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It's easy to settle into cowboy life on Big Island's Kahua Ranch

Get a feel for the real Hawaii and the paniolo cowboy tradition at the Big Island's Kahua Ranch

The Kahua Ranch experience is unique in the Hawaiian Islands, where opportunities are rare for visiting, much less staying, on a private working ranch. Other major ranches on the Big Island, including the largest, Parker Ranch, accept a limited number of visitors, if at all.

But at Kahua Ranch, the cowboy life is easy to settle into. We rode horses into the backcountry and went to a barbecue dinner; both activities ($108 per person for dinner; about $73 for a 11/2 -hour ride) are discounted for overnight guests.

If you are here in the spring, you can watch visiting hands from Montana shear the ranch's sheep.

Best of all, though, was the chance to "talk story" with the Richards family and longtime ranch hands who were more than happy to reminisce about the old days when the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) lifestyle was all there was.

Long before tourism, Tim Richards told us, there was a rich paniolo tradition on the Big Island. Though the work has changed some, the ranches and cowboys are still a driving force in preserving the culture and beauty of the island.

"In the 1960s, the only 'tools' we had to tend the cattle were horses," Tim said. "In the '70s, we had horses and trucks. Nowadays, we have ATVs, GPS and other technology. So when I'm asked if the paniolo culture is dead, I say, 'No, it's alive and well in Hawaii. It has simply evolved.'"

More than 2,000 head of cattle are managed on the mid- and lower levels of the ranch; on the upper reaches, there's a pristine tropical rain forest and vital watershed.

"There's more going on in Hawaii than palm trees," said Tim's brother, John Richards. "The hotels are lovely, but they're not all there is. Hawaii is found up here, in the land. Here on the ranch, you can touch and feel the dirt, and gain an understanding of what this island is all about."

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Rounding up paniolo Hawaiian cowboy history in Waimea

My wife and I wanted to keep on the paniolo theme, which is easy to do in Waimea, a town that grew up to support the Big Island's renowned Parker Ranch.

At its height in the 1930s and '40s, the ranch encompassed more than 500,000 acres and 30,000 head of cattle, stretching from the slopes of Mauna Kea to the lava-strewn shoreline of the Kohala Coast.

The first stop is the Parker Ranch Center, on the main street of Waimea, where a life-size statue of Ikua Purdy is on permanent display. Purdy is best known for winning the steer-roping competition at the 1908 Frontier Days celebration in Cheyenne, Wyo., competing alongside two other now-legendary paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys), Archie Kaaua and Jack Low. The trio wowed the mainland crowds with their aloha spirit and cowboy hats decorated with colorful flower leis, but more so with their exemplary skills as cattlemen.

More cowboy history is found at the Paniolo Heritage Center at Pukalani Stables, the center of Parker Ranch's horse-breeding operation for many years.

Here, a collection of historic saddles, photos and artifacts from the ranch's early days is found, as well as the Paniolo Hall of Fame. Also at Pukalani Stables, master saddle maker Pete Gorrell is hard at work at Kuaaina Saddlery. Strike up a conversation with Gorrell or his partner, Craig Cunningham, and you will hear colorful stories of the cowboys of yesteryear as well as learn the secrets of working with leather.

If you like planning your travel around events, there's the annual Fourth of July rodeo at the nearby Parker Ranch Arena, and a traditional Paniolo Parade is held as part of the Hawaii Island Festival each September, where both horses and riders are adorned with intricate and colorful flower leis on a parade route along the main highway in Waimea.

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