When you think of Hawaii, images of crystal blue water, soft beaches, and endlessly sunny days probably flit through your mind. However, Hawaii is a site of rich cultural history and holds many wonderful tales within its sacred lands. There are plenty of mythological stories, sacred temples, and even a forbidden island located within the islands of Hawaii. That’s right, there’s much more to Hawaii than you know.
You may have heard of the secret, forbidden island of Ni’ihau. If you haven’t heard of it, prepare to be amazed by the following tale. Read on to find out why this island is forbidden and how it came to be that way. You’ll probably pick up some other interesting tidbits about the Hawaiian Islands along the way!
The Woman, the Myth, the Legend
Elizabeth “Eliza” McHutchenson is an important piece of the forbidden island’s puzzle. Born in Scotland in the year 1800, Eliza went on to marry a ship captain named Francis Sinclair in the year 1824. The two had six children together. As if their hands weren’t full enough already, after the birth of their sixth child, Eliza and Francis decided to hit the open seas and begin a new life in New Zealand.
Though they didn’t realize it at the time, this decision to travel to New Zealand would drastically alter the course of their family history.
Things Were Going as Planned
In 1841, Francis, Eliza, and their six children arrived in New Zealand. They settled in Pigeon Bay and subsequently began a thriving farm. Due to Francis's skills on the sea, he was able to create a farming business after taking the family’s farming supplies and sailing off with them to make trades.
Five years after arriving in Pigeon Bay, Francis took his eldest son out on a sailing expedition. Unfortunately, this trip turned into a tragedy. The ship sank and there were no survivors. All cargo and lives were lost.
In the face of tragedy, though, Eliza stepped up to the plate. Her eldest son, husband, and means of transporting goods for trade were all lost. However, she still had five children to look after. Eliza was a resilient woman and knew she had to use her wits in order to make sure her family survived.
With a lot of hard work, Eliza was able to transform Pigeon Bay into a lush, bountiful farm. She married off each of her five children in the process. She then made the decision to move her family to Canada. So, in the year 1863, Eliza and her family set out on the open seas in hopes of starting a farm there.
Though the family had high hopes for their new life in Canada, when they arrived on Vancouver Island they were met with great disappointment. The land on the island was overgrown and undeveloped. The wild terrain was too much to tame and the family did not have high hopes when it came to the prospect of trying to establish a new farm there.
In the face of this disappointment, Eliza began to make plans. She initially made plans to move to California, but then she heard about another option—the Hawaiian Islands. Back then, the Hawaiian Islands were known as the Sandwich Islands. After Eliza learned of these promising islands, she decided to take the plunge. She would set off for the islands and soon meet with King Kamehameha V.
The King’s Condition
Eliza set up a meeting with King Kamehameha V in order to discuss purchasing an island from him. The King agreed to sell Ni’ihau Island to Eliza and her family, but they had to meet his price. The King asked for $10,000 worth of gold in exchange for the land. If they met his price, the family would have full control over Ni’ihau, so long as they protected the integrity of the island and kept its residents safe from all outside influences.
The Sinclair family paid the sum to King Kamehameha V and agreed to protect the land. They then set off to begin their new life! Eliza Sinclair was considered to be a chiefess by the natives on the island. The family kept their promise and did all that they could to keep the residents of the island safe.
In the 1930s, the Sinclairs took drastic action. Because the island of Ni'ihau was private property owned by the Sinclairs, they were able to have a lot of control in terms of keeping the encroaching United States away from their property. They took the request of King Kamehameha V very seriously, and in the 1930s they actually decided to close off the island from all visitors. From that point on, only residents would be allowed on the island.
The main reason that the Sinclairs made this decision was to keep diseases from reaching the island. Diseases like polio and measles could easily harm the population of Ni'ihau. Furthermore, the family wanted to maintain Native Hawaiian culture on the island, a concept known as “kahiki,” to native Hawaiians.
What’s the Island Like Now?
In the present day, the island of Ni'ihau remains under the care of the descendants of Eliza Sinclair and her family. These descendants have remained true to Eliza’s original word to King Kamehameha V. They have continued to keep the island completely private and worked to protect the land from any outside influences that may try to encroach on the island.
