It’s no secret that the trifecta of suntan lotion, beaches and maitais is an integral part of the typical vacation in Hawaii. But after years of infinity pools and room service and cabana boys on the island archipelago, this summer my wife and I decided that our next Hawaiian adventure with the kids had to be something different.

So we stayed in a clapboard cabin. On a farm. In the middle of nowhere on Hawaii Island.

I know, I know—for tried-and-true resort rats, the whole thing sounds totally un-Hawaii. But that was precisely the point. We wanted our two daughters to experience a real working ranch, complete with cattle and a bunkhouse.

Our oasis: Puakea Ranch, a 35-acre farm situated two miles south of Hawi, on Hawaii’s northwest tip.

The place is dripping with history: All four of the structures on the property date back to the 1940s or earlier, vestiges of the place’s former life as a pig ranch and a sugar plantation as part of the communal Kohala Field system. (My wife, children and I stayed in the oldest home at the ranch, a long bungalow built by working families at the turn of the last century. It was called “Cowboy House.”)

Riding horses at Puakea Ranch

Puakea also offers luxury: When the owners purchased the place in 2006, they spent three years gutting the structures and retrofitting them with modern kitchens and luxurious (standalone) bathhouses, turning what was once a ramshackle farm into a high-end-yet-farm-flavored retreat.

Most important, Puakea is a haven for little ones learning about the world. Animals on the ranch outnumber humans by a count of nine or 10 to one. Storms come in from the east like gangbusters and move through just as quickly, leaving nothing but rainbows (sometimes double-rainbows) in their path. On clear nights, thanks to zero light pollution, the night sky reveals a bazillion stars.

Viewfinder Tip: Destinations on Hawaii Island are far apart; if you’re sightseeing, prepare to spend a good amount of time in the car.

Our girls—ages 3.5 and 1 at the time—loved interacting with all of this wonder. Every morning, my toddler and I fetched eggs from the chicken coop across the lawn and plucked papayas from trees out back. During afternoons, the four of us tromped up the hill to watch the horses graze. In the evenings, my wife sauntered into the garden to snip herbs for pasta and other dishes. On aimless walks around the property, I’d take the baby to watch the switchgrass wave in the whipping wind and play spot-the-wayward-cows-and-goats.

Even rainstorms were enjoyable; when we weren’t trying to catch drops in our open mouths, we huddled on the lanai and watch geckos darting to and fro.

We did leave the ranch—to explore the sleepy town of Hawi, to hit the state beaches on the Kohala Coast and to hike the mile-long, quad-burning trail down into the Pololu Valley at the end of the road. Still, our favorite moments of the trip were the ones we spent at Puakea.

All told, we stayed in this wonderland for 11 days—the best part of a month we ended up splitting between Maui and Hawaii Island.

No matter how much we appreciate a good resort stay, there’s no question we’ll be back.

For what sort of vacation rentals do you look when you travel?