KAUAI is the island Hollywood calls paradise.
Its tropical forests, 4,000-foot cliffs and crescent-shaped beaches have provided idyllic settings for more than 60 films and TV shows, cast as everything from "Gilligan's Island" and "Jurassic Park" to "South Pacific."
So I probably shouldn't have been surprised when the melody and lyrics to "Bali Hai" started bouncing around in my head when I visited Kauai last month. Before I could stop myself, I had stretched out on a bright green patch of grass and had begun watching palm fronds wave in the breeze overhead.
After some idle thought, I called my lethargy "Bali Hai syndrome" and blamed it on the movie industry. It has so romanticized the island that it's hard to accomplish much while you're here.
Not a bad thing if you're on vacation. Not a good thing if you're supposed to be working, as I was.
Kauai's beauty has long been a siren song. The island is lush and green, so far removed from its birth in an explosion of fire and magma that it is called the Garden Isle. To Bryan Baptiste, Kauai's mayor, it is "a place like no other, offering the most spectacular scenery found anywhere on Earth."
Many people seem to agree. Travel & Leisure magazine readers ranked it best of the Hawaiian Islands in this summer's eighth annual poll, edging out Maui for the first time.
Kauai is popular with visitors — and filmmakers — partly because the island has avoided the builders and bulldozers that have pockmarked its neighbors' terrain. A law bars construction of "any building taller than the tallest coconut tree" (55 feet). No high-rise hotels. No spoiled views.
Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, is also is the farthest north, separated from the others by more than 100 miles of open sea. This isolation, combined with time, wind and weather, has sculpted it into a garden of earthly delights, a place where almost everything grows, from cactus to rain-forest tropicals.
That's why Kauai's Garden Isle nickname fits so well. But there's another reason too. Five luxuriant gardens — all open to the public — are alive with color, surprises and botanical treasures. The gardens had brought me to Kauai. Now I just had to keep Bali Hai syndrome at bay long enough to see them.
Na Aina Kai Joyce and Ed Doty sold their Northern California ranch and retired to Kauai in 1982. Maybe they would landscape the frontyard, they said.
More than two decades later, they're still digging, still planting, still landscaping. The garden has grown to 240 acres, an amazing personal accomplishment that has translated into a gift to the community.
Na Aina Kai, "Lands by the Sea," is on the northern shore of Kauai, a dramatic rectangle of land that runs from the Pacific Ocean 1 1/2 miles inland to Kuhio Highway, the main road circling the island.
"Originally, we weren't going to open it to the public until after our deaths," Joyce said, "but then we realized how much enjoyment we get out of others seeing it." In 2000, the couple — she is 75, he 79 — set up a nonprofit foundation, donated their $17-million garden to it and opened the gates for tours and events.
Na Aina Kai includes 12 gardens, a maze, waterfalls, a lagoon and lakes, a forest of 60,000 hardwood trees, a white sand beach and miles of trails. It is so large that one of its walking tours lasts five hours, "and even that isn't enough," said Marty Fernandes, the garden's horticulturalist.
There also are 65 bronze sculptures, most of them life-size or larger. They pop into view when you round a corner or a lakeside path. An elderly couple sitting together on a park bench. Five children balancing on a bronze log across a real-life stream. A mountain lion stalking a wild-eyed jackrabbit. There are life-like children, adults, wildlife captured for a moment in time. It is one of the largest collections of bronze statuary in the nation.
"I try to find the perfect place for each one," Joyce Doty said. "I won't buy a piece until I know it will fit in. I like to find a place where nothing detracts from it, where the person who's walking along can discover it."
Her largest purchase so far is "Jack and the Beanstalk," a $300,000 16-foot-tall centerpiece for a children's garden under construction.
"Which garden do I like best?" she asked rhetorically. "Whichever one I'm working on now." She is the designer; her husband is "the engineer and doer," she said. A crew of 13 maintenance and landscape workers helps. Thirty other volunteers run tours or work in the gardens.
But Joyce and Ed Doty put in their share of time in the trenches. Each tree in the hardwood forest had hands-on attention from the couple during planting. The trees eventually will be harvested to help the garden pay for its upkeep.
Turning their corner of Kauai into Shangri-La wasn't easy. The land originally was sugar cane fields, pastureland and overgrown marshland. Clearing it, massaging sections of it into interesting contours, then planting it took grueling labor.
The Dotys are used to hard work. They owned a mule ranch in Healdsburg, Calif., before their move to Kauai. Although the couple married late — Ed was almost 50 — "we just made it to 30 years together," Joyce said proudly. She previously was married to the late Charles M. Schulz, of "Peanuts" fame. They divorced in 1972, and both remarried shortly thereafter.
