Ni’ihau Is Hawaii’s ‘Forbidden Island’

When most people think of Hawaii they think of the beautiful sandy beaches, laidback lifestyle, and memorable sunsets. Most tourists will visit the typical Hawaii hotspots like Honolulu and Maui, and have no idea that there is an entire island that is a secret to the outside world.

Located just 17 miles away from the west coast of Kauai is the forbidden island of Ni’ihau. Also knows as ‘The Forbidden Isle,’ learn about why Ni’ihau has been kept a secret for so long and the mystery surrounding the island.

Ni’ihau Is An Island Stuck In Time

Stuck In Time
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The island of Ni’ihau might have the same beautiful, sandy shores as Hawaii but you will never get to touch them. The island has had little to no contact with the outside world and today, it looks as though it is stuck in time. The islanders there live the same as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, hunting and fishing to survive.

The only reason it has become preserved is thanks to a woman named Elizabeth McHutchenson and a strange deal made in the 1800s.

Elizabeth McHutchenson Started It All

elizabeth-mchutchenson-001-niihau
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Known as Eliza to locals, Elizabeth McHutchenson was born in Scotland in 1800. She lived a normal life at first. After marrying a ship’s captain, Francis Sinclair, in 1824, she started a family and had six children.

The family decided to sail to New Zealand after the birth of their sixth child. It was on that voyage that everything would change. The Sinclair family had no idea that this decision would change the course of the future of the family forever.

They Tried To Get Their Start In New Zealand

pineapple farm on new zealand
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

The Sinclairs finally arrived in New Zealand at Pigeon Bay in 1841. There they set up a farm that was relatively successful. Francis was able to sell the family’s crops as a sea captain which gave them an advantage.

Unfortunately, five years after arriving in New Zealand, Francis and his eldest son set out to sea where their ship sank. The tragedy took the lives of everyone on board and their cargo was destroyed.

The Family Packed Up And Moved On

She Wasn't Going To Give Up
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Losing both her husband and eldest son was a great tragedy for Eliza. She could have easily retreated into despair but she couldn’t give up. Despite losing five-years worth of cargo, Eliza knew she had five other children to take care of.

She quickly restarted the family farm then raised and married off all of her children. Finally, Eliza decided it was time to move again. In 1963, Eliza and the entire family picked up their roots and moved to Canada.

Canada Wasn’t All It Was Cracked Up To Be

View of the western suburbs of Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

To put it bluntly, the Sinclairs weren’t happy when they arrived in Canada. They reached Vancouver Island to find land that was mostly still wild and underdeveloped. There was no way they could establish a successful farm there.

Eliza decided to move the family again. She thought about California but after hearing about a place called the Sandwich Islands, she decided to set sail there. Eliza set up a meeting with King Kamehameha V to purchase a place called Ni’ihau Island.

They Made A Unique Deal

One Condition
Peter Hermes Furian/iStock.com
Peter Hermes Furian/iStock.com

King Kamehameha V met with Eliza in 1864 and to everyone’s surprise, he agreed to sell the island. The Sinclairs would give King Kamehameha $10,000 in gold in exchange for full control of the island. The only stipulation was that the Sinclairs had to protect the island and its residents from outside influences.

The Sinclairs agreed to the deal and Eliza became a chiefess of the island and was held in good standard by the native residents.

The Rules Changed In The 1930s

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Underwood Archives/Getty Images
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Since the Sinclairs now privately-owned Ni’ihau Island, they began to separate themselves from the ever-encroaching United States. Seeing how the US took over the other islands, they took King Kamehameha V’s request seriously. In the 1930s, the Sinclairs announced that Ni’ihau would be closed to all visitors without exception.

The idea behind it initially was to keep the island safe diseases like polio and measles. They also wanted to preserve Native Hawaiian culture of the island which is known as “kahiki.”

The Island Today

Time Machine
Polihakle/Wikipedia
Polihakle/Wikipedia

Today, the island now privately owned by the Robinson family. They are descendants of Eliza Sinclair. The Robinson’s have managed to maintain their promise to King Kamehameha V by still blocking all visitors from the island.

