Walter "Kamika" Smith III is luckier than most executives. When work gets too hectic, he heads for the 30-acre oasis that his family operates on Kauai’s east side. Smith’s Tropical Paradise is just three minutes from his office by car.
"It’s great to take a break and walk around the gardens," said Smith, general manager of the popular botanical and cultural attraction on the banks of the Wailua River. "Even a 15-minute stroll relaxes me and clears my head, and when I go back to my office, I’m completely refreshed."
According to Smith, the area was originally swampland. In the late 1960s the kamaaina Hewlett family built the gardens from earth that was dredged to create Wailua Marina.
"The Hewletts are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), and they wanted to establish a park similar to the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu," Smith said. "They built a few Polynesian huts; a miniature bahay kubo or nipa hut found in the Philippines; a replica of a moai from Easter Island; and a Japanese garden with a replica of a shrine, a torii gate and pine trees shaped like bonsai. They also offered a luau and a show featuring songs and dances of the different ethnic groups that make up Kauai’s population."
SMITH’S TROPICAL PARADISE
Location: Wailua Marina Park, Kauai
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Admission: $6 for adults, $3 for children aged three through 12
Phone: (808) 821-6895
Notes: The Smiths also operate an 80-minute cruise on the Wailua River. Tours depart daily at 9:30, 10 and 11:30 a.m. and 1:30, 2 and 3:30 p.m. Cost is $20 for adults and $10 for kids. Kamaaina rates are $18 and $9.
LUAU YOU’LL LOVE
The Smith Family Garden Luau is offered Monday through Friday through Aug. 31. The rest of the year, it’s held Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
5 p.m. Gates open. Stroll around the gardens on your own or take a narrated 20-minute tram tour (the last one leaves at 5:30 p.m.).
6 p.m. Learn how a pig is wrapped in ti leaves and baked in the imu (underground oven).
6:15 p.m. Enjoy beverages and Hawaiian music by four generations of the Smith family.
6:30 p.m. The buffet line opens. Menu highlights: kalua pork, teriyaki beef, chicken adobo, sweet-and-sour mahimahi, lomi salmon, poi and Hawaiian sweet potatoes.
8 p.m. Rhythm of Aloha Show features an erupting volcano and songs and dances from Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, New Zealand, China, Japan and the Philippines in the open-air, Pele Amphitheater.
Ticket prices: $78 for adults, $30 for juniors aged seven through 13, and $19 for children aged three through six. Kamaaina rates are $48, $24 and $12, respectively. "Show-only" tickets are $15 for adults and $7.50 for children ages 3 through 12. Gates open at 7:30 p.m. for show-only guests.
Paradise Pacifica, as the place was called, closed in the early 1980s. A few months later, Smith’s father, Walter "Freckles" Smith Jr., noticed peacocks flying from there to the marina in search of food. He started feeding the birds, and decided to help clear the tangled growth around the gardens that was becoming an eyesore for visitors going on the Fern Grotto Wailua River Cruise that Walter Smith Sr. launched in 1946.
The Smiths assumed the lease and stewardship of the gardens in the mid-1980s. Three generations of the family pitched in to weed, rake, mow, trim hedges and water plants. Prior to opening Smith’s Tropical Paradise, they spent $1 million in enhancements, including constructing a paved mile-long loop path that showcases its highlights.
Peacocks, chickens, ducks, pheasants, nene and native Hawaiian gallinules strut beneath kukui, bamboo and Norfolk and Cook Island pine trees rising six stories high. Orchards are filled with banana, mango, guava, rambutan, soursop and more than a dozen other varieties of tropical fruits.
Adding their color and fragrance are 75 species of flowers, among them plumeria, hibiscus, bird of paradise, heliconia and gingers. Spring and summer are the best seasons to visit because most of the flowers are in bloom (they go into hibernation during the fall and winter).
"During the day, guests explore the gardens on a self-guided tour," Smith said. "Signs explain the significance and uses of all the plants and trees. If they’ll be here midday, we encourage them to bring lunch. There are plenty of shaded picnic tables throughout the gardens."
Those attending the Smith Family Garden Luau, held on site, usually spend an hour in the gardens before going to the dinner and show. Whatever time they choose, Smith feels the peaceful setting provides visitors with a welcome break from their activity-packed itineraries.
"People try to do as much as they can while they’re on Kauai, so their vacations are just as busy as their lives back home," he said. "The gardens offer a respite from that. You can smell the fresh air, talk to the birds, admire nature and just sit and relax. Relaxing in a beautiful, interesting, inspiring place — isn’t that what vacations are all about?"
Meandering over 1,126 acres kept perpetually green by water flowing from Mount Waialeale, Wailua River State Park encompasses a sacred area that was once home to Kauai’s alii (royalty). Stop by the Wailua Visitor Center (which doubles as the ticket office for Smith’s activities) at the intersection of Highway 56 and Highway 580 (Kuamoo Road) and pick up a free brochure, which contains a map and information about several scenic and historical points of interest.
These include Opaekaa Falls, Mount Nounou (Sleeping Giant), Pohakuhoohanau (Royal Birthing Stones), Maamaakualono (Fern Grotto), Hikinaakala Heiau and Holoholoku Heiau, which, dating back to the 14th century, is believed to be the oldest place of worship extant on Kauai. You can also check out the Wailua Heritage Trail website, www.wailuaheritagetrail.org.
Movies that have been filmed in verdant Wailua include "South Pacific" (1958), "The Wackiest Ship in the Army" (1960), "Blue Hawaii" (1961), "Donovan’s Reef" (1963), "The Hawaiians" (1970), "Outbreak" (1995), "Jurassic Park III" (2001) and "Tropic Thunder" (2008).
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.