A Wander Through Waimea
With a population of fewer than 10,000 residents and only three stoplights, Waimea, locally known as Kamuela, is the largest settlement in the interior of the Big Island of Hawaii. Home of the range-riding paniolo (cowboy), the Paniolo Heritage Center
located adjacent the Pukalani Stables on the Waimea rodeo grounds preserves preserves the rich historical heritage of Hawaiian ranching. A wander through Waimea is a trip back in time, a chance to visit with resident artists, an opportunity to explore unique shops, and an enviable epicurean adventure.
Any time local folks “talk story” about the old days of Waimea, Parker Ranch
is pivotal to the tale. Centuries ago, the verdant watershed of the Kohala mountains supported tens of thousand of native Hawaiians. Honoring the land, the early Hawaiians practiced subsistence agriculture, cultivated kava, made kapa, and lived in thatched structures. Life was rich and sweet.
When Europeans descended on the area, the majority of the old-growth sandalwood stands of forest were ruthlessly clear-cut for ship’s masts and timbers and the land evolved into grazing land for cattle. The local population dwindled to less than 2,000.
In 1793, British Captain George Vancouver gifted Hawaiian King Kamehameha with a herd of California Longhorn cattle. Because Longhorn cattle were a new introduction to the Pacific paradise, none of the native Hawaiians were familiar with their care. Turned loose to roam dependent on Mother Nature, the rugged Longhorns survived, but did not flourish until 1809, when John Palmer Parker arrived in the islands after jumping ship.
After a time bumming about, Parker, who portrayed himself as a bit of a cowboy, became employed by King Kamehameha to tame and domesticate the wild herd, which by that time had grown unmanageable. Parker imported colorful and highly skilled Latin American vaqueros to teach the Hawaiians the techniques required to handle the dangerous cattle. The paniolo, Hawaii’s unique breed of cowboy, derives his name from these legendary vaqueros.
Six years later, Parker’s stellar standing in the community and cordial relationship with the local Hawaiian people strengthened when he married beautiful Kipikane, daughter of a high-ranking chieftain. As a member of the ohana, Parker developed the Parker Ranch, the largest ranch in the United States and one of the biggest ranches in the world.
Cattle dominated the economy of Waimea for more than a 100 years. Beef became a replacement for sandalwood as an integral trade item for the island. Initially slaughtered for their tallow and hides alone, the Longhorn became a food source for the ever-growing number of whalers porting in Lahaina and Honolulu. In order to feed the whalers' voracious appetites, tons of beef meat were salted, barreled, and shipped to the other islands in the chain.
In 1830, recognizing cattle’s growing impact on the island economy, Big Island Governor Kauakiki ordered corrals constructed and a footpath widened and surfaced to access the Big Island Port of Kawaihae.
Through the ensuing years, Parker's descendants continued to expand the ranch, eventually building it the largest ranch under individual ownership in the United States. Parker Ranch boasts more than 225,000 acres and 50,000 cattle.
Explore Local Art
If you are looking for local art, you will discover an outstanding collection of exquisite artworks at Isaacs Art Center
, as well as rotating shows at Merriman’s Restaurant
, both located on Kawaihae Road. Local Big Island artists D’Linn and Mary Spears offer personal tours of their studios by appointment, or stop by the Gallery of Great Things
to view the work of talented artists from both the Big Island and throughout the Pacific Rim.
Are You Hungry?
For hungry appetites seeking fine dining options, it doesn’t get any better than local grass-fed beef, organic vegetables and fruits, and homemade bread and pastries. When you check out the art at Merriman’s, plan to stay for dinner. Prepared by award-winning chef Peter Merriman, Merriman’s Waimea serves a delightful farm-to-table menu complimented by wines honored with Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence kudos every year for over a decade.
If you are thinking of something a bit spicier, Los Tres Mex serves paniolo favorites including signature fish tacos and daily peppery specials.
If your taste buds crave food with an Asian flavor, Yong’s Kalbi Korean Restaurant, a Waimea cornerstone for decades, features Parker Ranch beef with a Korean flair, fresh seafood, and special take-out casual meals ideal for a picnic at Waimea Park.
Shopping Waimea Style
In the charming town with two names, if you enjoy upscale shopping you are in for a unique adventure. Check out the Parker Ranch Store for paniolo attire and gear, or Bentley’s Home Collection
, Without Boundaries
, or the Waimea General Store
for perfect gifts for the folks back home.