Nicknamed the "Forbidden Isle" because private ownership has restricted access to outsiders for more than 150 years, Niihau is an enclave of Hawaiian culture not found elsewhere. In 1864, the seafaring Sinclair/Robinson family from New Zealand (via Scotland) bought the island from King Kamehameha for $10,000 and a promise to protect its existing residents both physically and culturally. It persists undeveloped—without roads, a hospital, central electricity, or plumbing. Nearly 200 isolated residents live off the land and communicate almost exclusively in Hawaiian.
Visible as a tall, blocky shadow from the western shores of Kauai, Niihau elicits dreams of seeing the island stuck in time. However, many of those dreamers have been turned away, reportedly including Mick Jagger and several heads of state. For decades, outsiders have had to settle for its namesake exports—coveted lei crafted from tiny endemic seashells, as well as ranched lamb and beef.
Now, snorkeling charters aboard large, sturdy catamarans also make the 17-mile trip across the Kaulakahi Channel from Kauai, showing visitors the whales and dolphins that frequent the area seasonally. Unable to land, the catamarans bob offshore, sharing the beauty of Niihau’s pristine reef unspoiled by on-land development.
Full-day Niihau snorkeling (and sometimes scuba) charters depart from Port Allen’s small boat harbor just south of Hanapepe town. Most also incorporate a scenic tour of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. Note that sea conditions in the channel crossing can sometimes be rough.