Plants and Rides Take Root at Gilroy Theme Park

An unusual theme park, centered on lavish gardens, is to open Friday in Gilroy in Northern California after two decades of planning.

The 75-acre Bonfante Gardens Theme Park is named for its founder, former supermarket magnate Michael Bonfante, who is said to have plowed about $100 million of his personal fortune into it.

The park was established as a nonprofit corporation, with proceeds to be invested in the site and in garden projects in local communities.

The centerpiece is a 60-foot-tall greenhouse called the Monarch Garden, with hundreds of tropical and subtropical plants. A narrow-gauge steam train, one of two in the park, and a monorail run through it. About 25 so-called circus trees, with trunks grafted into complex shapes, were moved from a plot in Santa Cruz and replanted in the gardens.

There are also about 20 rides (including the Garlic Twirl, homage to Gilroy's claim to be the "Garlic Capital of the World"), seven restaurants, an amphitheater, live shows and a 1927 carousel (a fixture at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona until the 1980s).

The park will be open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily through Labor Day, then on weekends only. It is three miles west of U.S. Highway 101, between Monterey and San Francisco. Admission is $28.95 ages 13 and up, $19.95 ages 3 to 12, free under 3; parking is $7 per vehicle. Telephone (408) 840-7100, Internet http://www.bonfantegardens.com.

Economy Nibbles at Hotel Rates in Big Apple

New statistics confirm what travelers and agents have suspected: The economic slowdown has started to produce some lower hotel rates, albeit unevenly. That's good news for consumers.

New York City room rates in April were down an average of 1.4% from April 2000--the first year-to-year dip in nearly eight years, according to Bobby Bowers of Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee company that tracks industry trends. Occupancy rates fell from 87.3% to 77%. The company's preliminary statistics through May 26 confirm the downward trend, Bowers added.

Hotel discounter Hotel Reservations Network reported steeper drops--10% to 20%--in its New York room rates this year, plus a new development: more luxury hotels signing up with discounters, said president Bob Diener.

But the trend is not the same in all U.S. cities. While room rates also slipped in April in Chicago, Dallas and Orlando, Fla., for instance, they were up 2.6% in the San Francisco Bay Area, 6.7% in San Diego and 8.5% in Seattle, researchers found.

Nationally, hotels' revenue per available room--a measure of profitability that takes occupancy into account--fell 2.5% in April, its biggest decrease in 10 years, Bowers said. A major reason is that strapped businesses are cutting back on travel, experts agreed.

Dogged by B&B; Rules? Check Into a Pet Suite

Does that charming bed-and-breakfast that you fancy find your dog less than charming? With many B&Bs; and hotels banning pets, a doggy day-care center catering to travelers has opened in New Orleans.

Although not unique in taking visiting pets, Pooch's Palace has some luxurious extras. It offers "suites" of up to 45 square feet for each dog, a common play area for all and walks several times a day. The cost is $15 a day for day care, $30 for overnight stays.

There are some restrictions, said business owner Robert E. Lee. For instance, visitors must present spaying/neutering and shot records, and answer some questions, such as "Does your dog like to share his toys, food and water?" (i.e., no dominant dogs need apply). Telephone (504) 269-3647.

Making an Internet Dining Reservation

American Express has incorporated OpenTable Inc.'s reservations software into its own Web site, http://www.americanexpress.com. Registration for the service is free and open to non-cardholders. At the site, visitors can reserve at about 900 restaurants in about 25 U.S. regions and cities, message their dining companions with details and read Zagat Survey's restaurant reviews. The site has fewer restaurants than http://www.opentable.com; those that don't accept the American Express card are screened out, a spokesman said.

Dutch Trying to End Luggage Merry-Go-Round

Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport is taking steps to upgrade its baggage handling, hoping to improve from last summer, when an average of 80 out of 1,000 bags were lost, according to Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines.

The airline, through its alliance with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, uses Schiphol as its transatlantic gateway.

Both airlines acknowledge that Schiphol is still not equipped to handle heavy summer traffic. But they say they are working on the problem by adding staff and temporary carousels. The airport is expected to phase in a new baggage system later this year.

Despite that, Schiphol's automated system will be overloaded by 1,500 bags an hour during peak traffic times this summer, said Dirk McMahon, Northwest's senior vice president for ground operations. Normally, fewer than 5 per 1,000 bags are lost at Northwest, he added.

Traveler's Notes ...

Orbitz.com, the controversial Internet travel site owned by five U.S. airlines, opened for business this month after months of testing, listing airline fares (including Web-only fares), hotel rates, rental cars, cruises and vacation packages. The U.S. Transportation Department in April said it found no evidence of monopolistic behavior by Orbitz; the Justice Department was conducting a separate review.... Effective this month, campsites at Channel Islands National Park off the Southern California coast cost $10 per night, up from $2.65....Catalina Express, one of three ferry companies serving Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, has added a second high-speed catamaran, the 381-passenger Jet Cat Express. Starting July 1, it will raise its round-trip adult fares from Long Beach by $1, to $42 for adults (because of an increase in the city of Avalon tax). Tel. (800) 995-4386.

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Compiled by JANE ENGLE

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