Miles of vibrant, multicoloured fields, millions of blooms and the world’s largest flower garden... No wonder so many travellers head to the Netherlands each spring!
It’s billed as the ‘Greatest Flower Show on Earth’. From mid-March to the middle of May each year, vast areas of western Holland transform into a sea of colour. It’s my favourite time to visit, as the Dutch bulbfields welcome the annual influx of tourists. From Haarlem in the north to Leiden in the south, the landscape is a patchwork made up from the huge blocks of different coloured blooms.
The daffodils of March give way to spring scented hyacinths and tulips of every hue. Talking to one of the nurserymen, I discovered that the bulbs are planted at slightly different times, to ensure a continuous show throughout the season. Just to travel about the district presents an awesome sight, but almost perfectly in the centre of the region is my favourite haunt. It also just happens to be the largest flower garden in the world: Keukenhof.
It’s been the centrepiece of the Dutch bulbfields festival for 60 years, and has grown both in size and popularity. A staggering seven million bulbs are planted to create the lavish scenes, with many being changed each season to build the spectacular one-off designs. It’s a place that always amazes me, and no matter how many years you have visited it always looks fresh, and always manages to come up with something with the wow factor.
The gardens cover around 80 acres, with serene lakes, streams rippling under ornate bridges, and a network of winding paths to link together the stunning displays. Personally, it’s the areas around the lakes that always attract me first, with the perfect blend of water and colour just inviting me to linger. But there is something for everyone’s tastes, with different areas of the park given a variety of styles. Impressive formal areas, with neat patterns of colour, fountains and statues. Gently rolling grasslands, with seemingly random scatterings of colour, trees, and ponds, set against a background of softly trickling streams. And the wildly impressive special displays that change each year, where pictures and sculptures are created using thousands of blooms. It’s a magical place, and to see it properly a full day is the minimum you’ll need.
There are, of course, plenty of ways to visit both Keukenhof and the bulbfields generally. There are a wealth of coach tours, self-drive holidays, and good public transport links from both Amsterdam, for those who want to fly, or the ferry ports of Den Haag or the Hook of Holland. Once in the area, I prefer to cast off the motorised trappings and take a bike. Cycling is a popular option, with the flat terrain making it an easy and relaxing way to experience the full beauty – and aroma - of the flowers.
I generally hire a bike from Keukenhof itself, as this has the added bonus that six specifically designed cycle routes also begin and end here. Two of these routes head north, for a gentle ride around the fields towards Haarlem. Two others head south, offering the chance to visit the beautiful ‘Panorama Tulipland’, or the Zwarte Tulp, a museum featuring the legendary Black Tulip. The longer two routes head towards the coast, into the heart of bulb country, for a day-long 40km circular ride. If you can spend a few days here then I suggest you try one in each direction.
I’d also recommend a diversion to another of my regular stops, the pretty town of Aalsmeer. Just a few miles east of Keukenhof, the daily flower auctions here are an interesting and unusual way to witness the industry in action, although the sheer size of the sales area (about the area of 75 soccer fields!) makes it a spectacle in itself. Approximately £1.5 billion of plants and flowers are traded here each year.
Another highlight of the bulbfields season is the annual Flower Parade, usually held at the end of April, when upwards of 50 intricately decorated floral floats and bands follow a 40-kilometre route through the region. Starting from the coastal town of Noordwijk, it slowly works its way northwards, passing Keukenhof and the other major attractions, before arriving in Haarlem in the evening. It draws a huge crowd, especially in the most popular parts of its journey, but try and see it near its conclusion, so that you can join in the party atmosphere at the finish.
Haarlem is also a pleasant place to base yourself during your stay. The Hotel Amadeus, on the main market place, is both reasonable and comfortable, and has the advantage of being close to the main places of interest. I like this area for its picturesque, typically Dutch, high gabled houses, and links to the famous artist Frans Hals. The church of St Barvo is home to a magnificent baroque organ, dating from the early 18th century, with no fewer than 5000 pipes; it is said to have been played by both Mozart (hence the hotel name) and Handel. I found restaurants offering almost everything except typically Dutch food, but a good night’s entertainment can be had at Ze Crack (Laang Verstraat), a lively music bar, which sensibly sells beer by the pint.
All the towns in the district are pleasant and welcoming, with plenty of good hotels and restaurants. They do get heavily booked for the duration of the bulbs season, however, and I don’t advise you to go without a reservation. Many of the towns also go to some lengths to decorate the main areas with flowers, and host their own smaller festivities. For me, it all adds to the impression that you have, for at least a few weeks each year, stumbled into some kind of horticultural heaven.