Garden of the Sleepy Giant

Paradise Blooming - where orchids and movie stars find refuge.


pacific-orchidsIt’s easy to be dazzled by the glint of the sunlight reflecting off the ocean and lulled to sleep in a hammock strung between coconut palms, but a little more than five kilometres from the International Airport in Nadi is an entirely different world, a world of stunning sprays of orchids, towering mango trees, colourful gingers and bold heliconias.

My first visit to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant came about purely by chance. I had driven in to Nadi from Suva and found myself with a few hours to fill before meeting my partner that evening. TripAdvisor reviews gushed about the botanic delights just past the airport. I pulled up the location on Google Maps and followed the straightforward directions past the airport, down the dusty road off the King’s Highway, into the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in for a magical experience, one that would actually change the way I looked at the world around me.

garden-of-sleepy-giantMany of Fiji’s seven hundred thousand annual visitors spend their hours on the beaches of the Coral Coast, Yasawas and Mamanucas. Business travelers tend to congregate in soggy Suva, which receives a whopping average of 132 inches of rain each year. In contrast, on average Nadi receives only about 66 inches annually. The phrase “The Burning North” has as much to do with the hotter dryer temperatures of the area as it does with the annual burning of the sugar cane before harvest.

As you might guess, the plant life in Central Suva is very different from that found in the Nausori Highlands. Nestled in the Sabeto Valley, the Garden of the Sleeping Giant is named for the foothills that can be seen in the distance and interpreted as the profile of a sleeping giant. My drive north out of Nadi on the King’s Road’s revealed lots of sugarcane fields and sunburnt vegetation, but the unpaved Wailoko road gradually grew shadier and more verdant.

fiji-travelI turned into the parking lot above the Garden and came down a stone staircase to the main pavilion. I was greeted with the traditional Fijian “Bula!” and invited to look around but advised that the garden would close in less than an hour.

Knowing that I was pressed for time, I took off walking along a smooth concrete path, past a planting of the edible bromeliads the tropics are known for. Pineapples are the most economically important member of the bromeliad family, but I was here to see the orchids. I continued into the shade cloth covered tunnel and had to stop. I was surrounded on every side by orchids of every size, shape and colour. I immediately knew that I would be back at a later date with more time to explore.

orchids-fijiThere is a great deal of freedom in knowing that your first visit will not be your last. I didn’t bemoan the underpowered camera on my old cellphone and I didn’t feel rushed even though I had less than an hour to wander the grounds. I walked through the shady tunnel and down a boardwalk to lovely lily ponds. I climbed the pathways flanked by green and yellow bamboos and took a few minutes to swing on the old swing at the top of the hill. With the sun setting behind the slumbering hills, I wandered back to the shady pavilion where a glass of cold juice that was waiting for me. What was this wonderful place and how did it come into being?

Fiji’s largest orchid collection has its roots in Hollywood. The American TV drama Perry Mason first aired in the US in 1957, and by 1965 its star Raymond Burr discovered that he could escape his fame and find peace and solitude in the Fiji Islands. That year Raymond Burr bought the island of Naitauba, a 4000 acre private island in the Lau group. Outside of Lautoka town, he purchased another garden estate as a resting point for him and his friends preparing to escape to Naitauba. Today, the Fiji Orchid is a boutique hotel on 5 acres of land in the foothills of the Nausori Highlands. What Burr is remembered most for in Fiji however, is the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, the 50 acre nursery and plantation that he and his partner Robert Benevides founded in 1977.

fiji-attractionsFiji is ideally located for the growing of orchids. It has an average temperature in the high 20s/low 30s throughout the main island of Viti Levu, and sufficient rainfall to support the warm and humid conditions orchids and other tropical flowers thrive in. There are 171 species of orchids found in Fiji, of which 164 are indigenous and 51 are endemic to Fiji. The 164 indigenous species are covered by the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and cannot be shipped outside Fiji without a permit. Even so, between supplying pot orchids to hotels and businesses and cut orchids for flower arrangements, there’s plenty of domestic demand for orchids.

