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Mysterious Niihau

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The Hawaiian Island of Niihau is an enigma. Little is known about The Forbidden Isle, and few are ever granted access to this largely uninhabited tropical locale. The closest you will likely get to this privately owned island, in fact, is the westside of Kauai where you can see a faint outline of its prominent cliffs some 17 miles offshore.

Niihau remains shrouded in mystery not only due to its inaccessibility but because life here has remained largely frozen in time. Since it was purchased by a New Zealand family for $10,000 in 1864 for ranching purposes, a proverbial pause button has been pushed.

The Sinclair’s struck a deal to purchase the island from King Kamehameha IV. His successor, King Kamehameha V, sealed the deal and made the family promise to allow Niihau’s Hawaiian residents to stay. Around 200 of their descendants continue to inhabit the island today and still communicate in the native tongue. They also practice their ancestor’s traditional ways of life including hunting and gathering sustenance from natural resources. There are no roads, no commercial buildings, no hospitals, no internet and few modern-day comforts. Residents live in a tiny village called Puuwai located on the leeward (western) portion of the island. Keiki (children) have the option of attending a small, solar-powered school or commuting to Kauai to acquire their education. Lack of educational opportunities, however, as well as employment are among the many reasons the Niihauan population continues to decline. One of the only ways finances are gained is through artisan trades like crafting jewelry from one-of-a-kind shells found only on Niihau shorelines.

Human life might be negligible, but wildlife still abounds here. The island is a refuge for many native creatures like Hawaiian monk seals as well as Hawaiian green sea turtles where they feel safe to lounge on beaches with little to no interference.

Characteristics like this are why visitors have been intrigued with the island for decades, but even the rich and famous are denied access. Unless you receive a personal invitation by one of the island’s current owners — two brothers, Bruce and Keith Robinson, who are descendants of the Sinclair’s — the only way you’ll step foot here is by booking one of their two exclusive tours. And even then, you’ll only get a glimpse of what Niihau has to offer.

A helicopter tour that embarks from Kauai provides an aerial view of the island and includes a stop at a secluded beach where guests are allowed to explore, snorkel or just soak in the sun. Another tour, which also launches from Kauai, is a hunting expedition or “safari” where visitors have limited permission to roam the island for Polynesian boar and feral sheep (nonnative species). Trouble is, these journeys can be pricey. A half day aerial tour is $385 per person and a day long safari is $1,750 per hunter. If you’ve got the monetary means, however, it’s the closest you’re going to get to experiencing this curious sanctuary.

Another option to see Niihau up close and personal without actually planting your feet on shore is by booking a scuba diving tour. For those with a certification already under their belt (and a strong stomach, as ocean conditions can get rough), this is a highly touted journey. Tours take visitors by boat from Kauai to The Forbidden Island and the adjacent uninhabited Lehua crater where they encounter a variety of marine life including octopus, sharks, manta rays, dolphins, lobsters and schools of vibrantly colored fish. Sea creatures thrive here, and getting to see the underbelly of Niihau and its gorgeous arches and valleys illuminated by filtered sunlight, is a cherished activity.

The island may seem like a paradise dream come true — unspoiled, no traffic, empty beaches, wildlife galore and residents still steeped in the native culture. But unless you’re one of the lucky few, it’ll have to remain just that — a tropical fantasy.

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