Picture if you can 7 million tulips, narcissi, hyacinths, and other bulbs blooming in unison under the mature canopy of 18th-century beech trees. That is what visitors see at Keukenhof Gardens (www.keukenhof.nl), located in Lisse about an hour outside of Amsterdam. Once the kitchen garden for a countess, it now is billed as the greatest flower show on earth and draws more than 700,000 visitors each year to stroll its trails and admire its blooms. Though it is open for eight weeks, the best time to see full bloom is at the end of April and beginning of May.
Basically an open-air flower bulb museum, Keukenhof has 10 miles (18 kilometers) of walking paths. Keukenhof could also be called a display garden for the bulb industry. Tulip bulbs are "loaned" each year to the garden by various growers, who are eager to show off their latest hybrids but also anxious not to have them fall into competitive hands.
Among Keukenhof's greatest treasures are a vast display of tulip varieties in indoor pavilions, the Historic Garden, and Europe's largest fountain, not to mention fifteen Flower Parades and a large picturesque pond populated with white swans. (The swans are themselves another story. They are leased each year, because if left in the gardens year-round they would trample the grass and destroy the bushes. During this short visit, they usually behave.)
Add to this picture the fabulous annual mid-April Flower Parade of the Dutch Bulb District. Consisting of approximately twenty bloom-covered floats, each covered with about 100,000 flowers, it is similar to California's Rose Parade in the U.S., except that this parade consists of floats covered with bulb flowers and is an all-day, on-going trek from one town to another. The gorgeous procession travels from Noordwijk, in the heart of the blub fields, to Haarlem, about 24 miles (40 kilometers) away.
Add on to this picture a leisurely bike ride through brilliantly-colored fields of blooming tulips accented with sublimely fragrant hyacinths, and you've got the makings of a memorable tour.
Want to add this floral extravaganza to your own album of travel experiences? Though the spectacular annual bloom of tulips in the fields and at Keukenhof Gardens have faded away for this year (they are open mid-March through mid-May), it isn't too soon to start planning a visit for next year. With a window of only about six weeks of prime bloom, you need to carefully organize your schedule to cram in this tulip-heavy itinerary. As you can see, all this tight timing makes a coordinated, all-inclusive package tour especially attractive. Some specialty tours add in extras like canal barge excursions and cheese-tasting.
The Dutch horticultural exhibition Floriade (www.floriade.com) continues in Haarlemmermeer through October 20, 2002. Floriade is held only once every ten years, this year being the fifth show. It is located an easy twenty-minute bus ride from the airport. If your stopover at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is four hours or longer, you have time. Bus service is free with an admission ticket for Floriade and can be arranged at the airport. The airport also has guided tours that assure your return in time for your flight. Of the show's three major areas, the Lake Area flower fields and Valley of Flowers are hands-down where to head first. Then, if you have time, you can climb up the fair's literal high point, Big Spotters' Hill--a sort of man-made, grass-covered pyramid that provides a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. In a third area you'll see the world's largest solar roof--which will stay on the site when Floriade ends--and an experimental veggie garden.
Of course, you'll want to bring bulbs home. Only problem is that when bulbs are blooming in Holland, it is the wrong time to purchase them. What you'll find available for sale then is old, inferior bulbs that won't give you a nice bloom. It is frustrating to see the gigantic amaryllis bulbs at Amsterdam's Floating Flower Market and know that you must not buy them, but less frustrating than buying them, tending them, and finding out they produce only leaves.
If you are in Holland in the right season to buy good bulbs, keep in mind that to bring them through customs into the U.S. they must carry a certification. Bulbs must be dirt-free (to keep out infected soil). For quality, they should be heavy and firm like an onion. The bigger the bulb, the better the flower. The best thing to do is to make a shopping list as you tour the gardens, then arrange to have your favorite bulbs shipped to your home when they are ready. Alternatively, you can buy your bulbs from a reputable dealer in the U.S., specifying that you want the best Dutch bulbs.
But no matter what you pay for a Dutch tulip bulb today, you're getting a good deal. There was a time hundreds of years ago when a coveted tulip bulb sold for the price of a house located on one of Amsterdam's better canals! But lucky you, you can see the spectacular show provided by the best of tulip evolution now for much, much less.
When your trip is over, secure a window seat on your return flight so you can view the colorful flower fields from the air--it's a sight you won't soon stop sighing over.