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Variation on a Theme Park in Gilroy

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Bonfante Gardens is a new amusement park with an unusual theme: trees. But not just your average trees. Amazing trees--the creations of an eccentric gardener named Axel Erlandson, who began training them into fanciful shapes in the 1920s.

In the 1950s he moved his collection to what he called the Tree Circus, near Santa Cruz. After his death in 1964, they languished in a field until businessman and tree fancier Michael Bonfante bought the collection. In 1984 he managed to move 25 of the trees to his nursery in Gilroy, where he was determined to make them the centerpiece of a new amusement park geared for garden lovers and families with young children. Forget death-defying thrill rides; this was to be a kinder, gentler place.

Bonfante Gardens Family Theme Park opened in June 2001, and after closing three months later to resolve financial problems, it reopened in May. The Circus Trees are the highlight, but other beautiful specimens and no fewer than five special gardens surround rides, restaurants and shopping spots in a lushly landscaped park.

The plants are so important that the park has scheduled "gardens only" days--usually on a Friday--when most of the rides and shops are closed, making it easier to walk around and look at the plantings. Last month I used one of these garden days as a springboard to a weekend in Gilroy, just over the hill from Santa Cruz.

I like to zoom around and see things when I travel, while my wife, Iris, prefers to relax by a beach. So when I suggested a visit to Bonfante Gardens, I quickly added that a new B&B called the Pleasure Point Inn had opened in Santa Cruz. It boasts of having "the best ocean view," as voted by travelers surveyed by a trade journal. The inn's large and protected rooftop deck has a big hot tub for relaxing and sunning. That convinced her.

Early one Friday we flew to San Jose and drove south on U.S. 101, then west on California 152 (Hecker Pass Highway) to Bonfante Gardens. The park usually opens at 10 a.m., but on garden days it doesn't open until noon. We accidentally arrived early, but that was no problem, with Garlic City Coffee and Tea awaiting in town and lots of antiques shops on Monterey Street. We killed a couple of hours, then returned to the park.

On garden days, the standard $29.95 adult admission ($19.95 for children 3 to 12) is reduced to $10.95. Parking is $2 instead of the regular $7.

As we drove in, a huge topiary on the hillside spelled out what was in store: TREESSS. Crossing a wide wood-plank bridge where sycamores grow up through cutouts, we first spotted a restored 1927 Illions Supreme carousel and another one of the rides, spinning carts shaped like oversized strawberries. This is an amusement park, after all, and most of the 22 rides are aimed at the younger set, though a few are a little wilder.

Visitors will see the bright red Strawberry Sundae, Artichoke Dip, Garlic Twirl, Banana Split, Mushroom Swing, Apple and Worm, and so on. Everything is bright, colorful and clean, and it looked like great fun for little kids. I found myself wishing my grown children were small again, so I could come back and go on the rides with them.

On this garden day, mostly adults were in attendance, wearing big straw gardening hats. A few young children came in tow, and they kept asking their parents about the rides. "No, dear, they're closed," was the response, though they could hop on a train that circles the park or on boats that float though the Rainbow Garden.

The train is a good way to see the 28-acre park. It goes though the Monarch Garden, a tall greenhouse filled with tropical plants, waterfalls and monarch butterflies. The Rainbow Garden uses annual flowers such as blood-red begonias, dahlias and sunny marigolds to dramatic effect, and floating through it on a slowly turning circular boat is an especially relaxing way to see the blooms. We went around three times, our favorite part coming right after the begonias, when we plunged through a bank of fine mist.

It can get hot in Gilroy, so the park uses water to keep people feeling cool. At one end are dramatic waterfalls that visitors can run under, getting good and wet. A big lake sits in the middle, and some lower cascades run by Claudia's Garden, which is filled with wild and wacky topiary conifers.

You enter this garden by walking under one of the Circus Trees--two trees fused together to make a living arch. The Basket Tree up by the Balloon Flight is the most amazing and intricate Circus Tree: six sycamores woven together to make one big mesh-like trunk. It's difficult to figure out how Erlandson did it. Knots, hearts, spiral staircases and his other amazing tree shapes can be seen near the entrance.

The park has seven eating spots, but on garden days only two are open. We chose a buffet of roasted chicken and pasta, which was tasty. After a couple of hours touring the gardens, we headed back to the car.

On the way is the Gifted Gardener, which sells plants, gear and other appropriate souvenirs. Plants we had just admired were for sale here, including a handsome dark-red ground-cover rose that had been trained into a "standard," or tree shape--one of Iris' favorites. Too bad it was too big for the plane home.

Highway 152 took us over Hecker Pass to Watsonville and Santa Cruz. It's a scenic route through the redwoods and past wineries and nurseries. The Mt. Madonna Inn Restaurant at the top is getting a mite musty but has a panoramic view of the coast, so we tried it for dinner. The menu seemed pretty ordinary, so I was surprised when a side of vegetables turned out to be a delicious broccoli frittata. The deep-fried artichoke hearts were good too, and my wife enjoyed her mostaccioli.

After the heat of the day, Santa Cruz felt good--even chilly--and we were glad our room at the year-old Pleasure Point Inn had a gas fireplace. Before we had even unpacked, we were up on the roof unwinding in the hot tub and admiring the expanse of Monterey Bay and the distant, foggy peninsula. Our room had an ocean view and was comfortable, with a crisp, modern design. No froufrou, no cutesy, no country curtains. I learned the next morning that our innkeeper was a semiretired interior decorator.

He laid out a classy breakfast too, with a centerpiece of melons, mangoes, kiwi and fresh berries. Delicious breads and pastries from local bakeries, homemade jam, excellent coffees and teas--we got so full that we ended up skipping lunch. (Breakfast is included in the nightly rate, which starts at $160; we paid $211.50 plus tax.)

Both our boys live up north, so they joined us Saturday. While my wife did her relaxing on the rooftop deck, my sons and I went for a long walk on the beach, exploring pools at low tide, picking up shells and watching the surfers. Pleasure Point is considered one of the best surf spots on the coast, with sweet, shapely swells made glassy by kelp beds.

After the tide came in, we walked back along a bike path on the bluff. We were tempted to rent bikes around the corner on 41st Avenue, because this is such a cycling town. Instead we all took a boardwalk that runs through wildly overgrown Neary Lagoon, with entrances off Bay and Blackburn streets. Yard-long carp live in these cloudy waters. It's a fun, though virtually unknown, outing near the center of Santa Cruz.

For dinner, our sons suggested El Palomar downtown on Pacific Avenue. The restaurant fills the huge, vaulted lobby of an old hotel. I had enchiladas de cangrejo, with some of the freshest crab I've tasted. My wife found a favorite, pozole. After dinner we returned to our inn for a moonlight soak, looking at the stars and the string of lights circling Monterey Bay. Ahhh.

Sunday we lazed the morning away, went for another walk along the beach and drove to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center (http://www2.ucsc.edu/seymourcenter) in Santa Cruz, perched on a point above Natural Bridges State Beach. Like Bonfante, this place would be fun with little kids. We learned that decorator crabs change their seaweed camouflage to match their surroundings, that sunflower stars can move 2 centimeters in six seconds (pretty fast) and that sealskin is really soft.

Outside sits the fantastic 87-foot skeleton of a blue whale, the largest on display anywhere, according to the center. Here we said our goodbyes to Santa Cruz and headed back over the hill, our faces stinging from a good three-day dose of sun, wind and salt water.

___

Robert Smaus, formerly the garden editor at The Times, is the author of "Answers for California Gardeners" (Los Angeles Times Books, 2002).

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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