Ni‘ihau — 17 Miles and a World Away

Posted in: Culture & History, Shopping, Things to Do

The history of Ni‘ihau is storied and mysterious; our limited space will not do “The Forbidden Island” justice. In Hawaiian lore, Pelehonuamea (commonly known as Madame Pele) first landed on Ni‘ihau, although geologists believe the island was created by a secondary rift from the Kaua‘i volcanic explosion. 

Elizabeth Sinclair purchased Ni‘ihau, and parts of Kaua‘i, in 1864 for $10,000 in gold and a piano from King Kamehameha V, and private ownership passed on to her descendants, the Robinson family. They continue to uphold their promise to the king to protect the island and its residents from outside influences.

“My great-grandmother purchased the island from the monarchy and it’s been virtually unchanged since that date by my family,” said Bruce Robinson, who owns the island with his brother, Keith, in a 2010 interview with ABC News. Today, the full-time population of Ni‘ihau is estimated to be less than 70 due to a lack of employment opportunities, electricity and running water.

The Ni‘ihau shell necklace is world-renowned for the beautiful shells found only on the island and the craftsmanship.

One way to learn about the fascinating history of Ni‘ihau, see it up close and snorkel the pristine waters of its Lehua Crater, is to be a guest of Holo Holo Charters

You’ll make the 18-mile trip to Ni‘ihau on the Holo Holo, one of Kaua‘i’s fastest tour vessels. At 65 feet, this agile power cat is long and wide enough to provide a swift, adventurous ride even at her top speeds.  

Holo Holo Charters Niihau
A Holo Holo Charters catamaran off the coast of Ni‘ihau

The sleek catamaran can carry 65, but Holo Holo keeps the numbers to 49 or less, which means more room to sightsee, snorkel, relax and enjoy all that Kaua‘i has to offer. Built with safety and comfort in mind, Holo Holo’s design is wide enough to eliminate any long, side-to-side rolling motion and the hulls are narrow to slice easily through the water, resulting in a smooth ride. And Holo Holo was designed and built specifically to handle the channel waters that separate the islands. With twin 450-horsepower turbo diesels for propulsion, they get to the beautiful sights of Ni‘ihau (and Nāpali) “faster than any other vessel.”

You’ll snorkel, enjoy a gourmet deli-style buffet lunch, and an after-snorkel beer or wine. While you’re eating, the friendly guides will talk story about the island, the people and history of Ni‘ihau.

Long before The Hawaiian Trading Post’s Liz Cope imported her first Ni‘ihau shell lei necklace to her Lāwai store in 1984, she knew many of the artists. Cope moved to the west side of Kaua‘i at age 7 from O‘ahu, the daughter of a NASA engineer. “Ni‘ihau children attended Kekaha Elementary School on the west side with me,” Cope explains. “They would go back and forth. To this day, I do business with artists I grew up with.”

The Hawaiian Trading Post
Some of the beautiful creations to be found at The Hawaiian Trading Post

Not too many people can say they “grew up with Ni‘ihau shell lei artists.”

On a recent visit to Lāwai, we sat down with Liz to ask her questions only she could answer on this subject. 

Let’s start with the question I think most our readers want to know first:  

Q: What is the price range for Ni‘ihau shell necklaces you carry at The Hawaiian Trading Post?

A: “$350 for a simple necklace to upwards of $25,000.”

Q: Have you ever bought a particularly beautiful necklace and then said, “I can’t sell this. I gotta keep it?”

A: “Actually, I’ve done that a lot. And I’ve never regretted keeping any piece. But I have regretted selling a few that I should have kept!”

Q: Any memorable celebrity customers?

A: “Oh, we’ve had our share of celebrity clientele over the years. I was probably most star struck when I recognized Leonardo Di Caprio stopping in with a girlfriend. He was trying to be stealth with sunglasses and baseball cap. The credit card he used even had a different name. But I recognized him, and when I said something, I could tell he was a little bummed. He was having such a good time until I ‘outted’ him.

“My favorite was Michael Landon. He used to come in two to three times a year. He was one of the nicest customers I’ve ever had. Forget about celebrity; he was just the best.”


[A version of this story appears in the December 2019-February 2020 print editions of This Week Kaua‘i]


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A Holo Holo Charters catamaran off the coast of Ni‘ihau


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