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Most often when people think of the Hawaiian Islands they imagine palm trees swaying in the breeze, towering jagged cliffs footed by crystal clear waters and pristine beaches inhabited by honu (the green sea turtle). The Big Island is home to some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls, small town shops full of character, serene camping locations, and an endless list of exciting outdoor activities. Yet on the Big Island of Hawaii, one might be pleasantly surprised by the sweeping plains of farmland, roaming herds of cattle and the majestic horses galloping through the grasslands.
In the town of Kamuela, otherwise known as Waimea, nestled next to the Kohala mountains, and resting in the shadow of gentle slopes of emerald hills dotted with roaming cattle, can be found the historic Parker Ranch; the oldest ranch on the Hawaiian Islands.
It all started with a gift. In 1793 King Kamehameha, the first chief to unite the Hawaiian Islands, was given one bull, a flock of sheep and five longhorns by George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy. Horses arrived shortly after in 1803. The cattle were weakly after the long sea voyage so King Kamehameha prohibited hunting of the cattle, placing them under kapu (taboo) for a decade where upon they flourished and multiplied. The cattle grew to such great numbers, they began wreaking havoc in local villages and destroying the very agriculture the settlers had worked so hard to cultivate.
In 1816 King Kamehameha granted John Palmer Parker, one of his western advisors, permission to hunt the cattle. In order to establish an industry and to gain control of the overpopulated cattle, King Kamehameha attained the assistance of Mexican vaquero of California, expert horsemen skilled with cattle, who trained the Hawaiians to rope and ride. These cowboys became known as ‘paniolo’ and with Parker, established a cattle industry with trading and whaler ships, and thus, Parker Ranch was born.
Parker Ranch, established over 160 years ago, is now run by a charitable trust that helps to support education, healthcare and charitable giving throughout the Waimea community. It consists of about 130,000 acres and is a thriving, fully functioning ranch. The ranch houses descendants of the very first horses to arrive on the Big Island including approximately 125 primarily AQHA registered quarter horses, and is also home to approximately 17,000 heads of cattle.
The sense of paniolo pride is still palpable as evident by the statues situated around Parker Ranch Center in Waimea. Wooden carvings and painted murals of sweeping grasslands inhabited by great herds of cattle tended by cowboys on horseback decorate the inside of the food court. Local artists bring their creations all made on the islands, including handmade jewelry, incredible artwork, photography, blown glass and clothing to name a few for purchase on the first Saturday of every month, displaying the talent and culture unique to Hawaii. Established in 1988, the Parker Ranch Store offers clothing and accessories that reflect the rich paniolo history.
Signs of the paniolo culture can be found all around the island. The cozy town of Honoka’a, less than a thirty-minute drive from Waimea, will be hosting its annual Western Week, this year taking place May 21 through May 29. The week long celebration will include activities such as line dancing, a Portuguese Bean Soup and Sweetbread Contest, Saloon Girl and Cowboys Got Talent contest, the 61st Saddle Club Rodeo, and many more fun events for the whole family to enjoy. The event culminates with the Paniolo Parade marching down the main street on horseback displaying the rich culture and skill of the riders of all ages. Honoka’a may be a small town but when strolling the streets, seeing the smiling faces, and joining in the excitement, you feel like ohana (family).
The largest city on the Big Island, fronted by a calm and picturesque bay dotted with teams piloting Hawaiian outrigger canoes, is also home to the annual Panaewa Rodeo Stampede. In February, the Panaewa Equestrian Center in Hilo hosts the Panaewa Rodeo Stampede where cowboys, cowgirls and keiki (children) alike come to participate in this exciting three-day event. The paniolo culture is alive and well at this rodeo, which includes events only performed in Hawaii; ‘Double Mugging’ (similar to the mugging event except two steers are released into the area rather than just one) and ‘Pu’u Wai U’.
For a more hands-on experience, horseback riding can be an incredible adventure on the Big Island. Located on the western slope of the Kohala Mountains, Kahua Ranch offers riding through lush pastures and expansive shorelines. Na’alapa Stables offers horseback riding tours through Waipio Valley, known as the Valley of Kings due to the many important Hawaiian rulers who came to power there. This tour will take you on a journey through tropical jungles, across the nourishing rivers that feed the vast taro crops – with a history rich in cultural and spiritual significant all it’s own, then to the foot of the magnificent Hi’ilawe Falls and into the very lands once traversed by Hawaiian royalty.
So for a new perspective on the days of the ‘Wild West’, look no further than the Big Island, where you can venture horseback through lush jungles, attend a rodeo to discover how the paniolo pioneered a new way of life for the Hawaiians, or simply take in the breathtaking views of endless untouched terrain ripe with natural beauty. In Hawaii, the possibilities are endless.