How to bring the tropics home to your own backyard

How to bring the tropics home to your own backyard

Tropical Pools

Get the look and feel of the islands in your own backyard.

by Debra Mauer, Luxury Pools

Tropical islands are some of the most popular vacation destinations, and it’s easy to see what contributes to their allure: clear, beautiful water, stretches of white sand, natural waterfalls, and lush, colorful plants. But you don’t have to rely on a stack of postcards and souvenirs to try to recapture the feeling of paradise. You can have it in your own backyard with a tropical-style pool and coordinating landscaping. Read on to discover what type of shape, materials, and special features are incorporated into pool designs to give them the look and feel of the tropics.

Shape, Materials & Special Features

Though created by expert pool designers, tropical-style pools look anything but man-made. They are typically curved or freeform in shape, allowing many unique design possibilities, while still maintaining the look of a natural lagoon. However, it is important for the designer to make sure the shape is well-thought out and not completely arbitrary. “The most common shapes [in tropical-style pools] are round, and I prefer using true radius circles as opposed to freeform ‘squiggles,’ ” says Rick Legnon, president of Advanced Pool Design in Rancho Cordova, Calif. “There should always be architectural control, even in so-called ‘freeform’ designs.”

Stone, rocks, and boulders are the key materials to mirror the natural setting of a lagoon. To save on shipping costs, many homeowners choose rocks from a local quarry or opt for custom-colored faux rock. A tropical pool’s coping and decking are usually made of stone or rugged pavers, which may be accented by boulders placed around the pool. The boulders should be of various sizes and shapes, just as they exist in Mother Nature. Legnon appreciates the beauty of authentic materials, and incorporates natural rock into many of his designs. In one particular project, large rocks had to be lifted in by crane. The structural strength of the pool shell had to be increased to hold the extreme weight of the stone; this was an added expense, but it created a spectacular end result.

Rock waterfalls are a particularly common feature in tropical pools, adding beauty, serenity, and delightful acoustics to a poolscape. “Thought needs to go into how exactly the water should fall down the water feature—and how it should sound,” says Legnon. “Rocks should be hand-selected to accommodate the preconceived design, especially with regard to the ‘table’ rocks that the water will spill over.”

If you live along the coast or in a tropical region, this pool style can truly create a private paradise when designed correctly. “The most important part of building a pool in a tropical setting is making sure that the pool does not become the focal point of the exterior landscape,” says Sherman Williams, president of Kona Sunset Pools & Spas in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. “I try to make sure the pool adds to the setting, as opposed to taking it over. An understated yet effective design is key.”

Vanishing edges (or infinity pools) often work well with tropical pools that overlook a body of water or sweeping landscape. Because the water flows over one or more of the pool’s walls (landing in a catch basin below), vanishing-edge pools appear to continue infinitely into the horizon, creating a spectacular effect. “I take full advantage of each pool’s location, maximizing the view based on its elevation,” says Williams, “whether it’s a negative-edge pool right on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, or a perimeter-overflow pool at sea level, only a few hundred yards away from the ocean.”­

The correct use of stone, proper finishing materials, and other special features is what makes a tropical pool work in most backyard settings. The look of the water is an important aspect and is dependent upon the pool’s interior. “One of the most asked questions by my clients is if we can recreate the look of that turquoise ocean water,” says Williams. “To accomplish this, I use a custom blue/green plaster color for the interior finish, which helps to give a pool that particular effect.”

In place of steps, tropical pools may have a beach entry in which the pool’s floor becomes gradually deeper, similar to the way sand slopes downward as it extends into the ocean. This type of entry is also convenient for swimmers to wade in or lounge in the shallow end. “We designed one pool for some clients who had just returned from a resort in Maui where the pool had a beautiful beach entry made with real sand,” says Legnon. “While the effect was wonderful, the maintenance was not. The resort had to hire two full-time maintenance people just to keep the sand out of the main part of the pool! So for our clients’ pool, we finished the beach entry with Sandy Beach Pebble Tec.® This gave them the same look with very little maintenance.”

Another common feature is a tanning ledge or Baja shelf, which functions as an extended first step where the water is very shallow. It allows guests to recline while keeping themselves cool; it’s also a great play area for children. Grottos and caves add a bit of mystery to this theme. They can be used as a secret entrance to a waterslide, which offers a fun resort feel. No longer limited to freestanding, bright blue interruptions, waterslides can now be customized to any color and installation that best suits the look of your pool. A shade of natural tan for the slide’s shell helps it to blend in. You can also build up the land around the slide so that rocks and softscape elements can surround the slide.


As you discuss the details of the pool design, you should also speak with your designer or landscape architect about landscaping. Palm trees, of course, are ideal for a tropical oasis, but if you live in a seasonal climate, there are several species of palms that can withstand freezing temperatures (as long as you care for them properly); or you may opt for artificial palms. Other plants that create a tropical theme include those with oversized leaves, such as Elephant’s ear and banana (blood banana or Red Abyssinian varieties for color). Trees and shrubs with bold, bright flowers, such as Ballet Girl fuchsia and Chinese lanterns, will also add balance and color to your overall setting. Having several planting areas near the edge of the pool provides a natural environment.

Capturing Your Vision

A tropical pool is about creating both the look and feeling of a permanent vacation. When working with your pool builder and going over the design, allow the builder to get a clear idea of your vision. “The draw to this style is a mental one. I’ll often ask clients to imagine themselves in the scene of their ideal pool, and tell me where they are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing,” says Legnon. “If they have pictures from vacation or places that they want to go, that’s also a great way to get a sense of where we should go with the design and special features.” An accomplished pool builder is able to take these abstract details and apply them to a solid plan to create your backyard oasis.

A tropical pool is a place for the family to get together and relax. “If you compare a classic or formal pool to a tropical one, you’ll see that one is for show and one is for play,” Legnon explains. “While homeowners interested in tropical pools want the pool to be beautiful, they also want it to be practical and used regularly.”

Rock waterfalls and freeform shapes establish the style, while waterslides, caves, and shooting water features enhance the family-fun factor, creating an aquatic playground that kids of all ages are sure to enjoy. Adding a cabana, pergola, or poolside tiki hut adds to the idea of a resort and creates a perfect place to entertain.

Whether you seek a vacation at home, a beautiful place to relax or entertain, or an exciting spot where you can spend time with family, a tropical-themed pool will easily become your backyard escape.