island, Ni’ihau holds a lot of unique treasures: the state’s first and second largest lakes; the owners’ original home still standing; the state’s best sunrise shell beach; several epic surf breaks, including one that is said to rival Jaws; some unique animals; and of course, the famous Ni’ihau shells.

After roughly an hour touring the island by air — during which time we got extremely low to a couple of pods of dolphins — and some sharp turns that left me feeling unexpectedly sea sick (the guy behind me was throwing up in a bag), we landed on a naturally flat lava landing pad on the north side of the island. From here I wandered along passing a ram with long curly horns spending quality time with a monk seal on the beach, found some shells, and walked and walked and walked.

Ni'ihau Monk Seal

Several monk seals sunbathed on the beach as I spent two hours beachcombing. The increasing amount of shells in by bag weighed it down, and I kept my eyes open for a glass ball. But alas, no glass ball for me, just two of their centers with some glass around them.

It was soon time to turn back and I made my way back to the chopper amidst the seemingly infinite amount of glass bottles, buoys, and boat netting scattered along the beach. As I wandered along alone I thought about my reasons for spending a hard earned chunk of cash to come to the island, and tried to decide if my expectations were satisfied. I decided that they were, however, a visitor shouldn’t come to Ni’ihau expecting to find beaches covered in kahelelani or sunrise shells, find a bunch of glass buoys, or to visit a Native Hawaiian village.

Hawaii's largest lake

Visiting Ni’ihau is about going back in time to an undisturbed island with no big buildings, no highways (except for the narrow red dirt “Ni’ihau Hwy.), a thriving underwater world, and to see what could have been and what still is. While exploring Ni’ihau, one cannot miss the solitude that seeps deep into your being, the peace that radiates from the island, and contentment on an island that is truly lacking in all of our modern day stresses.

To visit Ni’ihau contact Ni’ihau Helicopters at www.niihau.us/heli.html

Tags: Hawaii beaches, helicopter tours, Kauai, monk seals, Niihau, shells


  • Keith says:

    Pretty cool! I’m the Maui nileguide writer. I have always wondered about ni’ihau as well. Too band you didn’t find a glass float. I was lucky enough to find one on Lanai a couple months ago.

  • jeckardt says:

    Hi Keith, nice to meet you. Lanai sounds awesome, that’s next on my list. Lucky you found one. Are they common over there?


Get Trackback URL