HiLIFE: FAMILY FARE
ONE OF THE biggest complaints Honolulu residents have about local nightlife is the lack of diversity. It's too easy to get into the habit of visiting the same places on the same nights, week after week and month after month.
Moonlight Rides at Gunstock Ranch
Place: Gunstock Ranch, 56-250 Kamehameha Hwy.
Time: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 15 and 16
Upcoming rides: 6 p.m. Sept. 13 and 15, 5:30 p.m. Oct. 13 and 14, 5:30 p.m. Nov. 12 and 13, 5:30 p.m. Dec. 11 and 12
Next weekend, instead of arguing with friends over which bar to visit (and who will serve as designated driver), round up the crew and make plans to enjoy Oahu's rural landscape by moonlight -- on horseback!
GUNSTOCK RANCH is a family operation, run by second generation cowboy Greg Smith. His father, the late Max Smith, leased the former sugar cane fields from Campbell Estate when Kahuku Sugar Mill closed more than three decades ago.
As a kid, Smith grew up in Kailua and graduated from Kalaheo High School. It wasn't until he attended college on the mainland that he fully realized the grip his father's ranch had him in.
"I grew up in Kailua doing all the things that Kailua kids do ... so (the ranch) wasn't a priority for me at the time," he said. "When I turned 17, 18 years old, that's when I started getting more interested in it, when I started to rodeo."
After a few years on the mainland, Smith got married and moved home. He took over operations at Gunstock when his father passed away, but like most people in Hawaii, continues to work a second job at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to make ends meet.
"I'm living the dream," he said. "I wanted to raise my family on a ranch, so when the opportunity presented itself, I took it."
EIGHT DIFFERENT horseback rides are offered at Gunstock, with hourly rates starting at $75 per person for those 10 years and older. A $35 keiki ride is also offered for kids 2 to 7 years old and provides a first "horse experience."
But it's the ranch's monthly "Moonlight Rides," at a cost of $85 and suitable for ages 10 and up, that are most intriguing. According to Smith, Gunstock is the only place on Oahu to ride after sundown.
"It's a unique experience," Smith said. "You feel a little out of place in the woods when it's dark, but (the horses) can see perfectly."
The moonlight rides date back to his return to the ranch in the '90s, he added. About 50 horses, most bred in Arizona, call Gunstock home, although only a fraction are suitable for public rides.
While nearby Kualoa Ranch offers more variety and can handle bigger crowds, Smith prefers the intimacy of his admittedly smaller operation (Gunstock can accommodate groups of up to 18 people at a time with advance notice).
As two of his five children played nearby, Smith explained his desire to keep the focus on family at Gunstock.
"(Riding at night) was my dad's idea a long time ago ... the kind of thing we'd do with boarders on the ranch," he said. "Since most people worked during the day, we ended up going on moonlight rides.
"It just ended up as a tradition for us ... and it's one of the things we wanted to share with the general public."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL /
Greg Smith is a second generation cowboy with a second, full-time job working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
AS WE saddle up, wrangler Stephanie Williams goes over the ground rules and explains how to control our horses while on the 90-minute trip around the ranch. A mother and daughter on vacation from the Pacific Northwest are in front of me, while a firefighter and his wife from Kahuku wait behind.
Using a portable staircase for assistance ("It's easier on the horses," Williams tells us), I get myself situated atop my steed. His name is Redman, and he seems ambivalent to my presence.
"The horses are supposed to be eating right now," Williams explained. "They'll want to stop and snack, but just give a tug on the reins and they should keep moving."
Daylight faded quickly as we started out towards a viewing area overlooking Laie Point. The horses fell into a single file line and casually made their way along the loop trail, which was more than wide enough to traverse without getting caught in nearby brush.
It soon got too dark to see clearly, although the horses still seemed to know where they needed to go. Williams, from her post at the front of the line, was happy to chat, but it was almost more fun to just drift back and take in the sounds of nature.
A few minutes later, we arrived at a clearing with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean from Kahuku to Kaneohe. Lights from the Polynesian Cultural Center sparkled below as the full moon peeked out from behind clouds on the horizon. We spent a few minutes taking pictures and enjoying the scenery before heading back.
Even though the clouds repeatedly blocked our view of the full moon and my tailbone was beginning to protest being in the saddle for more than an hour, I found myself pulling back on Redman's reins and craning my neck in different directions.
After losing touch with my Windward roots when I moved back home and became a total townie almost 10 years ago, I had forgotten how beautiful it was on this side of the island. Except for the cell phone that kept going off in my pocket (I should have just left it in the car), I felt completely disconnected from the endless hustle of modern day metro Honolulu -- and loved every minute.
"Everybody that goes on (the moonlight ride) has a good time," Smith said after we returned. "I always suggest to people that if they want to see the ranch, go on the scenic ride first.
"Then if you want something different, go on the moonlight ride."