Wandering the West
We’re firmly in the grip now of changing weather that should lead to another great ski season but right now leaves us with conditions not great for much of anything outdoors. And maybe that’s why I’m thinking back fondly to a sailing trip to an island with an exotic nickname. You know the names of the Hawaiian Islands Oahu, Kauai, Hawaii, Maui and Lanai. But unless you add the island of Niihau, you’re missing one.
Niihau may not be the most scenic or easiest to get to, but it’s the only one that comes with the tagline "The Forbidden Island." Being naturally curious, when you attach the word "forbidden" to a description, I’m going to want to go.
Niihau has a fascinating past, an interesting present and an uncertain future. Back in the middle of the Civil War, Hawaii’s King Kamehameha IV sold the 18-mile long, six-mile wide island (coincidentally about the same size as Utah’s Bear Lake) to the pioneering Anglo family, the Robinsons, for $10,000 in gold. Today the Robinsons still own it and guard its privacy closely. It lies 18 miles west of Kauai.
About 160 native Hawaiians live on Niihau, speaking the native Hawaiian language among themselves and living simply with only generators for electricity. They work for the Robinsons, running their cattle ranch on the island, tending gardens, making necklaces, and essentially living as Hawaiians did a century ago.
You can only visit the island by invitation of the Robinsons, and they don’t grant many. But you can get there a couple of interesting legal ways. You can buy space on the island’s emergency-services helicopter for an aerial tour, which sets down away from the island’s villagers on secluded beaches for swimming, picnicking and snorkeling. You can also shell out bigger bucks for an island hunting safari, where they’ll let you shoot some of their more exotic animals, like wild boar and mountain sheep. In both cases, you’ll get to the island, but still not meet the islanders.
The option I chose was a snorkeling trip on a large power and sail-driven catamaran. Two different charter outfits, Holoholo Charters and Blue Dolphin, run the tour from Port Allen on Kauai’s west coast. Both companies first head up Kauai’s west coast and turn east to cruise along the Na Pali coast Kauai’s wildest side where lush valleys, waterfalls, sea caves, remote beaches and thick rainforest vegetation conjure up the primordial world, so much so that scenes from Jurassic Park and other jungle-themed blockbusters were filmed here. In the winter this is also where you may see gray whales spouting.
After the Na Pali, the catamarans make the long run across Kaulakahi Channel to the north tip of Niihau. Just off the north coast is a half-caved-in volcano cone called Lehua. The steep sides are covered in birds. Boats can enter the crescent-shaped cone at certain times of the year, but not when I went. When the wave and wind action is too strong, it’s like the Bates Motel, where you can check in but might not check back out.
We anchored between Niihau and Lehua, watching the birds on Lehua and looking to the tantalizing, wide-open wild beaches and land of The Forbidden Island just a short swim away. (You might risk arrest upon reaching the island. The Robinson interests maintain that they own the beaches, but Hawaiian law maintains that the family only owns above the high water line.)
We anchored offshore, snorkeling in clear tropical waters loaded with fish and interesting underwater geology. As we snorkeled along shallow lava shelves, we hit a sudden black void, where the seabed dropped away and the water changed from clear to total darkness. Small tropical fish stayed up high, but deeper toward the void you could see the outline of rather large fish.
After enough snorkeling to prune up the skin, and a floating lunch on board, it was time for the run back to Kauai. And we all talked about the strangeness of the island a place where time has essentially stood still for 130 years or more. Island kids go to the mainland of Kauai, board with local families for their high school education and, according to boat crew members, most move on to live in mainstream Hawaii, leaving the 19th century behind. The Robinsons subsidize the islanders, hiring double or triple the workers they need to run the ranch, just so everyone gets a paycheck. But with taxes to pay on an entire Hawaiian Island, just how long the Robinsons hold on is uncertain.
Casual travelers may never walk the undeveloped lands of Niihau, but both there and along the Na Pali coast they can get close enough to see a little piece of Hawaii as it was.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Port Allen to Na Pali to Niihau and back: 7 hours
Insider tip: The channel crossing can be rough. If you’re prone to motion sickness you might want to skip this, or take Dramamine or something similar.
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