The landscaping plan Joyce Doty and her late husband, Ed, had devised was simple: Add color to the front yard of their new retirement home in Kilauea, Kauai, with a variety of plants.
But one thing led to another, and before long they were literally planting the seeds for what has blossomed over the past four decades into Na ‘Aina Kai (Lands by the Sea) Botanical Gardens & Sculpture Park.
Meandering over 240 acres, Na ‘Aina Kai is a spectacular Eden of pools, fountains, waterfalls, more than 230 bronze sculptures and thousands of plants, shrubs and trees. Whimsical features include mazes, a log cabin, a kid-size train, a covered wagon, a Navajo hogan, a Japanese-style teahouse and a treehouse a la Swiss Family Robinson.
Word got out, and people asked to see what they had accomplished. The couple began giving occasional tours to community groups in 1991, intending for the gardens to open to the public as a whole after they passed away. But, realizing they enjoyed the outings as much as their guests, they decided not to wait.
In 1999, they created a nonprofit foundation to which they donated all of the gardens and the sculptures they had been acquiring. Na ‘Aina Kai officially opened the following year.
Ed passed away in 2008, but Doty, now 91, remains actively involved with the gardens’ ongoing metamorphosis. Representing more than 80 artists from the United States and United Kingdom, the two-thirds to full life-size sculptures are key design elements. Doty selected them all.
Explaining her decision-making process, she said, “First, of course, I have to like a piece. If I can envision exactly where it will go in the gardens, then and only then will I buy it. Every sculpture is thoughtfully placed, so that it’s not competing for attention with another sculpture. It is able to tell its own special story in its own special spot.”
The area called the Ahupua‘a re-creates a traditional land division from the mountains to the sea. It includes thatched hale (houses), fish swimming in the “ocean” and 14 sculptures depicting daily life in a Hawaiian village of long ago. Among them are Lawai‘a, a fisherman; Meawa‘a, a canoe maker; pig hunters Pono and Alapaki; Ohina, a woman gathering ferns; and Kuamo‘o, who is planting taro.
They’re surrounded by native plants that were valued for their practicality as well as beauty. For example, in olden days, akia fibers were woven into cordage; aalii wood was used for tools, timber and weapons; and iliee bark, leaves and roots were pounded into a poultice to reduce swelling.
The wonders continue to unfold.
“Ed and I wanted Na ‘Aina Kai to continuously evolve,” Doty said. “Thinking of ways to transform a space is always a delightful challenge. What would make it beautiful? What would make it interest- ing? Whatever area of the gardens that’s currently being designed or redeveloped is my favorite.”
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.