QUESTION: How can one find out if it is O.K. to bring goods made of crocodile or alligator into the United States from abroad?
ANSWER: Under the Endangered Species Act it is illegal to bring into the United States many products made from the skin of alligators, crocodiles or related reptiles called caimans.
If brought into the United States, watchbands, shoes, purses, belts and other goods made from endangered species can be confiscated with no recompense to the owner.
It is quite difficult to determine on your own which species an item is made of, and buyers must rely on the word of merchants that their goods may legally be brought back home.
Items made of American alligator - generally exported from this country and then processed and often sold abroad - are not endangered and may be brought into the United States, so long as they are for personal, not commercial, use. The skins of most crocodile species are prohibited.
Of three species of caiman, which live in Central and South America, two are banned. One of these, Caiman crocodilus yacare, is often passed off as the common caiman, the species that is legal.
Only an expert to tell the skins apart, a spokesman for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said. Lizard-skin products originally from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela and India, Nepal and Pakistan are banned, as are snakeskin products originating in Latin America and some Asian countries, including India, and all sea turtle products.
When a traveler arrives in the United States with an item made of reptile skin (or any other possibly endangered species like coral), Customs agents inspect the goods. Any questionable items are then inspected by a Fish and Wildlife agent, who may take the goods away either permanently or until it can be further examined by experts.
Generally, forfeiture is the penalty for bringing in banned products, though repeat offenders, especially those trying to smuggle quantities of such goods, can be fined up to $25,000.
If you have an idea of what you want to buy, it is a good idea before leaving - or even once abroad - to call a Fish and Wildlife Service office; the phone number of the New York office is (718) 917-1705. The World Wildlife Fund, (202) 293-4800, also can supply information. However, these organizations warn, only inspection can determine the origin of a reptile or other creature.
QUESTION: I am very interested in taking a tour of English cottage gardens.
ANSWER: Few tours focus primarily on cottage gardens, informal groupings of massed flowers; the primary focus is hedged, manicured formal gardens most often seen by tourists.
One tour, May 21 to June 1, offered by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, does include one cottage garden, Greatham Mill, surrounding a 17th-century mill near Winchester. Also included are a more formal gardens and entry to the Chelsea Flower Show in London. The cost is $5,218 a person in double occupancy, including air fare from New York, hotel and most meals. Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1000 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11225; (718) 622-4433.
Anne Mazlish, who used to run a tour company specializing in British gardens, will consult, for $50 an hour, with groups or individuals who wish to arrange a garden tour. She can be contacted at 3 Channing Circle, Cambridge, Mass. 02138; (617) 354-1879.
To see cottage gardens exclusively, you may need to construct your own tour. To do so, a paperback book called "Gardens of England and Wales," published by the National Gardens Scheme, will be helpful. The book describes private gardens that are open to the public, and when, and is considered the best source for cottage gardens.
It is sometimes possible, by contacting a garden's owner - names and addresses are listed - to arrange for a private visit at other times. The 1990 edition of the book described 2,500 gardens. The 1991 edition will be available, probably in late March at the British Travel Bookshop at 40 West 57th Stret, New York, N.Y. 10019 (212) 765-0898. The 1990 edition was $5.45 (plus $2.50 if mailed); the 1991 edition price has not been set.
QUESTION: A group of 10 of us plans to travel to Vienna, Prague, Berlin and Budapest. How can we go about hiring a small bus with a driver and guide?
ANSWER: In order to travel as you wish, you can call a company experienced in arranging travel in Eastern Europe and ask for the FIT (for foreign independent travel) department. The company will know of vehicles and drivers in the places you want to visit.
It will be difficult to find a guide knowledgable about all four cities, and fluent in all three languages, to acccompany you. The travel companies suggest hiring an English-speaking driver and arranging to have a different guide meet you in each city. The cost of the trip will vary greatly according to your arrangements; the companies contacted would not venture even a rough guess.
One money-saving suggestion was to rent a minibus out of Prague or Budapest and return it there at journey's end; renting out of Berlin would be more expensive, and out of Vienna more expensive yet.
A company specializing in Eastern Europe, General Tours, reported difficulty in one such trip in finding parts for repairs to the bus and in finding gas stations that took the travelers' credit cards.
Here are two companies that say they will work with requests such as yours. Tour Designs, 510 H Street S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024; (800) 432-8687 or (202) 554-5820. General Tours, 770 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10003 (800) 221-2216 or (212) 598-1800.