NIIHAU, Hawaii — For more than a century, Niihau has been known as the Forbidden Island, owned by a single family of Scottish ancestry whose avowed purpose in declaring it off limits has been to preserve the pure Hawaiian bloodline and language--and to preserve the island itself as the family's isolated cattle ranch.
Seventeen miles across the channel from Kauai and barely 19 miles long, Niihau is an enigma on Hawaii's horizon. While other islands have turned to tourism, life on Niihau remains, by contrast, primitive. To this day, homes are without indoor plumbing and electricity, so that with the absence of utilities, the island's handful of TVs are juiced by generators.
There are no cars, no bars and no public transportation. On Niihau, one either walks or rides a bicycle. A Jeep trail used by the ranch trucks is considered a major highway. Niihau is the last island to be inhabited almost totally by Hawaiians. Indeed, Niihauans claim their island is the soul of Hawaii, a speck of land isolated from a world beyond its shores that frequently appears terrifying to those who have lived their entire lives here.
Arid and forbidding, the island is in striking contrast to verdant Kauai--that lovely isle only a glimpse away. With its scrubby mountain range, thirsty plains and deserted beaches, Niihau is a lonely outpost lacking even the grottoes, lagoons and taro fields that thrive on other islands.
Some might picture Niihau as a fantasy island, the perfect place to escape from a world that seems at moments to have gone totally mad. But this imagined utopia is only a dream, a semi-desert island, ominous, mysterious . . . with few palms and nearly half of its 200-mile coastline subject to tidal waves.
Secrecy surrounding Niihau continues, even though the island's private owners, the Robinson family, now flies vacationers on day trips here--this in an effort to subsidize a helicopter bought to evacuate the island's sickand injured. The tours have been sporadic, averaging only a couple of flights a week. One reason is the Robinson family's reluctance to advertise. "We don't need any of those Madison Avenue shenanigans," says Keith Robinson, one of the brothers whose ancestors bought the island from Hawaiian king Kamehameha in 1864. Only when four or more passengers sign up (the helicopter carries seven) does the chopper head for Niihau. At $200 per passenger for the three-hour adventure . . . well, it hasn't been what one could describe as a runaway success.
Only recently, vacationers were offered another option: Under an agreement with the new Hyatt Regency on Kauai, picnic flights aboard the Robinson helicopter to Niihau are being offered at $250 per guest--the extra 50 coconuts covering the cost of the lunch. It's a half-day tour with an opportunity to snorkel and swim in some of the clearest waters in Hawaii.
Whether one chooses the three-hour tour or the half-day trip with Hyatt, a peek at Niihau is a rare adventure. How many tourists can boast to the gang back home that they stepped foot on Hawaii's Forbidden Island?
Except for those who do the helicopter tours, strangers are turned away by the Niihauans. When a Japanese fighter pilot crash landed on the island after bombing Pearl Harbor, he was swiftly disarmed by a huge Hawaiian who eliminated the luckless fellow on the spot. The occasional boater who tries to slip ashore is turned away by islanders who jealously guard their privacy. Neither the Niihauans nor the Robinsons who live on Kauai intend for Niihau to be invaded by tourists.
Taking off from Port Allen Airport on Kauai's South Shore, helicopter pilot Tom Mishler sets a course straight for the Forbidden Island, promising passengers only a sneak look at Niihau's only village, Puuwai. "We're outsiders looking in," Mishler explains. "We don't want to make these people feel they're living in a fish bowl."
Overflying the coast, Mishler points out flotsam and beaches without a single sunbather. He circles the spot where Captain Cook's crew put ashore in 1778, and later banks beside 1,281-foot Mt. Paniau, the island's highest point. Mishler provides a running commentary, telling how in the 1700s the island supported a population in the thousands that was reduced over the years by migration to Kauai during extreme droughts and disease.
What little rain falls on Niihau--less than 10 inches a year--is caught in cisterns. In contrast, up to 500 inches a year drenches Kauai, whose mountains act as a shield against rain clouds that otherwise would drift across the channel to Niihau.