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Island Fever

A Tropical Oasis in Carpinteria Charms Guests with its Hollywood Lore and a Lush Hawaiian Aesthetic

November 11, 2001|SUSAN HEEGER

What is that smell?" you might wonder as you hit the path beside Jacques Pryor and Chris Harrington's pink cottage. After several more feet you might also be wondering about that strange-looking plant--how did it land near Santa Barbara, and is that a tiki god ogling me through its leaves?

At this point, bird calls will be starting up, and these, too, seem peculiar. They're not crow caws or jay brays, but the soulful arias of creatures born to nest among blooms the size of breadfruit. In other words, they don't belong here any more than the five-piece Hawaiian band whose sounds are wafting through the trees, which, incidentally, are strung with twinkly lights and emit a gentle mist.

Welcome to Maui, California--or Kona, Carpinteria, a place invented by two guys who love things Polynesian but aren't immune to the spell of Hollywood. The late actress Ollie Carey, wife of cowboy star Harry Carey, once lived in their pink house; that's her red piano in the living room. Jane Russell did dishes in their kitchen sink and John Wayne came to parties.

Now that Harrington and Pryor live here, this little 1890s cottage, a former bunkhouse for the surrounding 3,000-acre lemon-and-avocado ranch, is just as welcoming to guests. But it's wilder around the edges, enclosed by cannas and bamboo, scented with ginger and pikake, the house furnished with gourd drums and tapa cloths. "Our Hawaiian visitors feel lots of friendly spirits here," says Pryor, a singer/songwriter who grew up on Oahu and performs (under the name Leokane Pryor) traditional Hawaiian music, usually with a troupe of hula dancers. His recorded voice, a sweet falsetto, is often piped out to the garden, while a second sound system transmits the jungle birds, and the unearthly mist emanates from rubber tubing.

"We both love the exotic and the fanciful," says Harrington, who painted their living room the blue-green of Hawaiian seas and hung a bird cage full of fishing floats above their bamboo-pole couch. Their coffee table, from New Guinea, is a crocodile-shaped tattooing bench; their floor lamp, a swap-meet find, once lit a dining room at Trader Vic's.

A real estate broker who specializes in Montecito properties, Harrington rented the house in '95. Right away, once he'd hung his tapas and finished painting, he went outside and started planting: ginger and bananas, elephant's ears and agaves. When Pryor moved in three years later, he also started planting tropicals--plumeria for flower leis, ti to ward off evil spirits, and pink powder puff to honor Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. The house, inspired by traditional island plantation-style shacks, has windows that are always open to the breeze, and its vine-draped porch--complete with lamps, bed and lots of pillows--is as lived-in as any indoor room. From here, the garden view is the most Hawaiian, framed by sentry palms and hibiscus, backed by banana trees, with lily ponds and dancing cannas and a tree-edged dining terrace. A visiting Hawaiian musician, in the throes of inspiration, laid the terrace in one day. Harrington and Pryor dug out the earth and poured the concrete for the ponds, placed among existing boulders on the site. Their friend Derrik Eichelberger, a Santa Barbara landscape architect, gave them planting tips and brought in bright-leafed crotons and snow bush to relieve the garden's pervasive greens. He also consulted on design issues--locating paths, for example, and punching up borders with massive groupings of certain plants.

"He took our ideas farther than we could," explains Harrington, describing an area he calls "my Dr. Seuss garden," where agaves and dragon trees circle a pond in front of the house. For a whimsical, dreamy effect, he says, he had arranged blue-leafed plants such as senecio among greens. "Derrik added purple, a low, velvety tradescantia. It was magic."

Elsewhere, Eichelberger repeated plants to pull the half-acre tableau together. And he modulated the garden's drama by threading quieter scenes (a clivia walk; a simple fern-and-ginger border) among the hot tropicals and quirky theme beds.

Harrington and Pryor do the maintenance themselves, feeding and watering, clipping and weeding. When something withers, they buy novelties (from Aloha Tropicals in Vista) that they hope will survive Carpinteria's cool winters. Spathiphyllums and anthuriums haven't, but eight different gingers have. Less successful are aquatic plants, which have proven to be a delicacy among raccoons.

Still, there is plenty to charm guests when they arrive on summer nights for luaus and are given what Pryor calls "the smell tour." Somewhere between the angel's trumpet and the stephanotis, they often wind up in the Balinese sarongs that deck the garden chairs, holding a sweet drink with a parasol, served perhaps in one of Harrington's vintage tiki cups. "We like to think that we're carrying on a legacy here," Harrington says, "filling this house with interesting people and things from around the world, all larger than life, every one of them with a story."

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