Two such descendants, Bruce and Keith Robinson, told ABC News in an interview that they’ve “tried to maintain the request of the King when [the island] was turned over […]. We maintain the island for the people and continue to work it as he had.” All residents on the island live rent-free. Additionally, there are only about 35-50 people living on the island at any one time.
A Blast From the Past
Due to the island’s minimal contact with the outside world, visitors to the island today might feel like the place is totally stuck in the past. The people who inhabit the island live in the same ways that their ancestors did hundreds of years prior.
People living on the island continue to live off the land. They also hunt and fish in order to survive. Additionally, Hawaiian is the dominant language on the island, which is not the case for more tourist-heavy islands. Though residents live in this way, they often have to commute to the island of Kaua’i for work, school, and medical care—many live between the two islands.
Relaxed Way of Life
There’s something soothing about being cut off from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. In general, life on the island is described as being harmonious and very relaxed. Though there is no running water or electricity on the island, inhabitants practice sustainable living by collecting rainwater and using solar panels to power lights.
Pretty much every home on the island has its own solar panel. However, there aren’t very many electronics used by the inhabitants of the island, so the panels are mostly used to power light fixtures during the evening.
Residents Come and Go
Though entry to the island for visitors is limited, residents on the island may come and go as they please. People that reside in Ni’ihau, though surrounded by a rural way of life, are quite aware of the lifestyle that mainlanders have. They also often split time between the ‘forbidden island’ and the nearby Kauai. In fact, many people actually commute to work every day to Kauai.
Due to the nomadic nature of many residents on the island, it’s difficult to determine the actual population of people living there. In 2010, a census taken estimated that about 170 people lived on the island, however, people that actually live there will tell you the number is closer to 50 or 70. Tha’s one small island!
There are Many Rules on the Island
Though living on a secluded island may sound like paradise, not everything is as perfect as it sounds. The Sinclair and descendent Robinson family have set out numerous rules for islanders to live by. Though it can’t be confirmed, such rules include not being allowed to keep any guns or alcohol in one’s possession and the requirement to attend church each and every Sunday.
One former resident even claims that men on the island aren’t allowed to have long hair or wear earrings. Apparently, breaking any one of the many rules on the island can result in an eviction. No matter how good a situation may seem, there’s always a catch.
Due to its isolation, it makes sense that many goods are delivered straight to the island. Though some things are grown locally, there is a very small population and, inevitably, many food items have to be brought over to the ‘forbidden island’ by boat. Deliveries come weekly on barges. However, no banned items such as alcohol, tobacco, or guns are brought over in the containers.
It may seem odd due to the pacifist nature of the island, but the US military actually has a defensive operations base there that employs many of the island's residents. Approximately 80% of the island’s income comes from this small base. Most other income comes from seashell jewelry making.
What’s Living There Like?
Like in any situation, there are varying opinions regarding life on the island of Ni’ihau. Some people think living there is like living in a utopian society in which inhabitants must follow the rules and take on the cultural beliefs of the island. Others disagree.
The former Department of Land and Natural Resources director, Peter T. Young, said, “[Ni’ihau] is isolated for the rest of us, but it’s no an isolate island for them. They don’t look any different, they don’t act any different […] They live in a place that the rest of us have a very limited opportunity to see.” Tours to the island are extremely exclusive, and contact with residents is generally avoided, so it’s difficult to say what life is actually like on this mysterious island!
Guarded Against Outsiders
The Robinson family and the other inhabitants of the island have made the decision to stay as isolated as possible. They want to keep their small community away from spectators, tourists, and Hawaiians from other islands. It is strictly prohibited for anyone to enter the island without authorization. If someone did somehow sneak onto the island, there would be very serious consequences.
Getting to the island is very difficult, however. It would be extremely difficult to do so unnoticed, as well. People intruding on the land isn’t a major concern. Even if family members want to return to the island, they are sometimes denied entry. Everyone has to get permission from the Robinson family matriarch.
Tours to the Island are Possible
Though the island is extremely closed off from the public and any outside influence, including the media, the island offers a few different exclusive and guided tours. Though they won’t allow you to see much in terms of the residents, you will at least be able to see the amazing natural beauty of the mostly untouched land.
