Vail Daily travel: A new Hawaiian bliss
NIIHAU, Hawaii –Tell people you’re going to Niihau, and they invariably exclaim, “No way!” Or, “Do you know the Robinsons?”Yes, way, and I do not know the Robinsons.And even though now I’ve been to Niihau, I can’t really say I know it either.But I do know that there are few places that I have anticipated visiting for as long and from which I’ve come away so changed.Since my days as a child on Oahu, I’ve known Niihau as the Forbidden Island. It has been privately owned since 1864, when Elizabeth Sinclair bought it from King Kamehameha V. Her descendants, the Robinsons (brothers Bruce and Keith), continue to own it.Niihau is everything Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, even Kauai, are not. It has 130 residents, give or take, and they live in the town of Puuwai. They don’t have running water, and electricity is produced by the sun or by a generator, not by an electric utility. There are few cars. The people live off the land, hunting, fishing, growing their own fruit and vegetables. Sunday is reserved for church. Smoking and drinking are not allowed here. “Ohana” — family — is the center of life.Simple? Yes. But it is more than that. As Margit Tolman said after our trip here in September, “It is so pure.”That’s well beyond the word “unspoiled,” which we travel types like to use when we stumble upon a stretch of beach or a piece of wilderness humans haven’t yet trashed.But pure? Not in my lifetime.Not until now.
There is no real mystery in getting to the island. Niihau Helicopters has been offering half-day trips since 1987. It’s just that few people seem to know about them.When Susan Tanzman, the owner of Martin’s Travel & Tours in Los Angeles and a Hawaii specialist who knew of my love affair with the 50th state, called one day to ask whether I wanted to go to Niihau, I didn’t hesitate to jump on a plane to Kauai.Five of us gathered at Niihau Helicopters’ offices in Kaumakani: Tolman and her mother, Renate Muller, Victor Ella of Santa Barbara, Tanzman and I. After we were weighed and given a safety briefing, we headed for Port Allen, where the Agusta 109A helicopter was to land, refuel and take us back.We were like a group of kindergartners about to go on our first field trip, and it was only the thinnest shred of adulthood that kept us from running in circles and hitting one another. We were practically bouncing on our toes to get the first look at the chopper, whose main purpose is the emergency evacuation of Niihau residents. The tours help underwrite the cost of the helicopter.As we scanned the heavens, clouds skittered across the blue. The helicopter did not.Pilot Dana Rosendal, who grew up on Oahu and has been flying for the company for eight years, got us settled and seat-belted, and we were off, whisking the 17 or so miles across the sometimes-rough Kaulakahi Channel.”Kauai steals all the rain,” Rosendal explained.Whereas parts of Kauai bathe in rain (the summit of Mount Waialeale is said to get 400 inches a year), Niihau gets a dozen or so.
It was 1863 when Elizabeth Sinclair’s sons, James and Francis, first saw the approximately 17-by-5-mile island. It had rained heavily the previous two years, and the land was electric green. It would be, the men thought, a good place for a ranch.So Sinclair passed on other parcels of land she had considered on Oahu and offered King Kamehameha IV $6,000 for the island. Not enough. She increased the offer to $10,000. Sold! (Kamehameha IV died before the transaction was completed, so the details fell to King Kamehameha V.)The new owners would raise cattle and sheep. They didn’t know the land was nearly as unforgiving as the arid parts of Southern California. True, there are three freshwater lakes on Niihau, the biggest lakes on any of the islands, but as we spied them from the air that day – and on many days – they were nothing more than mudholes.I couldn’t imagine what the Sinclairs must have thought when they realized they had made a slight purchasing error. My heart was sinking, and my half-day trip was $385 for this tour of what promised to be 72 or so square miles of ugly.”You guys aren’t susceptible to motion, are you?” Rosendal said into our headphones.. “I’ll try not to dive more than I have to. I’d really like to show you the eland. I know where they’re hiding right now.”As if on cue, out of the brush sprang two of these African antelope, and as we followed them, the score from “Out of Africa” swelled in my ear’s imagination. The 2,500-pound beasts bounded with the grace of a running back headed for a touchdown.”As pretty as they are, they taste a heck of a lot better,” Rosendal said.The people live off the land here. Fish are a staple, but the wildlife here, including wild boar and eland, is fair game.
