Far from the tanning crowd

Kerry van der Jagt turns her back on the ocean to discover a surprising highland world ofcowboys, coffee and craters on the Big Island.

It is a balmy Sunday morning on the north-west coast of Hawaii's Big Island and most people are at the beach. As tempting as this looks, I have other plans. I'm taking a road trip inland to discover the lesser-known aspects of the island's culture.

It's a 40-minute drive from the soft sands of Hapuna Beach to the misty hills of Waimea. It takes me from Elvis's Blue Hawaii straight into John Wayne's True Grit – though Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo as they are called, wear garlands of flowers rather than gun belts.

I drive along Highway 19, across old lava flows and into the green hills of the Waimea Valley, listening to a CD: Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar. The sensual, chiming melody fills the car as I wind my way through fog towards Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes.

Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on earth and still active. Over the decades rain has lashed the lava, producing a nutrient-rich soil and lush pasture upon which fat cattle now feed as I drive by.

In front of me is a Dodge truck, its tray bulging with hay bales tied down with twine. Two Stetson hats are silhouetted in the back window. From the dusty pick-ups in the parking lots to the Big Boot by the highway, Waimea is cowboy country through and through.

Hawaii's cowboy culture dates to 1793, when British Captain George Vancouver presented Hawaii's King Kamehameha I with a gift of five long-horned cattle. To build up stock, the king made them "kapu" (off limits) for 10 years, during which time the cattle ran amok, trampling and terrorising the Hawaiians. By 1809, the king was so frustrated he hired 19-year-old Massachusetts-born John Palmer Parker to deal with the problem.

And deal with it he did. The wily sailor shot and salted the bad ones, domesticated the good ones, married the king's granddaughter, and in 1847 established Parker Ranch, which went on to become the largest privately owned ranch in the US. It's still one of the largest today.

The early cowhands knew nothing about ranching, so Parker and King Kamehameha III brought in three Mexican vaqueros (horse-mounted cattle herders) to teach the Hawaiians a thing or two about roping and rustling. Along with ranching skills, the Mexicans brought their music, introducing the guitar and ukulele to the local culture. From this the Hawaiian slack-key guitar accompaniment to hula dancing – and the soundtrack of my road trip – developed.

I pull over for a coffee break and strike up a conversation with a waitress, who tells me she is seventh-generation paniolo. "That's nothing special in these parts," she says in response to my wide-eyed expression. "Most paniolos are descendants of the first three Mexican cowboys."

She suggests I pop out to the Hawaii Horse Expo, which is on this weekend at the Pukalani stables at Parker Ranch. "Make sure you ask for Billy," she calls out after me. I park between a row of horse floats and enter the expo via a timber arch bearing the name of the ranch. Stepping inside is like being lassoed and dragged into a parallel universe – all big hats, boots and buckles.

Saddle maker Billy Dias, born and bred on the Big Island, is giving a demonstration on bevelling leather. "My two grandfathers taught me everything I know," he says, deftly feeding leather through an ancient cutter.

"Dias on one side, Deluz on the other: they were both ranchers."

Softly spoken and shy, he hides under his big, plain black hat. Other, more gregarious types have decorated their headwear with feathers and shells. Many wear leis or bright Hawaiian shirts. Flower-wearing cowboys? It's a bit like discovering a polar bear on Bondi Beach.

But cowboys are Hawaii's most surprising subculture, with their own music, fashion, lores and legends. Unlike their hard-living cousins of the Wild West, these cowboys are dressed not to kill but to honour their land and families, a product of the soft landscape, gentle air and bountiful blossoms.

After queueing for a plate of Flintstone-sized teriyaki ribs and an apple pie as big as my head, I settle near the main arena to watch a colt-breaking demonstration. The afternoon passes in a blur of riding demonstrations, Porky Pig popcorn and enough cowboy eye candy to keep this filly tethered quietly for hours.

The next day, I discover cowboys aren't the only treats hiding in the highlands – coffee also thrives here, the rich volcanic soil supporting more than 600 Kona coffee plantations. As I explore the lush interior, I begin to understand that thinking of Hawaii only in terms of sun, surf and sand is to do it a disservice. By leaving behind the bikini-clad coast, I'm experiencing a side to Hawaii few visitors know about.

