Saturday, August 15, 2020 Edition: U.S. & World | Regional

Hawaii’s Forgotten Islands are a Secret Paradise

Hawaii is a tropical oasis. Millions of sun worshippers flock to the islands of Oahu, Maui, or Kauai to enjoy roasted pigs, sweet tropical drinks, and dancers shaking their hips to the rhythm of Polynesian drums. Daytime finds visitors on beach blankets while giant waves lash out at the awaiting shore and seagulls lazily circle overhead. This is the travel brochure version and the reason why so many people choose the state as a premier vacation destination.

Most travelers don’t realize there is a completely different side to Hawaii, no less beautiful and intriguing, yet not advertised and seldom to never visited. A part of Hawaii where tourism is highly regulated and highrise hotels and condos don’t obscure the breathtaking landscape. The islands of Niihau and Kaho’lawe are Hawaii’s two most remote islands. They are all too often overlooked but both play important roles in Hawaii’s deep and rich history.


Known as the “Forbidden Island,” Niihau is a private, mostly deserted island located 18 miles off the shores of Kauai.  It has been owned by the Sinclair-Robinson family since 1864. It’s kind of tricky to get to and visitors must have the family’s permission to see it. A half-day helicopter tour, tightly controlled by the owners, or a full day hunting excursion for feral sheep, wild Polynesian boar, and eland (similar to an antelope) are allowed.

The helicopter rides can carry up to a half-dozen people and what they will witness will leave them in awe. The copter dips to give riders the best view of the ever-present humpback whales churning the waters below. The ride then proceeds all around the islands 72-mile circumference flying past cliffs, scrub trees, and barren deserted beaches.
The helicopter will eventually land on one of the deserted beaches giving visitors a glimpse of Hawaii prior to its annexation and tourist invasion. Monk seals lazily snooze on the sand while albatross nestle in their huge nests. Hawaiian pukka shells, the same as those found on hand-strung necklaces, are easily scooped up from the water’s edge. The beach will be far from the tiny island village where Hawaiian is still the native language. Interaction with the residents of the scattering of small homes is prohibited to assure their privacy.

Hunting safaris have recently been allowed on the island and wild game is in abundance. These expeditions are only for avid hunters at a cost of almost two-thousand dollars per person. Hunting is allowed in efforts to control the populations of certain animals whose abundance have reached unacceptable levels. These expeditions are controlled to make certain the right type of game, in the right amount of numbers, are harvested under humane conditions.

Hunting season lasts all year and guns are provided so nobody needs to go through the hassle of attempting to carry one aboard a flight. Hunters will always travel with a guide and fair chase hunting is just a part of the island’s game management. Shooting and stalking skills are an important part of the hunt so bagging game is not an easy endeavor and definitely not designed for an amateur.

Kaho’lawe is the smallest island in Hawaii with a circumference of only 45-miles. It is believed the island was inhabited as early as 400 AD. and consisted of a few small fishing villages and several religious sites which were erected as places of worship. Around 1850 the island became grazing land for sheep and cattle but it was not properly controlled and became over-grazed not leaving enough food for the animals, so they were transported elsewhere.

During the 18th century, warring chiefs on the island laid waste to the small fishing villages and, soon after, the chief of Oahu raided and pilfered the island. It was then used as a vantage point to take control of the neighboring island of Maui but the attempt proved unsuccessful.
In the late 1700’s, passing ships reported the island was barren and devoid of fresh drinking water. Under the rule of King Kamehameha III, the death penalty in Hawaii was abolished and Kaho’lawe became an island where male criminals were exiled in what was referred to as a penal colony. Many starved to death while others swam the channel to Maui and escaped. The colony was abolished in 1853.

In 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Kaho’lawe was converted into a Navy training and bombing range. The island of Maui, 7-miles away, experienced shaking windows as a result of the thunderous bombing noise so one can only imagine what this tiny island experienced. The bombing was eventually halted and all of the leftover unexploded ordnance was moved out.

In 2003, Kaho’lawe officially became a Hawaiian island and is now under the control of the Kaho’lawe Island Reserve Commission. The entire island was designated as a place to preserve Native Hawaiian culture.

There are no commercial tours available to visit the island and those who are there are mostly volunteers who work to prevent erosion and to restore some of the islands historical sites. One-quarter of the island’s cliffs have already eroded due to the islands lack of substantial annual rainfall. While the rest of the islands receive their fair share of precipitation, Kaho’lawe is located in a rain shadow and does not generate enough ample tradewinds to allow storms to reach landfall. This is also the reason for the islands lack of fresh water.

The entire island is an extinct volcano which last erupted over one-million years ago. This accounts for the large lava stones found all over the island. At this particular time, Kaho’lawe is not open to the general public but it can be seen from Maui and boat tours will give those interested a closer view.

With restoration in progress, it may be that visitors will one day be allowed to set foot on this historic and battle-worn Hawaiian island, but for now, they will have to settle for seeing it from the water and using their imagination to envision all that took place on this seemingly insignificant patch of land, which in reality, is not insignificant at all.
Hawaii has it all. From pristine beaches to rainforests, to both high and low elevations, there is much to experience. For history buffs, Niihau and Kaho’lawe hold the keys to life in the islands prior to luxury hotels and luaus, and they are both well worth investigating further.

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