Many Bay Area residents flee winter's rain and gray skies by heading to Hawaii's Kohala Coast, known for its perennially sunny skies, White Lotus–style resorts, and world-class beaches.
But there's a quieter Big Island experience less than an hour away where you can indulge your inner cowpoke, hide out on secret beaches, hike trails less traveled, and browse exotic fruits at an awesome farmers' market. Welcome to upcountry Waimea on Hawaii's Big Island (not to be confused with Kauai's Waimea).
Paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) settled in this lush green saddle, perched between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to the south and the Kohala mountains to the north, and still work the cattle today, providing Waimea with its reputation for mouth-watering organic and grass-fed beef. This is clean eating to the max. The region's rolling hills dotted with cows and wild horses and lined with white fences will remind you of rural Virginia—that is, until you take in the commanding view of the massive 14,000-foot volcanoes. At an elevation of about 2,000 feet, Waimea captures cooling sea breezes, making hiking and outdoor activities much more pleasant than at sea level.
Unlike the Kohala Coast's hotel corridor, Waimea is a close-knit community with parks filled with kids, historic churches, two large grocery stores, an incredible array of restaurants to please any palate, and cute indie shops offering locally made goods. Families with young children, very active retirees, and West Coast escapees starting new lives as small business owners make up the mix of residents. It's an incredibly diverse community too, with many of the descendants of the immigration wave of the early 1900s still residing nearby, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, and even Norwegian and Russian immigrants who arrived as sugar workers, coffee farmers, and homesteaders.
Plan your visit with our guide for where to stay, eat, and play in Waimea.
Fun Things to Do in Waimea, Hawaii
(Courtesy of Paniolo Adventures)
Island Horseback Riding
Been bingeing on Yellowstone lately? Fantasize about wearing chaps? Gallop across the open range with Paniolo Adventures, which offers horseback riding excursions for all levels on the private 11,000-acre Ponoholo Ranch. This is not the nose-to-tail dusty ride you remember from summer camp. After being personally outfitted with boots, chaps, a hat and an Australian duster, you'll feel exhilarated as you ride the unspoiled upcountry, stretching from rainforest to the tropical sea.
Waimea Farmers' Market
The twice-weekly market (Wednesdays and Saturdays at two locations) is the town's social hub where locals gather to eat, drink, pick up the week's produce, and catch up on local gossip. Sample exotic fruits such as lychee, rambutan, lilikoi (passion fruit), and breadfruit. Grab a cardamom jun, a fermented green tea drink sweetened with local honey, while you browse the stands filled with organic body products scented with ginger and tuberose; protea and peony bouquets; and such unique food items as basil and macadamia nut goat cheese. The lightest and moistest apple banana nut bread you'll ever taste can be found at Maddie's Sweet Life Bakery stand, but get there early as she always sells out. If you are looking for that special island gift or souvenir, try a hand-turned koa wood bowl, a handmade kimono, or repurposed and original clothing designed by Amanda of Saved in the Stitch of Time.
See the ancient footpaths of King Kamehameha from the floor of Pololu Valley. The Awini trail will wind you along the northern side of Kohala Mountain and cut down to the stunning public beach via switchbacks.
Anna Ranch Heritage Center
Want to learn a bit about early ranching life? Tour the home and magnificent gardens of the Big Island's cattle ranching royalty, just outside of town. The home is perfectly restored and chock-full of household items, historic photos, and artifacts. Don't miss the photo of the First Lady of Ranching.
Shopping in Waimea
Wondering if this cow town has any cute indie shops? It does. You'll hear the Jack Johnson music and spot the Patagonia logo immediately as you enter Surf Camp, a hip, new store evoking that beachy casual lifestyle—think rash guards and pastel jumpers—in Opelo Plaza. // Check out the midriff-baring cropped tops and maxi dresses at Mahina. // Hula Moon Boutique has a wide variety of women's clothing.
Where to Eat + Drink in Waimea, Hawaii
(Courtesy of @merrimanswaimea)
For an upscale farm-to-table experience, Merriman's Waimea location is on track to go carbon neutral in 2023 and serves the same fresh, locally grown and raised food its come to be known for at its other three Hawaiian locations for the past 25 years.
Malasadas are a Portuguese confection made of fried yeast dough, sprinkled with granulated sugar and cinnamon, and stuffed with a cool, creamy filling such as coconut or pineapple. You can find them at bakeries around the island but the Manuela Malasada Company's Hot Malasadas truck, parked at the entrance to Puako beach, is legendary.
Waimea Coffee Company
If the slogan “Good Friends, Bad Habits” doesn’t grab you, the aromas ofWaimea Coffee Company will. The friendly and enthusiastic staff will help you select coffee beans ranging from Kona Peaberry to the Obama Blend, perfectly paired with their award-winning coconut macaroon, or a caprese sandwich. Your custom-ground selection, sealed for travel, is perfectly safe to bring back home.
The sign over the door stating “E Komo Mai” will indeed welcome you toMoa Kitchen, a Japanese restaurant specializing in ramen, yakitori, and sushi. The chef imports traditional binchotan from Japan, a chemical-free oak charcoal allowing you to taste the crunchy shishito pepper yakitori without a bitter aftertaste. Save room for the mochi dessert made from the local uluhe fern.
The Fish & The Hog
You can’t leave the Big Island without barbecue. This go-to grill's slow-cooked pulled porkwill light up your taste buds. Order the sampler for a bit of everything including ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and sides.
Where to Stay in Waimea, Hawaii
(Courtesy of @redohana)
For a private and relaxing retreat far from the tourist crowd, rent a two-bedroom or three-bedroom cottage at Red 'Ohana(starting around $295/night), an upcountry ranch-style property turned out in campy Hawaiiana just minutes from Waimea and 15 minutes from Hapuna Beach, the best beach on the island. Watch the sky turn creamsicle-orange and pink as you lounge on the wrap-around lanai at sunset, mai tai in hand. You can also rent the whole property for large family gatherings.
In walking distance of the farmers' market and many of the town’s shops and restaurants, the locally owned boutique Kamuela Inn(starting at $149/night) has 30 newly renovated rooms, locally made and eco-friendly bath products.