In a rare interview, Bruce and Keith Robinson told ABC News, “We’ve tried to maintain the request of the King when it was turned over […] We maintain the island for the people and continue to work it as he had.”

Ni’ihau Life Is Pretty Relaxing

Relaxed Life
pagu0728/Instagram
pagu0728/Instagram

Life on Ni’ihau has its perks. Those who have been on the island described it as incredibly relaxed and harmonious. There is no major city center on the island to get caught up in, which makes the pace of life slow and relaxing.

The islanders don’t have electricity or running water but they get by with solar panels and collecting rainwater. In fact, every house on the island is outfitted solar panels.

The Island’s Inhabitants Are Free To Leave And Return

Inhabitants Can Come And Go
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Even though the island is barred from outside tourists and influences, those born and raised on Ni’ihau are free to come and go as they please. Many islands actually spend half of their time away from the island. Most split their lives between Ni’ihau and the nearby island of Kauai.

Understandably, this makes it difficult to track just how many people call Ni’ihau home. A 2010 census estimated that about 170 people call Ni’ihau home, but only 70 actually live there.

Ni’ihau Has Some Strict Rules

There Are Rules
eahawaii1902/YouTube
eahawaii1902/YouTube

Even though island life sounds fun and relaxed, Ni’ihau has some strict island-wide rules that the residents have to follow. The Sinclairs and Robinsons have ruled that no one on Ni’ihau can have guns or alcohol, and they are all required to attend Sunday service.

Some residents have claimed it goes even further than that. Apparently, you’re also not allowed to wear earrings or have long hair. If you break any of the rules, you can be “evicted” from Ni’ihau.

The Island Requires A Lot Of Goods To Be Shipped In

Delivered To The Island
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Even though the island tries its best to be self-sufficient, there is a lot that cannot be produced on the land. Ni’ihau requires weekly deliveries of goods such as food and sanitary supplies.

How do they pay for it all, you might wonder? The island has allowed a U.S. Naval base to be set up on one coast of the island. The U.S. Military employs several residents and pays a stipend to be there.

What Is Life Actually Like On The Island?

What It's Really Like
Ken Sakamoto
Ken Sakamoto

There are contradicting claims to what living on the island is actually like. Some say the island is practically a utopian society that isn’t corrupted by modern-day technology or “sin.” Others aren’t as convinced.

Peter T. Young, the former Department of Land and Natural Resources director of Hawaii, says that, “[Ni’ihau] is isolated for the rest of us, but it’s not an isolated island for them. They don’t look any different, they don’t act any different […] They live in a place that the rest of us have a very limited opportunity to see.”

The Island Is Guarded By Its Landscape

Guarded Against Outsiders
eahawaii1902/YouTube
eahawaii1902/YouTube

Since the Sinclairs and Robinsons agreed to close off the island to the public, you might wonder how they have managed to do that for so long. Ni’ihau doesn’t require a force of armed guards to keep people out because the island is hard enough to reach on its own.

Since getting to the island is so difficult, the islanders are well aware when someone is trying to visit Ni’ihau. Plus, once you get there, you won’t get very far on your own.

They Do Have Some Tourism Though

Limited Tours
eahawaii1902/Getty Images
eahawaii1902/Getty Images

In recent years, Ni’ihau has realized that they need more money and that tourism can work to their benefit. The island now offers very exclusive tours. If you go on one of the tours, you can take a private helicopter for a half-day overhead and on-land tour of the island. You won’t be able to go deep inland but you can visit some of the shores.

For an extra $1,700 though you can take an all-day guided hunting safari tour.

Don’t Expect To See Any Residential Areas

Never Close To Residential Areas
Christopher P. Becker/Wikimedia Commons
Christopher P. Becker/Wikimedia Commons

If you are interested in taking one of the tours, don’t get your hopes up on seeing how the islands actually live their life. According to Bruce Robinson, “The tours are solely for people to come to see an unspoiled Hawaiian Island […] We will not take [tourists] to the village or put the residents into a fishbowl-type of situation. We don’t even fly over the village. That is not what we’re about.”

