PRINCEVILLE, KAUAI — Nestled under a lightly woven canopy of green leaves and sheltered from the cool tradewinds that breeze over the island of Kauai is a little grove of cacao trees.
Visit at the right time and you’ll find the trees heavy with reddish-yellow pods, bursting with roughly 50 beans depending on the size, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll be sipping on some freshly brewed hot cacao in the process of pod hunting.
“We collect the seeds and then dry and roast them, and then we make this warm drink from them,” said Bill Robertson, owner of the Princeville Botanical Gardens, which are situated on the island’s north eastern shore. “My wife Lucinda used to make chocolate out of them, but she’s not doing that anymore. She’s focused on other things.”
The cacao grove is only one of the rich experiences Robertson, along with Lucinda and master gardener Michael Wise, have created in their 9-acre gardens. It’s also home to more than 700 plant types, which are sprinkled through a fairytale maze of grassy pathways, suspended bridges, wooden staircases and waterfalls.
“The gardens were built out of a whim and passionate desire and none of it was master planned,” Robertson said. “Every little section of the garden was created on its own.”
Only those with reservations are allowed into the botanical gardens, and guests are greeted as they drive through the gate by one of the six tour guides — who all have at least nine months of training under their belts. Guests are split into groups of fewer than 20 people for an intimate, three-hour visit.
“Our tour guides are all plant nerds, so they’re always learning more and more about our gardens,” Robertson said.
Bill and Lucinda moved to Kauai in 2001 to retire, which was the fruition of a life-long dream.
“As soon as I got my high school diploma in 1969, I grabbed my surfboard, got on a plane and came to Hawaii,” Bill said. “ Kauai was the last island I visited and I had a spiritual experience. I told myself I was going to come here to live someday.”
More than 30 years later, Robertson found himself hiking along the Napali Coast. He said the beauty was breathtaking and that was the kind of experience he wanted to engineer for himself and others on the land he’d purchased in Princeville.
So he and Lucinda teamed up with Wise and the three of them began clearing the thick, invasive jungle that surrounded the Anini Stream at the bottom of the property.
“I remember walking down to the stream and it was so ancient, so calm,” Lucinda said. “I knew it was a special place.”
Now a series of green pathways follow the edge of the stream, lined with vibrant anthuriums, dozens of ti plant varieties, and a repertoire of different types of palms, as well as fruit trees bursting with mango, jackfruit, avocado, rambutan, and much more.
“The inspiration for the gardens comes from the island itself,” Bill Robertson said, “and we don’t just want people to have fun. We want them to leave in tears because they’re so moved by the beauty.”
Visitors get to take in more than the ambiance and a warm drink throughout the tour. Periodically, the guides stop the group for a rest and a taste of the more exotic fruits in the garden, or to gather a few rudraksha seeds, which are traditionally used in Hinduism as prayer beads.
“If you take the time to look closely, our gardener Michael, he puts little flowers and other things along the path,” Robertson said. “Michael likes to keep adding details and subtle changes to the garden.”
Robertson said the garden is bursting with plants from all over the world, and his goal is to have plants that aren’t in any of the other botanical gardens.
“Most people don’t realize how many different types of plants there are here,” Robertson said. “Michael has a wish list and about once a month or so we go down the list and get a few more.”
The garden itself is also constantly growing, and Robertson said they’ve just finished opening up the newest piece of the gardens — which is a more open, park-like area tucked by a rocky waterfall at the edge of the property.
“Lucinda and I live in the house up there on the hill and we love welcoming you to our backyard, to this art project of beautiful plants and flowers,” Robertson said.
The walking tours are scheduled for Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Info: (808) 634-5505.
Written for and published in The Garden Island Newspaper, June 7, 2016. Photos taken by Jessica Else for TGI, published the same date.