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Sunday, September 7, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hawaii -- Kauai, The Garden Island, Lushly Deserves Its Title

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

KAUAI, Hawaii - Kauai is known as Hawaii's Garden Island, and it has certainly earned its title.

Near its south coast, Waimea Canyon cuts through the thick volcanic earth's surface on the same scale as Arizona's Grand Canyon. But shrubs and trees cover Kauai - the geologically oldest island.

The Kona coast on the Big Island may be famed for its coffee production, but Kauai is the java champ, growing more in its rich red dirt than any other island. The Na Pali coast curves around the north side of Kauai like an impenetrable emerald palisade. Even the island's roadsides form a green corridor from the sheer abundance of growing things.

So it's also no surprise that Kauai has some of the state's most famed gardens. Two of them, Allerton and Limahuli, are National Tropical Botanical Gardens, run by a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress in 1964. Three of the group's five gardens are on Kauai; one other is on Maui and the fifth is in Florida. The gardens are open, so the public can admire the sheer beauty and exuberance of tropical plant life. But botanists also carry on extensive research programs and work to restore endangered plant species.

When we toured Allerton, a Hilo sampan - a drop-dead classy 1941 Dodge touring car - met us at the Spouting Horn parking lot on Kauai's south shore for the short drive to the garden. It was a clue to Allerton's veneer of civilization.

Once the summer home of Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha IV, the 150-acre grounds was bought by Chicago stockyard heir Robert Allerton in 1938. He and his adopted son planned and fashioned the gardens based on a series of outdoor "rooms." Statues, fountains and benches for meditation and quiet conversation are situated in some of these green oases. Allerton once held an outdoor Thanksgiving dinner in one of them.

But of course, the jungle is never far away, forming the walls for these outdoor rooms.

We walked along a cliff-side road, where purple bougainvillea planted by Queen Emma still cascades down a cliff, past breadfruit and coconut trees - the diet staples of the Polynesians - and red ginger that glowed like a torch and heliconias, a kind of floral centipede.

The cultivated gardens are at the bottom of the cliff. A statue of the goddess Diana gazes serenely over a reflecting pool in one garden and, in another, the mermaid fountain is a masterpiece of hydraulic planning. The undulating 126-foot channel causes the water to form waves as it flows between the curved low cement walls. A glug-glugging sound accompanies its path. "If you sit here and listen to it, you soon get relaxed because your heartbeat steadies to the pulse of the water," said Wayne Mehl, the enthusiastic docent who led the tour.

But the jungle cannot be kept at bay. The Moreton Bay fig trees that grow along Lawai Stream were the setting for the discovery of the broken dinosaur egg shells in "Jurassic Park." Several outdoor scenes for the movie were filmed on Kauai.

If Allerton Garden smacks of "haole" (non-Hawaiian) style, then our directions for getting to Limahuli near the end of the road on Kauai's north shore bespoke its ancient, wild character.

Meet under the ulu (breadfruit) tree, we were told. Standing there on a windy day when brilliant sunlight alternated with heavy clouds and gloom, it was easy to feel mana, that mysterious power Hawaiians believe imbues a place with magic. Makana, the mountain that towers over Limahuli, was one of the few sites where Hawaiians held a flame-throwing ceremony. Today the mountain is known as Bali Hai, because "South Pacific" was filmed here.

Indeed, Hawaiians have lived here for 1,000, maybe 1,500 years, said Gil Casrigahi, our docent and a walking encyclopedia of botany and Hawaiiana. This was one of the first valleys settled by Polynesians when they arrived centuries ago.

The ancients grew taro, which they called kalo, on terraces near the valley entrance. But people settled the valley far inland, where it narrows to a slot between mountains.

Taro needs running water to grow, so the old settlers diverted Limahuli Stream in the valley for this ancient hydroponic garden. More gardens

Kauai's garden treasures don't stop with these two large gardens. Olu Pua Gardens and Plantation shows how grandly people lived in the golden age of the plantation era. This was once the home of the Alexander family, which, like descendants of many other mainland settlers, consists of wealthy planter children and grandchildren of missionaries. The Alexanders founded Kauai's largest pineapple plantation.

Olu Pua is a place of expansive lawns that roll down from the main house with borders studded with orchids, bromeliads, anthuriums and palms. Olu Pua means "at peace among the flowers."

But Kauai's gardens don't exist to simply show off exotic blooming things. Stacy Sproat is a young woman with a vision. She is trying to encourage many Hawaiian residents of the north shore to return to some of the old ways. She manages the Waipa Project, a taro-growing endeavor not far from Hanalei Valley, the largest taro-growing area in Hawaii. The project covers a valley, an area known as an ahupua'a, an ancient Hawaiian land division large enough to sustain a community.

At the Waipa Project, people come in to pound taro root into poi once a week. It's available every Thursday, when people pick up their plastic bags of the grayish-purple paste. The project sells taro for $2 a pound; if you buy it at the grocery store, it costs at least $3.50 a pound.

"Our goal is to get poi back on the table of the people," Sproat said.

Kauai's garden riches don't end here.

On the north shore, near Kilauea lighthouse where the frigate birds soar and the red-footed boobies nest on cliffs, Guava Kai Plantation produces about 14 million tons of guava each year. That makes a lot of guava juice and jam. You can sample the juice for free, or buy guava ice cream and jam.

The last word in gardens may be the Green Garden Cafe in Hanapepe, a funky restaurant that seems a little slicker than in its pre-Hurricane Iniki days. But it still has a linoleum block floor, lots of ceiling fans and so many potted plants and cut flower bouquets that it's like eating in a greenhouse. ----------------------------------------------------------------- IF YOU GO

Allerton Garden: Located on the south part of Kauai. Visits must be arranged in advance. $25. 808-742-2623.

Limahuli Garden and Preserve: On Kauai's north shore near the end of Highway 560 in Haena. Self-guided visits, $10. Guided tours are $15 and reservations must be made in advance. 808-826-1053.

Olu Pua Botanical Gardens and Plantation: One mile west of Kalaheo on Highway 50 on the island's south shore. Guided walking tours depart from the visitor's center. $12; $6 ages 5 to 12. 808-332-8182.

Guava Kai Plantation: Watch for the sign on Highway 56 on the north side of the island near Kilauea. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 808-828-6121.

More information: Hawaii Visitors Bureau on Kauai, 808-245-3971.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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