Tours will take you either by boat or privately chartered helicopter to the island for a tour that lasts about half a day. Helicopter tours will provide an amazing aerial view of the island as well as an opportunity to explore its remote beaches. You can also go on an all-day guided safari to hunt Polynesian boar and feral sheep. This exclusive tour comes at a cost, though. To go on an exclusive hunting trip it costs $1,750 per day, per person!
Tours Avoid Residential Parts of the Island
The island owner, Bruce Robinson, says, “The tours are solely for people to come and see an unspoiled Hawaiian Island […] We will not take [tourists] to the village or put the residents into a fishbowl-type of situation. We don’t even fly over the village. That is not what we’re about.
He continues on to say, “We respect their privacy, we respect their desire to lie untouched by the outside world and we intend to preserve that.” If you go on a tour, don’t plan on interacting with any residents. The Robinsons have taken measures to make sure residents are not affected by tourists, and the areas where tours go are places that residents avoid.
There is Amazing Wildlife on the Island
Due to the island’s meager human population, the opportunity for natural flora and fauna to flourish is great. There are even some endangered species that can be found on the island. One such endangered species is the monk seal. After this seal began to successfully breed on the island of Ni’ihau, its population in Hawaii has actually been growing with every passing year.
There are currently 35 seals with 10 to 12 pups on the island each year. This is a huge accomplishment for endangered species. Perhaps the island can teach us a thing or two about what an untouched landscape can do to benefit wildlife.
The Island Residents are Famous for Their Leis
Ni’ihau shells, like many things on the island, are particularly special. They are often referred to as shells from the ‘forbidden island’ and are used to make intricate, beautiful shell leis. Typically, three different kinds of shells are used to make these leis.
Many island inhabitants are artists and craft makers. These residents love crafting beautiful shell leis that can be found in stores on each of the Hawaiian Islands. The price of each lei is dependent on what shells are used, and how common each shell is. So if you want one of those extra special leis, be prepared to shell out the cash!
The Island Has a History with World War II
When the attack on Pearl Harbor happened and the United States was not fully involved in World War II, a pilot from Japan accidentally crashed on the ‘forbidden island.’ The pilot then proceeded to hold the small population of the island hostage.
Fortunately, two men that lived on the island were able to take the man’s gun. They killed the soldier before he harmed anyone on the island. One of the men received a Purple Heart for his actions. This is probably one of the only times the residents had to deal with an outsider in their community.
Entertainment on the ‘Forbidden Island’
Though there is plenty of natural beauty on the island, there isn’t much technological advancement. People do have iPads and iPhones, which they charge using their solar panels, but they mostly spend time at the beach for entertainment. Parties on the island can even last two weeks long! They also watch VHS and DVDs.
As one might imagine, people do get tired of staying in one place for so long. Many leave the island. Especially during their twenties residents will leave to experience the outside world. If they choose to return, they are generally welcomed back.
An 80-Year Span of Life on the Islands
The six beautiful islands of Hawaii hold countless wonders and beautiful sites to explore. The photograph below was taken in 1950! Native Hawaiian dancers are performing the amazing hula dance. Dancers perform the hula and use their hips to tell a story along with the music. The Polynesians, who settled on the Hawaiian Islands around the 5th century AD, originally developed the hula dance.
The dance is most often accompanied by the sounds of mele, traditional chants, songs, and poems. The dancers who perform hula help to tell the story of the mele by creating a dance to match the features of the sounds. There are actually two primary categories of hula dancing. First, there’s Hula Kahiko, an ancient hula that was performed before the West ever had any contact with the islands. The second category is called Hula ‘Auana and is a version of the hula dance that incorporates some western influence.
Leis Bring Warm Welcomes to Visitors
Pictured below are two Hawaiian teens making a lei. They thread beautiful, bright carnations together on a string in order to form vibrant floral wreaths for visitors to wear upon their entrance to Hawaii. Polynesian voyagers who traveled all the way from Tahiti originally brought the tradition of creating lei necklaces to the Hawaiian Islands. The leis can be made with flowers, leaves, seashells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and even animal bones and teeth!
