Ni‘ihau: The Forbidden Island of Hawaii

Large white clouds gather over a faraway island that nearly blends in with the blue of the ocean.

View across the water of Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island,” Ni‘ihau. Photo © bradhoc, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Known as Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island,” Ni‘ihau is in reality privately owned, passed down through generations by the Robinson family. It was run as a cattle and sheep ranch until 1999, and is home to approximately 120 pure-blooded Hawaiians who are allowed to come and go as they wish. Some commute daily from Ni‘ihau to Kaua‘i. Outsiders can only come on shore by invitation from the owners, a resident, or via a tour with Ni‘ihau Helicopters. The small island boasts the state’s largest and second largest lakes, several perfect surf breaks, and famous shells.

Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau became part of the Kingdom of Hawaii under Kamehameha the Great.The island can be seen from the shores of Kaua‘i’s west side from Waimea to Polihale. Measuring just 18 miles long by 6 miles wide, Ni‘ihau has a total area of 70 square miles. The surrounding waters are popular with divers who spear fish and the 17-mile Kaulakahi Channel separating the island from Kaua‘i is a popular hangout for whales. The highest point on the island, Pani‘au (1,281 feet) lies on the east-central coast.

Because Ni‘ihau is so low and lies in lee of Kaua‘i, it gets only about 30 inches of rain each year. The low rainfall results in a lack of flowers on the island; this is why Ni‘ihau Hawaiians made leis using shells. Because of the lack of rain and poor soil, Ni‘ihau was never as populated as the other islands. The islanders traded with Kaua‘i frequently for poi and other necessities, bartering with the abundant fish around Ni‘ihau and mats made from makaloa.

Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau became part of the Kingdom of Hawaii under Kamehameha the Great. Ni‘ihau was passed down to his successors, and in 1864 Kamehameha V sold the island for $10,000 to the Sinclair family. It’s said that the king offered them a swampy beach area on O‘ahu, but the Scottish family didn’t want it. It turns out the swampy beach was Waikiki, which means they could have had a much better investment. Through marriage Ni‘ihau became property of the Robinson family. It’s not really known exactly why the Robinsons choose to let Hawaiians live on the island and even pay them to care for their sheep and cattle. One of the current owners, Keith Robinson, is an environmentalist who wants to preserve land and culture.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.


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