At the Oskie Rice Arena, the Friday night lights hung in the damp, mid-December Hawaiian air. Beaming through Maui’s notorious red clay dust, the lights served as a backdrop to one of the Upcountry’s biggest annual events. On the metal bleachers, families were bundled against their idea of the cold: a winter chill that sank just below 60 degrees. There were coats, blankets and hoodie strings pulled tight. There was Portuguese soup and Puerto Rican stew at the family-run concession stands, where the handwritten menus were scrawled in thick felt marker, crossed through as the “onolicious” fried ice cream or pork with tofu and macaroni ran out.
All around us, children treated the bleachers as a jungle gym, climbing and dangling and hopping from bench to bench. On the highest bleacher, a girl with sun-streaked hair and sun-kissed skin popped up at my feet like a mischievous gopher. Startling me, she shrieked, giggled and monkeyed away. On the grass, behind the arena’s wire-and-post fence, a little boy in a tan cowboy hat paced in black cowboy boots with tiny silver spurs.
The rodeo was about to begin.
When most mainlanders picture Maui, they see surfers sliding down mammoth waves, bays crowded with sailboats and waterfalls alongside the ragged, verdant Hana Highway. But the Upcountry, which sweeps across the island’s interior and climbs the volcanic foothills of Haleakala, is another Hawaii. Instead of beaches, surf shacks and shaved ice stands, the region has chilled air; sprawling, multigenerational cattle ranches; and a paniolo — Hawaiian cowboy — tradition that precedes its mainland American counterpart by half a century.
“They were running horses up here,” a trail guide would later tell me, “when they were still settling the Midwest.”
In the Upcountry, Hawaiian culture is cowboy culture. There are weekly line dances at the local community center, an annual Independence Day rodeo that draws local kids home, and working cattle ranches like Ulupalakua (established in 1845), where the ranch store serves sandwiches stacked with fresh beef, elk burgers and smoky barbecued Kalua pork. In paniolo towns like Makawao, Kula and Pukalani, faded Western facades have found second lives as art galleries, sushi joints, proud “locavore” bistros and the odd New Age shop selling wind chimes and Tibetan imports. But the ranches and their traditions endure.
It’s a history that began in the 1790s, when the British explorer Capt. George Vancouver gave a handful of longhorn cattle to King Kamehameha I, the first ruler of a unified Hawaii. The king put a kapu — an order of protection that is both sacred and legal — on the animals, forbidding them from being slaughtered. The longhorns took surprisingly well to the island and they multiplied; by the early 1820s, the stampeding cattle were tearing through towns and devouring crops.
In 1832, Kamehameha III, the king’s son, brought in vaqueros, skilled horsemen of Spanish descent, from Mexico (paniolo is thought to derive from españoles, or Spaniards) to contain the swelling herds. The cowboys taught the Hawaiians the skills of their trade. These skills, and the lifestyle that goes with them, are still in evidence on Maui’s half-dozen or so surviving ranches.
At family-owned Ulupalakua, said Ilima Loomis, the author of two books on the paniolo who lives in nearby Haiku: “They still have cowboys on their payroll living in the ranch housing. That’s old school. During plantation days, that’s how it was. You lived in ranch houses and you’d buy your flour, your beans, your salted pork or whatever at the ranch store.”
AT THE MAKAWAO RODEO, cowboys can show off their skills. In December, when I was there, the grand prize was a one-year supply of Monster Energy drinks.
The event, the smaller of Maui’s two largest annual rodeos, was preceded by a paniolo parade through downtown Makawao, a historic ranch town surrounded by farms and pastures. Along Makawao’s antique main street, a high school band played ukuleles; two monstrously large, insectlike dune buggies were bedecked with glittering Christmas garlands; and a vintage tractor tied with candy-striped bows towed Santa and Mrs. Claus on a trailer decorated with Japanese paper lanterns. Midway through, the rodeo queen appeared — a blue sash across her chest, a tiara hugging the band of her cowboy hat; she rode in pirouettes on her white horse, waving at the crowd as if she knew each of them personally. In Makawao, a town of about 7,000 that’s the center of Maui’s close-knit Upcountry communities, she may well have.
Many outsiders see the Upcountry only once: they pass through it on the obligatory drive to Haleakala’s summit, a windy and, for me, horribly nauseating 22-mile crawl above the clouds and the tree line to a comic book Mars of red rock and shimmering, orb-shaped silversword plants. Amid all the volcanic anticipation, the beauty of the Upcountry — eucalyptus giants, lavender gardens, grazing steers and sloping pastureland — is too easily missed.
Two days after that drive, my husband, Tim, and I were back on Haleakala Highway. It was early, and we, along with Tim’s brother, Chris, and his fiancée, Erin, who are touring musicians, had left our vacation house in Kahului, Maui’s largest town, at dawn. We had driven past sugarcane fields and through a fog so thick it demanded windshield wipers. By the time we reached Pony Express tours, the home of the “paniolo trail ride,” the sky had turned from dense gray to a pale, watercolor blue.
