At home in soggy Seattle I'm a lackadaisical gardener, yet visiting Kauai has turned me into a garden-loving tourist.
Kauai, like its sister Hawaiian islands, is a botanical bonanza. Bathed in the island's natural steroids of endless sunshine and warm-rain cloudbursts, plants flourish.
Almost anything can, and does, grow in Kauai in the wild and in its botanical and home gardens. The island's lusher north and east sides are a kaleidoscope of luxuriant ferns; rope-thick vines; lacy orchids and shimmering flowers; mango and guava trees; and stately Cook pines, almost 200 feet tall.
Kauai lives up to its Garden Isle nickname in offering some of Hawaii's best and most atmospheric botanical gardens. Some go for the splashy, colorful tropical plants; others are dedicated to showcasing and preserving native Hawaiian plants, many of which are disappearing in the wild.
That's the dark side of Hawaii's verdant beauty. Most of the showy flowers and trees -- plumeria, bougainvillea, many palm trees, even orchids -- that are considered typically Hawaiian have been brought by people to the islands from elsewhere. Some of these introduced plants (such as guava and African tulip trees) grow like weeds, choking out the native plants. And habitat loss through grazing (by feral goats), hurricanes and other ills has decimated native plants.
So take a break from the beach and go down the garden path in Kauai, for enjoyment and easygoing education. Here are my favorite botanical gardens on the island:
Tucked away on Kauai's North Shore, Limahuli Garden and Preserve is the island's don't-miss garden for anyone interested in native plants, Hawaiian history -- and tropical scenery.
The garden's setting is the stuff of fantasies, nestled into a narrow valley beneath greenery-draped rock spires that served as the Bali Hai backdrop in the movie "South Pacific."
Limahuli, a unit of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, covers almost 1,000 acres, much of it restricted for research and preservation. But visitors can walk a 3/4-mile hillside trail that winds through a demonstration garden on self-guided or guided tours.
Limahuli is working hard to restore native habitat and preserve rare Hawaiian plants, including a patch of forest where invasive, alien trees were removed and native plants restored. Watch for mamaki, a nettle used for tea and medicine, and loulu, a fan-shaped palm native to Hawaii.
* Na 'Aina Kai
For something completely different, head to the sprawling and colorful Na 'Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, also on Kauai's North Shore.
While Limahuli has a natural feel, Na 'Aina Kai is manicured and more commercial, bursting with plants from palms, nutmeg and cinnamon trees to blazing red hibiscus flowers, gingers and heliconia. There's also hardwood plantation, growing thousands of teak and other trees for sustainable forestry.
About 100 bronze statues are scattered through Na 'Aina Kai's 240 acres; many are life-size, Norman Rockwell-mood sculptures of people. There's a meandering lagoon and woodland trails, a Japanese teahouse and waterfall; and a sprawling garden-hedge maze. For children, there's a special play garden, with a water-spray area, climbing frames, mock caves and more.
* Allerton and McBryde gardens
On the southern end of Kauai, two side-by-side gardens, run by the National Tropical Botanical Garden, can easily absorb a full day.
The 80-acre Allerton Garden is tucked into a valley opening to the sea. Bought in the 1930s by Robert Allerton, heir of a wealthy Chicago industrial family, and developed into a series of garden rooms, it's a romantic and tranquil enclave.
The McBryde Garden, up the valley and along a meandering stream from Allerton, once was 171 acres of sugar cane and cliffs. Since the 1970s it's been turned into a garden of tropical delights, now with one of the world's largest collections of native Hawaiian plants.
IF YOU GO
LIMAHULI: The botanical garden is on Kauai's North Shore, near the end of the road beyond Hanalei. Open Tuesday-Saturday; $15/self-guided tour, $30/guided tour. 808-826-1053, www.ntbg.org/gardens/
NA 'AINA KAI: Also on the North Shore, near the community of Kilauea (and Kilauea Lighthouse). Open Tuesday-Friday morning, guided tours only. $35 to $75/person. 808-828-0525 or www.naainakai.org/
MCBRYDE AND ALLERTON GARDENS: These side-by-side gardens, open daily, are near Poipu, on Kauai's south end. 808-742-2623 or www.ntbg.org/gardens
McBryde Garden: Visitors can explore on their own but must park and take a 15-minute tram ride (included in tour cost) to the garden from the NTBG visitor center. $20/age 13-older.
Allerton Garden: Guided tours only. $45, $20 ages 10-12.
MORE INFO: Kauai Visitors Bureau, 800-262-1400 or www.kauaidiscovery.com