He emphasized respecting the islanders’ privacy and it doesn’t look like they are budging from that.

The Island Offers A Look At Untouched Wildlife

Wildlife
Sylvain CORDIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Sylvain CORDIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

One of the unique things about Ni’ihau is the booming ecosystem of wildlife. Since there are so few people living on the island, the plants and animals are able to thrive. Ni’ihau is even home to a few endangered species such as the monk seal.

The monk seal was close to extinction until it began to breed on Ni’ihau. The seal population has no increased every year since the breeding began and there are a total of 35 seals!

Ni’ihau Has Unique Shell Leis

Shells
Etsy
Etsy

While other Hawaiian islands make shell version of the traditional leis, the Ni’ihau leis use specific ones. Ni’ihau shells are three different kinds of shells that vary in color and texture. When strung together, they can make beautiful patterns and designs.

Many of the island’s inhabitants are artists and craft makers. By specializing on these unique and beautiful shell leis, they can sell them in various stores around the Hawaiian islands.

Ni’ihau Was A Part Of World War II

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@PearlHarborAvi/Twitter
@PearlHarborAvi/Twitter

They might be an isolated island by Ni’ihau was still a part of WWII. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese pilot ended up crashing his plane by accident on the island. The Japanese pilot actually survived the crash and took an entire Ni’ihau village hostage.

Two islanders took a stand against the soldier and managed to overtake him, take his gun, and execute him before he could hurt other islands. One of the men was awarded a Purple Heart for his heroic actions.

How Do They Stay Entertained?

Entertainment
eahawaii1902/YouTube
eahawaii1902/YouTube

As we know, Ni’ihau has little modern technology which means you won’t see any islanders relaxing on their smartphones or taking selfies. When the islanders aren’t working, most of them will spend time at the beach or watch DVDs and VHS tapes.

Many will leave the island though at some point in their lives and experience technology elsewhere. Often, islanders first leave when they’re in their 20s and will attempt to return several years later.

See What Life Is Like In Hawaii

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If you arrived at one of the six main Hawaiian islands in 1950 when this photo was taken, you might have seen a scene like this. Native Hawaiian dancers will perform the traditional hula in order to tell the tourists a beautiful story.

The hula is a dance that was created by Polynesians when they originally arrived on the Hawaiian islands. There are two main types of hula: Hula Kahiko and Hula ‘Auana. The former is the more traditional version and the latter was developed after encountering the west.

A Hawaiian Lei Will Welcome You

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B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images
B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images

Hawaiian leis are seen as an iconic part of the island lifestyle. Here, you can see a woman making them in 1954. Leis are often used as welcoming gifts for visitors to Hawaii. Like the hula, the lei tradition was developed by Polynesian settlers. Leis are most often made with flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and sometimes even animal bones or teeth.

If someone gives you a lei, you must always accept it or it is considered rude. You must also keep it on the entire time in front of the person who gave it to you.

Hawaii Has Suburbs Too

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B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images
B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images

While island life on Ni’ihau is traditional after the U.S. overtook the Hawaiian islands they brought with them a Western way of life. That included everything from suburbs to white picket fences. This photo from 1954 shows neighbors chatting along a shared fence just like you might see in Minnesota. The only difference is the majestic valley on the island of Oahu.

These families live on the outskirts of Honolulu, which is the most remote major city in the entire world.

A Hawaiian Feast Is Always Enjoyable

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B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images
B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images

Another photo from 1954 shows two cooks preparing a pig for a traditional Hawaiian luau. They are placing hot rocks from the fire pit into the pig carcass. While there are many ways you can enjoy the pig from the luau, the most popular is a native dish called laulau.

Laulau is a dish with pork wrapped in taro leaves then steamed to perfection in an underground oven called an imu. Laulau can also be made salted butterfish, beef, or chicken instead of pork.

