Niihau: The Forbidden Island

Just 17 miles across the Kaulakahi Channel from Kauai lies the arid island of Niihau, "the Forbidden Island." Visitors are not allowed on this privately owned island, which is a working cattle and sheep ranch with about 200 residents living in the single town of Puuwai.

However, you can spend a couple of hours on the beach in Niihau. Niihau Helicopter, the only helicopter company to offer tours of Niihau, has half-day tours, which include a helicopter ride to Niihau, an aerial tour over the island, and landing on the island at a beach. For more information,

Niihau's history of being forbidden dates back to 1864 when, after an unusually wet winter that turned the dry scrubland of the small island (18*6 miles) into green pasture, Eliza Sinclair, a Scottish widow, decided to buy Niihau and move her family here. King Kamehameha IV agreed to sell the island for $10,000. The next year, normal weather returned, and the green pastures withered into sparse semi-desert vegetation.

Today, Sinclair's great-great-grandson, Bruce Robinson, continues to run the ranching operation and fiercely protects the privacy of the island residents. From the outside, life on Niihau has not changed much in 140 years: There's no running water, indoor plumbing, or electrically generated power. The Hawaiian language is still spoken. Most of the men work for the ranch when there is work, and fish and hunt when there is no work. The women specialize in gathering and stringing pupu Niihau, prized, tiny white seashells (found only on this island), into Niihau's famous leis, which fetch prices in the thousands of dollars.

Niihau Shell Lei: The Island's Most Prized Artwork -- Because Kauai is so close to Niihau (the "Forbidden Island," where the public is prohibited, is just offshore), it's the best place in the state to buy exquisite Niihau-shell leis. Nothing can match the craftsmanship and the tiny shells in this highly sought-after and highly prized jewelry. Niihau is in the best position to catch the very tiny and very rare shells that roll up from the deep onto the windward shores after a big storm (generally Nov-Mar). When the shells are spotted on a beach, everyone (men, women, and children) on Niihau drops what they are doing and races down to the beach to begin the backbreaking work of collecting them.

The shells are then sorted according to size and color, and only the best are kept. Some 80% of the shells are thrown out because they are chipped, cracked, discolored, or flawed in some way that renders them imperfect. The best shells are the teeny, tiny ones. The best colors are white or the rare gold (the shells can also be yellow, blue, or red).

The shells can be crafted into anything, but leis and necklaces are the most popular items. A necklace may take anywhere from hours to years to complete. Each shell is strung with very small and very intricate knots. The patterns sometimes mimic flower leis, and the length can range from a single-strand choker to a multistrand, 36-inch (or longer) necklace. No two leis are alike. The leis are not cheap; they range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the length, the shells used, and the intricate work involved.

You can find Niihau shell leis at numerous locations on Kauai. One of our two favorite places is Hawaiian Trading Post, Koloa Road and Kaumualii Highway, in Lawai (tel. 808/332-7404), which carries a range of items from junky souvenirs to excellent Niihau leis. (You have to ask for them to bring out the "good stuff" from the back.) Our other favorite place to buy the leis is at which is owned and operated by Niihau residents. (You can buy direct, so to speak.)

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.