You probably think of a lei when you think about Hawaiian culture. The lei is a potent symbol of Hawaiian culture and the welcoming “Aloha” they give to all who enter the islands. It is important to remember that you must always accept a lei when offered one. Furthermore, it is important not to take off the lei in front of the person who gave it to you. This is very rude and disrespects Hawaiian cultural practices.
Life in the ‘Burbs
The photograph below shows the beautiful, lush, tropical landscape of Honolulu back in 1952. Can you imagine waking up in such a wonderful paradise every day? The local residents knew what it was like to live in one of the most incredible places on Earth.
Honolulu is actually the westernmost major city in the United States and is classified as the most remote major city in the entire world! Most U.S. citizens that lived in Honolulu in the 1950s settled in the city after WWII. What a place to relocate!
What’s a Hawaiian Feast Like?
The men portrayed below are in the process of preparing a massive meal for a traditional Hawaiian luau. Parts of these preparations include placing hot rocks from a brimming fire pit into a pig carcass in order to roast it. Once the pig is roasted, there are various ways to prepare the meat for a big celebration. One such way is the preparation of the laulau, a traditional Hawaiian dish.
Laulau is a dish that consists of pork wrapped in taro or lau leaves. The wrapped meat is then steamed until perfectly moist and delicious. Pork isn’t always used in this dish. The leaves are also wrapped around salted butterfish, beef, and chicken. Traditionally, the laulau is steamed in an underground oven called an imu. Hot rocks are placed over the dish and covered in banana leaves, then steamed for hours.
Hawaii is Home to False Killer Whales
Pictured below is a false killer whale in Oahu, Hawaii. Though their coloring resembles that of a killer whale, these sea mammals are actually the third-largest type of dolphin. There are three different populations of false killer whales that swim in the warm waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. Populations of these special dolphins are pretty sparse and rare in other parts of the world. For this reason, they are the type of dolphins that are sought out most for observation.
You can travel to particular parts of Hawaii to view these wonderful and rare dolphins up close. One such place is Oahu, where this photo was actually taken. Unlike actual killer whales, false killer whales are friendly and approachable. These amazing dolphins have actually been known to catch food and bring them as gifts to humans who are in the process of diving or boating! However, they also are known to take fish off of hooks, which can lead to injury and is actually one of the main causes of decline in the false killer whale population around the Hawaiian Islands
Hawaii is a Top Vacation Destination
If you aren’t lucky enough to live on the beautiful Hawaiian Islands, the next best option is to take a vacation there. Just look at the beautiful Hilton Waikoloa Hotel and Village pictured below. A perfect combination of lush, stunning nature, and modern luxurious comfort.
But there was a time when vacationing in Hawaii became rather dangerous. Particularly in 1975, when on November 29th, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake erupted, triggering a tsunami and killing a total of two people and injuring 28. The tsunami reached 47 feet high and was detected in Alaska, California, Japan, Okinawa, Samoa, and on the Johnston and Wake Islands.
Hawaii Was a Holiday Spot Since the 20th Century
Following World War II, Hawaii entered the vacation destination scene and quickly became known as one of the most popular getaways, especially for people living in the U.S. This photo, taken from a 1938 Vogue editorial, is a prime example of the press Hawaii got following the war. This photo is actually one of the first examples we have of marketing surf culture to the general American public. Though surf culture wouldn’t become a huge craze until the 50s and 60s in America.
Starting in the 1930s, the American public began to broaden their horizons when it came to possible vacation spots. Hawaii was the nation’s newest state. Though it was a part of the U.S., the tropical, far away islands felt like a completely different place than the mainland. Classic photographs like the one above were common, which added to Hawaii’s popularity. Who wouldn’t want to be like these tourists, basking in the warm island sunshine, having the time of their lives?
Hawaii is a Legendary Surf Spot
Pictured below is legendary surfer Nick Beck in the midst of catching a wave off the coast of Hawaii in 1963. During this time, a huge surf craze rolled into the U.S. Countless amazing surf shots were being published in LIFE magazine, which introduced its massive readership to the glory, as well as the peril, of the surfing phenomenon.
