By James Sturz
November 19, 2015

Two roads on the Big Island lead to North Kohala. As state highways, they have route numbers, but no one uses them. Whether people even know them isn’t always clear.

The Akoni Pule Highway (Route 270) follows the coast, connecting from Kawaihae, once the seat of the Hawaiian Kingdom and now a deep-water harbor. Many of our building materials will arrive to its docks, and eventually our furniture too. It’s a good place to buy fish, but it’s also home to one of my favorite dive shops, Kohala Divers, the only one focusing on the island’s north. Diving with its team has meant a chance to explore the North Kohala coast, both above and below the water, and sometimes to watch spinner dolphins cavort along the way. They’re called that for their mid-air acrobatics, and when their babies launch themselves into the air they look like perfectly thrown footballs. Underwater, there are also these:

Leaving the harbor, the two-lane highway hugs the coast. Built in 1973, it was named for Akoni Pule, North Kohala’s representative in the Hawaii legislature from 1946 to 1969, including when Hawaii was still a territory. Pule was so devoted to the House of Representatives that for the two years that he was voted out of office, from 1950 to 1952, he worked as its janitor instead. What I especially like about the road as it leaves the harbor (which Pule was also instrumental in getting built) is that it soon signals the beginning of North Kohala, as the traffic thins from where the connecting coastal road passes the island’s resorts.

Here the road is ocean, beaches, pastures and scattered homes. A wave of peacefulness washes over me every time that I drive it. I’m hesitant about calling it a feeling of “aloha”—which perhaps exists somewhere between the complex, pure and cliché—but that’s basically what it is. This is where I’ve seen the moonbow (friends have since informed me there’s a Hawaiian name, ānuenue kau pō, so perhaps they’re not rare here at all), and it’s also an ideal place for spotting whales. Caught in the sun’s rays, the ocean’s surface sparkles, and the smaller roads that break off to beach parks along the coast look like they’re pouring straight into water.

One place I like to stay along the road is Puakea Ranch. It’s 33 acres, with four bungalows that used to be homes for Japanese ranchers and their families, built between the 1920s and 1940s—although two now have private pools, and all have very indulgent, modern detached bathrooms, with deep-soaking tubs. Puakea’s also a small working farm—the dragon fruit and papaya in my two-bedroom bungalow (pictured above) last September was grown in the garden—and if you haven’t gotten enough of wild pigs from my previous posts, Puakea has its own snorting 300-pounder it’s raising as a pet. Most of all, the ranch is a way to experience Hawaii you’ll never approach at a resort.

After Puakea, the highway continues past Upolu Point, the northernmost tip of the island, where there’s a wind farm and private-charter airport, to the twin North Kohala towns of Hawi and Kapa’au, which I’ll focus on more heavily in a later blog. But both are home to a variety of plantation-style buildings—the plantations were sugar cane, before they were converted into pastures in 1974—plus some modern ones, including a library, wildlife rehabilitation center and a hospital. Then six miles farther, after passing more beaches and ranches (including this 485-acre one for sale for $3.2 million), the road ends at the Pololu Valley Lookout, where you can peer into the verdant canyon, or hike for 20 minutes to a stunning black-sand beach.

The other way to reach North Kohala is up. The district takes its name from Kohala Mountain, one of the five volcanoes that form the island, and the only one of them that’s extinct. Kohala Mountain Road takes off from Waimea, a cowboy-centric town—which shouldn’t be as surprising as that sounds. When British captain George Vancouver brought the first cattle to the island in 1793, they were the largest land animals the Hawaiians had ever seen. So King Kamehameha I put a kapu on them, which meant they could graze wherever they liked—and multiply wherever they liked, too. Ten years later, the American trader Richard Cleveland reached Hawaii, this time with horses, and Kamehameha extended the kapu to them as well. They did what wild horses do.

Jump ahead to 1809, when another American, John Palmer Parker, arrived in Hawaii, and also made friends with the king. Parker left for the War of 1812, but returned with a state-of-the-art musket that impressed Kamehameha once more. By then the cattle had multiplied so much that they were endangering crops, houses and people. So the kapu was lifted, and Parker was charged with forming his own herd and using that musket on the rest.

First Parker explained the cattle’s value, but the one thing those cash cows needed were people who could handle the abundant horses. So in 1832, King Kamehameha III (Kamehameha I’s second son) invited wranglers from Spanish California to train the Hawaiians. Those “Españoles” quickly became “paniolos,” as Hawaiian cowboys are called. Two decades before there were any American cowboys, Mexican vaqueros taught the Hawaiians to ride.

Parker married into the royal family, and his ranch was once more than 500,000 acres. Even today, it’s still one of the largest working ranches in the United States and the second-largest landowner in the state. At the center of Waimea, near Parker Ranch’s headquarters, sits Parker Square, where Village Burger (designed by Paul and built by Lyle) serves grass-fed, free-range Wagyu beef, and routinely scores among the top-10 burger restaurants in the country. For finer dining, Merriman’s, just a half-mile away, is possibly the best restaurant on the island. (Its owner and chef, Peter Merriman, is publishing a cookbook next month, and his local ahi poke with crushed avocado, sea moss, Maui onions and Molokai sweet potatoes is revelatory.) There are supermarkets, a bakery, microbrewery, a wine store, and many additional restaurants in town. So there are lots of very good and tasty reasons to take the route from Waimea to our home instead.

Two-lane Kohala Mountain Road (Route 250) runs 19.3 twisting miles from town, eventually cresting at an altitude of 3,587 feet midway. It’s my favorite drive on the Big Island—and one I’m eventually looking forward to doing by bike, although I know it won’t be easy. Atop Kohala Mountain, the grass is invariably lush, often blanketing extinct lava domes, the cattle are plentiful, in places ironwood forests flank either side, and at others there are massive views of sky and ocean. The road wends past ranches, and you can stop at some of them to ride. In Hawaii, you’re never limited to nose-to-tail trail encounters. There’s always a chance to canter.

Na’alapa Stables at Kahua Ranch is perhaps my current favorite, because it stretches across 8,500 mountain acres, and the rides are past the 5,000 head of cattle and 2,000 sheep. (If you plan ahead, you can also buy meat from the ranch, which is something to look forward to for when we have a kitchen.) Back in Argentina, Paula grew up riding—and there’s even a polo league in Hawaii. Is the biggest difference that gauchos play charangos while paniolos play ukuleles? On the other side of the road, Paniolo Adventures runs its own rides on 11,000-acre Ponoholo Ranch, which used to be connected to Kahua, and which isn’t big enough for its 6,000-to-8,000 cattle anymore, which in turn is why its owner, Pono von Holt, grazes a few hundred more on our parcel.

Continuing down Kohala Mountain Road past the ranches, there’s a choice of going into Hawi or Kapa’au, which feels like driving into the ocean here, too. Except, of course, you don’t. In our case, you start by going through two cattle gates, although not through the tall grasses anymore. Now you go over 1 1/2” compacted gravel laid over geotextile fabric, with another layer of compacted 3/4” gravel to come at the very end. Before that happens, we’ll build the house. But I figured it was time to talk (I hope not too meanderingly) about some roads.