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In the depths of winter its hard to imagine how all the bare earth, naked trees and seemingly dead bushes will ever come back to life. Yet, without fail, as February melts in to March, the green shoots re-appear and suddenly colour creeps back to our lives. So hold that thought and imagine the largest Spring garden in the world – and there you have it, the wonder that is Keukenhof Spring Gardens, just outside Amsterdam.
Open for just 8 weeks every year, Keukenhof is a veritable kaleidoscope of floral wonder. Over 7 million bulbs – every shade, shape, variety you can imagine – are donated by almost a 100 Dutch bulb growers. Meticulously planted by hand in autumn by a dedicated team of 30 gardeners they then bloom to form a feast for the eyes. This is Holland so naturally tulips are the stars of the show but there are spring flowers of all kinds; hyacinths, muscari, daffodils, bluebells and many more, all planted in glorious woodland as well as more structured designs based on traditional English and European garden styles. The gardens cover some 32 hectares and would take around 90 minutes to walk around the perimeter at a brisk pace. But you won’t do that, you will linger, you will ‘oo’ and ‘ah’, you will take endless photos and you will find, before you know it, that 4 or 5 hours have vanished and you still haven’t seen everything.
Open every day between late March and mid May, to get the most from your time at Keukenhof a little planning is required. The park itself is very easy to get to by car or by bus directly from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport – they leave every 10 minutes, the journey takes around 20 mins and the bus stop is right at the entrance. Pick up your free map of the park and you are away. Follow a network of paths (all wheelchair accessible) to discover the different areas. There are 4 large indoor pavilions with displays of cut flowers as well as exhibits relating to the different theme adopted for each year. Outside, a good place to start is the historical garden – ‘tulipmania’ dates back to the 17th century. Tulips did not originate in Holland but found their way there via the renowned Dutch global explorers of the day. The precious bulbs soon became sought after and highly prized. Hard to imagine but, in those days, just two rare bulbs could buy you a grand canal side home in central Amsterdam.
From the historical, you progress through the ages to modern day bulb farming. Even today, new bulb varieties take up to 25 years to develop. Keukenhof is the shop window for the growers. To ensure blooming perfection throughout the 8 week opening, bulbs are planted using the ‘lasagna’ technique – 2 or sometimes 3 layers deep so that once the early blooms start to fade, a fresh display will emerge. My first visit was in the final week of the 2016 season and, although some of the displays were past their best there was still more than enough to see. This year, I was lucky enough to be there at peak time in mid April. But this year the park was off to a slow start due to a very cold winter – the displays were just as spectacular but there were still many bulbs not yet open including the showpiece based on this year’s theme of ‘Romance’.
One of the most spectacular sights from the park though is from the Windmill where you can look out over the surrounding, privately owned, tulip fields – planted neatly in straight blocks, startling strips of vivid colour stretching for miles and miles. Nature is unpredictable though so timing is everything. Too early in the season and the flowers may not have opened, too late and they will have been cut and sent to market. When they are at their peak, it’s also worth hiring bikes or taking a ‘whisper boat’ canal tour of the surrounding fields. This is an optional extra, not included in the park entry cost.
Keukenhof is so accessible from Schipol it is easily ‘do-able’ as a day trip from UK regional airports but, stay longer, and you are spoilt for choice for things to see and do. That’s said, April and May are very busy months in the capital of cool that Amsterdam has become. If you struggle to find affordable accommodation in the centre its worth considering staying a little further out and taking advantage of the fantastic public transport system. I stayed at the Inntel at Zaandam. Very striking from the outside, the structure is formed as a stack of colourful Zaan style homes. Inside the rooms are spacious, modern and comfortable – and, unlike the narrow steep staircases you find in so many canalside buildings in the city centre, here there are lifts! Double room rates start from around 125 Euros. The station is literally 2 minutes walk from the hotel and its just 2 stops and 12 minutes away from Amsterdam Centraal Station. There is also a direct train service to Schipol every half hour which takes 18 minutes. Haarlem would also be another good option for an alternative base when visiting Keukenhof.
In 2016 I travelled as a guest of Visit Amsterdam and Keukenhof Gardens. This year I was fortunate to revisit the gardens as part of a filming trip with Noble Caledonia who have a number of Springtime river cruise itineraries that include a visit to Keukenhof.
Airlines with direct flights to Amsterdam include the national carrier KLM as well as British Airways, Easyjet and Ryanair.