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It’s hard to believe that Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens was once a barren, former pasture. Today, with its lavish trees and flowers, water features, a hardwood plantation, bronze sculptures and a pristine beach, the 240-acre north Kauai attraction is a blooming utopia.
Credit Joyce Doty and her late husband Ed for the transformation. At the end of the 1970s, they bought the property with an interest in retiring there. They then launched a massive, ongoing landscaping project that tapped Joyce’s sense of creativity and playfulness. In 1999, they opened the once-private estate for guided tours and special events.
But Na Aina Kai, or “Lands by the Sea,” calls to more than just flower fanatics. It’s the kind of place where everyone feels engaged and inspired.
Children, for instance, adore the area’s Under the Rainbow Garden. There, they frolic in and around a Swiss Family Robinson-style treehouse and a gecko-shaped maze. A wading pool with fountains is presided over by a 16-foot-tall sculpture of Jack and the Beanstalk. In another area, families have fun getting lost and found in the Poinciana Maze that’s bordered by walls of lava rock. Enlivened by hundreds of mock-orange plants, the maze features topiaries and art pieces in nooks and crannies.
Bird lovers sing the praises of Na Aina Kai’s Bird Gardens, home to native and endangered species. From December to April, guests might spot Laysan albatrosses, “nene” (Hawaiian geese) and Hawaiian moorhens, all of which nest on the property. Throughout the year, red-footed boobies, great frigatebirds, tropicbirds and Pacific golden plovers also gravitate to the area.
Art buffs will be drawn to the 160 bronze sculptures positioned strategically around Na Aina Kai. Life-size figures of people working, playing and interacting look as if they spring from the landscape. Statues of animals abound, including a flock of tropicbirds taking flight from a lagoon and a whimsical frog posing pensively in a pond.
Of course, Na Aina Kai is also a mecca for anyone with a passion for plants. Its Shower Tree Park hosts a riot of flowering beauties such as hibiscus and ixora alongside waterfalls and a Japanese teahouse. The International Desert Garden wows guests with succulents including aloe and agave. The heady scents from spice trees imbue the Wild Forest Garden, which also showcases heliconias, ginger and bananas. The 110-acre hardwood plantation lays claim to everything from African mahogany to zebra wood.
Thanks to its assortment of guided tours, Na Aina Kai is easy to pitch to most any client. Excursions range from 90 minutes to five hours long, including a family tour ($35 per adult, $20 per child), a formal gardens stroll ($35), a beach walk ($50), a seasonal bird tour ($60) and an all-encompassing trek ($85). Clients with health or mobility issues might prefer the Stroll & Ride tour or the Ride tour ($50 each).
As an ever-evolving labor of love and a work in progress, Na Aina Kai warrants repeat visits. Among Joyce Doty’s latest additions to the attraction is a representation of an Alaskan village.
In fact, whenever someone asks her to name her favorite part of Na Aina Kai, she’s quick to answer: “The next project.”