RIDING HIGH ON HAWAII ISLAND
What springs to mind when you think of Hawaii? Relaxing beaches, rolling surf, revitalizing spas? Without a doubt, they're all great forms of tropical R&R. But what about riding the range? Sprawled out between the Hawaii Island's lava Kohala Coast and her moisture-laden Hamakua shores are lush rolling hills that lure many a cowboy (and girl). And today, they're mesmerizing me. But when it comes to the giddy-up-and-go thing, I'm certainly no Calamity Jane.
"No worries," my pony-tailed wrangler, Corrina, says with a cheeky grin. "Laka will live up to her name." I'm tempted to whip out my Hawaiian dictionary and make sure this thoroughbred's title really does mean "calm and gentle." But when she bats her long lashes and looks flirtatiously my way, I begin to relax. After one loving nudge, I'm convinced. She's a keeper.
Paniolo Adventures are pros at matching up their horses to holidayers. They've been doing it for more than twenty-five years at Ponoholo Ranch, a verdant eleven-thousand acre parcel that extends from the misty 4,800 foot-high Kohala Mountain to the island's sunny oceanfront. Uniting with my new-mate mare are paints, palominos and up to eight thousand head of cattle, the second largest herd on the island.
Parker Ranch, at nearly a quarter million acres, takes the blue ribbon for being the biggest -and oldest, with roots that stretch back to the days of King Kamehameha I. It all started out with five scruffy longhorns, a gift brought oversees by Captain George Vancouver in 1798. Free to graze, they thrived and multiplied and soon overruled the range. In 1816, John Palmer Parker came to the rescue-both as Romeo for Kipikane, granddaughter of the great Kamehameha, and as master wrangler to two of these cattle-dense acres. In short order the problem turned into profit. With help from Hawaiian ranch hands, the beef was butchered, hides were dried and sales from visiting whalers and sandalwood trading ships soared.
In 1832, Parker sped up the process by contracting Mexican vaqueros, skilled horse/cattlemen, who could train the locals to rope while riding. Their Espanolo title was shortened to paniolo, cowboy culture quickly became a part of this rolling landscape, and as the cliché goes, the rest is history.
"We can go at any pace you like," Corrina says, after helping us all straddle the saddle. "Walk, trot or even rev it up a notch. These guys know all the speeds." Whether it's her infectious laugh or my nervous qualms, I giggle back. And beneath my trembling thighs, Laka lets out a grunt. I'm told not to be concerned. This snicker-like sound is her way of showing affection. Feeling bonded to my equine companion, we plod on.
Paniolo Adventures are all kept to a minimum and range from the pokier City Slicker ride to the higher-caliber Wrangler tour. Our one and a half hour Sunset experience caters to any ability level and usually comes with a colourful finale. Unfortunately the gloomy cloud cover diminishes the chance tonight. But it doesn't slow down the show. We saunter through green rolling pastures that are dotted by grazing cattle, stroll beneath Ohia trees that brim over with bloom, and check out the distant Kona Coastline. And throughout the relaxing ride Laka has responded to my every whim.
"For those who want to pick up speed, this is the place," Corrina says, when we come to a flat stretch of grass. Beneath the saddle, I can sense Laka's excitement. She wants to please and go with the breeze, but am I ready? "Just grip the reigns. She'll show you a good time," Corrina reassures. I follow her command and with a "yeehaa" we're off! Like the flowing tide, my body melds with her gracious, gentle gait and by the end of this final connection, I feel like a genuine paniolo. But our affair ends quickly-a quick brush, a hay biscuit and a sweet farewell.
And it's not until hours later, when checking out my Hawaiian dictionary, that I realize Laka had truly lived up to her name -a seductive Hawaiian goddess.
IF YOU GO:
Where to Stay
For a Little R&R
For more information: www.gohawaii.com/big-island
1. Wrangler Corrina introduces me to Laka
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