If the lily of the valley is the pale, fragrant bride in the flower world, the tulip is the Diva. My mother had talked about the Dutch tulip fields and said that the sight in springtime was one of the wonders of the world. Which is why I was thrilled to take Scenic Tours’ river cruise along the lower Rhine, through Belgium and Holland, ending up in the famous Keukenhof Gardens, the biggest flower garden in the world, home of seven million spring bulbs.
Although I am a self-confessed cruise junkie, I had never before been on a river cruise, which is quite different from sailing over an ocean: you glide serenely on smooth unruffled water. The ship itself, the Scenic Emerald, is long and low, with rectangular sides lined with balconies and huge windows. Passengers have river banks to watch; people walking their dogs, windmills, river birds that wheel and cry ahead of you, and the excitement of the locks.
Like all cruises you have the wonderful advantage of only having to unpack once. The Scenic Emerald has very comfortable cabins, each with its own en-suite bathroom, and everyone has a balcony or a picture window. It has ample wardrobe room, and I had a courteous butler to bring canapes and fruit as snacks through the day. The food in the dining-room was delicious, with only one sitting at dinner, but open seating, which I prefer, because you meet new people.
The cruise began in Antwerp, which is a fabulous city, having admired the cathedral and the ornate Guild Houses I spent a happy hour in the Diamond Quarter, sorely tempted by the bargain necklaces I tried on, and then sadly had to give back.
I fell totally in love with Bruges, a little gem of a city, described as “the Venice of the North” thanks to its charming canals, rimmed with houses as quaint as Christmas cakes. I only had half a day, I could have done with a whole weekend there. But then a cruise is really a reconnaissance – a brief glimpse of places you can choose to revisit.
Our goal was of course The Keukenhof Garden, show-case for the magnificent Dutch bulb industry, and Holland’s greatest tourist attraction. We took a short bus trip from Lisse, and soon we were driving between tulip fields, their furrows laid out with straight lines of vivid colours, pink, scarlet, gold.
In the middle of the 17th century “tulip mania” took hold in Holland, with bulbs frequently changing hands, each time for a fortune. And once in the Keukenhof Gardens you can understand why. It takes eight years to propagate a new tulip which results in glorious blocks of colour, planted in in sweeping semi circles, under trees and punctuating the grass. The tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths spill and sprawl along the lakes and beside the paths.
If it rains on your visit, as it did on mine, don’t despair. Dotted among the acres of open gardens there are covered Pavilions crammed with tulips of every size, shape and colour. Some have frills, some have layered petals, some are shaped like lilies, others like goblets. All are vivid colours in every imaginable shade, from the traditional crimson, pink, and gold, to pure white, glossy black, and, most exotic of all, lavender blue.
We ended our cruise in Amsterdam, where bulbs are for sale. The trick is not to buy any bulbs you see in baskets or packs before October. If you do, you will find they will refuse to flower for you. Didn’t I warn you tulips are Divas? But if you love them as I do, then make a pilgrimage to Holland. As my mother told me, the tulip fields are one of the wonders of the world.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph.
To find out more about Scenic, go to www.scenictours.co.uk
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Scenic.