Gathering family, friends and good food is an American holiday tradition. For Lee Unkrich, wife Laura Century and their three children, the holidays also mean hitting the pause button and traveling from Northern California’s Marin County to their vacation home on Kauai, the northernmost of Hawaii’s string of exotic islands.
At Hale Ho’omalu (“a place of refuge”), the Unkrich family enjoys a slower pace. The property’s open-air architecture and lushly planted grounds are more alluring than any exotic retreat. “Our friends call it the nicest ‘resort’ they’ve been to,” says Lee, a Pixar Animation Studios veteran whose feature-length film (as director) Toy Story 3 will be released in June 2010 (he also co-directed Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.). “The garden is our lush, idyllic vision of a Hawaiian jungle.”
Before even reaching the residence, a series of garden elements unfolds. A trio of foxtail palms rises behind a teak seating area near the front door, while a stone Buddha sits atop a meticulous mound of green mondo grass and agapanthus. Gentle splashing sounds beckon the visitor to turn a corner and discover the partially hidden water garden. A pathway lined with orchid-laden palms leads away from the house, through an opening in the hedge, to the shaded and decadent pool pavilion, where towering twin tikis stand sentry. At Hale Ho’omalu, each garden feature leads to another, allowing one to relish and discover without fear of missing out on any single detail.
Laura and Lee discovered the two-acre property and its Greene and Greene-inspired home while vacationing on Kauai in 2006. The couple envisioned an island retreat where they could come for brief or extended visits. “We’d been traveling to Hawaii for years, but we had become disenchanted with resort-style vacations,” Lee explains. “We wanted to get off the beaten path and see the real Hawaii.”
The 3,600-square-foot residence is situated in a private enclave at the upper edge of a valley on north Kauai, aptly named the Garden Isle for its verdant tropical vegetation. The diverse terrain includes a forest of palms, ferns and bamboo; a bluff overlooking Secret Beach and a trail that leads down to the beach and right to the edge of the turquoise Pacific. “One of the things we knew right away was that this is a place to share with family and friends,” Lee says. “It allows us to spread the good fortune of having such a special place.”
To renovate the decade-old home and its sprawling, overgrown grounds, the couple spent three years in collaboration with Hawaii-based designer Andrea Lecusay of Lakshmi Interiors and custom-home builder James Antony of Antony Homes, who built the original home in 1996. Together, they upgraded the residence, expanded the outdoor pool and patio areas, and renovated the extensive grounds into multiple garden rooms designed for entertaining and outdoor living. To Lee, designing a home and garden is not unlike his day job. “It’s very similar to designing a movie,” he acknowledges. “I had a lot of opinions about every tiny little design detail.”
Antony ensured a seamless appearance in craftsmanship. “James was able to locate the same carvers and craftspeople to add on railings, corbels and other details. There isn’t anything here that hasn’t been made by hand,” Lecusay says.
“Lee and Laura very much love old Hawaiiana, and they wanted to create an understated elegance that was reminiscent of Hawaii circa 1900 to the 1940s,” Lecusay explains. “We worked with the Arts and Crafts and Asian-influenced architecture, and blended it with a landscape of Hawaiian plants and Indonesian furnishings to create a serene and tranquil environment.”
When Lee and Laura acquired Hale Ho’omalu, it was already heavily populated with trees. Fiji fan palms, blue Latan palms, foxtail palms, triangle palms and coconut palms create a “tropical woodland,” which Lee appreciates as a “cool, safe haven from the sun.” They also inherited a family-size orchard with exotic edibles, including avocado, lychee, noni, ‘Cara Cara’ orange and allspice trees.
“Around the house there were a few black taro plants, old agaves, bananas and some orchids in the trees, but otherwise the (understory) was sparsely planted,” says Sharon Fiore, a local garden consultant whom Lecusay brought into the project. Color and texture were missing from the landscape at eye level. To add layers of interest, Fiore filled planting beds and borders with tree ferns, agapanthus, orchids, bananas, taro (Colocasia esculenta), ginger lilies (Hedychium), crotons (Codiaeum), gardenias, honeysuckle, ti plant (Cordyline fruticosa), hibiscus and other tropicals. With more than 100 orchids on the property, something is always in bloom.
Perched above the ocean as it is, the bluff, with its platform deck and dining area, is exposed to constant wind and salt water. Here, along the rugged north edge of the property, Fiore planted native hibiscus and dwarf octopus trees (Schefflera actinophylla). “They can take the extreme conditions,” she points out. “Because of Kauai’s mountains, wind and weather patterns, this property doesn’t get much rain. But these plants just take off here.”
Thoughtfully planned seating areas throughout the garden encourage its occupants to live on island time, whiling away the tropical days. Lecusay designed most of the furnishings and had them made in Indonesia. Custom gas tiki torches surround the saltwater pool (a bamboolike copper sheath covers the pole of each), and the trunks of palms are uplit after dark. “The best time to arrive here is at night,” Lee says. “There are torches everywhere — it looks like we’re ready for a Polynesian luau.”
Indeed, the grounds are movie-set perfect for entertaining. Everything from the monkey pod trees to the Buddha statue is lit at night. “We programmed ‘scenes’ into the keypads so Lee and Laura can control the atmosphere with a single touch at different times of the day,” Lecusay says. “There’s a romantic twinkle everywhere.”
To Lecusay, the magic of Hawaii’s culture, alluring plant life and welcoming spirit is embodied in the home and garden she helped to create. “People move to Hawaii because they want to live a casual and luxurious outdoor lifestyle,” she says. “The more time you spend here, the more you appreciate the ambience and the beauty.”
With the bountiful landscape as a backdrop, Lecusay worked with floral designer Laurel Randolph of Kauai Floral Arts and her assistant, Mary Lou Harchis, to fashion botanical decorations for the party. Here’s how they transformed local materials into festive decorations:
• They strung floral garlands that are Hawaii’s equivalent of lights. Eighty garlands — made with pale-green and white Dendrobium orchids, creamy white Stephanotis blooms, crown flowers (Calotropis gigantea) and green berries, and finished with shells, seahorses and gold balls — hang from the balé rooftops.
• For the seasonal centerpieces, they selected lime-green Cymbidium orchids, white Anthurium, huge protea blooms and gold balls for accents.