Hawaii’s Forbidden Island: Why Is No One Allowed on Niihau Island?

by | Feb 26, 2024

Did you know that there is a forbidden island in Hawaii off the coast of Kauai? Hawaii’s forbidden island is called Ni’ihau (knee-EE-how).

Its strict access rules allow only a handful of visitors, such as family friends, U.S. Navy personnel, and some invited guests through organized tours.

Niihau stands out because it keeps traditional Hawaiian culture and language alive. At the same time, it works hard to look after the environment. This includes planting lots of trees every year and taking care of animals that are at risk of extinction.

Why Is No One Allowed on Niihau, Hawaii?

No one is allowed on Niihau Island because of the Robinson family’s decision to preserve the island’s traditional Hawaiian culture and language following their purchase from King Kamehameha in 1864. This policy, aimed at limiting exposure to the external world, supports the island’s nickname, the “Forbidden Island.”

The Robinson family has put tight rules on who can come to Niihau. This is to make sure that people born on the island can stay there their whole lives. They want to keep the island’s traditions going and keep their promise to safeguard its original way of life.

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Niihau Island, often called the Forbidden Island, sits as the westernmost piece of Hawaii’s stunning necklace of islands.

Bought for $10,000 in gold back in 1864, this private island has kept its doors mostly closed to outsiders.

Although it lacks modern conveniences like phones or paved roads, its residents live a life deeply connected with nature and tradition that has been preserved for over 150 years.

With activities from ranching to rare shell lei making that define their economy, this island offers a glimpse into a way of life untouched by time.

Let’s discover what makes Niihau truly Hawaii’s Forbidden Island. Ready?

Key Takeaways of the Hawaii's Forbidden Island, Niihau

  • Niihau Island was bought by Elizabeth Sinclair for $10,000 in gold in 1864 and is known as the Forbidden Island because it’s private land. The Robinson family, who inherited it, keeps it off-limits to protect its culture and environment.
  • The island has a small population of about 84 people who live traditionally, relying on solar power and subsistence farming. Animals roam freely, and the community speaks Hawaiian.
  • Niihau shells are highly valued for making unique leis, contributing to residents’ income. The island also features Hawaii’s largest lake and focuses on conservation efforts like afforestation and protecting endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal.
  • Special permission is required to visit the island of Ni’ihau, with limited tours available that respect the island’s privacy while allowing outsiders a rare glimpse into its way of life. These tours help fund conservation efforts and maintain ecological balance.
  • On Niihau, there’s a unique school that’s the only one in Hawaii running completely on solar energy. Here, students learn about traditional ways of living in addition to regular school subjects. Part of their education also includes going to church on Sundays, which helps them stay connected to their culture.

How to Pronounce Niihau?

To pronounce Niihau, say “knee-EE-how.” Start with “Ni” as in “knee,” but elongate the vowel slightly with the okina, and follow with “hau,” pronounced like “how” with an extended vowel sound.

Stress the first syllable and let the vowels flow smoothly. This follows the Hawaiian language’s phonetic rules.

In informal settings, you might hear it pronounced as “nee-how” or “nai-how,” but the correct pronunciation is preferred for accuracy and respect.

The History of Niihau Island


Francis Sinclair (1833-1916), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Niihau Island’s story began in 1864 when Elizabeth Sinclair, a savvy businesswoman from Scotland, purchased it from the Kingdom of Hawaii. She paid $10,000 in gold for this secluded paradise.

This transaction marked Niihau as private property, setting the stage for its unique status among the Hawaiian Islands. Over time, Sinclair’s descendants, the Robinson family, inherited Niihau.

They committed to preserving its natural beauty and traditional way of life. Niihau became a unique cultural preserve under the ownership of Keith and Bruce Robinson.

Throughout history, Niihau has played roles that have shaped its identity today. During the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it found itself unexpectedly involved in World War II events.

Its strategic location also led to a long-standing relationship with the U.S military.

Despite external influences, Niihau remains largely unchanged—holding onto its culture and traditions fiercely protected by the Robinsons and revered by those lucky enough to know of its stories.

Exploring Niihau: The Forbidden Island of Hawaii

Niihau earns its title as the Forbidden Island of Hawaii because strangers cannot simply visit; they need an invitation. This unique rule protects its culture and environment, making it a mystery to most.

Why is Niihau called the Forbidden Island?

Niʻihau earned its nickname “The Forbidden Island” because access is severely limited. Only a few authorized people and invited guests can enter, keeping the island mostly untouched by the outside world.

This unique status began when King Kamehameha in 1864 sold Niʻihau to the Robinson family. They decided to preserve the island’s natural beauty and traditional Hawaiian lifestyle, making it off-limits to tourism and uninvited visitors.

The name “The Forbidden Island” for Niʻihau is not only about limiting access. It also shows how the island has protected its people from diseases like polio in the past, keeping it away from outside changes.

Over the years, Niʻihau has become known as a place that represents the untouched nature of Hawaii. It highlights the island’s separation from others and its strong effort to keep old Hawaiian culture and traditions alive.

