LISSE, Netherlands -- After a seemingly endless winter -- and a disappointingly cold start to spring -- a visit to the Keukenhof flower park is like therapy for this refugee from the polar vortex.
While much of Canada was only recently still battling blizzards, ice storms and sub-sub-sub-zero temperatures, the Netherlands was enjoying an unusually warm winter and early spring.
During five days in and around Amsterdam in early April, temperatures hovered between 18C and 21C. The balmy weather created a general mood of bonhomie, and every friendly local I encountered took time to remark how rare it was to be enjoying such warm spring temperatures -- and five sunny days in a row!
Consequently Keukenhof, which opened March 20 for its annual eight-week flower bulb exhibition, is in full fabulous flowery bloom.
But the 7 million flowering bulbs are not just pretty, abundant and delicately fragrant. They also give hope to the winter weary that warmer days are just around the corner ... that we will soon be outdoors digging in our yards ... and wouldn't that fringed yellow tulip look fetching in our own gardens.
The riot of colour provides something for the eyes to absorb that is not blinding white, flinty grey or dirty brown, and the floral scents mixed with the smell of warm moist earth are somehow restorative to the spirit.
Soak it up, I tell myself while tiptoeing past beds of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses. (Only Keukenhof gardeners are allowed to tiptoe "through" the tulips, visitors are asked to stay on the paths.). And with a literal spring in my step, I happily hopscotch childlike from stepping-stone to stepping-stone across a placid pond, where pretty white swans glide gracefully by.
During a park tour, I learn from our guide that the swans are visitors, too, leased from a nearby farm for the eight weeks the park is open. As soon as the gates close on May 18, the swans will go home and Keukenhof's 30 gardeners will get busy removing this year's bulbs and replanting the 32-hectare park (about 50 km from Amsterdam) with new bulbs from 600 growers for 2015.
Later, I meander along some of the 15 km of paths, pop into a few pavilions to see orchids, roses, lilies and more, and learn about the "Tulipomania" of 1637 -- when the price of tulips topped the price of a home. Then I climb to the top of the windmill for a view from on high.
After a cappuccino -- savoured in the sun at one of several outdoor cafes -- I hop onto a quiet electric "whisper boat" for a 45-minute tour along the calm canals threaded through the bulb fields. Visitors can also rent bicycles and pedal along flat country roads to the flower fields, which are usually in bloom through May.
Opposite the flower park is Keukenhof Castle. Built in the mid 1600s and enlarged by subsequent owners, it's one of the area's few remaining country estates. In bygone days, noble families and rich merchants decamped to these palatial summer homes to escape the smelly, filthy and disease-ridden cities.
Now run by a foundation, the manor house was restored in 2012 and can be visited on one of the hourly tours. In the summer there are sculpture exhibitions, concerts and other special events.
While Keukenhof is the world's most famous flower garden, it is not the only place in the Netherlands to become immersed in Dutch horticulture. The country is the hub of the European floral market for both production and distribution, and a prominent player on the international flower scene.
Aalsmeer -- aka the Flower Capital of the World -- is home to the world's biggest flower auction at the world's largest commercial building -- the 1-million sq.-metre FloraHolland. About 30 km from Amsterdam, the complex is open to the public on weekdays. But you will have to get up early to visit as the action starts around 7 a.m., and winds up well before noon.
Each day more than 19 million cut flowers and 2 million potted plants are bought and sold at FloraHolland. Flowers are sold in a "Dutch auction" -- a complicated system based on an automated clock that tracks who, how many and how much. As the seconds tick down, prices fall, but those who buy early can sometimes get the best products. Within hours of being sold, blooms are sent packing across the world. It's dizzying to watch as hundreds of flower-laden tow-motors crisscross the giant warehouse floor ferrying flats of flowers to distribution points.
In 2016, there will be even more for visitors to see when a new Flower Experience Centre open near FloraHolland.
You can make a day of it in Aalsmeer by taking a boat cruise through the maze of islands and dropping in at the Historical Museum Garden that showcases the development of Dutch horticulture through the ages.
Amsterdam makes a good base for visiting both Keukenhof and Aalsmeer. It's one of Europe's most visitor-friendly destinations -- completely charming, compact and easy to navigate.
The city is worthy of a visit year-round but is especially lovely in the spring when bushes such as forsythia, cherry and magnolia are in bloom, and window boxes jammed with spring flowers add hits of colour to the tall skinny houses along the canals. Even the little bridges over the waterways are festooned with planters packed with tulips.
The flower shops, and the famous Bloemenmarkt (floating flower market) along Singel Canal, are chock-a-block year-round. And every visitor should take at least one canal cruise through the city with tour boat operators such as Lovers. On the canals, it's easy to envision an older Amsterdam. The city seems more tranquil, except for the odd boat-load of young Europeans in town for a party weekend.
Two other attractions Canadian gardeners -- or those with garden envy -- might like are the Artis Royal Zoo and Hortus Botanicus.
Sometimes called the "green heart of Amsterdam," Artis opened in 1838 as a members-only park with animals and expanded from there. It has been open to the public since 1920 and is the country's oldest zoo.
In addition to its 900 species of animals, petting zoo, butterfly conservatory, aquarium, planetarium and bird-house, there are 200 species of trees (some very old), some 36,000 plants and 175,000-plus flowers blooming in gardens around the 11-hectare grounds. Spring visitors can stroll among tens of thousands of crocuses, daffodils, grape hyacinths and other blooms -- including tulips, of course.
Hortus Botanicus is another tranquil spot. One of the world's oldest botanical gardens, its roots go back to 1638 when it was founded as a medicinal garden by the city's forward-thinking mayor. The chief magistrate hoped herbs grown there might be used to fight off another outbreak of the plague. Today more than 4,000 plant species -- many rare or historical -- grow in its gardens, greenhouses and orangery.
After a week-long dose of Dutch flower power, I am revived and ready to return home to await the arrival of spring -- whenever it decides to show up!
NEED TO KNOW
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies to Amsterdam from several cities in Canada. Fares to Europe are competitive and at press time still included one checked bag. Service is excellent -- fliers still get a pillow and a blanket -- and the on board entertainment system has an extensive choice of films, TV shows, etc. If your budget allows, for an extra fee (about $100 each way from Toronto when I flew in April) you can upgrade to Comfort Class, KLM's premium economy service, which provides a seat near the front of the plane with extra legroom and up to double the recline.
If you are treating yourself, why not go all the way and check into KLM's Crown Lounge at Toronto's Pearson International or Amsterdam's Schipol, which operates on a paid-access basis ($35 per person in Toronto). It's a quiet space with hot and cold snacks, beverages, comfortable chairs, computers, printers, Wi-Fi, washrooms and check-in facilities for passengers in transit. See klm.com.
TRAVEL & ATTRACTIONS
-- Keukenhof admission is about $23 for adults and $12.50 for kids. See keukenhof.nl.
-- FloraHolland opens to the public on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. (but 9 a.m. on Thursdays). Admission for a self-guided tour is about $9 for adults, $5.50 for children. Guided tours are available for groups.