For starters, who knew you could get a great cup of coffee here? A coffee characterised by an aroma that is rich, sweet and mellow with a full-bodied flavour. Kona coffee is one of the most expensive coffees in the world – premium Kona coffee can sell for $US122 ($117) a kilogram. Only coffee cultivated on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes in the Kona district of the Big Island can be called Kona coffee. After many visits to the US, I'm about to uncover where the Americans keep the good stuff (it's certainly not on the mainland).

I join the half-day Kona Coffee and Craters Adventure, run by Hawaii Forest and Trail. From my base at Keauhou Bay, south of Kona Airport, it's a 25-minute drive to Kona's headquarters, where I join six other caffeine fiends.

But before we can partake, we must earn our morning cuppa by journeying to the source of the 1801 eruption, Hualalai Volcano, the third-most active on the island and the origin of the region's rich soil. As we chug up Hualalai in a rugged Pinzgauer (an all-terrain vehicle made in Austria for the Swiss Army), the vegetation erupts into a tropical rainforest, a riot of orange trumpet flowers and lipstick-pink bougainvilleas, before opening up to a forest of native Ohia and Koa trees.

We stop to peer inside Ka'upulehu crater, one of more than 100 cinder cones that pock-mark the volcano's surface, before donning hard hats, headlamps and gloves for a rope descent into a lava tube. "Though this tube is only six metres deep," our guide, Matt, explains, "some go down more than 300 metres deep and the bottoms have never been found." I follow a little more closely in Matt's footsteps as we scramble out of the tube and continue on our hike.

Along the way, Matt points out native plants and regales us with stories about Pele, the Goddess of Fire, who lives in the nearby Halema'uma'u Crater of Kilauea. "It looks like one of Pele's sisters, the Goddess of the Mist, is about to join us," Matt says, pointing to the thick haze creeping in.

This is our cue to descend and visit Mountain Thunder Coffee, one of more than 600 specialty coffee farms clustered in a 50-kilometre strip. Like a reverse "perfect storm", the four elements needed to grow coffee – earth, air, fire and water – meet in this narrow belt. The earth is porous, air temperature remains above 13 degrees, the soil is rich due to the volcanic activity and it rains almost every afternoon.

Most of the farms are small, prompting the Kona saying: "If you have more than three acres, you're going to need more than three children." The owner of Mountain Thunder Coffee, Trent Bateman, leads us around his family-run plantation before showing us the milling and roasting rooms and finishing with a coffee tasting.

Coffee tasting (known as cupping) is a little like wine tasting. "After assessing the aroma, take a sip and swirl it over your tongue to check for body and acidity," Bateman says. "Once you've swallowed, evaluate for finish and aftertaste."

Many other farmers have also thrown open their gates, with some offering guided tours and tastings. Because the region is relatively compact, it is easy to put together your own self-drive coffee trail. Greenwell Farms (which makes a sinful chocolate-and-macadamia nut coffee) and Hula Daddy Kona Coffee both offer free tours.

After an indulgent afternoon of coffee tasting, I end up at Huggo's in the historic Kailua village. For more than 40 years, this iconic waterfront restaurant has served up fresh seafood caught by local fishermen. The venue is also well known for its prime Angus beef.

After a quick scan of the menu, I settle on its signature teriyaki steak and the home-made Kona coffee cheesecake. As I have learnt, sometimes it pays to turn your back on the ocean.


Getting there

Hawaiian Airlines has a fare to Kona from Sydney for about $1060 return, including tax. You fly non-stop to Honolulu (9hr 50min) and then non-stop to Kona (44min). See hawaiianairlines.com.au. Melbourne passengers pay about $1085 and fly Virgin Australia to Sydney to connect. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure. See esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Staying there Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa (formerly Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort and Spa) has recently undergone a $US16 million renewal and offers a range of mountain- and ocean-view rooms and suites. Ehukai Street, Kailua-Kona +1 808 930 4900, mountain-view rooms from $US135 ($129). See sheratonkona.com.

Doing there

Hawaii Horse Expo — held each August to benefit the Hawaii Island Humane Society Horse Rescue Fund. End of Pukalani Street, Pukalani Stables, Waimea. See hawaiihorseexpo.com.

Hawaii Forest and Trail half-day Kona Coffee and Craters tour. +1 808 331 8505, from $US139. See hawaii-forest.com.

More information

See gohawaii.com.au.

The writer travelled with the assistance of Hawaii Tourism Oceania and was a guest of Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa.