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Hidden Gem: Honolulu's Lyon Arboretum

It's the most idyllic surprise in Hawaii—a palmy Eden five miles from Waikiki. And this year, it turns 100.

Peter Fish
pair of visitors cross a small bridge through lush growth at Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu, Hawaii, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Courtesy Lyon Arboretum
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Now: Some 40,000 people visit the garden each year.

A lush wonderland today, Lyon Arboretum had humble beginnings. Back in 1918, when Honolulu was a city of 80,000, farmers felled trees on the slopes above town to graze their cattle. During rainy season, torrents of water raced down the newly bare hillsides, depriving the sugarcane fields of groundwater. To stop this costly calamity, botanist Harold Lyon proposed that the sugar growers buy some mountain acreage and reforest it.

A century later, the garden named for Lyon holds 13,000 plants, from wide-canopied Hawaiian koa trees to showy Malaysian torch ginger blossoms. "We have plants from all over the world," says Rakan Zahawi, the arboretum's director. Now managed by the University of Hawaii, the garden preserves rare local plants and safeguards seeds from native species.

early 20th century view of Lyon Arboretum building and garden with mountain backdrop in Honoulu, Hawaii, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Ann Cecil / Photo Resource Hawaii
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Then: Lyon was once a private research facility.

Even if you aren't a plant scientist, Lyon will enchant you. Step onto the Great Lawn and, before you, the long, intensely green Manoa Valley extends into the mist-softened Koolau mountains. Trails lead to 10 individual gardens, each one an epiphany. Enter Fern Valley, and you'll be enveloped in leaves of all shapes and sizes. In the Herb and Spice Garden, scents of clove, allspice, and mint fill the air.

Zahawi loves to follow the main path up the valley to ‘Aihualama Falls. Then, he suggests, take a slight detour to pause at Inspiration Point. "It's a beautiful lookout, and it shows the whole valley. A great spot to sit and contemplate the world."

Up Next: Makena Beach, Maui: A Hawaiian Paradise

If you're planning on traveling to Honolulu, talk to the Vacation Experts for free at AAA Travel.

This article was first published in Fall 2018. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.