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Niihau's unspoiled version of paradise

TRAVEL

Visitors to the privately owned island are discouraged from mingling with the natives, but the isle's charms make mainlanders feel welcome.

November 15, 2009|By Catharine Hamm

Reporting from Niihau, Hawaii — Tell people you're going to Niihau, and they invariably exclaim, "No way!" Or, "Do you know the Robinsons?"

Yes, way, and I do not know the Robinsons.

And even though I've now been to Niihau, I can't really say I know it either.

But I do know that there are few places in the world that I have anticipated visiting for as long and from which I've come away so changed.

Since my days as a child on Oahu, I've known Niihau as the Forbidden Island. It has been privately owned since 1864, when Elizabeth Sinclair bought it from King Kamehameha V. Her descendants, the Robinsons (brothers Bruce and Keith), continue to own it.

Niihau is everything Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, even Kauai, are not. It has 130 residents, give or take, and they live in the town of Puuwai. They don't have running water, and electricity is produced by the sun or by a generator, not by an electric utility. There are few cars. The people live off the land, hunting, fishing, growing their own fruit and vegetables. Sunday is reserved for church. Smoking and drinking are not allowed here. Ohana -- family -- is the center of life.

Simple? Yes. But it is more than that. As Margit Tolman said after our trip here in September, "It is so pure."

That's way beyond the word "unspoiled," which we travel types like to use when we stumble upon a stretch of beach or a piece of wilderness humans haven't yet trashed.

But pure? Not in my lifetime.

Not until now.

Buyer's remorse?

There is no real mystery in getting to the island. Niihau Helicopters has been offering half-day trips since 1987. It's just that few people seem to know about them. I was among them.

So when Susan Tanzman, the owner of Martin's Travel & Tours in L.A. and a Hawaii specialist who knew of my love affair with the 50th state, called one day to ask whether I wanted to go to Niihau, I didn't hesitate to jump on a plane to Kauai.

Five of us gathered at Niihau Helicopters' offices in Kaumakani: Tolman and her mother, Renate Muller, Victor Ella of Santa Barbara, Tanzman and I. After we were weighed and given a safety briefing, we headed for Port Allen, where the Agusta 109A helicopter was to land, refuel and take us back.

We were like a group of kindergartners about to go on our first field trip, and it was only the thinnest shred of adulthood that kept us from running in circles and hitting one another. We were practically bouncing on our toes to get the first look at the chopper, whose main purpose is the emergency evacuation of Niihau residents. The tours help underwrite the cost of the chopper.

As we scanned the heavens, clouds skittered across the blue. The helicopter did not.

A little mechanical issue delayed it. So we disbanded and returned in an hour. You'd think we'd have been less amped, not more. You'd be wrong. For each of us, this trip was the culmination of what we almost never dared to dream.

Time dragged until suddenly it appeared. Pilot Dana Rosendal, who grew up on Oahu and has been flying for the company for eight years, got us settled and seat-belted, and we were off, whisking the 17 or so miles across the sometimes-rough Kaulakahi Channel. Looking down into that deep blue, I felt an extra sense of security knowing this was a twin-engine aircraft, just on the slim chance that one engine decided to take an unexpected day off.

Because I was in the back seat, I didn't see Niihau right away, and when I did see it, I didn't believe it. It looked just like our part of California."Kauai steals all the rain," Rosendal explained. Whereas parts of Kauai bathe in rain (the summit of Mt. Waialeale is said to get 400 inches a year), Niihau gets a dozen or so. Just like our part of California.

"It was a slight letdown," Ella said later of his first view from the front of the chopper.

It looked far more enchanting in 1863 when Elizabeth Sinclair's sons, James and Francis, first saw the approximately 17-by-5-mile island. It had rained heavily the previous two years, and the land was electric green. It would be, the men thought, a good place for a ranch.

So Sinclair passed on other parcels of land she had considered on Oahu and offered King Kamehameha IV $6,000 for the island. Not enough. She increased the offer to $10,000. Sold! (Kamehameha IV died before the transaction was completed, so the details fell to King Kamehameha V.)

The new owners would raise cattle and sheep. They didn't know the land was nearly as unforgiving as parts of Southern California. True, there are three freshwater lakes on Niihau, the biggest lakes on any of the islands, but as we spied them from the air that day -- and on many days -- they were nothing more than mudholes.

I couldn't imagine what the Sinclairs must have thought when they realized they had made a slight purchasing error. My heart was sinking, and my half-day trip was only $385 for this tour of what promised to be 72 or so square miles of ugly.

Native inhabitants

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