Hawaii Island

The Enduring Charm Of Waimea’s Ranching Past Meets an Increasingly Modern Vibe, Making It One of the Most Unique Places to Live in Hawai‘i

Waimea on the Hawai’i island is a charming, upcountry town located at 2,600 feet above sea level. The town is set against the majestic backdrop of Mauna Kea. On a clear day, Mauna Kea overlooks the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean in all directions.

Waimea with Mauna Kea as a backdrop

Waimea is a town bursting with rich ranching traditions and history, and it’s one of the oldest, most established communities on Hawai‘i Island. It grew up under the influence of nearby Parker Ranch, an enormous cattle ranch by any standards at more than 250,000 acres. Parker Ranch was established more than 160 years ago. Waimea is the heart and center of the lives of the many ranchers employed in the rolling hills nearby. Kamuela is the Hawaiian language equivalent of Samuel – chosen to honor Samuel Parker of Parker Ranch, a family member with Native Hawaiian heritage who played a central role in local politics during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The U.S. Postal Service does not allow for a state to have more than one post office with the same town name, and since there are Waimea towns on Kauai and O’ahu, the Big Island Waimea’s official post office name is Kamuela.

Photo by Peter French

Cozied up next to the ranching and farming traditions of the area are scientists of world renown. International astronomical organizations have made Waimea their headquarters, due to the town’s proximity to the many observatories on Mauna Kea. The scientific teams from the W.M. Keck Observatory and Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope make Waimea their home. Tourism and real estate development strongly influence Waimea’s economy as well, which has been boosted by the growing population of the many resort communities that have sprung up since the 1960s along the nearby Kohala Coast.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

Big Island residents will tell you, with no small measure of pride, that the Robb Report named Waimea one of the best 10 towns in the country. For those readers unfamiliar with it, the Robb Report is a luxury magazine focused on matters important to the very wealthy. Waimea’s inclusion in such a list, we must admit, still takes us a little by surprise. An internet search yielded evidence (if not the original) of this “top 10” list from 2000, published at the turn of the millennium, when the internet was still young and new.

We found an article written by an equally astonished reporter who summarized the Robb Report “listicle” (still a new thing at the time) in a Honolulu newspaper. What was then the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported on our favorite paniolo town’s inclusion on the Robb Report’s list with as much surprise as we felt, hearing it 18 years later. How could Waimea be on the lifestyle radar of the rich and famous, the article seemed to ask.

For many state residents, the inclusion of Waimea on a list that included Palm Beach, Aspen, Manhattan and Grosse Pointe might seem like comparing apples and oranges. That isn’t to say that we don’t understand the tremendous appeal of Waimea. Hawai‘i residents have a deep respect for the tradition of ranching and farming in these islands. We are proud of Hawai‘i’s paniolo, or cowboy heritage.

Photo by Peter French

Waimea is so many wonderful things, but it’s not a luxurious resort kind of town. It’s not the type of place the super-rich typically gravitate to. Phil Tinguely, President of Tinguely Development, who built a welcoming, 40-home neighborhood community in Waimea in recent years, agrees, “Waimea isn’t the typical beachside resort that U.S. mainlanders typically picture when they think of Hawai‘i. It’s completely unlike any other town in the state, with its high altitude and eclectic mix of residents. Its appeal is uniquely its own, and it holds a strong pull for a lot of people.”

Tinguely is referring to Waimea’s diverse community, made up of ranchers, resort employees who travel to the nearby sunny Kohala Coast, scientists and astronomers who work in the observatories at the top of nearby Mauna Kea. It’s unlikely mix of retirees, young families, locals and returning Hawai‘i residents – all looking for a quiet, safe community away from the hustle and bustle of those very same resort communities. The result is an agreeable mix of sophistication, friendliness, charm and down-home comfort.

Aerial view of the Waimea Parkside neighborhood community in Waimea, Hawai‘i Island.

With plenty of wide open spaces and nearby beaches, Waimea has become known for its excellent private schools, cultural offerings, and farm-to-table dining, all of which sits comfortably with the local paniolo culture that prevails. Waimea town also boasts the well known Kahilu Theater. A retired actor, Richard Smart launched the local Kahilu Theatre in 1980 and named it for his mother, Thelma Kahiluonapua’api’ilani Parker. As the sole heir to the Parker Ranch, Richard Smart spent 30 years performing on Broadway in NYC, and in cabarets and clubs around the world. He was a headliner at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, the Monte Carlo in New York and the Lido in Paris, before returning to Waimea to tend to his family’s legacy.

Waimea’s private schools include the Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy and Parker School. The former is a boarding school with an exceptional athletic department, as well as, digital media and performing arts programs, with an excellent theatre space for local and school productions. The latter boasts an unrivaled fine arts program which offers studies in choreography, filmmaking, playwriting, conceptual art, installation art, dramaturgy, stage management, and songwriting. For young designers, Parker School offers avenues in fashion, graphic, lighting, costume and set design.

Photo by Will Savage 

Many resident children from the Kohala Coast attend Waimea’s renowned private schools, and Kohala Coast residents frequent Waimea for its many amenities, farmers’ markets, conveniences, it’s state-of-the-art hospital, and of course, the town’s unique culture.

The dining scene sits at the epicenter of the farm-to-table and ranch-to-table movement of Hawai‘i’s flourishing fine dining movement. The local farmers’ markets are top-notch, unrivaled in Hawai‘i for the quality, freshness, and variety of the produce and products on offer. At a typical farmers’ market, you’ll see plenty of residents from the Kohala Coast shopping for delicious fare, rubbing elbows with Waimea town’s local astronomers, ranchers, teachers, young families, and retirees.


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