I toured Na Aina Kai with some Seal Beach friends, Randy and Mary Johnson and Randy and Mary Hughes. The Johnsons had shared their beachfront rental house with me when my confirmed condo reservations fell through after I arrived. "Kauai is always overbooked," the travel agent said.
I thought touring with a group would help keep the Bali Hai languor away. But watching the mesmerizing koi circling in the garden's 3/4-acre lagoon nearly did me in, especially because a bench and a cascading waterfall were nearby.
Limahuli Garden Mt. Makena, portrayed as Bali Hai in "South Pacific," rises abruptly from the valley floor, a 1,500-foot volcanic centerpiece overshadowing a brilliantly green garden terraced into its slopes. The lava rock terraces, built about 700 years ago by early Hawaiians, hold taro plants, just as they did centuries ago.
Limahuli Garden, at the northern end of Kauai, prides itself on being a window to ancient Hawaii. It is that and more. "This is not a flower garden," our guide said as we started a steep climb on a three-quarter-mile loop trail. "If you want to see flower arrangements, go somewhere else."
She was right. There were no hothouse flowers, but we saw amazing scenery and a rain forest of vines, ferns, palms and native plants.
Limahuli is part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a congressionally chartered, privately funded network of five gardens in Hawaii and Florida that focuses on conservation, scientific research and public education. Three of its gardens are on Kauai. I planned to visit the two others, Allerton and McBryde, the next day.
But first Limahuli, a striking panorama of verdant hills, steep cliffs and turquoise sea at the end of the Kuhio Highway. The 1,000-acre garden and preserve butt up against the Na Pali Coast, 15 miles of wild shoreline and mountains.
Limahuli's goal is to return this stunning slice of Kauai to its roots, literally, by eliminating alien plants and leaving only those native to Hawaii or that arrived on the islands when Polynesians visited about 1,000 years ago. The bottom line is a lot of work, clearing land and replanting to restore native forests and archeological sites.
The effort is paying off. The American Horticultural Society named Limahuli "the best natural botanical garden in the United States."
I left Limahuli and returned to Hanalei, a town on a beautiful semicircular bay. I had hoped that, after a couple of days, the condo I rented would become available, but it did not. Other Seal Beach friends, Carla and Perry Watson, were in Kauai for the summer, staying at their Hanalei home.
Would I like to stay in their downstairs apartment, they asked. Yes!
That night, the Watsons took me to Tahiti Nui, a Hanalei bar, where I met Auntie Louise, a.k.a. Louise Marston.
Everyone seemed to know Auntie Louise, who moved to Hanalei from her native Tahiti in 1964 and founded the only bar on the north shore. Besides running the bar, she and her son, Christian, hold Wednesday night luaus.
The night I visited, the entertainment was karaoke, and locals were taking turns, including the melodious Carla. I thought about giving voice to the song echoing through my mind. I pictured myself taking the microphone, and moodily singing, "Bali Hai may call you, any night, any day. In your heart, you'll hear it call you: Come away Come away."
But I decided it would take too much energy.
And probably drive the other customers away.
McBryde and Allerton gardens My quest led me next to the drier south side of Kauai, where the McBryde and Allerton preserves are adjacent to each other, not far from the busy beaches and crowded hotels of Poipu.
McBryde Garden, named for the Scottish family that grew sugar here, is park-like, with a 45-foot-high canopy of monkeypod and ficus trees. It is an oasis of calm.
Like other visitors, I rode into the garden in a tram and disembarked to roam at my own pace in its long, manicured valley and winding pathways. Aerial roots dangled from trees; at eye level were red-and-yellow heliconias, fiery ginger, pastel orchids. Waterfalls, shady nooks and a picturesque bamboo bridge beckoned. A flock of egrets took wing, startled when I rounded a corner.
Besides peaceful scenery, McBryde offers resources for botanists and other scientists. It contains the National Tropical Botanical Garden's main conservation and nursery facilities, with a herbarium, research library and labs. It also has the world's largest collection of native Hawaiian plants, including endangered and extinct-in-the-wild species, such as the kanaloa, a legume that was common in the Hawaiian Islands before man's arrival. Only one now exists in the wild; two have been cultivated at McBryde.
When the tram reappeared a couple of hours later, I regretfully got on board. But Allerton garden was waiting.
Allerton, the home of Hawaii's Queen Emma in the mid-19th century, passed to the McBryde family, then became the estate of Robert Allerton and his son, John Gregg Allerton, in late 1930s. The oceanfront property had been planted in the 1870s by the well-traveled queen, who visited Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in England and Andrew Johnson at the White House. The Allertons enhanced the property, adding unique tropical plants and European and Asian statuary and artifacts over 30 years.
