Keukenhof: “the most beautiful spring gardens in the world”.
I can’t say I’ve visited all of the globe’s botanical attractions, but I do know that these are some pretty special flowerbeds. Keukenhof is one of the most colourful, fragrant and welcoming places I’ve ever visited, and for that reason, I’ll go with the nickname. I’d heard of them, of course; Buzzfeed-like bucket lists feature them frequently (check no. 4), and HomeAway listed them in Places to See Before You Die. Just a short drive outside Amsterdam, it’s little wonder – they’re so easy to reach. I’d booked my trip on a whim, and intended to spend just 48 hours there.
Can you see Keukenhof in a weekend, without taking a sickie from work? Of course you can.
It’s not much time to get to grips with what the city has to offer: the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House; cumin cheese and half pints of lager (the Dutch don’t do pints, which I struggle with – I’m Scottish!); ‘coffee shops’, scantily clad women and near-death experiences at the hand of cyclists. This is a summation of just a few – and perhaps stereotypical – things I did get around to doing, all on top of hopping on a bus to Keukenhof itself. Thankfully, Tours & Tickets make this an easy, and quick, excursion; you can make it yourself, but when it’s the same price to be shipped there in comfort, why wouldn’t you go for the easy option?
One of the first things you’ll notice about Amsterdam (aside from the bikes, canals and incredibly beautiful merchant houses) are the Tours & Tickets shops dotted all over the capital. On first glance, I couldn’t get my head around why you’d book anything indirectly – but it soon became clear. All of the museums and attractions actually pointed me in their direction to save a few euros. And there’s so much to choose from inside. You could hop on tours showcasing traditional Dutch life in the countryside, or tours illustrating Amsterdam’s red-light raucousness in the evening. The Heineken experience; an ice bar; a boat trip; Bruges: you just couldn’t fit it all in, but it makes organising your short break a breeze.
Tours & Tickets were as excited about spring as I was. Here’s what they had to say:
“The flowerfield season traditionally marks the beginning of the touristic summer season, not only for Tours & Tickets, but for any tourism-oriented organisation in and around Amsterdam. Every year we consider it a challenge to develop the best possible products around the Keukenhof gardens and the fabulous surrounding flowerfields, and offer as many tourists as possible the chance to admire this unique natural phenomenon. Some visitors simply want to see the gardens, others want to make a full day event of it and appreciate a visit to a traditional bulb farm or combine their Keukenhof experience with a visit to the nearby town of Haarlem.
The flowerfield experience already starts when people enter one of our many offices in town, full of fresh tulips and other kinds of flowers, after which they board one of our fully Keukenhof-branded coaches. Our customers clearly appreciate our efforts; it’s one of the reasons why we see increasing numbers of tourists, year after year – Tours & Tickets is dedicated to keep doing this in the future!”
Back to Keukenhof, and I was picked up by said coach at 9am on Dam street (with a sore head, somewhat – jenever, or Dutch gin, is a beastly maiden…) and carried swiftly out of the city, a tour guide telling us titbits of info along the way. Flying past windmills and charmingly battered old buildings, it’s not long before I arrived in the Dutch countryside – and once I saw the ruby-red and egg yolk-yellow plains poking through the bare-stripped branches of trees, I knew I was nearing the event.
Tickets already organised, we swept through. The flowers – you could smell them already.
Given a map, we decided simply to wing it. We had three hours – surely that’s enough time to check out some gardens, right? Well, not so much. Keukenhof isn’t the sort of place you want to run through. You want to spend time simply enjoying your surroundings. And the food – there’s plenty of food: waffles; broodje (Dutch sandwiches); tulip-shaped lollipops. I can’t say I liked the raw herring though. I’m obviously a fussy eater.
Fed and watered, we weaved through the trees, interspersed with streams – not gurgling, but glassy. Sunshine overhead and not a cloud in the sky, the sheer variety of blooms is amazing. We made our way past a huge water feature, up a gravelled path, and arrived – eyes bright – to an incredible sight. The fields of flowers before us stretched to the horizon, with just a few people breaking the block of colour. That’s the thing about Keukenhof: there are little patches of soft grass, made private by shrubbery; long walkways of grandeur, leading to the glass pavilions; fairytale scenes of streams, trees and flowerbeds; and views across the wider flower fields, displaying the majesty of them in their thousands.
Now, I’m no green-thumbed enthusiast, but here’s what I know: every week a different flower takes centre stage in the gardens’ pavilions, of which there are three to see. The Oranje Nassau, Willem-Alexander and Beatrix all feature spectacular flower arrangements, aided by as many as 500 growers and leading flower arrangers each time. Inside these beauties, the sweetness flowing in the air is inescapable. Freesias, tulips, hyacinths and hydrangeas. Lilies, tulips, roses and orchids. They’re all there, and I had no idea that as many varieties were practically possible. It was the orchids that struck me the most, however – my poor, pink excuse for an orchid has been struggling against my inability to remember it… but these were in their hundreds – multicoloured, patterned, hanging from the ceilings and walls.
A trip into the maze, a climb up the windmill, a walk along the lake (yep – they’ve even got floating walkways) and a waffle later – come on, they’re delicious – we were meandering back through the trees and carpets of pinks and purples. But we heard singing; my brother could make out “harbour of Amsterdam”. A choir of men, one of many choirs that come to entertain visitors to the gardens, had struck up – little children played on the lawn as their parents listened to the words. While it seemed the perfect time to sit and laze in the sun, we heard some fellow visitors talking about baby goats. And guys, I’m a sucker for baby goats.
The thing is, Keukenhof may be the ‘Garden of Europe’, but it has so much more to it than just, well, gardens. The petting farm has turkeys, goats, sheep, calves and piglets, and the playground was positively heaving with kids on adventures. There are gardens for inspiration – cookery, recycling, beekeeping – and you’ll have no shortage of sculptures to catch your eye. And events – they take place every week, so there’s always something new to see.
Need I go on? I could. But then you might be pressed for time.
Keukenhof is only open until 18 May 2014, each day from 08:00 to 19:30. And after that? They have to prepare for next year.
Trust me: if I can do Keukenhof in 48 hours, so can you.
Searching skyscanner, flights are available in the next couple of week s for £141 from London. Book a houseboat or apartment in Amsterdam with HomeAway, check in with Tours & Tickets for your trip, and you’ll have hopped over to the Netherlands in no time.
All photographs © Sophie Gackowski