Green hills rising up behind the town, tall trees waving in the misty valleys, a cold breeze hitting on your face. Are you in Switzerland? Oregon? Northern California? No, this is Hawaii, a mountainish town on the Big Island called Waimea.
This is the Big Island Waimea, not Waimea town in Kauai, not Waimea Valley or the famous Waimea Bay on Oahu. Fortunately, like the Big Island with many names, Waimea has two names, the other is Kamuela. Why is this? John Parker, an early sailor from Massachusetts jumped ship offshore of Northern Hawaii in 1809 and swam ashore, a real adventurer. Through his knowledge of handling cattle he befriended the Hawaiian King Kamehameha I, this gained him a parcel of land. The tiny parcel eventually grew into (Samuel) Parker Ranch and so the town was named Kamuela, this is Hawaiian for Samuel (Parker), his grandson, who helped the area to grow by leaps and bounds.
The leaps and bounds were those of the cowboys on horses, who, through the years, built the surrounding ranch and this unique village. It is called Waimea, pronounced “Why-may’-ah”. Please don’t say “Why-ME-ah” or people will cringe.
Waimea means “red water”, the color of the streams that flow down the mountain.
But what’s in a name? The town’s the thing, always cool, always green, emerald hills forever enchanting.
People wanting to move to Hawaii yet still be in their mountain town move here. Montana Residents, Colorado, Oregon and Northern Californians feel right at home here, I’m sure. Far removed from the usual white sand, palm-tree beaches, here there be Pines and Eucalyptus.
Driving up about 50 miles from Hilo, like entering another world, you approach Waimea. The oceans of cane fields and waterfalls along the Hamakua Coast open to rolling green meadows. It feels like you are suddenly driving through a very long golf course, until you see cows grazing in the fields, and horses running free.
Passing beyond the meadows, the road becomes lined with tall wind-swept trees. It is most “un-Hawaiian”, a refreshing change. Old houses on either side look like mid-west farm houses, but you remind yourself you’re still in Hawaii. There are a few modern domes and elegant ranch houses here and there.
Driving into Waimea from the Hilo side is lush with trees and then the town appears. You drive by modern structures sitting next to 80 year-old, wood buildings. It ranges from nice and fancy, to funky and nice.
Kamuela Liquor store comes up on the right as you enter the town, it was established in 1947 and it is a wooden building, with many fine wines not found most places, esoteric is the word, a well-kept secret among the local residents.
The Big Island Waimea has a western theme to it, after all it is nestled in the heart of the world-renowned Parker Ranch.
The modern shopping centers have cowboy- style buildings. You hardly know it’s a supermarket or real estate office, they are hidden so perfectly behind the Wild west façade of the buildings.
McDonalds, Ace Hardware and the shiny new Long’s Drugs have a special feel to them being surrounded by lime-green hills. At all times you know you are in Waimea, nowhere else on the island is quite like this cozy burg. This is a good word for it, there is a slight hint of Switzerland or Germany in the green hills.
If you are staying the night, there are no big hotels for miles, hardly a two-story building to be seen, but there are quite a few vacation rentals. Some are close-by, and more down the Kohala Coast, within a 20 mile radius or so.
Driving in from the other side of Kamuela is another story, no meadows and hardly a tree to be seen. It’s like a desert with cactus popping up along the road, the flat, prickly kind. From Kailua-Kona it is a breath-taking 38 mile drive with sweeping views of Maui across the channel on the left, and Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa rising on the right.
If the Hilo side of the town is like Oregon, the Kona side is Texas. And like Texas, there are rodeos and horse races in the arena near the town. If you feel adventurous you can rent a horse and ride across the Parker Ranch
The most well-known event is the traditional 4th of July Waimea Rodeo held in the arena a mile outside of town. It is a rip-roaring show of bull-riding, bronco busting, calf-roping, and barrel-racing.
There are saddlery stores selling cowboy hats, boots and even lassos to rope steers and broncos that roam all over Parker Ranch. This is the West and come to think of it, one of the most western towns in the whole country, about 2,400 miles west of California.
In front of the main shopping center, high on a long block of stone is a bronze, life-size sculpture of a cowboy on a horse roping a steer. It’s wild to look at, like the horse-rider and bull are thrashing around on the prairie somewhere.
One thing to know is that the two sides of Kamuela are worlds apart in scenery, but both have the same majestic view of Mauna Kea mountain, a massive, faraway brown peak looming in the clouds. It is capped with snow in the winter and takes your breath right away.
There’s not much Hawaii stuff to do in this two-name town, no surfing no snorkeling or dolphins. It is not a tourist town. But you can ride horses, watch rodeos and parades and visit art galleries, a real rare experience.
If great food is what you’re after, to borrow a western term, you have struck gold. Here you will find Merriman’s Restaurant, small but shining, located about two blocks from the middle of town.
The founder, Peter Merriman, is quite the legend and the food must be good, it was voted The Best Big Island Restaurant 11 years in a row. Chef Merriman has been a 3 time finalist in the James Beard Award, the chef’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. His restaurant empire stretches to Maui. His cooking is enjoyed at the Hula Grill in Kaanapali, and at Merriman Kapalua, also on Maui.
In the main shopping center is a western-style food court with multi-cultural food like Mexican, Chinese and great hamburgers. The wide, round court is surrounded by fantastic murals of Parker Ranch, looking like the old west.
One more fact of the area and a word you must know, Paniolo, “Pawn-ee-o’-low”. This is the casual name for the cowboys on the ranch. It’s from the Hawaiian word for “Spanish”, the language of the early horsemen from Mexico. Those are Paniolos you see walking around, not cowboys.
Come visit the Big Island Waimea, Hawaii ranch town. You won’t believe that Waikiki and white Kona sands are in the same state. Here you are surrounded by greenery the whole time.
Now you know of the beauty of a Northern town in Hawaii, it welcomes you to breathe the cold air and view the emerald hillsides.
Come visit and take home a memory of someplace charming and very different.