The 2 1/2-hour guided tour by tram and foot took us to the Jungle Walk, a rain forest with a canopy of flowers, palms and flowering trees high over our heads; the lush Mermaid Fountain room, where an Art Deco fountain and flowing stream pulsed at the rate of 60 beats a minute; and the Diana Room, a soothing, mirror-like pool fringed by a forest of soaring monkeypod trees.
Smith's Tropical Paradise There was one more stop on my itinerary: Smith's Tropical Paradise, a well-kept '50s-style commercial garden and park used as a venue for luaus three nights a week. The 30-acre property has lagoons, strolling peacocks and such funky Polynesian props as giant grinning tikis.
It is smaller than Kauai's other public gardens and is seriously hokey, but it has its merits. It is centrally located, and wheelchairs can easily maneuver its wide, flat, paved walkways. Also, it can be visited without a reservation and inexpensively. Other Kauai garden tours cost as much as $70 per person; Smith's self-guided tour is $5.25.
I returned to Hanalei. I had smelled the intoxicating fragrance of plumeria, listened to the melodies of cascading waterfalls, seen raindrops glistening on the petals of dazzling red hibiscus. As beautiful as these things were, my trip up the primrose paths of Kauai had been landlocked.
My friends had the answer: a sail off Hanalei Bay. Randy Johnson, his daughter Raquel and I drove to nearby Princeville Resort and booked a sunset cruise on a Hawaiian sailing canoe called the Kupa Aloa (Safe on the Water). It had a bright red hull, two outrigger pontoons for stability, a trampoline-style deck and a triangular blue sail. Our helmsman, Trevor Cabell, had built the 45-foot craft. Within minutes we were flying across the water, first on a circular tack around Hanalei Bay and then out to sea.
The sun had fallen below the horizon, and the waves had turned a deep purple when Cabell turned the canoe back toward land. There was still enough light to see the brooding mountains of Kauai in the distance. Bali Hai was calling. But I was having too much fun to answer.
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Stepping into Kauai's gardens
From LAX, United, American, Hawaiian and ATA offer nonstop flights to Lihue, Kauai. Northwest, American, United, Delta and ATA offer connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $349.70.
WHERE TO STAY:
Princeville Resort, 5520 Ka Haku Road, P.O. Box 223069, Princeville, HI 96722; (800) 826-4400, fax (808) 826-1166, http://www.princeville.com . This luxury cliff-side hotel is on the north shore of Kauai and overlooks beautiful Hanalei Bay. Pricey, but most rooms have a view. Elegantly furnished. Golf, tennis, spa. Doubles from $425.
Hanalei Colony Resort, P.O. Box 206, Hanalei, HI 96714; (800) 628-3004, fax (808) 826-9893, http://www.hcr.com . There are no telephones or TVs at this secluded low-rise condo resort on the beach on Kauai's north shore. The pool and Jacuzzi are situated inconveniently near the street, but many units have excellent views of Hanalei Bay. Quiet, laid-back area near the Na Pali Coast. All units are two bedrooms and start at $180 per night.
Poipu Kapili, 2221 Kapili Road, Koloa, HI 96756; (800) 443-7714, fax (808) 742-9162, http://www.poipukapili.com . This 60-unit upscale condo resort is on the sunny side of Kauai near the Sheraton Kauai. Nicely maintained grounds and low-rise plantation-style buildings across the road from a rocky shoreline. All units have ocean views and are roomy; an attractive pool is in the center of the complex. One-bedroom units start at $210.
WHERE TO EAT:
A Pacific Cafe, 4-831 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa; (808) 822-0013. This centrally located restaurant has a long list of well-known admirers, from Travel & Leisure magazine to "Good Morning, America." Beautiful presentation, creative dishes that blend flavors from Hawaii's ethnic groups. Entrees from $18.95.
Keoki's Paradise, 2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive, Koloa; (808) 742-7534, http://www.keokisparadise.com . This is a fun place for lunch if you're staying in the Poipu area or visiting Allerton or McBryde gardens. The restaurant resembles a dockside boathouse, with meandering streams and waterfalls. Varied menu of salads, sandwiches and Hawaiian plates from $6.95.
Duane's Ono Char Burger, - 4-4350 Kuhio Highway, Anahola; (808) 822-9181. Locals and visitors alike rave about ono burgers. This red-and-white roadside stand between Lihue and Hanalei doesn't look like much, but the teriyaki burgers, fries and fish sandwiches are legendary. Burgers from $3.90.
TO LEARN MORE:
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2270 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 801, Honolulu, HI 96815; (800) GO-HAWAII (464-2924), http://www.gohawaii.com .
— Rosemary McClure