Though admission has jumped to $15, that fee allows you to return within a week—and you may well want to, in order to absorb more of the fascinating geological and cultural history of Kauai and Niihau. Visitors enter through the Wilcox Building, the former county library built in 1924 with a Greco-Roman facade on its lava rock exterior. Pass through the small gift shop with an extensive book selection into the Heritage Gallery, where koa wood-lined cases brim with exquisite Niihau shell lei, feather work, and other items that once belonged to royalty. Also on display are some of the hundreds of Western and Hawaiian artifacts recovered from Haaheo O Hawaii (“Pride of Hawaii”), King Kamehameha II’s luxurious barge, which sank off the North Shore in 1824. Another room holds beautifully carved wooden bowls (‘umeke) and other handsome koa pieces, while a theater has continuous screenings of The Hawaiians, a sobering (if somewhat dated) hour-long documentary on Hawaiian history.
The adjacent Rice Building, a two-story lava rock structure opened in 1960, tells “The Story of Kauai.” The main floor’s exhibits focus on the island’s volcanic origins through the arrival of Polynesian voyagers and the beginning of Western contact, including the whalers and missionaries who quickly followed in Capt. Cook’s wake. Rare artifacts include a torn piece of a Niihau makaloa mat, a highly prized bed covering and art form that was essentially abandoned in the late–19th century. On the second floor, the story shifts to that of the plantation era, when waves of immigrants fomented the complex stew known as “local” culture, and continues through World War II.