Sunset And Pupus At Lawai Kai

In 1937, Robert Allerton bought 83 acres from the McBryde Company, which purchased the valley from Queen Emma’s Estate in the late 1800s. Allerton and his partner John Gregg created a masterpiece of landscaped design and called it Lawai Kai. Allerton created five outdoor rooms and threw lavish parties with celebrity guests at their home in Po’ipu, deep in a canyon and tucked along Lawai Beach.

Today, Allerton Garden is part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a private, nonprofit organization chartered by an act of Congress and supported by a network of five gardens and three preserves. Allerton Garden and McBryde Garden are both in Po’ipu, and free guided tours are available to Hawaii residents every Sunday. Other gardens include Limahuli in Ha’ena, Kahanu Garden on Maui and The Kampong in Florida.

Seeking to spark our imagination, and fantasize about being rich and carousing with famous friends in a mansion by the bay, my husband, Dan, and I take a guided sunset tour that ends up with pupus on the lanai of the historical Allerton residence.

Our guide Ryan Buhk is a fourth-generation Kaua’i native who grew up in Koloa. As we ride into the canyon in an air-conditioned bus, we skirt past Kukui’ula Golf Course, and hole 14, proclaimed “The most dramatic hole debut in 2011,” by Golf Magazine.

“The Allerton Gardens are so beautiful,” says Buhk. “It’s been called one of the must-sees of our lifetime by National Geographic Traveler magazine.”

Plumes of magenta, fuchsia and pink cascade down cliff sides, the bougainvillea a remnant of Queen Emma, the wife of King Kamehameha IV. Lawai Kai sparkles at the edge of the valley floor, and the Allerton home sits on a large, manicured lawn dotted with soaring coconut palms. Lawai Stream gently empties into the ocean after making a slight detour through a 1,400-year-old fishpond.

Winding our way down a narrow dirt road that was once a railroad track used by the McBryde Sugar Company to haul sugarcane, we go deeper into the canyon. Squeezing through a blast in the hillside, a thick tangle of Chinese fern roots choke the rocky face.

“Robert was a successful landscape artist when he bought the property,” Buhk says. “He had a 2,000-acre art project outside of Champaign, Ill., called Allerton Park, which exists today. When he saw this view, he knew he found the home for his magnum opus.”

In the lush garden, Buhk guides us through three of the five outdoor rooms, pointing out rare native plants, canoe plants and introduced plants along the way.

“Robert’s canvas was the soil,” Buhk says as we approach the Thanksgiving Room. “His palette was the colors and textures of plants and trees.”

The room got its name after Allerton surprised his guests by hosting a Thanksgiving dinner in the outdoor sculpture. Gravity-fed water spills from two cupids in a pool. Spires top a white lattice structure that looks like a New England church. Alexander palms frame the last room Allerton built.

We take pictures of each other hiding in the roots of massive Moreton Bay fig trees made famous by the movie Jurassic Park. These 70-year-old trees are the size of 450-year-old Moreton Bays in their native Australia.

“Lawai Stream acts like a steroid,” explains Buhk. “These trees come from a desert plain, and the water nurtures a tremendous growth rate.”

Full canopies of monkeypod trees shelter the Mermaid Room, which features a series of scalloped shapes. Plants with arched leaves frame the room, and a stack of scallops hold up curvy mermaid statues. A long, thin watercourse is a succession of scallops filled with water that pulses, in a scallop shape, into a basin.

Long stalks of golden, clumping bamboo fill the Bamboo Room. Even though Allerton was almost deaf, he could hear the creaks and moans when the wind pushed against the trees. The sounds combined with the overhead sun, which would cast a stained glass effect that reminded Allerton of a cathedral, made this his favorite room.

Golden sun reflects off ripples in the stream as we approach the Guest House. Richard Nixon, Jacqueline Onassis, Georgia O’Keeffe and John Wayne all stayed here, and were lulled by the sounds of nearby waves crashing into the cliffs.

Red dirt turns into white sand as we walk into Lawai Kai. A footbridge crosses the stream and leads to a cliff that Hawaiians used to spot schools of fish. Walking from the Allerton parlor with a plate full of pupus, we sit at tables on the lanai.

The sun sets over the ocean as ghosts from the past clink glasses and laugh. Gazing over the ocean, we wonder about what has been and what will be.

Sunset Allerton Tour $70 for adults; $20 for children ages 8-12


Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit