Weekend Window to Niihau, Hawaii's 'Forbidden Island'

A rare glimpse of Hawaii's most mysterious island.

ByABC News via logo
September 30, 2010, 1:46 PM

Oct. 1, 2010 — -- The main Hawaiian Islands all have nicknames. Oahu is the "Gathering Place." Maui is the "Valley Isle." Kauai is the "Garden Island."

But one island is hardly known at all, even by most state residents.

Niihau, about 18 miles northwest of Kauai, is the "Forbidden Island." It has been privately owned by the same family since 1864, when Elizabeth Sinclair purchased it from King Kamehameha V for $10,000.

"My great-grandmother purchased the island from the monarchy and it's been virtually unchanged since that date by my family," says Bruce Robinson, who owns the island with his brother, Keith. "We've tried to maintain the request of the King when it was turned over. We maintain the island for the people and continue to work it as he had."

The island is a pristine, critical habitat for highly endangered species, and one of the most-coveted travel destinations in the world.

Niihau (pronounced NEE-EE-HOW) actually became the "Forbidden Island" during a polio epidemic in the Hawaiian Islands in 1952.

"My uncle wanted to protect the residents here from the epidemic and it was forbidden to come out here unless you had a doctor's certificate, and there was a two-week quarantine," Robinson says. "And it worked. We never got polio out here."

The name stuck and, indeed, the only people allowed on Niihau for generations were relatives of the Robinsons and the 130 or so Native Niihuans living in the village of Puuwai. To this day, very few people ever get to visit the island. ABC was the first U.S. network allowed to film there.

"Yeah, there have been a lot of people over the years who tried to get out here and we have never allowed the merely curious to come over in the past," says Robinson, 69, who married a Native Niihauan and has seven children.

"We've had a lot of requests, including people who are about to die and they have to come over and see the last place on earth they haven't seen."

Not even rock stars get special treatment. Mick Jagger called recently requesting permission to land a couple of his helicopters on Niihau. Robinson said no. Royalty and the super-rich make the request and get the same answer.

As with the spectacular, imposing 1,200-foot cliffs that buttress the windward side of this 72-square-mile paradise, the family has stood firm.

But there is a way to visit Niihau.

Several years ago, the Robinsons started offering outsiders a rare glimpse of this extraordinary place, running helicopter tours from the western shore of Kauai. Visitors check in at the Niihau Helicopters office in the little town of Kaumakani, not far from the town of Waimea.

After a weigh-in and safety briefing, pilot Dana Rosendal flies them to Nanina Beach on the north shore of the island, then leaves them alone for three-and-a-half hours to explore, snorkel or just contemplate the extraordinary solitude that once was Hawaii.

"When we got our helicopter and opened the limited tours, yeah, that made our life easier," Robinson says with a laugh. "Now we just direct them over to the tour office. But it is a great tour, and it's worthwhile for someone to see it, if you can do it, because it takes you back in time in Hawaii, into something that you won't see anywhere else.

"When you come out to Niihau, what you are immediately going notice is the peace and quiet," he continues. "The fact that you're going out to a beach that doesn't have any people on it, doesn't have a lot of foot tracks on it. It's an open, empty beach."