Allan Mendes loves the life of a paniolo (cowboy). He loves being on horseback every day. He loves the fresh air and sense of freedom that come with working outdoors. And he loves his simple, but rewarding life.
"When you come home at night, you’re tired and hungry, but you’re content," Mendes said. "A good meal, a hot shower, a comfortable bed — those are the things you really appreciate. And you always sleep well."
A fourth-generation descendant of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores islands, Mendes is a respected rancher and horseman on Maui. He owns and operates Mendes Ranch, a cattle ranch in Wailuku that was founded by his grandfather in the 1940s.
"It was rough for him and his family in those days," Mendes said. "The ranch had no electricity or running water, and there were only dirt roads over rocky terrain. But he and my dad, his only son, stuck it out."
Earlier this year, Mendes partnered with the Makena Beach & Golf Resort to open Makena Ranch and the Ultimate Paniolo Experience. This two-hour horseback ride ambles three miles up the southwestern slopes of Haleakala through a dryland forest of kiawe and wiliwili trees that is home to axis deer and wild boar.
THE ULTIMATE PANIOLO EXPERIENCE
» Meet at: Porte cochere, Makena Beach & Golf Resort, 5400 Makena Alanui, Maui. Complimentary round-trip shuttle service is provided between the resort and the ranch.
» Offered: 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. daily except Sunday
» Cost: $135 per person. Optional $20 lunch includes free-range chicken or a half-pound burger, grilled to order; corn on the cob; Maui potato chips; chocolate brownie and beverages. Kamaaina receive a 20 percent discount.
» Phone: (808) 875-5821. Reservations are recommended.
» E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
» Website: www.makenaranch.com
» Notes: There’s a maximum of six people per tour. Groups of up to 12 people can be accommodated with one week’s prior notice. Riders must be at least 7 years old. Wear long pants, closed-toed shoes, sunscreen and a hat (it can be very hot and sunny even on the morning ride). Good through Dec. 23, the Makena Ranch Package includes accommodations for four nights at the Makena Beach & Golf Resort, rental car, horseback ride for two, daily continental breakfast for two and one dinner for two. Prices start at $416 per room per night, based on double occupancy and a four-night minimum stay. Call 874-1111 on Maui or toll-free (800) 321-MAUI.
Makena is one of only a few places left in Hawaii where the native wiliwili tree grows wild. The ancient Hawaiians valued wiliwili for its light wood, which they used to make surfboards, net floats and canoe outriggers. Sadly, in the past five years, the erythrina gall wasp has destroyed most of the island’s wiliwili forests.
As the trail winds upward, riders admire panoramic views of the ocean, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Molokini and Puu Olai, a 360-foot cinder cone that was created in 1790 during the last eruption of Haleakala. Stone walls mark the boundaries of ancient villages, some are remnants of corrals used a century ago to hold cattle and horses as ranchers waited for ships to arrive at Makena Landing, now a park frequented by kayakers and divers.
From mid-November through mid-May, crowds flock to Makena to whale watch. "During the peak period between January and March, you can see humpbacks breaching all along the southern coast from the trail," Mendes said. "The best thing about this ride are the views; you won’t see anything like them on any other horseback ride in Hawaii."
The entire tour is done at a walk, which may not appeal to experienced equestrians. That said, Mendes doesn’t think the slow pace dilutes the experience. "It mirrors the cowboys’ leisurely rides when they brought their cattle to Makena Landing from their upcountry ranches," he said. "Just like the paniolo of the past, our guests can relax in the saddle and enjoy the amazing views."
Guide Rocky Rodrigues is an amiable raconteur. An avid rodeo competitor in bull and bronco riding, he keeps participants entertained with jokes and anecdotes all along the way.
Young riders keep their eyes peeled for deer horns along the trail; if they spot one, they can keep it. "Kids love the hunt," Mendes said. "A few weeks ago, Rocky took a man and his two sons on a ride, and they found a skeleton of a deer head with large antlers. It was completely intact, and Rocky picked it up and gave it to the boys as a souvenir when the ride was over."
Cameras are welcome, and city slickers are pleased with the spectacular visual mementos they have to show friends and family back home. On a recent ride, one couple photographed a herd of about 80 deer sprinting across the trail just 15 yards away.
"Some of our guests have never been on a horse before," Mendes said. "Our ride gives them a taste of the paniolo life, and they leave understanding why we cowboys think we have the best job on Earth."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.
Scenic highlights include:
» Makena State Park: Three beautiful beaches — Oneloa (Big Beach), Puu Olai (Little Beach) and Naupaka (Black Sand Beach) — lie within its 164 coastal acres.
» Molokini: A seabird sanctuary and popular snorkeling spot, this crescent-shaped "islet" actually is the rim of a volcanic crater.
» King’s Highway: Built in the 16th century during the reign of Piilani, king of Maui, this stone path once circumnavigated the entire island. A 5.5-mile portion of it in Makena called the Hoapili Trail can be hiked, although it’s a difficult trek that crosses barren, rugged lava flows.
» La Perouse Bay: In 1786, French explorer Jean-Francois Galaup, Comte de la Perouse, dropped anchor here, becoming the first European to visit Maui. Some people swear they have seen the night marchers, the spirits of Hawaiian warriors, walking along the King’s Highway beside the bay.
» Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve: It encompasses 2,000 acres, 807 of which are submerged and teeming with marine life. To protect these valuable resources, the Department of Land and Natural Resources has closed most of the reserve until August 2012. Part of the northern sector remains open for snorkeling, swimming and surfing.