Our July features will focus on the most beautiful and unique beaches and islands in the world. With many travelers finally able to take the beach vacation they’ve been putting off for over a year, there’s never been a better time to celebrate the breathtaking coastlines and tranquil waters that appear in our dreams. Explore our features to learn more about off-the-beaten-path beaches you should consider for your next vacation, how a Spanish community banded together to save its coastline, an ultra-exclusive Hawaiian island you may not have heard of, and game-changing beach hacks recommended by the experts.
It is hard to believe that just 17 miles from the beach resorts of Kauai island is a small stretch of land that has remained untouched since the early days of Hawaii. The image of Niihau island rising from the ocean horizon is all too familiar to Kauai residents, despite the fact that most will never set foot on its shores.
The majority of Niihau is restricted to its 70 permanent residents and their families, as well as those who have received an invitation from the family that has owned the 69-square-mile island since 1864. No paved roads, hospitals, police stations, grocery stores, or indoor plumbing are present. Residents obtain their food from the land by hunting, fishing, or farming, and rely on rainwater collection systems and a small number of solar panels for water and electricity, respectively. This unspoiled ecosystem is a haven for many of the state’s endangered or vulnerable species, while the island’s residents contribute to the preservation of the Hawaiian language and culture through their commitment to preserving their ancestors’ way of life.
The family that owns Niihau has opened portions of the island to small tours for those who yearn to visit what is arguably the most exclusive island destination on the planet. However, a visit will be accompanied by a hefty price tag and numerous restrictions.
According to the Niihau Cultural Heritage Foundation, traditional Hawaiian chants have been used to transmit Niihau’s history through the generations. According to legend, the goddess of volcanoes, Pele, first settled on the island of Niihau before moving to Hawaii Island. Geologically, Niihau is believed to have been formed by a secondary volcanic vent following the eruption of the Kauai volcano.
Kahelelani was the first great chief of Niihau, followed by K’eo and then Kaumuali’i, who was born in 1790. In 1810, Kaumuali’i became king of Kauai and Niihau, the final two islands to be united under Kamehameha I’s rule.
In 1863, the Sinclair family traveled from New Zealand to Honolulu in search of ranching land. King Kamehameha IV offered them Niihau. After the death of Kamehameha IV in November of 1863, his brother Kamehameha V completed the transaction in 1864 for $10,000, granting James McHutchison Sinclair and Francis Sinclair full ownership of the island.
When the Sinclairs purchased Niihau in 1864, they pledged to preserve its Hawaiian culture. Bruce and Keith Robinson, descendants of the Sinclairs, are the current owners of the island, and they have continued to protect it from external pressures. Keith Robinson revealed in an interview with the New York Times the words spoken by Kamehameha as he signed the contract in 1864: “Niihau is yours.” However, there may come a time when Hawaiians are not as dominant in Hawaii as they are currently. When that time comes, please assist them in any way you can.
Bringing alcohol, tobacco, or firearms onto the island is strictly prohibited and could result in eviction, and the family previously required all residents to attend church on Sundays. In the 1930s, the Robinsons banned all visits to Niihau in an effort to protect locals from new diseases, including measles and later polio.
Language Spoken in Niihau
Niihau is the only place in the world where Hawaiian remains the primary language; the island has its own dialect (Olelo Kanaka Niihau) that differs slightly from traditional Hawaiian (Olelo Hawaii). The Niihau dialect is closer to the original Hawaiian language, which predates the arrival of missionaries to the islands, who changed the language as they recorded it.
How Individuals Live
Niihau residents have always had access to full-time employment through the Niihau cattle ranch, but since the ranch’s closure in 1999, employment opportunities have become much scarcer. People who were unable to find work in the school turned to making and selling Niihau shell leis, a practice that has contributed to the preservation of the island’s culture. Some of the items are priced in the thousands of dollars. There were 170 full-time residents on the island as of the 2010 census, compared to an estimated 70 today.
