By Jeanette Foster | Photos courtesy of Jim Zampathasr


Just say the word “Hawaii”, and most people think of white sand beaches, gentle rolling surf and waving palm trees. While the imagery for the islands is accurate, picturesque rural communities are also found – such as Waimea (aka Kamuela) - which is just a short, 15 minute drive from the beautiful beaches of the Big Island’s Kohala Coast.

This charming rural community is nestled between the Kohala Mountains and Mauna Kea, the Big Island’s tallest volcano, in a cool climate of 2,600 feet above sea level. There are two areas in Waimea: one wet and one dry. The wet side gets about 50 to 80 inches of rain a year, and the dry side gets 10 to 20 inches. There are not many similar sized communities in Hawaii that experience such variation.

Waimea is so popular it actually has two names, Waimea and Kamuela. For centuries the Hawaiians referred to the land extending from the mountain down to sea as Waimea. Waimea translates as “reddish water,” which refers to the color of the streams from the eroded soil as the water passes through the Hapu`u forests in the Kohala Mountains.

With the influx of western culture and the introduction of the US Postal Service, there was much confusion as Waimea was also a popular name on other Hawaiian islands. Prominent Waimea resident, Colonel Sam Parker (deceased), was so popular that when the Postmaster General came to town, he named the post office in his honor: Kamuela, the Hawaiian word for Samuel.

Before westerners came to the Big Island, some 10,000 Hawaiians lived along the streams of Waimea, farming the land and collecting feathers from birds in the forest. By 1820, the population had dropped to around 2,000. Farming had dropped off considerably, and the bare lands were taken over by wild black longhorn cattle, which were descendants of the original gift of cattle given to King Kamehameha by Captain George Vancouver. For the next 100 years, cattle became Waimea’s main industry.

The Hawaiians were not familiar with raising, corralling and driving cattle, but foreigners, called vaqueros, from Latin America and Spain, came to Waimea to teach the Hawaiians how to handle the cows. The Hawaiians called their teachers “paniolo” (or cowboys), derived from the Spanish word for “Spanish” or Español). Out of these wild cattle grew the cattle industry. John Palmer Parker started the Parker Ranch, one of the first ranches in Hawaii.


The Parker Ranch eventually grew to 175,000 acres and became one of the Big Island’s major businesses in the 20th century. At the end of 1943, the US Marines came to town. The Parker Ranch allowed some 25,000 marines to set up a tent city on 441 acres of ranch land. By the end of World War II, the Marine Corp would use some 40,000 acres of Ranch land and train some 50,000 troops, and it became known as Camp Tarawa.

The troops changed the tiny ranching community by building roads and reservoirs and introducing electricity. With this increase in population, farms sprouted from 75 acres before the war to some 518 acres after the war. An airstrip was constructed and Waimea was a “real” town by the end of the 1940’s. Since then the popularity of Waimea has continued to grow.

The ranch expanded, observatories and telescopes were introduced to the top of Mauna Kea, tourism at the nearby Kohala Coast blossomed, and retirees from the mainland discovered this cool climate. Adding to the amenities of the community are three major shopping centers, several boutique stores, a range of excellent restaurants, and lots of history and charm which come with an old Hawaiian community.