Interesting Facts about Niihau Island

Niihau Island hides secrets and stories that spark curiosity. Dive into a world where shells are more precious than gold, and history shapes the present.

Niihau was bought for $10,000 worth of gold from King Kamehameha in 1864

Back in 1864Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair purchased Niʻihau for $10,000 U.S. worth of gold. This deal marked a pivotal moment in Hawaii’s history when Niihau became privately owned by the Robinson family.

The island became the private property of the Sinclair family, and it has remained so ever since.

This purchase set Niʻihau apart from other Hawaiian islands, creating its unique status as the “Forbidden Island.”

Over time, this exclusivity helped preserve not only the land but also the traditional Hawaiian way of life that continues to thrive there today.

Niihau was deemed forbidden due to a polio epidemic

In 1952, Niihau Island earned its nickname “The Forbidden Island” in a move to safeguard its residents. A polio epidemic threatened Hawaii, prompting the island’s closure to outsiders.

This decisive action was meant to block the disease from spreading into Niihau’s isolated community.

Owners of Niihau took measures during this health crisis seriously, knowing that medical resources were limited on the island.

They understood that preventing exposure was crucial for their small population’s safety and well-being.

The ban not only served as an immediate response but also set a precedent for prioritizing the health and isolation of Niihau’s inhabitants above external connections.

It’s known for Niihau shells


Hiart, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Niihau shells are a big deal. Craftsmen on Niihau Island create stunning shell leis, capturing the essence of Hawaiian beauty and tradition. These tiny shells come in various shapes and colors, making each lei unique.

The art has been passed down for generations, keeping the island’s culture alive and vibrant.

Making these leis isn’t easy. It requires hundreds of tiny shells to create just one piece. Collecting these shells involves combing the beaches of Niihau, which adds to their rarity and value.

People all over the world seek out authentic Niihau shell jewelry as prized possessions or heartfelt gifts.

These tiny shells are meticulously crafted into elaborate leis or unique jewelry. Known as “Pupu o Ni’ihau,” they are the only shells in the world recognized as gems by gemologists, allowing them to be insured as fine jewelry.

Due to limited job options on the island, crafting and selling these shell leis have become crucial for residents’ livelihoods.

This practice not only sustains them financially but also allows them to share a piece of their heritage with others beyond their shores.

Niiahu is home to Hawaii’s largest lake

Hawaii’s Forbidden IslandNiihau, surprises many with a hidden natural gem. It boasts Hawaii’s largest lake. This vast body of water stands as a testament to the island’s unique ecological system.

Visitors find this fact captivating—imagine, in an area often noted for its arid landscapes and rich cultural history, there lies the biggest lake across all Hawaiian Islands.

This feature adds another layer of mystery and allure to Niihau’s already fascinating story.

It may have as few as 100 residents

Niihau’s population is remarkably small, with only 84 people recorded in the 2020 census. This low number reflects its status as a private island, largely closed off to the public and maintaining a unique way of life distinct from the rest of Hawaii.

The residents lead a lifestyle deeply connected to the land and sea, relying on solar power for electricity and engaging primarily in subsistence fishing and farming, critical for the residents’ survival on the island where opportunities are scarce.

With no paved roads or supermarkets, living here means being part of a tight-knit community on the 70-square-mile island that values tradition and simplicity.

The Lifestyle on Niihau Island


Francis Sinclair (1833-1916), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Life on Niihau Island moves to a different rhythm. Here, nature and tradition shape days filled with unique experiences.

Livestock and other animals roam freely

Animals and livestock wander without fences on Niihau Island, making it a unique sight. The absence of cars, stores, or paved roads lets nature take over, allowing sheep, pigs, and chickens to roam as they please.

This freedom contributes to the island’s untouched beauty and supports a lifestyle deeply connected with nature.

Residents rely on these animals for food and traditional practices. Hunting and fishing are essential skills passed down through generations.

This interaction between humans and animals showcases a sustainable living model that echoes the traditions of their ancestors.

It’s home to the only school in Hawaii that relies entirely on solar power

The Niihau School is special because it’s the only school in Hawaii that uses solar panels for all its power needs. This smart choice lets students learn in a way that also teaches them how to use energy wisely and live in a way that’s good for the Earth.

They study regular school subjects but also learn important skills for living from the land around them.

This school is a great example of how using clean energy can help whole communities, even in places as far off as Niihau.

Here, education isn’t just about what’s in books. Students also get to know how to use computers and learn other practical things about being friends with the environment.

This way of learning gets students ready not only to do well in school but also to live lives that are close to nature. It shows how much Niihau cares about being sustainable and able to take care of itself.

Hawaiian is the most-spoken language

On Niihau Island, most people speak Hawaiian. This language draws closer to the traditional Hawaiian dialect than anywhere else. Residents often communicate using this rich, historical language, preserving a vital part of Hawaii’s cultural heritage.

On Niihau, there’s no telephone service, no hotels, no paved roads, and just a few cars. The island runs entirely on solar power. Hawaiian is the primary language spoken here.

With around 100 people living on the island, many have limited access to modern conveniences like radio and television. This isolation helps keep their language pure and untouched by outside influences.

Their way of speaking serves as a living museum of Hawaiian culture and tradition.

Visiting Niihau Island

You need an invitation to set foot on Niihau Island, making it a unique destination. Tours are available, but they follow strict rules to protect the island’s lifestyle and nature.

You must be invited to visit the island

Getting onto Niihau Island isn’t something you can do on a whim. The Robinson family, who own the island, only allow access to their relatives, U.S. Navy personnelgovernment officials, and guests with special invitations.

This strict control helps preserve the island’s unique way of life and natural beauty.

However, don’t lose hope if you dream of exploring Niihau. The Robinsons offer limited tours and hunting safaris for those curious about this secluded paradise.

These low-impact tourism opportunities fund the island’s resources while giving outsiders a rare glimpse into its unspoiled landscapes and traditions.

Remember, each visit respects the delicate balance between conservation efforts and cultural preservation on Hawaii’s Forbidden Island.

Available boat tours for outsiders

hawaiis forbidden island niihau boat tours

Niihau opens up its wonders and traditions through special tours like supervised visits and hunting safaris. Since 1987, these trips have let people see the island in a way that’s careful and respectful.

Niihau Safaris Ltd. tackles the issue of too many wild boars and feral sheep, giving visitors a chance for adventure while helping keep the island’s natural balance.

For those eager to see Niihau’s stunning sea life, two companies run boat and snorkel tours around Lehua Island, near Niihau.

These tours, which last about seven hours, also take in the sights of Kauai’s Napali Coast, offering a rare glimpse into some of Hawaii’s most hidden places from the water.

Whether it’s a land adventure on a safari or swimming in the clear waters, these tours offer a peek at Niihau’s untouched beauty in a way that protects its fragile environment.

The Conservation Efforts on Niihau Island

Niihau Island stands as a sanctuary for endangered species, notably the Hawaiian monk seals. The Robinson family, guardians of the island, enforce rigorous conservation efforts to preserve its unique ecosystem.

They meticulously protect flora and fauna facing extinction threats. To tackle overpopulation issues with wild boar and feral sheep introduced in the 1860s, Niihau Safaris Ltd was established.

This initiative not only controls these populations but also supports the island’s ecological balance.

Afforestation efforts have seen the planting of 10,000 trees annually, significantly enhancing the island’s green cover. Keith Robinson plays a pivotal role in preserving and documenting Niihau’s natural heritage.

His actions underscore a commitment to sustainability and biodiversity. Additionally, small tours are carefully organized to generate funds for conservation while minimizing human impact on sensitive habitats.

These guided visits are instrumental in funding vital resource protection endeavors on Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island.”

Hawaii’s Forbidden Island Wrap-Up

Discovering why Niihau remains Hawaii’s Forbidden Island reveals a unique blend of history, culture, and conservation.

This island, off-limits to most, offers a glimpse into a way of life preserved from the past.

By keeping visitors at bay, Niihau maintains its natural beauty and cultural integrity. Its secrets tantalize those who hear its story—inviting curiosity yet respecting boundaries.

Remember this magical place as an untouched paradise that few will ever experience but many will always wonder about.

FAQs for the Island of Niihau

1. Why do people call it Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island”?

Niihau, known as the “Forbidden Island,” is mostly closed to the public. The Robinson family, who owns the island, limits access to preserve its nature and culture.

2. Can anyone visit Niihau?

Only a small number of people get the chance to visit. The family that owns the island has allowed some tourism, such as helicopter tours, but they have strict rules. These rules are in place to preserve the island’s peacefulness and its traditions.

3. What makes Niihau special?

This 70-square-mile sanctuary is home to around 70 people who live in a traditional way. They mainly speak Hawaiian (Leu), use solar panels for electricity, and rely on rainwater for their needs.

4. How do Niihau residents live?

They live simple lives, focusing on farming, fishing, and going to church on Sundays. They mostly use sustainable methods to take care of themselves because it’s tough to find jobs on the island.

5. Are there unique treasures on Niihau?

Yes! It’s famous for beautiful shells—some of the rarest in the world—that locals string into exquisite leis; finding these shells isn’t easy though!

6. How does one get water or electricity on Niihau?

Residents rely entirely on rainwater and use solar panels for electricity and heating—a testament to their self-sufficiency amid modern challenges.

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Bryan Murphy

Bryan Murphy

Bryan Murphy, owner of Hawaii’s Best Travel, is a certified Hawaii destination expert from the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. He actively participates in the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau as a member and has a strong educational background focused on local culture and sustainability. As the host of “Hawaii’s Best Travel,” a top-30 US travel podcast, Bryan combines his years of experience with valuable insights. He connects with a broad online community, reaching nearly half a million people, and offers a richer, more responsible way to experience Hawaii.