Reeling from this Meryl Streep moment, I was unprepared for the village of Puuwai, where about 35 houses, a church and a school are clustered. The flyover was brief; the Robinsons do not want the Niihauans’ privacy invaded.Ah, yes, the residents. We would not get to meet them or interact with them in any way, and that was a disappointment. These sheltered souls are, by all accounts, warm and wonderful folk, but the outside world is an unwelcome guest.”It’s a privacy issue,” Rosendal told me later. Bruce Robinson “really loves these people. His motto is always, ‘It has to be good for the people in Niihau. If it’s good for them and the ranch, which is the business, we’ll consider doing it.’ If it’s not good for the island and the people he’s not going to do (it).”As for the rumors that Niihauans are captives on this land, Rosendal, who knows most of them, laughs.”They can go anywhere they want. I guess he (Bruce Robinson) wants to lessen the impact of people in their area. That’s their private area.”It’s not like he’s that rich dude who owns the island. It’s more like, ‘You are the ones that live here. Yeah, I own the island, but your families have been here forever.’ When his family bought the island, they agreed to respect the rights of the Niihauans.”We turned toward Nanina Beach on the north shore, where we would land. The sea was calm, the water and sky a warm blue. The sand stretched before us, unending, untrammeled, unpopulated.Unbelievable.We landed and scrambled out of the helicopter immediately sank ankle-deep in sand. The short hike to a rustic shelter was like walking through cotton batting. We dropped our belongings, then spread out.For the next 3 1/2 hours, we were free to swim, snorkel, have a bite of lunch (courtesy of Niihau Helicopters, which provided sandwiches, chips and drinks), walk the beach and hunt for the tiny Niihau shell, which islanders make into perpetual leis and sell for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.
The shoreline was covered with smooth lava that formed tide pools, brimming with sea life, and it was here we found the only resident of Niihau we would encounter.Her name was Mahina, Hawaiian for “moon.” She had big brown eyes, dark skin and a cute little nose, although she seemed to have grown algae around her mouth. She was taking her leisure in one of the tide pools and looked well pleased with herself, as monk seals are wont to do. They are an endangered and completely adorable species, and Niihau is home to many of them.”If you see 40 of them, there are probably 120, because the rest are out fishing,” Rosendal, who had seen Mahina grow from a baby, told us.As we approached, Mahina rolled on her back, her creamy belly pointed toward the sun.”Don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me, don’t even say a word,” Tanzman said softly, breathlessly, captivated by this beautiful creature, hoping the silence would imprint this moment in memory.We kept a respectful distance – it is illegal to get too close and certainly illegal to harass a monk seal – but Mahina flirted shamelessly with us. She rolled and batted her eyes, as curious about us as we were about her. As a fully grown adult, she might weigh as much as 600 pounds, and if no ocean-going or human predators get to her, she and her 1,200 remaining kin, once hunted almost to extinction, could live as long as 30 years.Back in the shelter, we could see Tolman (German born but now a Maui resident) on the beach. She was dancing a hula called “Hoi Kealoha i Niihau” (“Love Returns to Niihau”).”Hula is not just dancing,” she told me later. “It’s a style of living. It’s learning about culture and history …”The dance was about Niihau, and dancing it there on the place was just taking it home.”Home to the pristine beaches where few have ever walked, where the absence of the world translates into a kind of elegance and intimacy I had never experienced.The day was slipping away, and it was time to return to whatever our reality was. As we gathered for a group photograph, Tolman’s mother confessed it was her birthday – “my best ever,” she said.She had spent No. 73 in a place that, until now, we had only dreamed we would ever see and to which each of us said we would like to return one day – just for the pure bliss of it.