After signing disclaimers and being fitted with helmets (waived by the rock ’n’ roll half of the family), we were introduced to the other riders in our group, a couple from Taiwan, and another from Kansas, and then to our horses. Mine, Hopa, had a disheveled mane the color of redwood bark; Tim’s was larger and nobler, Hollywood handsome. His name was Applejack.
I swung my weight up and over and settled into Hopa’s saddle, suddenly reminded of how long it had been since I’d sat on horseback. Melissa, our guide, handed me the reins and tucked my toes into the stirrups. She wore an “Everybody Loves a Cowboy” T-shirt, beaten leather boots and a red trucker’s cap. She had a trucker’s mouth to match. As we set off on our ride, a two-hour loop through Haleakala Ranch, a 40,000-acre pastureland that blooms with fireworks-hued lantana, purple jacaranda and white-blossomed pamakani, the Maui dust rose from beneath the horses’ hooves, coating our skin with a fine, red-brown powder. “I go home with the greatest tan,” Melissa said. “But it just washes off.”
Between rodeos and trail rides, we ate and we drank, with each meal feeling like a point on a timeline of Upcountry history. We had $5 carafes of white wine at Casanova’s, which was once the old Club Rodeo, where cowboys rode into the bar on horseback and portraits of legendary paniolos still hang above the dining room; at Tedeschi Vineyards, one of the side projects that subsidize Ulupalakua’s cattle business, we tasted pineapple wine and walked beneath the giant kauri pines and camphor trees. At Surfing Goat Dairy, I watched little girls laugh at clumsy, suckling baby goats while their parents sampled chèvre in flavors like the Maui lavender-spiked Purple Rain, and Mango Supreme, a seasonal cheese made with fresh mangoes.
But it was at the O’o Farm, just down the road from “Oprah’s house,” where Oprah Winfrey has recently started her own farm, that the Upcountry seemed its most of-the-moment. Our forage tour began by following our guide, a longhaired former forester named Ancil, through orchards and raised garden beds. With 10 strangers, Tim and I sidestepped fragile sprouts, picked spicy greens and tasted coffee berries, fennel pollen and cilantro flowers, as our earnest leader explained the merits of volcanic loam soil and compost tea. “That’s black gold, right there,” he said of a mound of dark humus, urging an eager Angeleno to cup his hands, hold some of the valuable commodity and breathe in its rich funk.
Then, as if on cue, the youngest member of our group, a ham of a 12-year-old boy, traveling with his family, offered comic relief by shrugging off a stern warning and nibbling the end of a lemon hot pepper (“hotter than a jalapeño, with a tangy finish,” according to Ancil), and promptly fell to the dirt in some combination of real and dramatic agony.
When we’d finished harvesting our salad greens and learning about the eco-agricultural benefits of ladybugs, we all sat at a long wooden table and devoured a family-style spread that felt both elemental and exotic: purple dragon carrots, watermelon radishes, roasted candy cane-colored Chioggia beets and gently grilled mahi-mahi, along with our B.Y.O. bottle of supermarket riesling. If the table-to-farm concept seems hokey (it often does to me), our farm luncheon didn’t feel that way.
But 10 days in the Upcountry wouldn’t be complete without tasting its most-prized product. So, after the Friday night rodeo, Tim and I split a Hawaii-raised steak at the Makawao Steak House, where I was mortified to ask the waitress if she knew Melissa, our trail guide, to whom she bore a very real resemblance.
“I am Melissa,” the waitress said, unable to place me without my wash-away tan and awkward white helmet any more than I could place her in her slinky minidress and makeup. In this place where everyone knows everyone else, we all laughed at our Upcountry moment.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
Upcountry Bed-and-Breakfast (4925 Lower Kula Road, Kula; 808-878-8083; upcountrybandb.com). Four homey guest rooms, $150.
Lumeria Maui (1813 Baldwin Avenue, Makawao; 855-579-8877; lumeriamaui.com). Set on six acres, this 25-room ($399) “educational retreat” offers yoga and meditation.
WHERE TO EAT
O’o Farm Tour and Luncheon (808-667-4341; oofarm.com/tour-luncheon). $50 per person. Tours at 10:30 a.m. Monday through Wednesday.
Ulupalakua Ranch Store (Ulupalakua Ranch, Kula Highway; 808-878-2561; ulupalakuaranch.com/store). Across the street, Tedeschi Vineyards (808-878-6058; mauiwine.com) offers tastings. The ranch also has a small museum about paniolo history.
Market Fresh Bistro (3620 Baldwin Avenue, Makawao; 808-572-4877; marketfreshbistro.com).
Grandma’s Coffee House (9232 Kula Highway, Kula; 808-878-2140; grandmascoffee.com).
WHAT TO SEE
Pony Express Tours (18303 Haleakala Highway, Kula; 808-667-2200; ponyexpresstours.com).
Maui Paniolo Dance Association (Tavares Community Center, 91 Pukalani Street, Pukalani; mauipaniolodance.com) hosts line-dancing classes every Thursday at 7.
Surfing Goat Dairy (3651 Omaopio Road, Kula; 808-878-2870; surfinggoatdairy.com).
Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm (1100 Waipoli Road, Kula; 808-878-3004; aliikulalavender.com).