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Weekend Escape

Variation on a Theme Park in Gilroy

Bonfante Gardens reopens, with lush landscapes providing the amusement

June 16, 2002|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus, formerly the garden editor at The Times, is the author of "Answers for California Gardeners" (Los Angeles Times Books, 2002).

GILROY, Calif. — 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.

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