What To Do in Kaho'olawe and Ni'ihau

The islands of Kaho’olawe and Ni’ihau are both closed to the general public. With that, there is very little you can do on these two islands. However, what it lacks in quality, both islands make up for in terms of quality. Although Ni’ihau is the one with the nickname “The Forbidden Isle,” it would seem more appropriate for Kaho’olawe Island to be called as such, since Kaho’olawe was turned over to the state of Hawaii and then became known as the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve in 1993. Administered under the County of Maui, it has been restricted for commercial use, meaning that the island, including its surrounding waters, is off limits to tourists. As stated in Hawaii’s legislature, only for the following reasons may selected people be allowed to go there: subsistence fishing, spiritual activities, environmental restoration, historic preservation, and education. So, unless you are an archeologist going there for a dig to recover traces of Kaho’olawe’s ancient culture or a native Hawaiian performing a religious ritual, there’s very little chance that you will be allowed entry into Kaho’olawe. Meanwhile, “The Forbidden Isle” Ni’ihau, is not so forbidden after all. Owned by the Robinson family since Elizabeth Sinclair-Robinson bought the island in 1864, Ni’ihau is open to personnel of the US Navy, government officials, and invited guests. As Elizabeth’s heirs, brothers Bruce and Keith Robinson are currently managing the island of Ni’ihau. Keith Robinson is known in Hawaii as an environmentalist who also manages the Kauai Wildlife Reserve. More recently, the island of Ni’ihau has been opened to tourists. However, the tour should be supervised, and its duration should not go beyond half a day.

What to do at the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve

The island of Kaho’olawe is also known as “The Target Isle,” so named after serving as the training ground of the US Army during the Second World War. The state of Hawaii has a valid reason for prohibiting public access to the area. Apart from the likelihood that tourists in the area would only disrupt the restoration works being undertaken on the island, another reason is that Kaho’olawe is not yet a safe place for visitors. The cleanup by the US Navy to rid the site of any unexploded bombs began in 1998, but despite their efforts, no one can guarantee that the island has been cleared. After all, it is quite possible that some of the unexploded items may still be buried there. The likelihood that these items have easily slid off the island and now lay under its waters is extremely high as well.


If you’re any regular tourist, the closest you could get to seeing the island reserve of Kaho’olawe is onboard a Hawaiian cruise ship—and that would be outside of the restricted 2-mile radius. If you find Kaho’olawe enigmatic enough that you would be content even if you have to see it from a distance, you can take your pick of Hawaiian cruise lines and book online.


If you’re an environmentalist, a student, researcher, or specialist in a field that would be valuable for the preservation of the island’s ecology, topography, history, and culture, then you might want to consider applying for the Hawaii state’s volunteer program. What could be more exciting and fulfilling than embarking on a journey to a mysterious, uninhabited island and helping restore it to its former glory? The state plans to deploy over 1,800 volunteers over the next couple of years. As a volunteer, you’ll not just obtain escorted entry into Kaho’olawe. Since the island has been known to experience persistent droughts, volunteers will be concentrating on watershed restoration as well as re-vegetation efforts. If you get accepted as a volunteer, you’ll also get to attend orientation sessions focusing on the Hawaiian Islands’ ancient and modern history, visit important Hawaiian cultural sites, and listen to storytellers of Hawaiian myths. As if these won’t keep you busy enough, you’ll also be learning chants and performing many of Hawaii’s cultural practices as part of Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission’s culture and education program. Registration forms for volunteers may be downloaded from the Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana website (http://www.kahoolawe.org). Navigate through the site to see the access dates for 2009.

What to do on Ni’ihau Island

Now that the Robinson heirs have allowed visitors to come to their private island on a supervised excursion, tourists who go for less-traveled paths should make it a point to spend half a day on Ni’ihau, the once forbidden isle. If you happen to be planning a trip to Hawaii, why don’t you include it in your itinerary?

