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DESTINATION: KAUAI

The road to Kauai is an ever-inviting garden path

The island Eden is home to five public parks that call visitors to serenity among the flowers and bowers.

September 28, 2003|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Hanalei, Hawaii — 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.

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