The narrow window for visiting the Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse (in the province of South Holland in the Netherlands) is limited to eight weeks a year—between March and May. So flower-lovers, gardeners and photographers from all over the world convene at the Gardens at that time, coinciding with the season when the flowers are in full bloom.
Riverboats plan “Tulip Cruise” itineraries during this period. And if you are lucky enough to be on one of these cruises, an excursion to the Gardens is likely to be one of the most memorable aspects of your cruise.
The morning after our AmaWaterways Tulip Cruise returned to the port in Amsterdam, our group boarded a motor coach for the 1½-hour ride through the countryside to the Gardens. Passing flower fields with spectacular stripes of rich colors extending as far as the eye could see, we got only a hint of what was to come.
The Netherlands is the world’s biggest flower producer, exporting 70 percent of the world supply. Although tulips are the flower most closely associated with the Dutch, the country’s biggest export is roses.
The Turks were the first to cultivate tulips (back in 1000 A.D.) and brought them to Holland in the 16th century. (“Tulip” is the Turkish word for turban.)
The lush bulbs became so popular in Holland in the mid-17th century that they became a form of currency. Speculative buying and selling led to what has been called “Tulip Mania,” an economic bubble resulting in a wave of bankruptcies that rippled through the country. At one point, bulbs were worth more than the price of a home!
In 1949, the mayor of Lisse set up Keukenhof Gardens as a showplace for a group of 20 bulb growers. It still serves as a center of trade for the floricultural industry and bulbs have remained a vital part of the economy of the region.
The Garden of Europe
Each year, an estimated 800,000 people (including many locals) visit what has been nicknamed “The Garden of Europe.”
Our tour was planned for the early morning to avoid the crowds, which averages 14,000 visitors a day. After a brief orientation, our guide left us to wander and explore the 70-acre park that is carpeted with 7 million tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths—and a smattering of daffodils, orchids, carnations, roses, lilies and irises. The colors of the blooms in this landscaped park are so intense that they can “rattle your teeth.”
During a brief rain, we stopped under a small snack pavilion along our route to taste poffertjes (delicious mini-pancakes doused with butter and confectionary sugar), a popular Dutch snack. Calorific sweets, for sure, but when in Rome….
We paused to gaze at engaging outdoor sculptures and glimmering ponds that reflected the brilliant hues of the flowers. We visited indoor pavilions with displays explaining cultivation techniques and the history of Dutch bulbs, and experts offering growing tips for the amateur gardener.
The Gardens showcase an annual theme each year. When we visit during the spring of 2015, it was the year of Van Gogh. We saw the self-portrait of the master outdoors, a magnificent mosaic comprised of tens of thousands of tulips and grape hyacinths, and then visited an indoor exhibit focused on the artist’s works. The 2016 theme is “The Golden Age“, the era when Holland became rich through worldwide trade.
Before we had to head back to the bus, we ordered bulbs that would be shipped to our home in the fall. Then we made one more stop for some irresistible juicy fresh strawberries in a walkaway cup sold on a cart.
No words or pictures can adequately describe the experience of visiting this living museum but when the first blossoms emerged from the bulbs we had brought home, we couldn’t help but reminisce about our time at Keukenhof Gardens.
IF YOU GO
- Keukenhof Gardens is situated in Lisse in South Holland, just south of Haarlem and Amsterdam.
- In 2016, the park will be open between March 24 and May 16 between 8AM and 6PM.
- Admission is $18 for adults and $9 for children between the ages of 4 and 11.
About the author: Irene S. Levine