LISSE, THE NETHERLANDS -- I didn’t expect to fall in love with Holland.
We visited partly out of duty, to visit family, timing our trip to coincide with the spring blooming season of late April and early May.
I thought it would be amusing to see the tulips, although the idea of Keukenhof, where the bulb industry plants about 4.5 million tulips plus another 2.5 million or so bulbs each year in flashy displays that are soon dug up and redone, seemed to validate my opinion of them as frivolous, silly plants.
How could I have known that this Disneyland of flowers would make me giddier than a butterfly in a sea of nectar?
An early-morning trek to the giant FloraHolland market in Aalsmeer, where cut flowers and potted plants are auctioned and shipped around the world, inspired a different kind of awe.
And without leaving Amsterdam proper, we made a glorious day of a visit to the Hortus Botanicus — one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world — and a three-hour lunch nearby at De Kas, a superb restaurant inside a huge greenhouse.
COLOR AND BEAUTY
It’s not all about the tulips at Keukenhof, one of the most famous gardens in the world and the most popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands.
This 80-acre showplace for the Dutch bulb industry is designed to inspire gardeners with the newest hybrids and myriad combinations of spring-flowering beauties. Narcissus, crocuses, hyacinths, fritillaria, lilies, scilla, irises and anemones bloom along the more than nine miles of footpaths that wind around several lakes. Many of the trees bloom as well, including cherry blossoms.
I found the least photogenic area the most interesting botanically: the historic walled garden where heirloom varieties are planted as they would have been in the 17th century — spaced farther apart than they are today because they were wildly expensive.
Keukenhof is open about two months each year beginning in late March. This year’s season ends May 20. Located in the Amsterdam suburb of Lisse, it’s easily accessible by buses that leave Schiphol Airport 12 times an hour. Tickets including bus fare are about $20 for adults. Information: keukenhof.nl.
While Keukenhof is awash with loud swaths of color that celebrate the ways we can tweak nature, the Hortus Botanicus entices with close-up views that express our centuries-old fascination with nature’s mysteries.
The Hortus offers a trip back in time — millennia, even — with a diverse collection of about 4,000 plants. Among them are ancient species such as cycads, palms and carnivorous curiosities representing every geological period.
Founded in 1638 as a medicinal herb garden “school” for doctors and pharmacists, the Hortus later became a repository for exotic ornamentals gathered around the globe by the plant hunters of the Dutch East India Co. Some of the treasures they hauled around the world still grow here, including a 300-year-old giant cycad.
The Hortus remains a plant study center, scientifically managed. The three-acre grounds feature several gardens, a magnificent palm house, a three-climate greenhouse and a delightful cafe in the beautifully restored Orangery. The gardens are open daily; adult tickets are around $11. Information: en.dehortus.nl
LUNCH AND LEARN
A few tram stops beyond the Hortus, De Kas entices foodies and gardeners with a gorgeously converted greenhouse originally built by the city of Amsterdam in 1926.
Owner Gert Jan Hageman grows much of the organic produce his customers eat — some of it nurtured right there on site — with the rest locally sourced.
De Kas’s talented chefs whip each day’s organic harvest into sublime lunches and dinners that are served on pristine white china in a sleek, modern setting that seems purified by all the natural light.
It’s bliss, with a nice wine list, too. Pricey but worth every cent, a two-course lunch is about $50; a three-course dinner is about $65. Information: restaurantdekas.nl
MAKE A TRADE
The Dutch are organized people, and they’ve been great flower merchants for centuries. The scene at the FloraHolland auction house in the suburb of Aalsmeer shows them at their most efficient.
This is the world’s largest flower trading house, where about 9,000 growers from around the world send their perishable, delicate crops to be sold and distributed.
Employees zoom around the warehouse floor on bikes, and long trains of carts move on tracks through five auction rooms. Traders in tiered seats view the particulars about each lot on large video screens.
Tourists can watch it all Monday-Friday, viewing the warehouse from catwalks and the auction rooms through large windows. Adult tickets are about $7.50. It’s best to get there by car, and for early risers only; the action is done by mid-morning. Information: floraholland.com/en.