Monday, July 8, 2013

Restorative Transformation at The Gardens

The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort makes a wonderful vacation destination for many reasons, one of which is the restorative effect it has on so many of our guests. It seems to me this is one of the major reasons people choose to stay here at Kona Kai and return year after year.

It seems to me that the best spot for a given vacationer is one that best matches their vacation goals. If someone is looking for nightlife, shopping, and a profusion of attractions within walking distance, a stay in Key West is probably well-suited for them. Others, however, are looking for a place apart, a sanctuary of sorts, where they can rest and restore their vitality. It is with the latter vacationer in mind that The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort has been carefully designed. In general terms, a "sanctuary" should be a place where one feels safe and secure, a place as free as possible from the pressures and distractions of the "outside world." At the same time, one should not get the feeling of being trapped. You may not notice it, but the palm tree framed bridge was designed to emphasize the transition from the outside world to our hidden botanical sanctuary:

Plants provide many valuable goods and services to humans, including medicine, food, fragrance, materials, energy, and oxygen. While all of these things are certainly incredibly important to our survival and well-being, one of the least tangible but most important services plants can provide for us is what I like to call "restoration."

The well-known ecologist E. O. Wilson coined the term "biophilia" to represent the apparent attraction of humans to natural hues, especially greens and blues, as opposed to the grays of concrete and artificial colors of manufactured materials - we instinctively seek out verdant landscapes and panoramic azure vistas when stress levels rise. Indeed, scientific studies have shown that access to well-designed outdoor spaces improves well-being.

Yep, I'd say it's more than an apparent attraction...and not too much research needed to prove it improves well-being!

I know from personal experience that a walk through my college arboretum in the afternoon after classes was the perfect medicine to restore, re-energize, and refocus me before a full night of homework. Now that I have a full-time job, if ever I hit a creative wall or cannot figure the answer to a problem that has presented itself, I find that a walk outside "clears my head" and helps immensely when I return to working. I also know that commuting via paddle board puts me in a much different frame of mind to start my workday than if I had just had a traffic-laden commute. And whenever I have the opportunity to take a vacation, my ideal place is a peaceful sanctuary in nature. There, my troubles and burdens most easily fall away. My vitality is replenished, and I feel ready to once again take on the responsibilities and challenges awaiting my return home.

This is exactly what The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, and a restorative garden in general, is designed for - reducing stress, anxiety, mental fatigue, emotional fatigue, anger, and pain, and fostering relaxation, replenishment, soothing, calming, and rejuvenation, thereby restoring the visitor to an optimum state of being. The Gardens provides an escape that encourages the restoration of balance in mind, body, and spirit; it is a sanctuary of renewal, a synthesis of disparate elements that becomes a life-giving energy barely perceptible at the level of consciousness. The body has a great capacity to heal itself, which seems to be enhanced for many people when they are immersed in a restorative garden, such as the one we have here at Kona Kai.

The rest of this post explores in detail what researchers have determined are crucial elements specific to restorative gardens and the ways The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort incorporates those elements.

In terms of general garden design, a multilayered landscape (one with large trees, smaller trees and shrubs, and understory plants), lushly lined pathways and vistas, water, and the right balance of flowering and foliage plants are the best ingredients. When spending time in such a place, one begins to feel the restorative effects of the environment even though one may not be able to pinpoint the specific reasons why. Researchers believe that gardens with about 70% plants and 30% pathways / gathering areas are optimal for restoration.

All of the above, including a perfect 70% / 30% balance!

Researchers have found the gardens that heal and soothe best are those providing gentle stimulation of all the senses. Vision is the dominant sense for most people - colors, views, visible textures (we have lush tropical foliage, flowers, coral stone, wood, and tiki huts), and activity (watching birds, squirrels, lizards, and boats here) - but if you are in a relaxed state, you begin to take note of more than just what is apparent to sight. Sound is next - we have a variety of birds throughout the gardens, bamboo and palm fronds rustling in the breeze, small waterfalls, and waves. Right now we have a mockingbird that sits atop one of our trees and sings beautifully most every day; cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers also join in the chorus. Fragrances form strong attachments to memories, and when certain fragrances are present, there is a significant impact on the mind. Fragrances here are those of a tropical paradise - salt water breezes; frangipani, orchid, and jasmine flowers; and Key lime soaps in the rooms). Taste - samples from our tropical fruit garden are available when ripe (fresh pineapple, Jamaican cherries, sugar apples, papaya, starfruit, figs, pomelo, and bananas). Touch - many of our plants have interesting textures (gumbo-limbo, sensitive plant, palm fronds). Here are a few photos of the examples above here at Kona Kai:

White frangipani - fragrant and beautiful.

Our resident red-bellied woodpeckers.

Delicious fruit from our starfruit tree.

Some guests benefit more when they can be involved in some way with the restorative environment, while others prefer more passive relaxation - our gardens offer the opportunity for both. Guests looking for more stimulation can explore the Gardens on their own to experience the sensory stimulations described above and take a tour with me to learn and experience much more when it comes to the plants. Self-tours are also available for those who prefer to explore on their own.

A restorative garden should provide opportunities for discovery and give the place a sense of hiddenness and mystery, but not so much that guests are brought to the point of confusion and disorientation. Our gardens do this through a network of pathways that are easy to navigate but not so simplistic that they are rigid and boring. I'll take guests on a tour who have stayed with us multiple times and they'll discover plants and areas they never saw before. Here is a common "path less traveled:"

A little exploration...

...often leads to hidden treasures.
Kayaks and a paddle boat allow for the adventure and exploration to continue, as our gardens transition seamlessly to Florida Bay, with its life-filled seagrass meadows and mangrove islands. After exploring, there's nothing like paddling back to our paradisiacal "Garden of Eden."

Florida bay beckons with its stunning waters and mangrove islands.

One of the best parts of going out into the Bay is coming back!

Hammocks and lounge chairs provide spaces to relax in the gardens, taking the place of more traditional garden benches and chairs, though we do have a few of those, too. Movable lounges and chairs allow for more informality to contrast the often rigid constraints that cause stress and anxiety in the "outside world." There are a number of places within the gardens where one can be alone, or at least removed from, other guests, as well as a number of places where one can gather with others to interact. Spaces in both shade and sun are crucial to have available to guests, depending upon their disposition. My personal favorite spot to be is under the dappled shade of palm fronds:

Opportunities and settings for reflection are a must in restorative gardens. I find the best place for this is looking out over the water, with each time of day conducive to different moods, perspectives, and insights. Also, being able to be in the gardens at night and look up at the stars is incredible - laying in the hammock looking up at the stars through the gently swaying palm fronds is one of my favorite reflection environments. Opportunities for this kind of reflection are limited at most botanic gardens, as they will often close at sundown.

One of my favorite times of day for reflection, which continues on into the night... the stars begin to come out after sunset.

For me, as well as countless other guests I see on a daily basis, restoration happens easily here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. From the early morning until late evening, opportunities for restoration abound. Even just looking at photos is enough to have an effect, but I assure you - this is something you need to experience in person!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director