Aileen and Don Burness discovered this after they relocated from Suva to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. Originally moving in 1983 at Burr’s request to revitalize the gardens, they purchased his home in 1987 and went into growing orchids full time as well as offering tours of the grounds to visitors. Additional land was acquired for growing orchids and still commercial demand could not be met. Part of Aileen Burness’s plan was to give back to the people of Fiji. Her idea was to empower local women by training them to cultivate flowers that are highly desirable within the florist trade. She would then source the flowers from them through her South Sea Orchids company and sell to florists. Beginning in October 1996 she trained the first fifteen women on how to start a business and how to grow gingers, heliconias, orchids, and anthuriums. Heliconias and gingers are grown on very poor swampy soil as a means of absorbing excess water which then reduces standing water and eliminates mosquito breeding ponds. Income brought in by the sale of these flowers is an added bonus to the family. Soon, she had over 250 women supplying flowers that were used to fill standing orders with Fiji florists and hotels.

sleepy-giantAfter my initial visit to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant I was dazzled. I was bewitched by these beautiful plants. I also began to see them everywhere in Fiji! In sorting through my photos from a hike at Colo-I-Suva Forest Park I came across an orchid blossoming wildly in our path from its perch on a tree. I saw them at the edge of friends’ patios, happily enjoying the shade of the overhang while drinking deeply of the humid air near the sea wall. I saw orchids perched at the edge of office workers’ desks, as well as boldly decorating hotels all over the island. In my evening walks around different resort properties I started to recognize shade houses and would veer towards them to see what kind of plants the resort had stored away.

Finally an evening event brought me back to the West. I eagerly contacted Mohini Kumar, General Manager of the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, and asked if I could get a tour of the shade houses and grounds. He put me in touch with Howard Trip, Resident Manager of the grounds and we made arrangements to meet. I made sure I had extra memory cards and clean lenses and arranged to spend the day at the Gardens.

island-life-magazineWhat a day it was! Howard welcomed me on arrival and introduced me to Shavneel Krishna, their plant propagator. Shavneel walked me around the shade houses and demonstrated how he and the staff cared for the orchids. Much to my surprise the vandas and dendrobriums only need to be watered once a week. They also don’t like to be soggy, in fact their roots will rot if they stay too wet. Funnily enough the shade houses didn’t have the biggest and most beautiful blooms. Those were all in the tunnels near the main building, on display for tourists.

As we walked the largest of the shade houses Howard and Shavneel pointed out how the shade cloth was only a single layer above me. We then moved into the shade house where the Cattleyas were grown and they showed the double layer of shade cloth. Cattleyas are what most people think of when they think of orchids.

fiji-orchidsThe last part of my guided tour was a visit to a special type of orchid growing up on a hill away from the main building and shade houses. These plants were Vanilla tahitensis orchid vines. Originally cultivated in South America, vanilla and chocolate were brought to Europe in the 1520s by the conquistador Hernán Cortés. Until the 1840s vanilla pods could not be grown outside of South and Central America because of the symbiotic relationship between the orchid and the Melipona bee, its pollinator. Once a method to hand-pollinate the orchids was discovered, world wide cultivation ensued. Today in Fiji vanilla pods can be purchased at the RoC Market and at the Fiji Spice Farm among other places.

After our walk through the vanilla vines, Shavneel left me to wander the grounds. I once again walked down through the shade tunnel showcasing the most profusely blooming orchids the garden had to offer. The lily ponds with their carpet of white flowers drew the tourists to them and I felt a moment of kinship with the garden statues hugging the forest trees, up and apart from the people below. As we learn more of the world oftentimes the magic fades. This visit proved that not only is there magic in nature, the more I visited, the more I learned, the more questions were answered, the deeper the well of nature’s magic proved to be.

The Garden of the Sleeping Giant, 6.5 KM north of Nadi, Wailoko Road. Open Monday to Saturdays – 9 am to 5 pm, Sundays 9am to 12pm. Rates: Adults $16.00, children (6 – 15yrs): $8.00, families (Parents and minor children): $40.00 Ph: +679 672 3418 / +679 672 2701.

Extend your trip with a visit to the Sabeto Hot Springs and Mud Pool, Wailoko Rd (About 10 minutes past the Garden of the Sleeping Giant), Ph: +679 8340088.

The Fiji Orchid, 15 km north of Nadi/10km south of Lautoka, Saweni Beach Road. Ph: +679 628 3099 / +679 628 0097, [email protected],

Orchids at the Garden of the Sleeping Giant are not for sale, but you can stop by Liz Morris’s Tifui Nursey & Garden Centre to buy your own, Nasau Road, Nadi +679.836 5927.

Amerika Grewal grew up on the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan desert, an arid area where no orchids are found. She loved learning about these beautiful flowers, but doesn’t yet trust her desert thumbs to coax a bloom from these tropical plants. Contact her at [email protected]