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Located far west on the chain of Hawaiian islands, Ni’ihau is the smallest inhabited Hawaiian island – and has a unique history to match its nickname as Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island.” Very few people visit each year (though visiting is certainly possible), despite the allure of exploring a place that seems almost untouched by the passing of time – especially as it’s within the United States!
Ever since I learned about Ni’ihau on my last trip to Hawaii, I’ve been eager to plan a trip to this remote island. Ni’ihau is such a unique destination – it’s definitely worth leaving some space in your suitcase to bring home a souvenir. There are also some souvenirs that you can order online which will allow you to experience Ni’ihau at home whether you’re still planning a trip or thinking back fondly on yours.
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.
Ni’ihau Shell Leis
When it comes to Ni’ihau souvenirs, Ni’ihau shell leis are one of the most sought-after tokens. The art of lei-making is unique to Ni’ihau’s culture and has been alive since before the arrival of European settlers. It’s easy to find pictures of Queen Kapi‘olani wearing beautiful multi-strand lei as jewelry. Made of precious pupu ‘o Ni’ihau shells, no lei is the same, showing the versatile craft of each Hawaiaan Leimaker.
While you can find these rare shells on the shores of the Forbidden Island only, you won’t be able to travel and find these souvenirs in Ni’ihau. Instead, there are plenty of venues in Kauai, Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island that offer authentic Ni’ihau shell leis and jewelry. You can also find online shops to purchase them. There’s not much variety of lei styles; however, leis are one-of-a-kind in design and come in different price ranges according to the type of shell, its uniqueness, and color.
Ni’ihau shell leis are one of the most prized souvenirs you can bring home from Hawaii; the queens and princesses of Hawaii are often depicted wearing leis made of the three different types of tiny, precious pupu ‘o Ni’ihau shells (source). Today, the craft of lei-making with Ni’ihau shells is protected thanks to a law enacted by the Hawaii state legislature in 2004 (source). If you want to buy jewelry or leis made with pupu ‘o Ni’ihau, you can ask any shop to provide documentation that the work is authentic. This includes both online and at gift shops across Hawaii. Here’s where you can purchase authentic Ni’ihau shell leis:
- Aloha Kahelelani (niihaushell-leis.com)
- Kauai Curators (kauaicurators.com)
- Maui Hands (mauihands.com, also at their locations across Maui)
- Bishop Museum Shop Pacifica, Honolulu
- Haʻaheo Hawaiian Crafts, Honolulu
- Honolulu Academy of Arts Gift Shop, Honolulu
- Nā Mea Hawai‘i, Honolulu
The Big island
- Harbor Gallery, Kawaihae
- Havaiki Oceanic and Tribal Art Gallery, Hanalei
- Hawaiian Trading Post, Koloa
- JJ Ohana, HanapēpēKaua‘i Museum Gift Shop, Līhue
- Mariko, Hanapēpē
- Niihau Helicopters, Kaumakani
- Maui Hands, Kāʻanapali, Lahaina, Pāʻia, or Makawao
- Maui Ocean Center, Māʻalaea
Each of these locations offers Ni’ihau shell leis that should be documented and authentic. As each item made with pupu ‘o Ni’ihau is unique, you may not find many choices but you will certainly find beautiful items across a range of prices.
Books About Ni’ihau
Most of us refrain from buying books as souvenirs – unless the person is a bookworm. However, books about the Forbidden Island are some of the best Ni’ihau souvenirs. With such a fascinating history, anyone would love to learn about Ni’ihau’s culture, the settlers, and how it came to be such a secluded place.
There are many books to learn about Ni’ihau, but here are a few that tackle interesting topics.
If you want to learn about Ni’ihau’s history, Ni’ihau: The Last Hawaiian Island by Ruth M. Tabrah is a great way to start. The author has first-hand experience (she visited the island twice!) of Ni’ihau’s history and surroundings.
Ni’ihau Shell Leis is another exciting book you may bring home with you. This book tells you all about the traditional Hawaiian necklaces and how women sew tiny shells into beautiful necklaces.
Finally, The Niihau Incident: The True Story by Allan Beekman gives detailed insight into how the plane crash of a Japanese fighter pilot on Ni’ihau became one of the darkest episodes of the island’s history. If you are a history buff or have someone back home who is, Beekman’s book is one of the best Ni’ihau gifts.
Music from Ni’ihau
Purchasing a CD might sound outdated with Spotify or iTunes today. Still, bringing music (in a physical format) from a foreign land is an excellent idea to relive your moments there. Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha by the Mākaha Sons of Niʻihau is full of traditional Hawaiian tunes. The Mākaha Sons are famous for championing traditional Hawaiian music, and their incredible harmonies took them to prestigious places like Carnegie Hall.
The songs in this CD will transport you to Hawaiian soil, with the sound of waves of Waikiki and the breathtaking sunrise at Haleakala. Some songs feature the voice of the late, great Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwa’ole. Without a doubt, Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha should be in any Hawaiian music fan’s collection.
Ni’ihau Printed Products
Printed products with designs that resonate with the Forbidden Island make lovely Niaihau souvenirs.
Remembering you aren’t in Hawaii anymore –as soon as you wake, isn’t exactly appealing. Still, Coffee lovers won’t find a better way to sip their morning coffee than this Ni’ihau coffee mug. It features a delicate design with sea turtles, known as “honu” in Hawaiian.
Another practical souvenir, this printed towel shows the Hawaiian Islands in a vintage-style map. The towel is a perfect size to carry around when you need it for laying out on a beach day. You’ll see some people use it as decoration due to its vibrant colors and large size.
T-shirts have become a popular souvenir in the last decades: they are practical, original, and a clear reminder of where you’ve been. Check out this Hawaii t-shirt, which features a map design showing Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Lanai, and Ni’ihau islands. They are unisex and come in different colors and sizes.
Have any questions about where to buy Ni’ihau shell leis or other souvenirs from Hawaii’s Forbidden Island? Let me know in the comments!