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Killer Gardens

USBG

Ask a man if he wants to go to the garden and he’s bound to ask who’s playing, where the seats are, and what time he needs to be there.

Clarify that you’re not talking about New York City’s Madison Square Garden, or, for that matter, any city’s beer garden, and his enthusiasm might sag. “Oh,” he’d say. “You mean do I want to go to an actual garden, with flowers and plants? Of course not.”

While I don’t speak for all men, I’m going to roll the dice and say that similar thoughts would likely run through the minds of many of them. Take frequent traveler Ken Walker. He was happily motoring through Oahu with his wife when she saw a sign for the Weamai Valley Botanical Gardens.

“She wanted to stop,” says Walker, who’s “not particularly a fan of botanical gardens,” but agreed to stop and snap some pictures. “What we found was amazing,” he recalls. “Literally miles of paths through a beautiful valley, complete with a natural pool for swimming that’s fed by a giant waterfall near the end. Some of the most awesome tropical plants and trees from all over the world flourish here. We found ‘Cannonball Trees’ that produce ten pound seeds that fall from great heights to the ground. Peacocks strolled the grounds and drank from streams that seemed to quench the thirst of a land from the Jurassic period. “

His expectations sufficiently confounded, Walker, as you might guess, recommends Weamai , admission $13. And while you may not necessarily encounter flora so dangerously cool as hanging cannonball-like seeds that could drop at any second, there are other gardens out there that might challenge your idea of what’s really in store when someone asks you to stop the car.

The Other Jersey Shore: Jersey, Channel Islands. Admission: Castle $14.50, Tunnels $16.

Nine acres of lavender and a bevy of orchids don’t necessarily scream unisex appeal, but the pretty gardens on this “floral island” off France’s Normandy coast serve almost as a counterpoint to Jersey’s warlike history, evidence of which is well worth seeing today.

Jersey’s been part the English Crown since the ‘60s - the 1060’s, when William the Conqueror became King of England. The island’s location made it a natural line of defense against then arch-enemy France, so much so that years later, England’s King John had Mont Orgueil Castle built there in the 13th century to defend Jersey against the French invasion of Normandy. The castle, amazingly preserved today, was later used as a garrison by the Germans who occupied Jersey from 1941-1945 during World War II. And it was during the occupation that Adolph Hitler had the Jersey War Tunnels constructed as an underground barracks and hospital to protect against an Allied invasion that would never happen; the Germans surrendered before the tunnels could be put to their intended use.

You can walk the tunnels today and visit the haunting former hospital site, which has been converted into a museum. Fittingly for the island, you also can sit in a Garden of Reflection that honors casualties of war as well as walk an overgrown war trail, in a wood near the tunnels, where you can spot anti-aircraft gun positions, crawl trenches, and other evidence of the German occupation of Jersey.

Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, Las Vegas. Admission: Free

A gorgeous town on Italy’s Lake Como, Bellagio ought to be on your short list of European getaways, but it’s also the namesake and inspiration for the Las Vegas Strip hotel that happens to have a five-acre botanical garden on its lobby level. Five times a year - spring, summer, fall, the December holidays, and Chinese New Year - the hotel boasts that its “140 expert horticulturists theatrically arrange gazebos, bridges, ponds, and water features.” And if you simply refuse to be a botanical garden fan, this display is as much about over-the-top Vegas flamboyance as it is about gardening. For last year’s spring gardens the hotel moved in an enclosed butterfly greenhouse, and the 2009 summer gardens centered around a tremendous illuminated Ferris wheel and three-tiered fountain. And if you’re still not sold, dude, you’re at the Bellagio – go eat your weight in shrimp at the buffet or something.

United States Botanical Garden, Washington, D.C. Admission: Free

Let me set the scene. It’s day two of your trip to D.C., and while you’ve come to grips with the fact that you can’t turn around in this town without learning something, you just wish you could learn it somewhere other than a monument or museum. You probably never thought a botanic garden would be looking good right about now, did you?

The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) has the requisite conservatory and flowers in bloom, but the twist here is that the USBG serves up its flora in true D.C. fashion - in historical context. The permanent “Plants in Culture” exhibit clues you in about why incense is used at Catholic Mass and another exhibit running from May through October takes up the history of the potato. In town on May 1st? Swing by for Herb Day, an exploration of how herbs, presumably legal ones, affect our day-to-day lives. One notable bit of trivia: The USBG, on the grounds of the U.S. Congress, is also technically run by the Congress, which clearly, with all due respect to garden administration, needs to be busier.

Portland Classical Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon. Admission: $8.50

Formally known as the Lan Su Chinese Garden, a visit to the Portland Classical Chinese Garden will not only make you forget you’re in Portland - not that there’s anything wrong with the city - but you also won’t believe you’re wandering within the space of a single city block on what used to be a parking lot.

The largest Suzhou-style garden outside China, the garden seems like it would be a pleasant enough experience just based on what’s in it: tiny pavilions meant for reflection, koi- and water-lily filled ponds, and tons of trees and plants. But the garden’s far more than the sum of its parts. As you walk the plant-lined pathways, you’ll begin to experience something peculiar: Even if the garden is crowded, the way the landscaping twists and turns makes you feel like you’re the only person there. This is by design, as is everything about this place.

Stepping stones are spaced at specific intervals so you don’t hurry your pace. “Leak windows” set in walls and elsewhere in the garden, do what they say – they permit very particular views of the garden to leak through to you. I didn’t have high hopes for the garden when I visited because I’m skeptical of any place – garden, spa, wherever – that’s supposed to be serene by design, as I figure it’ll feel contrived. The Portland Garden changed my opinion about serene experiences. And if you happen to be jaded about gardens or the way life’s treating you in general these days, a few minutes here, to invoke the old Club Med jingle, is an antidote for civilization.