Nick Beck was actually born on the island of Kaua’i, the fourth largest of the Hawaiian Islands and the oldest—sometimes it’s called the grandmother island. After an amazing career as a surfer and teacher, Beck eventually became the principal of Hanalei Elementary School in Kaua’i. As he entered the later years of his life, Beck worked as an activist, making efforts to preserve the natural beauty of Hanalei and the island of Kaua’i.
Waikiki was the Place To Be
Photographed below is Waikiki Beach in the year 1960. Back then, during the huge surf craze, vacationers knew this spot was the most popular place to enjoy their very own tropical getaway. Waikiki Beach is located on the island of O’ahu and rests on the South Shore of Honolulu. O’ahu isn’t the largest island, but it is the most populated. Waikiki translates to “spouting freshwater,” and it’s no wonder why. There used to be many springs and streams that separated Waikiki Beach from the other parts of the island.
This wonderful beach is a tropical paradise famous for its crystal clear blue water, white sand, and spectacular view of the Diamond Head crater. This image is deceiving, though. It’s much calmer than the average day on Waikiki beach. The beach’s amazing features have made it a popular tourist spot, which has come with quite a few developments. Unfortunately, you won't find a peaceful oasis if you try to visit Waikiki today.
Ho’okipa Beach has Been Popular for Years
This photo was taken in 1987 and shows some ladies enjoying the wonderful beach and sunshine at Ho’okipa, located on the north shore of Maui. Ho’okipa has been a popular destination for decades and is a great spot to try out surfing. “Ho’okipa” translates to hospitality, and the beach is true to its name, as it's been a welcoming spot for people to enjoy the surf for many years.
The beach at Ho’okipa has four distinct surf breaks and is a perfect spot for learning. It’s also known as one of the best places in the world to go windsurfing. It’s actually the site for windsurfing competitions and holds the annual Aloha Classic.
Hawaii is Home to Many Sacred Sites
Sacred sites or heiaus are prevalent in the wonderful islands of Hawaii. All of the sacred grounds are different, but a few can be spotted by the stacked rocks around their grounds, which are meant to be offerings to the gods. Other spots are elaborate and almost look like temples. In Hawaiian culture, it is extremely important to honor and preserve these sacred sites.
There are heiau for a variety of purposes, including treating the sick, offering harvest, starting rain, stopping the rain, increasing the population, and achieving success in war. However, many were brutally and unjustly destroyed during the 19th century, when Christian missionaries entered Hawaii and made a horrible effort to destroy Hawaiian religion—the sites that do remain date as far back as the 13th Century. The largest heiau is a three-acre platform with fifty-foot retaining walls located on Maui!
The Largest Heiau
This enormous heiau is called Hale O Pi’ilani Heiau and is located outside of Hana. This particular heiau is one of the best-preserved sacred sites and actually dates back to the 13th Century. This massive, three-acre site is made up of basalt rocks that were brought all the way up the mountain ridge.
These basalt rocks were then stacked 50 feet high around a 341 by 415-foot perimeter. The site is like a labyrinth with more walls inside including enclosures, platforms, and pits. A few historians posture that this site as actually designed as a residence. Others believe it was part of a kingdom. The structure is located in the Kahanu Garden and Preserve, a botanical garden along the Hana Highway.
The War Temple
One heiau, the Pu’u Mahuka Heiau, which roughly translates to “hill of escape,” was constructed as a war temple. Historians have dated the temple’s early construction to the 17th century, they have found that more construction was done on the temple in the 18th century. This particular temple sits atop a hill and is located on the island of O’ahu. The Pu’u Mahuka Heiau overlooks Waimea Bay and the beautiful Waimea Valley.
At the time of its use, the high priest, Ka’opulupula oversaw this particular heiau. The temple was a war temple and its situation on top of a hill helped it serve as a lookout spot, so soldiers could view the north shore of the island during wartime and keep out intruders. Many historians also believe that this temple was a heiau luakini, a sacrifice temple used to bring good fortune during times of war. The temple is the largest heiau on the island and covers a total of 2 acres.
Hawaii is rich with its own mythology and has various stories surrounding its particular gods, especially the goddess Pele. One site rich in mythology is the Kaulu Paoa Heiau. This temple is located in Ha’ena State Park on the island of Kaua’i. The temple is located on Ke’e Beach and is dedicated to Laka, the goddess of Hula. The site is also where Pele, the goddess of Volcanoes, is said to have fallen in love with Lohiau.
