Destination Guides

10 Illuminating Books about Ni’ihau, Hawaii’s Forbidden Island

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If you want to learn more about Ni’ihau, you’re not alone. Since I first learned about Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island” last year, I’ve been learning all I can about this unique destination – and planning a visit someday.

Visit Niihau - Holo Holo Charters
Photo courtesy of Holo Holo Charters

In addition to web resources like my own stories about Ni’ihau, there are a number of books about Ni’ihau that will help give you an even greater understanding of this little-visited island and what makes it special. I’ve organized this list (mostly) in order that the books were published, but as you’ll see – there are still a lot of opportunities for writers to create new resources to inspire others to learn about Ni’ihau. Maybe I’ll write a book someday once I’ve had a chance to visit and experience this destination myself.

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Kō Hawaiʻi Paeʻāina (Hawaiian Kingdom) people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

1. Ni’ihau Shell Leis

If the Ni’ihau shell leis I mentioned in my article about Ni’ihau souvenirs sounded interesting, you’ll love this book by Linda Paik Moriarty all about them.

While this book was first published in 1986, the images and stories within its pages are timeless. “Since the dawn of history, the women of Ni’ihau have been collecting and sewing tiny, lustrous, multi-hued shells into leis of surpassing beauty,” the back cover reads. If you want to learn the history of the traditional Hawaiian necklaces and how the necklaces are made, this is the book for you!

Books about Ni'ihau - Shell Leis

2. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu

This is one of a few books on this list that I don’t know much about – it was originally published back in the mid-1980s and is now out of print.

In it, author Ida Elizabeth Knudsen Von Holt explores the folklore and history of Ni’ihau, along with neighboring Kauai and Oahu. One review suggests that the book contains Van Holt’s documentation of her family and their travels across the world and especially life in Hawaii.


3. Ni’ihau: The Last Hawaiian Island

Though this book also dates back to the late 1980s, it’s one of the best resources if you want to learn about Ni’ihau from a source who has actually visited the island – twice, in fact!

Author Ruth M. Tabrah shares the history of Ni’ihau as she was able to learn it, as well as insights about what the island is really like. Reviews say it offers a “rich story” and an “intimate look” at the “Forbidden Island” – or the “Mystery Island,” if you believe older stories about the island.

So what is that mystery? Not to spoil it – but there isn’t one. There’s just the unique magic of Hawaii’s westernmost island and the unique path it has followed through history.


4. Beaches of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau

If your mental picture of Hawaii is all about beaches, you’ll want to check out this book by author John R. K. Clark. With this book, Clark completed a series about the beaches of the Hawaiian islands (other titles cover Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island).

For Kauai beaches, Clark includes maps, diagrams, and photos to help you understand and plan a trip. With regard to Ni’ihau and its discouragement of visitors, Clark uses sketches and illustrations to share the beauty of the island’s beaches, rather than photos.


5. Niihau: The Traditions of an Hawaiian Island

While I’ve listed these books about Ni’ihau in the order they were published, I recommend starting with this one if you’re really curious about the island.

Through folklore, myths, legends, chants, place names, poetic sayings, maps, and photographs, this book introduces you to the dynamic and unique history and culture of Ni’ihau. It’s a fascinating resource and one of the most comprehensive ones available.

Authors Sr. Moses Keale and Rerioterai Tava originally published this book in 1990; it’s out of print today so you’ll have to find a used copy online or search your local library.


6. Pupu O Ni’ihau: Shell Leis of Ni’ihau

A generation later, an unknown publisher put together another book about Ni’ihau shell leis for those interested in the subject. (No joke: Amazon doesn’t know who published it, and it doesn’t say it on the cover!)

This short book offers a beautiful visual guide to shell leis, their history, and how they are made. It’s a collector item, to be sure; it’s no longer in print and costly to find a used copy. But for those interested in learning as much about Ni’ihau as possible, it’s an intriguing addition to your book collection.


7. The Niihau Incident: The True Story…

The next two books on my list of books about Ni’ihau focus on a specific event in Ni’ihau history: the Ni’ihau Incident.

By all accounts, this was a dark chapter in Hawaiian history, even in isolated Ni’ihau. As told by author Allan Beekman, this true story of a Japanese fighter pilot who crashed on Ni’ihau and the ramifications have not been forgotten and will fascinate history buffs today.

This book was originally published in 1982 and is currently out of print, but you can find used copies very affordably online.


8. Before and Beyond the Niihau Zero

There haven’t been many modern books written about Ni’ihau, probably due to the island’s isolation and lack of development; one exception is this book about the Ni’ihau Incident by author Syd Jones.

In this 2014 book, Jones takes another look at the Incident and its present legacy. You’ll learn a detailed account of the Ni’ihau Incident, hear from those who remember the event – yes, the author was permitted incomparable access to interview locals on the Forbidden Island –, and where you can see the fateful aircraft that crashed back in 1941.


9. East Wind, Rain

If you want a more dramatized version of the Ni’ihau Incident, this novel by Caroline Paul will teach you about the event.

Paul fictionalizes the Ni’ihau Incident somewhat to make it appealing to the audience but uses the facts as a foundation. After reading, you’ll have a sense of how dramatic this incursion was on life for local Niihauans, and the difficult choices many had to make during the week’s events.

While inspired by the true events, this is considered a novel rather than a historical source.


10. Lonely Planet Hawaii Guide

Last but certainly not least, the Hawaii guidebook from travel publisher Lonely Planet is a great option if you’re planning to visit Hawaii, especially Kauai and possibly Ni’ihau.

This 672-page book is a behemoth – and chock-full of helpful info no matter which Hawaiian island(s) you plan to visit. Unique among its competitors, the Lonely Planet Hawaii guide does have a section about Ni’ihau.

Note: You specifically need to buy the 2015 edition of the Lonely Planet Hawaii guide; future editions may or may not include Ni’ihau.


Have any questions about these books about Ni’ihau? Let me know in the comments!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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