Read up on the island’s history now, and you sure won’t want to miss Ni’ihau when you come to the Hawaiian Islands. Philip Meyer wrote a book on Ni’ihau’s evolving community, and it was published in 1998 by the Hoomana Ia Iesu Church, Inc., which is the church of the island’s residents. More than just a tour book, it chronicles the island’s intriguing heritage. It is also authorized by the Robinson family and the island’s people. The book costs $35 (inclusive of shipping) and may be bought online at the island’s official website (http://www.niihau.us).

Touring the Forbidden Isle

Getting to the island is already half the fun. Onboard the chartered helicopter owned and operated also by the Robinsons, you’ll already get a glimpse of one of the rarities available on the island—an aerial view of reef sharks mating close to the island’s shores. The pilot also tells the passengers the history of the island which has long been clothed in mystery. Once you get to the island, you will experience basking on the powdery white sand along with monk seals. Find glass balls that wash ashore, and luxuriate in the island’s untouched beauty. Walk along the white sand beach and find the island’s real treasures strewn all over the place—exquisite Ni’ihau shells which are famous around the world for their gem-like quality. While you’re there, check out the island’s large collection of Ni’ihau shell jewelry, which are highly valued for the quality of its craftsmanship. The locals who make them into lei pupu (shell lei) say that turning the Ni’ihau shells into jewelry pieces require skill and a whole lot of patience, especially since almost half of the shells collected can break during piercing.

Snorkeling and swimming

They say that time stops at Ni’ihau, but you’ll find that untrue—to your dismay—as you can lose track of the hours you can spend snorkeling in its secluded beaches. You’ll get to see a wide selection of rare and colorful tropical fish swimming close to you. Not only is the island’s water as clear as crystal, it is also quite pure. In fact, the Ni’ihau shell’s exquisiteness is said to be the result of the pristine quality of the island’s waters. After enjoying a dip or simply dozing off on the beach, you can then look forward to a scrumptious meal, which is also included in the tour package. The half-day tour costs a hefty amount, but the experience and the memories you’ll have from it are priceless. If you would like to plan a trip to Ni'ihau, Ni’ihau Helicopters Inc. is one company you can contact for tours.

Going on a tropical safari

If you’d rather unleash the hunter in you and leave room for sunbathing on the other Hawaiian Islands, then Ni’ihau Island’s tropical safari could be your thing. Take your pick of wild Polynesian boars and hybrid sheep which thrive on the island. Wild eland, aoudad (Barbary sheep), and oryx are also available on the 72-square mile land, but hunting of these animals is limited. Whether you are a new or seasoned hunter, the island of Ni’ihau will give you a safari that’s worth your while. Hunting hasn’t been allowed on the island until recently, so you’ll be among the Ni’ihau safari’s firsts. What’s more: a skinning crew will be assigned to you, so you will have no problem getting your trophies prepared for shipment to a taxidermist. However, you’ll have to shoulder taxidermy and shipping expenses. The Ni’ihau safari package includes a guide, airfare to and from the island, lunch, snacks, and cold drinks. You may only get to the island through the Ni’ihau Helicopters Inc. The pick-up and drop-off point will be on Kauai, so you will need to take care of expenses for accommodations, meals, and airfare from Kauai to your other points of destination in Hawaii.

Hunting with the family

You may even bring the entire family on the tropical safari. Get them to experience the hunting culture of Hawaii’s Polynesian settlers who introduced boars to the islands. Today, hunting is done on the island to keep the abundance of wild boars and sheep in check. Ni’ihau Safaris Ltd. is part of a programmed harvesting of these animals, as having too many of them roaming the island can have adverse effects. There are various Ni’ihau safari packages for you to choose from. If you would like to check out the rates, go to http://www.niihau.us/safaris.html. One unique feature of the Ni’ihau safari is that it allows—if not encourages—the participation of hunters across all ages and skills level. Even special arrangements may be made for people with handicap.