Who knew the gates of paradise lay so close to London?


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ENGLAND HAS LONG been a magnet for garden lovers -- with the impressive Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, the many stately home grounds open to the public, and the grand London parks that are easily explored. But nothing matches the colossal success of the Eden Project, an ambitious, almost utopian idea that started with the reclamation of an abandoned clay pit in Cornwall that is now, a decade later, filled with the world’s two largest conservatories, iconic domes jammed with plants from around the world.

It sounds like a do-gooder recipe for financial failure. Imagine the first meeting with financiers who had to be convinced of the viability of a theme-park-size attraction with no rides, no computer games, no multimedia explosions; only plants, plants, and more plants. But Eden, funded initially with some government help, has been a smash hit since it opened seven years ago, drawing more and more people to its idyllic corner of Cornwall, on the southwest coast of England. Somehow the founders have made plants hip -- a James Bond movie was filmed on the premises, pop music’s biggest names play summer concerts at Eden, and a portion of the global Live 8 for Africa broadcast in 2005 was staged here.

This is English ingenuity at its best: Take an old, abandoned piece of land that wasn’t doing anybody any good and turn it into a showcase that has generated jobs, revenue, and enthusiasm for an entire region. No one is laughing at chief executive Tim Smit now, even if his idea was ridiculed at first. Smit is too superstitious to boast, but he is apparently bowled over by the public’s embrace of Eden, an educational charity that has played a key role in revitalizing the surrounding towns, which had been in decline.

“We’re up to 9.5 million visitors in seven years,” says Smit. “It’s fantastic. The general public seems to love it, and that’s what we wanted. The first thing I want is for people to enjoy themselves, and second, I want them to be open to thinking. The overwhelming sense I want to give them is one of optimism about the capacity of humans to do good things and to adapt to change.”

ALTHOUGH SMIT AND his colleagues do worry about the impact of climate change, there is nothing downbeat or preachy about Eden. It emphasizes nature’s incredible bounty and seems to suggest that solutions are in sight. It can be a joyous experience to visit Eden, where whimsy is the order of the day. The domes sprout from the landscape like futuristic mushrooms. One almost expects to see the Wizard of Oz inside. But this isn’t a city of make-believe; rather, it is a place where more than a million plants are flourishing.

When you enter the Rain Forest Biome, you are immediately transported into the warmth of a lush, tropical environment. Just the moisture in the air makes you breathe a mental sigh of relief. The dome is more than 150 feet high, and a waterfall courses through it from top to bottom, giving it the sense of movement and the welcome sound of rushing water. You quickly succumb to the illusion that you are outside, hearing tropical birds, breathing tropical air, and admiring the soaring palm trees and plants. Only when you look more carefully do you see the telltale hexagons that make up the dome and realize you are, technically, still inside. The architects have done an impressive job of using vegetation to conceal the struts, piping, and scaffolding that make the domes possible. So you often see only the clear blue sky above, which enhances the illusion that you are in the wild. No space is wasted.

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There are exhibits about a variety of topics: tropical islands, Malaysia, West Africa, South America, various crops, cola, chewing gum, rubber, cocoa, chocolate, mangoes, bananas, and more, as well as displays on how to regrow the forest. There is plenty to learn here, but none of it is packaged in a way that makes it feel like a lesson. On the food-story trail, a bend in the path leads you through the many ways bananas are used in the tropics; the plants provide not only food but also shelter and employment. Comments from Uganda and other faraway places are also on display. If you tried to pay kids at school to read a book about banana cultivation, they would probably run away. But this interactive display with a spinning globe and radio buttons draws their attention and engages them until their parents have to pull them away.

As you leave the Rain Forest Biome, the message is clear: Your wallet is your weapon, and by carefully consuming fair-trade items and other properly produced goods, you can help people in poorer countries and still enjoy the bananas, mangoes, cocoa, and coffee that are, literally, the spice of life. But the message is not heavy-handed or glum.

The Mediterranean Biome has a far different, more open, cooler, and more orderly feel. It looks more like Europe and California and less like Brazil. Inside, the air is clear, refreshing, and fragrant. It is redolent of summer plants. You feel you should be seeing the Aegean Sea in the distance, not the walls of the quarry.

This dome hosts more than 1,000 species of plants and has exhibits about the Mediterranean, South Africa, California, fruit, peppers, citrus, grapevines, olives, cut flowers, and perfume. Among the plants on display is a small grove of silvery olive trees. No wonder it smells so sweet and fresh in here. There are red and white grapes and even a wacky sculpture garden that celebrates Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.

A VISIT TO EDEN fuels your wanderlust -- it makes you want to leave the city behind and experience the wilds of Africa and South America firsthand.

The outdoor gardens, with 1,890 different species, are gorgeous and filled with temperate crops that provide food and medicine. They are a riot of color for much of the year and home to a skating rink that gives Eden a festive feel even in the drab winter months. Already, one major new building filled with interactive educational exhibits has been added, and plans for more are being drawn up. Some old farmhouses on the site are also being renovated for use as a small center for meetings on pressing environmental issues.

With so much going on, it is no surprise that most local residents are thrilled with the way the enterprise turned out, says Peter Clemens, a 57-year-old local farmer who comes to Eden several times a year to see how the plants are doing.

“The first time I came was when they laid the foundation stone, before any of this was here, and it was just a hole in the ground,” says Clemens, sounding somewhat amazed at the transformation. “The local people used to come watch this place being built. This place has meant jobs, an awful lot of jobs -- about 600, 700 jobs -- and that’s just in the immediate area. Then you have all the people who come down to stay in hotels and campgrounds. It fills the restaurants; it helps the farms because we produce the food. It’s done an awful lot for Cornwall.”


If you go

It takes four to five hours to reach the eden project in st. austell, cornwall, by car or train from london’s heathrow airport. there is ample parking available, and it is easy to get from the train station at st. austell to the project. To learn more, go to www.edenproject.com.

It is also worth taking the time to visit some of the small cities and towns in the surrounding area. Cornwall has one of England’s loveliest coastlines, and there is a wide variety of hotels, resorts, and guesthouses to choose from.