The Thuya and Asticou Azalea gardens, conceived and designed by a self-taught visionary in the 1950s, are lush, quiet places to stroll and sit a spell and escape the bustle of summer.
But the sister gardens, located on the same stretch of road wrapping around Northeast Harbor, could not be more different.
Thuya, a walled garden where a grassy aisle defines lavish perennial beds, is hidden high up on Asticou Hill’s slopes. Inspired by Japan’s Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, Asticou Azalea Garden in late spring puts on a colorful show of azaleas whose multi-hued blooms are reflected in a small pond.
Now another, unique, striking garden has joined Thuya and Asticou Azalea as part of the Land & Garden Preserve on Mount Desert Island. Last year, the late David Rockefeller Sr.’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden — named after his mother — became part of the nonprofit preserve as well as Little Long Pond and nearby trails. The Abby Garden — as it’s now known — the pond and Thuya and Asticou gardens all are within a short distance of each other on Route 3 (Peabody Drive).
Further binding the gardens and pond is the recently completed Richard Trail that traverses Eliot Mountain and Little Harbor Brook before descending to Little Long Pond, where it connects to the David & Neva Trail.
Built between 1926 and 1930, the Abby Garden was conceived b the late financier and philanthropist John D. Rockfeller Jr.’s wife, Abby, following her 1921 trip to Beijing. She and American landscape designer Beatrix Farrand designed the garden together. A coral serpentine wall surrounds the border garden that stands atop Barr Hill. The garden features the “Spirit Path” flanked by six towering Korean tomb figures.
A shrine from China’s Tang dynasty dating from 784 reflects the influence of Aldrich’s time in Asia on her aesthetic. Visitors can wander wide stone steps framed by rolling carpets of moss or peer through the iconic circular moon gate to a gilt-bronze Buddha statue. Benches by a reflecting pool offer views north, through the bottle gate to the moon gate and Buddha statue beyond.
For decades, the Rockefellers allowed the public to tour the garden at its peak on Thursdays in August. This season, the preserve has expanded public access-by-reservation to Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. The season runs July 10 through Sept. 6.
Expanded access also includes the Eyrie Terrace where the Rockefeller’s palatial cottage once stood.
“I have a memory of one late afternoon in September when I went for a last walk in the garden before the season’s end,” David Rockfeller Jr.’s daughter Neva Goodwin wrote about the Abby Garden in a remembrance on the website. “The Seal Harbor fog was so thick that only the flowers nearest my feet glowed forth their colors; those a little way ahead were pale ghosts that just breathed into life as I came upon them.”
For garden lovers, seeking a scenic walks or hike, the preserve encompasses 1,683 acres and has its own extensive trail system that connects to Acadia National Park’s footpaths and carriage roads. On the preserve’s website, visitors will find several routes leading to Acadia’s Jordan Pond House, where weary travelers can refresh with popovers and raspberry lemonade. Those up to a slightly more strenuous hike may want to try The Richard Trail, a 2.6-mile (roundtrip) path leading to Little Long Pond, which takes off from the Thuya Garden’s Thuya Drive parking area.
Hikers ascend a shallow set of stone steps into the woods, following a gradual ascent past lush green banks of moss and patches of lichen into old-growth forest. The path skirts the southwestern slope of the 456-foot Eliot Mountain (the summit affords wooded views of Northeast Harbor) and passes a rock ledge and several streams before descending to Harbor Brook. (If it’s been raining, wear boots). Portions of the trail run alongside a stream.
The path crosses Harbor Brook on a sturdy bridge and ascends slightly. Although there are few views in the wooded area, a set of stone steps beside a cliff face is particularly striking. Walkers will eventually cross a carriage road before continuing down to the David & Neva Trail beside Little Long Pond.
* Open May-October, the Thuya and Asticou Azalea gardens can be visited during daylight hours. Admission is free, but a $5 donation is suggested for continuing preservation.
* The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden is open by reservation only on Tuesdays and Thursdays July 10-Sept. 6. Hours are: 10 a.m.-noon and 1-3 p.m. The Eyrie Terrace also is included.
* RVs, buses and large trucks are not permitted in the parking area. Wheelchair-access restrooms are available. Cell phone conversations, tripods and strollers are not allowed. To make a reservation, call 276-3727.
* For more info about the gardens, Little Long Pond and hiking trails, visit www.gardenpreserve.org.