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The Forbidden Island

Apr 30, 2008
Take a vacation to Kauai, Hawaii, and look in to a mystery.

Here's the mystery: what's it like on the Hawaiian island of Ni'ihau? This 550-square-mile island is the westernmost of the main Hawaiian islands and has been privately owned since 1864 by the Robinson family, which forbids tourists.

Ni'ihau (Nee-ee-how) is separated from Kauai by a 17-mile strait. Standing on the Kauai shore, you can see Ni'ihau slung low on the horizon. If you could go to Ni'ihau you would hear native Hawaiian spoken. In fact, it's the only place you can go to hear native Hawaiian spoken as a living language. Hawaiian is taught in the island's K-8 school.

Islanders of course are free to leave and come back, so many of them do. They need to in order to get provisions from Kauai to live on the dry island, which is in the rain shadow of the ancient volcano cone on Kauai, Wai-ale-ale, "the wettest spot on earth" at 460 inches per year of rainfall.

Sheep ranches have historically supported the people of Ni'ihau, under the ownership of the Robinson family.

The women of Ni'ihau string tiny shells into complex shell leis, a stunning folk art. Their families comb the beaches to find the miniature, pearl-like shells, collecting them in a variety of colors--whites, browns, and reds. Then they sort the shells. The artist uses a simple awl to make a hole in each tiny shell, breaking at least half of them in the process. Because there are no cars on the island, bicycles are plentify, and her awl may be made from a recycled bicycle spoke.

These tiny shells are still found on Ni'ihau, but not on neighboring Kauai where agricultural runoff has tended to kill off the shell-makers. The resulting shell leis are rare, hard to find, and precious.

Hawaiian legend has it that Ni'ihau is the oldest Hawaiian island: the volcano goddess Pele had her original home on Ni'ihau. Then she traveled to Kauai, Oahu, and moved eastward until she found the Big Island of Hawaii, where she is today. But scientists say Kauai was formed before Ni'ihau, which is sort of a side vent from the volcano that formed Kauai. The Hawaiian islands were formed as a plate of earth's crust moved slowly across an active lava vent. As the crust moved slowly, Kauai was formed, then Oahu, and so on. Ni'ihau's current form is as an eroded lava dome on the eastern side of the island. Much of the rest is flat and sandy, with a couple of freshwater lakes.

It's possible to find a map of Ni'ihau, and pictures of its rock formations. But how can you go and see? In fact, the Robinson family is allowing a few forms of tourism now. Some helicopter tours from Kauai are allowed to land on remote beaches. And you can take a hunting safari, to control populations of feral bighorn sheep and Polynesian boars. In addition, scuba divers regularly dive off Ni'ihau.

Access to Ni'ihau is from Kauai, 17 miles away. While you're on Kauai, you'll want to play on the beaches and in the surf. You'll also want to look at the stunning natural wonder that is the Na Pali coast, the northwest side of Kauai.
About the Author
If you love a puzzle, you'll come to Kauai for a Kauai Hawaii vacation . You'll want to learn all about Niihau , the forbidden Hawaiian isle, as well as about Kauai, land of vibrant natural beauty, from writer Phyllis Wheeler.
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