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. 

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Calimesa, CA
At the Kauai home of Pixar filmaker Lee Unkrich and his family, an ipe wood boardwalk, along with an elaborate lighting system, provides safe passage from the garden to the cliff overlooking exclusive Secret Beach on the north coast of Kauai. Photo by: Linny Morris. To celebrate the completion of the three-year project, interior and garden designer Andrea Lecusay and builder James Antony threw a holiday-season party. Early arrivals traversed the boardwalk to hang out on a teak lounger overlooking the bluff. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.”

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Calimesa, CA Garden Design
Calimesa, CA
"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 architecture and blended it with a landscape of Hawaiian plants and Indonesian furnishings to create a serene and tranquil environment." Photo by: Linny Morris. Eighty garlands, made with pale green and white dendrobium orchids, creamy white stephanotis blooms, crown flowers (Calotropis gigantea) and green berries, hang from three garden bales. Each strand has a finishing detail: a shell, seahorse or gold ball. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.

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Imported Balinese containers are used throughout the property as water gardens. Photo by: Linny Morris. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.”

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Calimesa, CA
Sheltered from the ocean breezes by a cardamom hedge (Elettaria cardamomum), the rustic seating is made from reclaimed teak. Brilliant color comes from hibiscus and Heliconia, a ginger relative. Photo by: Linny Morris. A close-up of one of the teak furniture pieces. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.”

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Calimesa, CA
A festively dressed custom trestle table built from 100-year-old boat siding is in the garden off the rear lanai and is an inviting place for party guests to gather. Photo by: Linny Morris. The tiki in this seating area off the home's rear lanai (veranda) was chiseled in place from a dying palm trunk by master carver Crazy Al Evans. It often anchors one end of a hammock. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.”

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Calimesa, CA
Subtle and evocative, the warm glow of outdoor lighting - part of a wireless Vantage lighting system - and the flames from tiki torches lend magic to this poolside setting. Photo by: Linny Morris. Party decor borrows heavily from the island. The beads are a Kukui nut leis. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.

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Calimesa, CA
Hawaiian culture is centered on ohana, or family. "And it's not really ohana without keiki," Lecusay says. Photo by: Linny Morris. Several girls, including builder James Antony's daughter Nina, gathered on the lawn pillows to string fragrant leis of plumeria, orchids and gardenias. The children gave the leis to their parents and other adult guests. An important part of Hawaiian history and customs, leis are draped over the shoulders of men, women, and children alike. Photo by: Linny Morris.

“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.”

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Calimesa, CA Garden Design
Calimesa, CA
Detail of Heliconia, a ginger relative. Photo by: Linny Morris. The teak poolside furnishings were imported from Bali, as were the urns, used here as water gardens. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.

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Calimesa, CA
A pair of carved tikis stand sentry to the pool pavilion. Photo by: Linny Morris. A pathway beckons guests to the ipe wood boardwalk leading to the bluff. Photo by: Linny Morris.

 “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.

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Calimesa, CA
The dining platform is at the edge of a bluff. The chairs, by Lecusay, are made of recycled boat siding and rice-plow handles. Photo by: Linny Morris. A serene stone Buddha sits atop a meticulous mound of green mondo grass and agapanthus. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.”

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Calimesa, CA
Photo by: Linny Morris. At Hale Ho'omalu, every corner of the garden is considered an opportunity for lounging and enjoying the respite of island days. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.”

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Calimesa, CA
A trio of foxtail palms rises behind a teak seating area near the front door. Photo by: Linny Morris. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.”

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Calimesa, CA
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. Photo by: Linny Morris. Dani Felix of Private Chef Kauai created a "fusion pupu" menu for the holiday party, sourced with seasonal ingredients from local growers who sell at the Hanalei farmers market. Photo by: Linny Morris.

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.” 

Botanical Décor

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.

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