Lohiau, the chief of Kaua’i, was actually laid to rest at the site of this temple. His body was buried within a cave after his death. The legend says that the chief Lohiau died upon falling in love with Pele. Wahineomao, Pele’s younger sister, tirelessly scaled the cliffs to reach Lohiau’s body. She then worked with Pele, chanting over herbs in an effort to bring him back to life. Three rainbows appeared during this process, but Lohiau was not brought back from the dead.
State Monuments in Hawaii
Located in Wailuku, Maui rests Haleki’i-Pihana Heiau State Monument. The monument is 10-acres and contains two important heiaus, Haleki’i and Pihana. Both temples were associated with particular Hawaiian chiefs and are studied by archaeologists often for this reason.
Pihana is associated with gathering and fullness. It started off as a small temple between the 14th and 15th centuries but was expanded between the 16th and 17th centuries. During this time of expansion, the temple became a war and sacrifice temple for the chief Ki’ihewa. Haleki’i was added to the hillside around the mid 17th century, supposedly it was built by the chief Kihapi’ilani. The temples were added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 25th, 1985.
Another important site in Hawaii is the former residence of King Kamehameha I. This residence is called the Kamakahonu and is located at the north end of Kailua Bay on the Big Island. This residence is where Kamehameha I spent the final years of his life. It is also a site where various important Hawaiian rulers and officials have lived.
Kamehameha I, or Kamehameha the Great, was the first ruler of Hawaii and the founder of the Kingdom of Hawaii after he unified the islands. He is the ancestor of Kamehameha V, the chief who sold Ni’ihau to the Sinclair family. The site where he lived is now a lighthouse. It is also the land where part of King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is located.
Located on the edge of Kailua, Hawaii is the Ulupo Heiau State Historic Site. This heiau is also associated with Hawaiian mythology and legends of the Menehune, a mythological dwarf who lives in the deep forests and valleys of the Hawaiian Islands. The site is also associated with high chiefs like Kakuhihewa and Kuali’i.
Ulupo Heiau became a park in 1954 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. This site is made up of a stone platform that measures 140 by 180 feet and has 30-foot tall outer walls. The site most likely began as an agricultural heiau. However, when chief Kakuhihewa took over the site, it is thought that the site was converted into a spot for human and animal sacrifice.
This particular heiau is a State Recreation Park and is located at the top of a hill on O’ahu. The heiau is actually in ruins, but parts of it are still visible. The spot offers camping facilities, trails, as well as views of Pearl Harbor. The temple was built in the 16th century and is a site of numerous medicinal herbs.
One translation of Kea’iwa is “mysterious” or “incomprehensible,” words that may point to the number of healing plants in the area. The medicinal plants were used by priests who would teach students the art of medicinal healing many years ago. The healing plants still draw people toward this temple and site. People leave offerings at the temple in hopes of experiencing some of the site's magical properties.
Located in the Wailua River Valley on the eastern side of Kauai, the Wailua River State Park is home to the only navigable river in Hawaii. People who visit the park can take advantage of the lovely river and engage in activities such as kayaking, river boating, and exploring the rainforest.
Within the park is an important site, the Wailua Complex. This complex is made up of a series of heiaus and was once the center of chiefly power on the island of Kauai. There are several temples, places of refuge, and sites related to royal births that are a part of this complex. There are heiaus starting at the mouth of the river and moving all the way up to the summit of Mt. Waialeale. There are also said to be huaka’i po, or “ghost warriors,” who walk the ancient trails along the river at night.
The Hokukano-Ualapue Complex is a National Historic Landmark located on Moloka’i Island. The site includes six heiaus and two fishponds. The complex is considered to be one of the most important series of native Hawaiian sites on the islands.
The largest of the heiaus is ‘'Ili'ili'ōpae. This temple is the second largest in Hawaii and is made up of four tiers that rise up to a stone platform that is 287 by 87 feet. The temple is located about half a mile north of Highway 450. According to legend, this particular Heiau was made in a single night with boulders passed hand-to-hand all the way from the Wailau valley on the other side of the island.