False Killer Whales Are Seen Around Oahu

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Bates Littlehales/National Geographic/Getty Images
Bates Littlehales/National Geographic/Getty Images

This photo from 1969 shows a woman training two false killer whales. False killer whales are actually dolphins but gained the strange name because their head is shaped similar to a killer whale. There are three communities of false killer whales that live in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian islands.

It’s hard to see them out in the open sea but Hawaii has some places, like here in Oahu, where you can see these elusive creatures up close.

Vintage Vacationers Sunbathe In The Warm Kailua Sun

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This photo of sunbathing vacationers proves that even a week-long visit to Hawaii can be restorative. These folks from 1975 knew that some rest and relaxation at the Kailua Kona Hilton Resort is the break they needed from the mainland.

They are relaxed here but later this year on November 29, 1975, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit the islands and triggered a tsunami. Sadly, the natural disaster ended up taking the lives of two people.

Americans Have Been Visiting Hawaii Since The Early 20th Century

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Hawaii sprung up as a popular tourist destination after WWII but Americans were visiting it for vacation long beforehand. This photo dates all the way back to a 1938 editorial in Vogue. The editorial introduced the public to surf culture, but it wouldn’t really become popular for another 20 years.

The editorial showed the wonder of America’s newest state. Even though it was a part of the country, it was a tropical paradise worth visiting even in a time of despair.

A Surfing Legend Catches A Wave

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George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

This photo from 1963 shows off surf legend Nick Beck. Nick Beck was born on Kaua’i, which is the fourth largest of the Hawaiian islands and the oldest. When this photo debuted in LIFE Magazine, the surfing craze was in full swing. It began to sweep the nation in the ’60s.

Despite being a legendary surfer, Beck lived his life working as an elementary school teacher and later in life worked toward preserving the natural beauty of Hanalei and Kaua’i.

Waikiki Was The Place To Be

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Even back when this photo of Waikiki was taken in 1960m vacationers knew the infamous location was a perfect slice of paradise. Waikiki Beach is on the island of O’ahu and sits on the South Shore in Honolulu. O’ahu isn’t the biggest island but it is the most populated.

Waikiki means “spouting fresh water” in the native Hawaiian language. It is known for its clear blue waters, white sands, and the iconic view of Diamond Head crater. Nowadays, Waikiki is sadly an overrun tourist hub.

Ho’okipa Is Another Popular Destination

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In this photo that screams “1987” we see a pair of ladies ready to hit the waves in Ho’okipa on the north shore of Maui. Ho’okipa is a top tourist destination for all things water-related. Ho’okipa is home to four distinct surf breaks which is where the swell and reef from waves meet to make perfect surfing conditions. The beaches are also known to be a top windsurfing destination.

The word “Ho’okipa” means hospitality in native Hawaiian.

A Heiau Is The Hawaiian Name For A Sacred Site

king-kamehameha-grounds
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sacred places in Hawaii are called heiau. These are placed that are important to Hawaiian culture and religion. Some can be sacred grounds, temples, or even just a set of stacked rocks with offerings for the gods.

Sadly, many of these heiau were destroyed in the 19th century when Christian missionaries invaded Hawaii and tried to convert the islanders. The ones that have survived can date as far back as the 13th century.

Hale O Pi’ilani Heiau

Hale O Pi'ilani Heiau
The Washington Post via Getty Images
The Washington Post via Getty Images

The sacred site of Hale O Pi’ilani Heiau is located outside of Hana on the island of Maui. This heiau is the largest heiau in all of Polynesia and holds great importance to the Hawaiian culture. Remarkably, it is also one of the best preserved.

Dating back to the 13th century, it is made of heavy basalt rocks that are stacked 50 feet high, with a perimeter of 341 feet by 415 feet. Inside the heist is even more walls, platforms, and pits. Some historians believe the heiau was either a home or even a small kingdom!

Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau

Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau
Instagram/@juaneaya
Instagram/@juaneaya

Another sacred heiau is the Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau. Construction of the site has been dated back to the 17th century with more being added during the 18th century. Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau overlooks Waimea Bay and Waimea Valley on the island of O’ahu.

The building of the site was apparently meant to serve as a look-out point during wartime. Historians also believe the site was used as a sacrifice temple, or a heiau luakini.

Kaulu Paoa Hula Heiau

kee-beach-kaulu-paoa-heiau
Instagram/@michael.rinne
Instagram/@michael.rinne

The sacred site Kaulu Paoa Hula Heiau is where the chief of Kaua’i, Lohiau, was laid to rest. His body was placed within a cave along the sea cliffs. Located on the north shore of the island of Kaua’i, legend surrounds the mysterious chief.

Lohiau allegedly died at the site after falling in love with Pele, the goddess of fire. Then, Pele’s younger sister and Wahineomao scaled the cliffs to try to bring the chief back to life to love Pele. Three rainbows appeared as the two women chanted with herbs, but Lohiau didn’t come back to life.

Haleki’i-Pihana Heiau State Monument

Haleki'i Pihana Heiau State Monument
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Haleki’i-Pihana Heiau is a state-protected monument that sits in a 10-acre park. The heiau is home to two sacrifice temples, or laukini heiau. Both the sacrificial temples can be found near the mouth of the ‘lao Stream in Maui.

Both the temples can be dated back to the 1200s and have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, which allows them to be studied by archaeologists indefinitely.

Kamakahonu

Kamakahonu
Douglas Peebles/Corbis via Getty Images
Douglas Peebles/Corbis via Getty Images

Kamakahonu is a heiau that is a former residence of Kamehameha I, who is the founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii. You might recognize the name, because his ancestor King Kamehameha V is the one who sold Ni’ihau to the Sinclairs.

Located along the north side of Kailua Bay on Hawaii’s Big Island, Kamakahonu is where Kamehameha I lived out the final years of his life. Years later, the location became a home for other Hawaiian rulers and officials. Today, it is the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.

Ulupo Heiau State Historic Site

Ulupo Heiau
Patrice Walker/Flickr
Patrice Walker/Flickr

Located on the edge of Kailua, Ulupo Heiau State Historic Site is connected with the ancient legend of the Menehune. Menehune are a mythological dwarf people in Hawaiian tradition.

The site transformed to become a residence for the high chiefs of O’ahu but it was first believed to have been used as an agricultural temple given the bounty on the island and then transformed to be a sacrificial temple. Unfortunately, it was conquered in the 1780s.

Keaʻiwa Heiau State Recreation Area

Keaʻiwa Heiau State Recreation Area
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Keaʻiwa Heiau is now a State Recreation Area but was once the ruins of a holy temple. The temple is believed to have been established in the 1600s and is surrounded by fields of ancient medical herbs that people still seek out today.

Located in a neighborhood referred to a ‘Aiea Heights on O’ahu, it sits on top of a hill with beautiful views. From the site, you can see the Pearl Harbor memorial as well explore camping and hiking.

Wailua River State Park

Wailua River State Park
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The Wailua River State Park is another beautiful feature of Hawaii and is part of the Wailua River Valley. Along the river, tourists can enjoy swimming, boating, kayaking, and even water skiing.

There is a heiau within the Wailua River State Park that is now a National Historic Landmark. At one point the heiau was the center of chiefly power and had spaces for worship, refuge, and the locations of royal births.

Hokukano-Ualapue Complex

Hokukano-Ualapue Complex
National Parks Service
National Parks Service

Along Hawaii Route 450 in Ualapue, on Moloka’i Island is the Hokukano-Ualapue Complex. It is also considered a National Historic Landmark and is so old that it is actually a pre-contact archaeological site. The entire complex holds six temples and people believe it is one of the most important collections of ancient Hawaiian sites in the entire state.

The most sacred temple in the complex is called ‘Ili’ili’ōpae. It is the largest temple on the island and the second largest in all of Hawaii.