The Secret Garden Tour: One of Maui's Best

Westin Maui
Starwood Hawaii

A long time resident of Maui (by way of Texas), Duane Sparkman took an all-embracing love of nature and has applied it to his job as the innocuously (and vastly understated) title of Landscaping Manager in the Engineering department of The Westin Maui Resort & Spa. recently had the unexpected pleasure of meeting with Sparkman, a genuine renaissance man, at the resort’s picturesque outdoor Relish Burger Bar. Married to a ninth-generation Maui native, his children, he proudly points out, are tenth generation. The family resides in a home that was originally a hospital. Sparkman heads a wonderful informative and edifying facility tour program that’s way more interesting than it sounds.

"I’m most passionate about Native Hawaiian plants and Hawaiian culture,” enthuses Sparkman, whose job allows him to "introduce more native plants for cultural education and function.” He shares stories with resort guests and island visitors, as well as local residents. Sparkman, while effusive when discussing native plant life and the island’s cultural and agricultural history, is less so when he’s pressed to talk more about his involvement and vast knowledge. For more than two decades he was a private landscaper, which gave him an excellent opportunity to learn about native and environmentally thriving plant life.


Sparkman has spearheaded, as well as assisted, in initiatives and volunteering efforts, all of which surround sustainability and preservation. His goal is to differentiate the Westin from other resorts. He was responsible for designing the word “Westin” on the beach walk and the Hanging Green Wall at the lobby entrance. Sparkman introduced a “Chef’s Garden” at the resort. He and his team of engineers also recycle, through sales, any removed plants.

His affection for Maui resulted in his participation in the efforts to continually reduce the carbon footprint and to preserve and prevent endangered species from extinction.

During the resort’s botanical tour, visitors learn about plants and wildlife indigenous to the islands, and the plants introduced by Polynesian voyagers.

Sparkman’s other efforts:

  • He collaborated with Kaunoa Senior Center for a private botanical resort tour for active seniors.
  • He and the Starwood Maui team participated in a clean up project at Lahainaluna School to beautify a building as well as update and enhance landscaping.
  • For King Kamehameha Day parade in 2014 and 2015, he worked on the Starwood’s Maui float, creating a foliage and grass stage for dancers.
  • At King Kamehameha III Elementary School he planted an Ulu tree, the Tree of Life for the school’s 100th anniversary.
  • He encourages resort associates to join volunteer programs at Kaheawa Wind Farm and Honokowai valley restoration efforts (a.k.a. Malama Honokowai). “Malama Honokowai is a project that started in the 1990’s and has blossomed into a weekly trip for volunteers and visitors,” Sparkman says. On Saturdays, it’s open to the public. “We meet at the Pu’ukoli’i Train Station at 9 a.m. and share four-wheel rides into Honokowai Valley where an ancient Hawaiian Village settlement was discovered, and we help remove invasive species and plant Native Hawaiian Species that belong within the surroundings.
  • Encourages the resort’s team to participate in important community projects like the Auwahi Forest volunteer program, Waihe’e Ridge volunteer service and Maui Cultural Lands’ initiatives.
  • Prior to working at the Westin, he worked for the Haleakala National Park; he continues his association as a volunteer in plant documentation and fence repair.
  • He’s been active for 17 years in the Natural Area Reserve maintenance and the Native Hawaiian Plant Society. From Auwahi to Kahakuloa, he volunteers with invasive plant removal and plant documentation.
  • For 15 years, he’s assisted the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership to restore the native forests of Pu’u Makua and Auwahi.
  • He also assists in the East Maui Watershed Partnership, assisting in the removal of invasive ginger from the Waikamoi Watershed in East Maui above Makawao.
  • He volunteers for Maui Cultural Lands, coordinating volunteer groups to assist plantings, fencing, invasive plant removal, cleaning out archeological sites and explaining the cultural ties to the area. His hopes are to restore e areas to a state of balance, “so they’ll serve as places to learn, find peace, and honor those who have come before.”
  • He continues to coordinate groups to help plant native Hawaiian plants and installed a new irrigation system at the Westin.
  • He’s involved in a State of Hawaii-managed internship program, part of the Education Work Based Learning Program. 
  • He participated in this year’s “Opportunity Rocks” school program to bring student awareness to the hospitality industry.
  • Lastly, he’s a member of Ho’olakhi Council member at The Westin Maui Resort & Spa; he also supports the dedicated team in various community and volunteer projects.

    Communications manager for Coral Reef Alliance, Marissa Stein, says of Sparkman, “He’s a real advocate for the environment, and has changed the Westin’s landscape practices to reduce their impact on the near-shore reef. He uses compost instead of chemicals, is building rain gardens and designing the landscape to catch storm water, and is preparing the hotel to use recycled water on their landscape. By doing so, he’s creating a more sustainable future for the Westin, and setting up systems that will lead to cost savings in the long run.

    And the landscape looks prettier—the plants are healthier and the grass is greener.”

    Stein noted Sparkman is an ideal partner and spokesperson, said Marissa. “His landscape is a critical part of the ahupua’a—it’s the last line of defense, the property closest to the coral reefs. Having his landscape designed to catch sediment and prevent storm water runoff is a major factor in restoring the health of the watershed. And he’s demonstrated success—by putting coral reefs at the forefront of his decisions and actions, he’s positively impacting the business and he’s enhancing the guest experience,” she elaborated.

    This vast experience culminates in Sparkman’s Botanical Tour, held at the Westin Maui Thursdays at 10 a.m. and is open to resort guests, tourists and local residents. “We meet at the main lobby area of The Westin Maui Resort & Spa and walk through the 12-acre beachfront resort to view almost 50 types of flora and fauna,’ he explains. It’s a unique experience and held within the 87,000 sq. ft. resort, among the gardens, streams and waterfalls, flamingos from Chile, and indigenous cultural plants such as Naupaka and Hawaiian canoe plants, like sugar cane, indigenous to New Guinea.

    In addition to discussions on plants (-- pointing to a familiar plant, he says, “Aloe Vera, for example…I encourage guests to use it to treat wounds and sunburns, but, I also let them know that they should thoroughly wash the plant with water before applying the gel, since people need to be sure it’s clean and that they’re not transferring MRSA to their skin.”), he discusses the local environment (the resort, the island) and the journeys of Polynesian voyagers. And what might be the best bit? In a universe where everything is – while beautiful – so costly, Sparkman’s Botanical Tour is free!

    “I just want to do the right thing for the environment,” Sparkman says. “If this reef dies, what did I do? I didn’t do the right thing. The ocean is the jewel. That’s the thing we’re trying to save. It’s not about me.”