I've lived in this state for more than 2 decades, and I am very familiar with the mystery surrounding the island of Ni'ihau. Many want to visit, but few ever get to go. One must be invited onto the island by the owners, the Robinson family. So a few years ago when the Robinsons opened parts of the area up for tourists, I jumped at the chance.
Niihau is the smallest of Hawaii's inhabited islands. It's a private island that largely exists like pre-contact days. There are no paved roads, hotels, restaurants, or electricity. There are about 160 residents, and most of them are full-blooded native Hawaiian. They speak Hawaiian as the primary language.
The mystique surrounding Ni'ihau began almost two centuries ago, when King Kamehameha the Fourth sold it to Kauai resident Elizabeth Sinclair for $10,000 in 1864. Today, two of Sinclair’s descendants, Keith and Bruce Robinson, manage the island. It is said the Robinsons are committed to protect the Hawaiian way of life, by staving off all influences of modernity - which I find a commendable goal to try and preserve a nearly extinct culture.
The 70 square mile island is nearest to Kauai, so we flew from our home on Oahu to Kauai en route to Ni'ihau. There are several different ways to view the island: an aerial chopper tour, a hunting tour package, or by boat. A simple internet search will tell you this.
How do you get to Ni'ihau by boat? I haven't asked the companies if their customers actually set foot on land, but the state, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, only has jurisdiction up to the high wash of the waves. "Above that is presumably private property. Without a property owner's permission that would be trespassing," says public information specialist Deb Ward. I don't know if the companies have the Robinson's permission to go on land.
However, the boats don't need special permission to anchor off shore. "Boats which anchor more than 72 hours in an offshore location must obtain permission from DLNR's Boating division, unless this is in a marine life conservation district, and there is none yet at Niihau," says Ward. It appears all the boat tours are day trips.
We are not hunters, and we liked the idea of an aerial overview, so we wanted to go up in a chopper. I must admit, we had some difficult securing a helicopter tour. The Robinsons opened up the island to tourists, but I wonder if they're a little ambivalent about the venture. Securing a booking (a call back) was difficult, as multiple phone and e mail messages went unanswered.
I'm not complaining: I understand they're extremely private people, so it must be overwhelming to go from the social equivalent of zero to 60 in a brief span of time. I'm saying this to let you know what you might encounter if you try to book a tour.
Finally after some months of trying we secured a spot with Ni'ihau Helicopters. Here's what we got – I'll quote from the website:
"You will get a tour of this island by air as our pilot gives you a history of this often mysterious island. Land on one of the secluded beaches, sunbathe along with the monk seals, beach-comb these white sand beaches for shells and glass balls, and swim with the beautiful tropical reef fish in the pristine warm ocean waters.
Half day tours are available, and include a helicopter ride to the 'Forbidden Island', an aerial tour over Ni'ihau, landing on the island at a beach (selected usually by wind conditions) where you can spend a few hours swimming, snorkeling, beachcombing or just relaxing and sunbathing. Lunch and refreshments are included in our tour. Half day excursions are $325 per person."
We showed up at the headquarters in Kaumakani, Kauai on the designated day, which was overcast and windy. The friendly girls at the counter were engaged in a Hawaiian conversation, which fascinated us "city folk" who rarely get the privilege of hearing Hawaiian spoken.
We were discouraged to hear that the flight might have to be delayed by as much as a few days due to an impending storm. We, of course, understood the reasons, and wouldn't want to put anyone's life at risk including ours. However ours was only a weekend visit and a big delay would mean we'd have to come back on another trip.
Luckily, the weather cleared up the next day and we were able to take off. The pilot was excellent and provided – as the website promised – a history of the island along with his aerial tour. After a 10 minute ride from Kauai to Niihau , and another 10 or so minutes in the air, we touched down at a secluded beach and were allowed to swim in the pristine waters, search for glass floats on the shore, and eat our lunch.
It was hot, so after a refreshing meal, we had time to search for shells on the beach. Niihau’s beaches are known for their rare shells, and famed Niihau shell lei can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. We, however, found just a few pretty mementos of our afternoon. We weren't the only ones enjoying the beach. We saw an endangered Hawaiian monk seal sunning on the sand nearby.
Then it was time to take off again, and as we left, we flew over the town. It was small and flat, and as one would expect, extremely rural looking. I hear there's one very old jeep on the island, but that electricity is coming any day now.
In December 2006, county officials announced the island will get a $207,000 photovoltaic power system with battery storage for Ni'ihau Island School. It's made possible through a partnership between Kauai county, Ni'ihau Ranch, Ron's Electric, the state Department of Education, and the US Department of Agriculture.
The new power system will allow the school to have a refrigerator, freezer, computers, printers and lights for the first time. Daniel Hamada, district superintendent for the state Department of Education, says having electricity will provide the students and staff with fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and fresh and frozen meats, fish, and poultry.
The island's owner, Bruce Robinson, says, "For many years, Ni'ihau Ranch has desired to make the entire island of Ni'ihau self sufficient in energy use. This project, which will supply 100% of the school's electric power from solar cells, is an important part of this goal."
The island's residents are not shut ins; they can commute from Ni'ihau to Kauai on a regular (even daily) basis for work and for health care. They are aware of the conveniences of modern life. It'll just be interesting to hear if bringing electricity to the island will change the flavor of "old" Hawaii . I know for sure I'm grateful for the half day I spent on and above Ni'ihau: a rare opportunity that I'll always appreciate and treasure.
For more information on getting to Ni'ihau, here are some websites that come up on an internet search:
1) Running shoes and music player, so I can work out wherever I go.
2) Camera, but I like to take pictures of my wife Gina and my toddler Noa, instead of location shots.
3) Sunscreen, because I like visiting warm locations. It's not a vacation for me if I can't lounge in the sun.
"What I like about vacations: Just getting away. I like relaxing vacations where I do little but eat and relax, and maybe a few outdoorsy things like a hike, surf session, SCUBA, etc. Our second child (a boy) was born in June, and as our two sons come on future trips, I'll probably want to show them important sights around the country."
Places Paul's been:
All over the Carribean, Haiti, Virgin Islands, Mexico, and most of the US except Alaska.
Places Paul wants to visit: Western Europe, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China.
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The Robinson Family is probably very smart in wanting to preserve the old Hawaiian lifestyle and traditions. Something that really means the Hawaiians will never become extinct.
That is probably the most beautiful island in the state.