Niʻihau, Hawaii

Photo: Polihale at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Polihale at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
You always want what you can’t have. It started with toys as a kid. Then it progressed to boys, shoes, and handbags . . . oh, the handbags. Your focus might be traveling now, but it’s still the off-limits places that catch your eye. How could you not be curious about a Hawaiian island nicknamed the Forbidden Isle?

Niʻihau is the westernmost and seventh-largest of the Hawaiian islands. It sits 17 miles across the Kaulakahi Channel from Kauaʻi. The island is arid and barren; the endangered ōlulu—which looks like a cabbage on a stick—is one of the tallest plants that grows here. Mount Pānīʻau, an extinct volcano, is the highest point. Monk seals laze on the beaches. Tall black-winged stilts and Hawaiian coots hang out by the wetlands. Rocky cliffs protect it from the open Pacific. While time just seems to stand still.

Elizabeth Sinclair purchased Niʻihau from the Kingdom of Hawaii for $10,000 worth of gold in 1864. The private island was restricted to family member, their guests, Native Hawaiians, and members of the U.S. Navy. It was terrorized by a Japanese fighter pilot, who crashed on the island a week after Pearl Harbor was attacked, in what became known as the Niʻihau Incident.

Today, the island remains in the family, which refuses to sell it to the U.S. government. Pu’uwai, on the western coast, is home to about 130 Native Hawaiians. They live rent-free and all of their meat is provided. Life on the island isn’t easy, though. There are no phones, plumbing, or running water, forget hotels, stores, or paved roads. But they’ve been able to retain much of their culture, including their language, gemlike lei pūpū (shell lei) craftsmanship, Ipu art (designs carved and dyed on gourds), and ukulele music.

The few visitors allowed come to hunt—elands, aoudads, and wild boars were imported from Moloka’i—or see the island from a helicopter tour. Neither option really appeals to you. You want to meet the islanders, watch the seals, and explore the island. So Niʻihau will have to remain on your wish list. At least for now.

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