Beside a backyard pool, an L.A. homeowner re-creates the islands she loves

When you’re floating in Ruth Hunter’s dark blue pool surrounded by palms and orchids, it’s easy to forget you’re in Los Angeles. “You feel like you’re drifting through a Hawaiian lagoon,” she says. And that was the whole idea. Though Hunter, her husband, Sean Daniel, and their son, Quincy, visit Hawaii several times a year, she never gets enough of the island paradise. Part of her heart is always in the tropics. When the family returned from one of those trips, Hunter said to herself: “Why not re-create the tropics in my backyard?” So what if the house was more English Tudor than grass shack? “I decided my traditional garden bored me. I wanted something more lyrical and fantastic.”

Hunter imagined a pool that would remind her of the fishponds encircled with lava rocks she saw as she drove through the Islands. She also wanted a tin-roofed surf shack like the one depicted in her favorite Hawaiian watercolor. “I’ve always loved shacks,” says Hunter. “Their simplicity makes me feel safe and secure.” 

To make her fantasy real, Hunter turned to landscape designer Mary Effron and her husband, Javier Valdivia, an artist and a mason. The couple gave Hunter a pool with a pond feel; it’s 11 to 12 feet deep and uses a dark gray plaster to enhance its depth. To mimic the lava rock edging that Hunter wanted, they put in chunky individual stones rather than smooth flagstone around the pool, choosing rocks in the dark reddish tones seen in Hawaii. For the shack, they engaged Erik White, a designer and carpenter with movie-set experience, who built a casual-looking but rock-steady entertainment deck and the shelter. The floor is redwood, the supporting poles are of galvanized steel covered with split bamboo, and the back wall is covered with reed matting.

Hunter’s son and his pals love jumping into the pool from the platform. (When they were younger, they pretended to fish there.) The shack has a practical side too: Pool equipment is hidden behind it.

Palms, ornamental bananas, cannas, and other tropicals planted close to the pool and in pots right at its edge deepen the lagoon illusion. Tropical-print fabric on the garden furniture, a few tiki torches, some large shells, and a surfboard complete the mood.

Hunter and her family love their movie-set backyard. “Reinventing yourself is practically an L.A. tradition,” she says. “Why not extend it to your garden?”

DESIGN: Mary Effron Landscape Design, Santa Monica (310/452-7152); Erik White Designs, Los Angeles (323/662-4167)

You don’t need a lagoonlike pool to get in a luau mood. Set-decorating alone can go a long way toward creating your own Hawaiian style. Roll out some jute rugs. Replace cushion covers with fabric in a Hawaiian floral motif ― Hawaiian Fabric has about 1,000 prints to choose from. Display flowering orchids or exotic cut flowers like bird of paradise or heliconia. Bring in a few tiki gods to reign over the garden; if you can’t find a local source, order them online from Tiki Master.

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