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Garden Getaway

Filoli's magnificent grounds explode with spring blooms, making the estate a perennial favorite in the Bay Area


WOODSIDE, Calif. — In my work, I get to see a lot of West Coast gardens, public and private, and when someone asks which is my favorite, I invariably answer Filoli.

This National Trust property about 30 miles south of San Francisco can only be described as magnificent, a rare blending of the natural and formal in a truly big setting.

Filoli was built between 1915 and 1917 by William Bowers Bourn II, who owned the Empire Gold Mine in Grass Valley and was president of the water company that built the nearby Crystal Springs reservoirs. The 654-acre estate sits in the middle of the surrounding watershed--so protected you need a permit just to hike.

There's quite a house on the property, designed by Willis Polk, a noted San Francisco architect. You can tour the downstairs, but it pales next to the garden.

Picture this: rows of dark green Irish yews--210 of them--marching off into the distance, with redwoods and madron~os on a steep hillside for a backdrop. On a typical day, fog spills over the hills like a wave frozen in time. At the end of the yew alley are ghostly gray olive trees that have been thinned and trimmed so they look like square snowflakes shimmering against the deep greens. A locust named sunburst glows golden, behind and to one side of the olives.

When your eye finally settles on the foreground, you see flower beds edged with boxwood and filled with pale yellow tulips, or pink tulips, the cup-like blossoms floating on a sea of tiny blue forget-me-nots.

Such was the scene when my wife, Iris, and I visited in early April.

I find it easier (and usually cheaper) to fly into San Jose, where the airport is near Interstate 280. We rented a car and drove about 25 miles northwest on the freeway, the prettiest in the state, with its cuts and fills all rounded off and natural looking.

Quite by accident, we hit the peak spring bloom at Filoli. As I snapped my photos, thousands of tulips were at their best, and the wisteria and Clematis montana were unbelievable. Some of the wisteria are nearly 100 years old, so big and gnarly that gardeners call one towering specimen Kong.

Visitors in the late spring and summer won't see the same display. But rest assured, I have never been to Filoli when there wasn't something to look at because the design of the formal garden is so strong and the surrounding countryside so beautiful. The perennials and roses hadn't started blooming when we were there.

We met my sons, both of whom attend college in Northern California, at Filoli. Of course, the one who's a horticulture student can't say enough about the gardens, and even the English major was at an unusual loss for words--blown away, totally.

No one designer, gardener or owner can take credit for this beauty. The last owner was steamship magnate William P. Roth, whose wife, Lurline, was an avid and award-winning gardener.

Filoli has a new cafe and history center, where one can learn such facts as the origin of the estate's name (the first two letters in each word of the original owner's credo: "fight, love, live").

It seemed fitting after such a historical morning to drive down the hill to neighboring Palo Alto and have lunch in a historical eatery, the Peninsula Fountain & Grill. The restaurant is almost as old as Filoli and has been serving burgers and shakes since 1923. It's no longer owned by Peninsula Creamery, and its menu has changed with the times, but it still has great burgers and shakes and is usually packed on Saturdays.

After walking off lunch in downtown Palo Alto, we spent the rest of the afternoon visiting nurseries, including Carmen's in San Jose. We even bought a few plants to bring back on the plane.

Motoring over the hill to Santa Cruz on California Highway 17, we bunked down for the night surrounded by more history and plants at the Darling House bed- and-breakfast. We spent the big bucks (relatively speaking) on a room overlooking the ocean, just above Steamer Lane (famous for its big surf), with a view of the pier.

The 1910 house was designed by William Weeks for Denver cattle baron William Seward Iliff. It has a big, comfortable living room paneled in exotic hardwoods with inlays that look Egyptian in design. The fireplace front is decorated with handsome Arts and Crafts-era tiles. Even the wood floor has inlaid patterns.

The shared bathrooms were also vintage, with free-standing tubs big enough for a flotilla and the most interesting drain stoppers I've ever seen. (I'll let you figure out how they work.) Penetrating heat comes from bronze radiators. Flowers brightened our room, and tulips grew in the beds outside.

Since we'd seen so much vegetation that day, it seemed only natural that we eat vegetarian for our late dinner at Darma's ("over 150,000 cows saved"), a reasonably priced hangout in nearby Capitola for students and professors. I had Bo Thai, a huge plate of veggies and tofu sauteed in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce with rice noodles; my wife had a salad. Both were fantastic.

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