Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens features a maze made of 2,400 mock orange plants. // © 2014 Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens
When philanthropist Robert Allerton visited Kauai in the 1930s, he was so enchanted by its lush scenery and warm climate that he bought an 80-acre estate on the south shore and turned it into his Hawaiian paradise.
Visitors who find themselves similarly bewitched by Kauai’s natural landscape will also enjoy visiting the island’s formal gardens. Whether they tour Allerton’s property — now a National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) — or one of Kauai’s many other arboreal wonders, guests will uncover new insights into the destination aptly nicknamed the Garden Island.
While Kauai’s untamed landscapes always amaze tourists, its garden attractions provide an educational experience that takes them to the heart of the island’s natural riches, according to Kauai Visitors Bureau’s executive director Sue Kanoho.
“We offer a variety of gardens, each one providing a different experience, so there’s something to appeal to every taste,” said Kanoho. “Each garden presents a lesson on its surroundings so that visitors develop a better appreciation for what is grown here.”
Not only are Kauai’s gardens lovely to look at, they help clients understand the importance of the aina (land) to its residents.
“The Hawaiian people have lived off the aina for hundreds of years, and certain plants and flowers have long been used for leis, hula performances, cooking and healing,” she said.
Kauai’s National Tropical Botanical Gardens
Reflecting the artistic talents of its namesake, Allerton Garden immerse visitors in groves of bamboo, palms and an explosion of blooms enhanced by statues, water features and tropical fruit trees. It also houses such splendors as the giant Moreton Bay fig trees seen in the film “Jurassic Park,” as well as a series of outdoor rooms with gazebos, pools and fountains, where Allerton entertained the likes of John Wayne and Richard Nixon. Guided tours of this south shore masterpiece include a sunset visit to Allerton’s elegant dwelling.
McBryde Garden, adjacent to Allerton, invites clients to wander through the world’s largest collection of native Hawaiian flora. A safe haven for endangered tropical plants, it dazzles with its feathery palms, brilliant red and orange coral trees, showy heliconias and serpentine streams. Travelers can visit McBryde Garden on self-guided tours. To reach McBryde and Allerton, clients must take a 15-minute tram ride from NTBG headquarters.
At Limahuli Garden and Preserve, Kauai’s third NTBG holding, travelers can stroll through on their own or explore with a guide. Tucked into the island’s north shore, the 1,000-acre ode to old Hawaii features rare species, including the native fan palm, crop plants like sugar cane and trademark tropical flowers and fruits such as plumeria, mangoes and papayas. In its lava rock terraces, clients can see taro growing as it did in ancient days.
Sculptures, Peacocks and Koi Ponds
Other agricultural draws include Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, a manicured marvel spanning 240 acres on the north shore. Guided tours lead clients past multi-colored shower trees billowing in the breeze, desert plants such as aloes, agaves and tamarinds and a rainforest replete with ferns, mosses and gingers. Nearly 100 bronze sculptures — one of the biggest collections in the U.S. — dot the grounds, and its poinciana maze is a beautiful place to get lost for a while.
Smith’s Tropical Paradise, best known for its daytime boat rides up the Wailua River and evening luau, lays claim to a 30-acre eastside garden worthy of a visit in its own right. For a modest fee, clients can share peaceful picnics and conversation amongst strutting peacocks, starfruit and macadamia nut orchards, canopies of flowering trees, replicas of Polynesian and Filipino huts, and a Japanese-themed island.
Moir Gardens at Kiahuna Plantation has thrived on Kauai’s south shore since the 1930s. It showcases exotic plants that thrive in the area’s dry environs, including succulents, cacti, bromeliads, orchids, coconut and wiliwili trees. Water lily and koi ponds enliven the landscape, which visitors can explore for free.
Although garden tours may not be a huge draw for every tourist, Kauai’s botanical gems have a way of captivating a wide range of people.
“No matter how many times I visit our gardens, I find something new,” said Kanoho. “When the light hits the trees and flowers a certain way, it makes the scene almost magical, reminding me of why we are called the Garden Island.”