It is not uncommon for Niihauans to travel frequently between Kauai and Niihau for necessities such as groceries and work. In fact, the island’s population is known to fluctuate significantly during the summer months, when school is out and families travel or visit family members off-island. Occasionally, the population drops as low as 30 individuals.
Residents utilize solar panels to generate electricity and heat water. In December 2007, the school on the island installed a 10.4-kilowatt photovoltaic power system with battery storage so that students could learn computer skills, but Niihau still lacks internet access.
Niihau Conservation Efforts
Not only does the culture of Niihau benefit from the island’s pristine isolation, but so do the plants and animals. There, native species can thrive undisturbed by humans and infrastructure, as they did before the arrival of Europeans to the Hawaiian islands in the 1770s.
Both Robinson brothers are well-known environmental advocates. They implement programs to protect the federally endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other threatened flora and fauna using their influence over the island. Monk seals are one of the most endangered marine species on the planet, with only 1,400 individuals remaining. 1 The vast majority of these seals inhabit the Hawaiian archipelago’s uninhabited islets. Niihau has one of the largest concentrations of seals among the major islands.
The island is also a critical habitat for the endangered olulu plant and the Pritchardia aylmer-Robinson, the only palm species endemic to Niihau (named after the Robinson family). Keith Robinson also oversees a private botanical garden on Kauai, where he tends to several extinct Native Hawaiian plants.
How to Travel to Niihau
Niihau embodies Hawaiian culture more than any other island in the state, but it is not a vacation destination. There are no automobiles, shops, paved roads, indoor plumbing, or the internet. Niihau’s annual rainfall is in the double digits, whereas Kauai’s is in the triple digits. Residents obtain their drinking water from rainwater catchers and obtain their food from hunting, fishing, gathering, or farming. Tourism on a large scale would strain the already scarce resources that the current community and future generations require for survival.
In recent years, however, the Robinson family has permitted limited, low-impact tourism on a portion of the islands. These tours are exclusive and expensive because protecting Niihau residents’ privacy and seclusion from the outside world remains a top priority. The tours will not take tourists into the main village of Puuwai or allow them to interact with the locals in any way; rather, they will bring visitors for several hours to the island’s most iconic beaches and landscapes.
To fund the helicopter, which is primarily used for the emergency evacuation of Niihau residents, the family began selling half-day helicopter tours to Niihau. Niihau Helicopters, Inc. offers tours with an aerial tour of Niihau followed by a landing on one of the island’s pristine beaches (the chosen beach may change depending on factors like wind conditions).
After landing, guests have a few hours to explore the beach, swim, snorkel, or simply relax and take in the unique surroundings. In addition to lunch and refreshments, the tour includes commentary from the helicopter pilot as you fly over the island. Half-day tours cost $630 per person, with a minimum of five people per tour, while chartered excursions cost $3,150 per day.
Niihau Safaris Ltd. was also founded by the Robinson family to help control the island’s wild boar and feral sheep populations, which have increased to unmanageable levels since their introduction in the 1860s. Although they are technically invasive species, these boar and sheep are a vital food source for the island’s residents; however, their numbers have gotten out of control as the human population continues to fluctuate. Through their wallowing and rooting, feral pigs and sheep can cause severe environmental damage. They can destroy crops and native habitats and compete for resources with native plants and animals. The company continuously monitors the wild populations of boar and sheep, thereby helping to maintain the ecological balance of the island.
Although booking a boat tour is the least expensive option, it will not take you to the island. A snorkeling or scuba diving excursion can reach the smaller, uninhabited island of Lehua, which is located near Niihau.
Holo Holo Charters and Blue Dolphin Charters both offer boat and snorkeling excursions to Lehua Island. Both seven-hour snorkel tours combine Niihau and Kauai’s Na Pali Coast and cost between $250 and $285 per person. Seasport Divers and Fathom Five Divers also visit Lehua for experienced, certified scuba divers. Tours depart from Koloa, Kauai, and cross the frequently turbulent Kaulakahi Channel to Lehua.
Topic: A Peek Inside Niihau: Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island”
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