Many of our guests on our Na Pali Coast tours are quick to point out an island off the west coast of Kauai with curiosity. Many have not heard “The Forbidden Island” of Ni’ihau and for good reason – it’s usually overlooked in Hawaiian literature. But it is rich with history, and is an important part of Hawaiian culture. In fact, it is the only island where Hawaiian is the primary language.
Ni’ihau is the westernmost inhabited island in Hawaii. It has just over 100 year-round residents, and they live completely off the grid in a self-sustaining ecosystem. The island was purchased almost 125 years ago by the Robinson family, who also own a large portion of Kauai. There are no cars, running water, or telephones on Ni’ihau. The only transportation is by horse and bicycle, and electricity comes from solar power.
Ni’ihau received the nickname “The Forbidden Island” because of the fact that it is privately owned, and you must be invited on the island to visit. The US Navy does a bit of work there, but nobody is permanently stationed there. So the island lives in relative isolation, receiving supplies by ship once per week and having a helicopter for emergencies.
Ni’ihau residents live a simple life, doing their best to keep the Hawaiian culture alive. Most rely on subsistence farming, and live rent-free, so the stresses are low. Many are avid craft makers and artists, with the most famous export probably being the fabulous shell leis that you can find at various stores around Kauai.
There are a few tour companies offering boat and helicopter tours of the island. But the tours have heavy restrictions on where you can go, so don’t expect to be able to freely roam the island. If you do make it there, though, you will be rewarded with a peaceful setting that isn’t caught up in the day to day distractions of modern society.
Lehua is the small island to the North of Ni’ihau that you will also see while touring the Na Pali Coast. No humans live on Lehua as it is protected as a bird sanctuary for the multitude of migratory seabirds who can have a peaceful pitstop to call their own on their long migratory journeys.
Hopefully this article gives you some insight about Ni’ihau. It is an important component of preserving Hawaii’s culture, thanks to the efforts of its residents and the Robinson family to maintain a simple lifestyle. It is rare to have a community like this, and it’s isolation should be treasured. Hopefully through the preservation of the island’s ways, Hawaiian Culture will not be lost, and be able to thrive for many generations to come.