Saddle up for Hawaii on horseback

When you're daydreaming about a trip to Hawaii, snorkeling and swimming come to mind -not saddling up for a trail ride.

But horseback riding is one of the more interesting ways to experience the lush terrain and cowboy traditions of this state.

"I was surprised," says Holly Kane, a tourist from Los Angeles visiting Kualoa Ranch here on Oahu. "We think of beaches and hiking, maybe, but not horseback riding."

The islands offer everything from short trail rides to overnight ranch stays. And sites like Parker Ranch, on the "Big Island" of Hawaii, also highlight ranching history, set in motion after the first cattle were brought to Hawaii in 1793. (The Hawaiian cowboy, or paniolo, came several decades afterward - almost 50 years before his Texas counterpart existed.)

For adventurous travelers, Molokai Ranch in Maunaloa (808-552-2741 or www.molokai-ranch.com), tucked away on Hawaii's least-developed island of the same name, is becoming a popular destination for honeymooners and repeat visitors to the islands.

Open to tourists since 1997, Molokai is a 102-year-old, 54,000-acre working ranch, the second oldest in Hawaii.

It is equipped for horseback riders and snorkelers alike. Thanks to its isolated locale, it offers the opportunity to play both cowboy and eco-tourist.

Riding activities include an introduction to horsemanship for anyone eight years old or older, competition in rodeo games, a cattle drive, and spending the day working with the ranch's paniolos.

Of course, just hanging out on the beach is also a choice here (this is Hawaii, after all), as are mountain biking and whale watching, which, like the riding, cost extra.

Guests stay in "tentalows" -canvas structures with queen-sized beds, solar-powered heat and lights, and composting toilets.

You pay by the day and can choose to live at the "Paniolo Village" -closer to the riding activities - or at one of the other two sites, which are nearer the water. Double occupancy rates including breakfast range from $145 a night for the Paniolo Village to $245 for a beachfront spot.

For a more historic view of ranching on the islands, check out Parker Ranch, the oldest in Hawaii. One of the largest privately owned ranches in the US at 225,000 acres, it produces one-third of the beef eaten in Hawaii.

Although the ranch doesn't offer accommodations, travelers can learn more about it at the Parker Ranch Visitor Center and Historic Homes on the Big Island (in Kamuela; 808-885-7655, dual admission $10). A video presentation and exhibits shed light on the ranch's 150-plus years and show what day-to-day life on the enormous spread is like.

The only way to see the ranch on horseback is to take a trail ride offered by the Mauna Kea Resort Stables (808-882-7222).

One- and two-hour rides ($40 and $70, respectively) take tourists through a slice of the ranch's lands. For more information on riding and rodeo events on the Big Island visit www.rodeohawaii.com.

Trail rides are available on the other islands as well. Kauai and Oahu offer a variety of options, as does Maui (do a search for horseback riding at www.maui.net).

Kualoa Ranch, Activity Club and Secret Island (800-231-7321 or www.kualoa.com) is Oahu's largest working ranch at 4,000 acres. It offers trail rides, riding lessons and activities such as snorkeling and helicopter tours, and is popular with Honolulu tourists.

Long pants and close-toed shoes are preferred for rides, but those in shorts and flip-flops aren't turned away.

As with any ride, it is a good idea to ask what you will be getting. At Kualoa, the 30-minute ride for $28 is good for novices, but you don't see much. Better to pay $45 for the 90-minute ride, which includes commentary and meanders through a verdant valley where scenes from "Jurassic Park" and "Godzilla" were filmed.

"Welcome to my office - anybody want my job?" asks Vern Peters, one of the ranch's friendly guides, from atop his horse. Taking tourists and their mounts by hillsides peppered with cattle, he says, "I bet you folks never thought you could see this on the islands."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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