Located just 17 miles off the west coast of Kauai, Niihau (72 square miles) is the smallest of Hawaii’s inhabited islands.
While open to visitors on a limited basis (via helicopter tours), Niihau is a private island that has largely remained unburdened by the influences of the outside world. There are no roads, hotels or restaurants; the 250 residents (mostly of Hawaiian descent) live without electricity.
King Kamehameha IV put Niihau up for sale in 1863, and Kauai resident Elizabeth Sinclair bought the island for $10,000 (she reportedly chose to purchase Niihau over a few other pieces of real estate, including Waikiki and Pearl Harbor). Today, Sinclair’s descendants, the Robinson family, continue her commitment to maintaining Niihau’s Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiian language is spoken almost exclusively on the island.
As you can imagine, life on the island is simple, tranquil and blissfully uneventful. That wasn’t the case on December 7, 1941, however. After the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, a lone Japanese pilot crashed his plane on Niihau and took the entire village of Puuwai hostage. Thankfully, two men, Hawila Kaleohano and Beni Kanahele were able to disarm and kill the intruder. Kanahele, who was shot three times in the incident, reportedly grabbed the pilot and flung him against a wall, cracking his skull. He later received a Purple Heart for his heroics.
A more welcome visitor to Niihau is the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. The population of the species has grown over the years, up to about 35 seals. Ten to 12 seal pups are born on the island every year.
Because most of Niihau is low and dry, the island is too arid to be used for cultivation. Much of the land, in fact, is used for raising cattle, and most residents work on the Robinsons’ ranch. Each family on the island tends to their own garden to supplement the beef and mutton that are raised on the ranch.
Niihau’s beaches are famous for their rare shells. A Niihau shell lei can be valued at hundreds or even thousands of dollars.