The Keukenhof gardens of the Netherlands are not only the world’s largest flower gardens but are entirely dedicated to the cultivation of tulips. Adding to its intrigue, the Keukenhof is only open for a few weeks every year. Imagine the most spectacular, bold and bedazzling display of spring flowers you can. Now multiply it by 100. This gives you just a tiny hint of the sheer scale of flowers on show in this one place. A place I finally got to experience for myself two weekends ago.
The Keukenhof gardens, although often advertised as being in Amsterdam, are actually set around 40km west of the city, close to the coast. It takes around 40 minutes to get there by car or you can take a combination of train and bus, or hop on a special coach tour which takes around an hour. With our flight arriving in very early morning, we decided to stop our first night at Amsterdam Schipol Airport, This meant we could hop off our flight, easily pick up a hire car for the day, visit the Keukenhof which is only around 20 minutes from the airport and then carry on our explorations up to the coast before dropping the day back again at the end of the day. If you travel by public transport you’ll pick up a bus from the airport too – they have special services running to and from the Keukenhof throughout the day.
We arrived at the Keukenhof mid-morning on the third last day before it closed for the season. The journey was easy and there were no queues, despite me forgetting to buy my tickets online as intended before we left the UK. Driving past the coach park and seeing the number of places allotted in our own car park though gave us sense of just how many visitors make the tulip pilgrimage to the Keukenhof every spring.
Inside the Keukenhof we were instantly met with dramatic swathes of floral colour. Tulips led off in all directions and we quickly lost the throng of newcomers at the gate as we drifted off to explore. The sheer variety of tulips growing was staggering – from full on red flamenco style ones with frothy, ruffled petals to match their hot red colour to the comical ‘ice-cream’ tulip with its stumpy white top. I started to take photos of my favourite flowers and their names. I was still going several hours later. I picked up several simple ideas for impressive bulb displays at home, my favourite of which just involved putting pots of 9 or so paper white narcissi en masse in a big wooden crate. The scent was amazing and it looked fantastic too and I observed the gardeners quietly replacing the odd pot that had faded faster than the others – a sneaky tip to keep things looking fresh. We later passed a couple of shops where you can pour through thousands of tulip varieties in giant catalogues, all available to order for autumn delivery. It was at this point my husband started to hurry me on a bit. It is quite possible we need a bigger garden…
The Keukenhof is split into several different types of garden with plantings to reflect this. Whilst the formal gardens were probably the most dramatically impressive in terms of impact and colour, my favourite areas of the Keukenhof were the quiet areas of woodland or the lakeside garden where the swathes of tulips gently carpeted the lawns that sloped to the waterside. There are also strategically placed benches around some of the Keukenhof’s perimeters, giving views over the surrounding acres of tulip fields. A splendid sight I am sure a few weeks earlier, but sadly not for us arriving at the very end of the tulip season.
As well as the mind-blowing number of tulips on display there are also dedicated indoor exhibition sites throughout the Keukenhof gardens. When we visited we found huge arches and vases of lillies, their heavy, heady scent lingering in your nostrils long after leaving the hall. In another room there were hundreds of orchids arranged into saccharine displays dedicated to love and romance. It was all a bit too hearts and fluff for me (I kept expecting Paris Hilton to appear or someone to hand me a small kitten) but very impressive in its own right. The Vincent Van Gogh exhibition was by far my favourite. Displays of flowers were set out by copies of his still-life paintings, reminding you clearly both of the nationality of this famous painter and a key source of inspiration for his work.
After wandering for some time in the gardens, we stopped for freshly made stroopwafels – a delicious biscuit with a caramel centre best served still warm and goopy or reheated over the top of a cup of hot coffee. There are plenty of other places to eat in the Keukenhof ranging from snack bars to restaurants. It is well set up to cater for its large influx of annual visitors, many of whom make a full day of their visit.
If you’re visiting the Keukenhof with kids then there is also plenty to do. The flat and evenly paved gardens of the Keukenhof give ample outdoor roaming space for children and you can even borrow pushchair from reception if you get there early. There is a windmill to climb inside for views across the gardens and a close up of its sails and in the centre of the Keukenhof kids will love the petting farm with free roaming goats, peacocks, lambs and pot-bellied pigs. Next door is a playground with ample equipment and a good zip line lurking round the corner and when they are bored of that, let them loose in the large maze. We also found other kid friendly design round the park. Roo I know would have loved the wobbly step bridge and the climbing aboard the boat on the canal. If you are nimble enough to dodge the forest of selfie sticks then the mobile-phone hogging teen (or *ahem* blogger) can snap away in the so called selfie garden – set up to take some comedy social media shots based roughly around the theme of Vincent Van Gogh portraits and traditional dutch props. We only went in there of course in the name of research…
Finally, if you come a bit earlier in the season then you can finish your visit to the Keukenhof by hiring bikes and touring the surrounding tulip fields. Bikes are available to hire,including kids’ bikes, seats, tandems and electric bikes, from Rent-a-Bike van-Dam in the main bus park or you can pick them up from towns in the bulb belt between Lieden and Haarlem for a quieter cycle. In busy periods some people recommend hiring before you go into the Keukenhof gardens and leaving the bikes chained up ready for your return. We didn’t bike from the Keukenhof as the tulip fields had finished when we got there but there still seemed to be bikes available.
By early afternoon our eyes were exhausted. The Keukenhof had also become notably more crowded, with an influx of tour bus parties arriving around lunch time. For a first time visitor the Keukenhof was still an impressive experience and that’s coming from someone who hates crowds. Gone though was the relative peace and calm of the first hour or so of our visit and we were beginning to get tired of people asking us to take photos or dodging cameras ourselves. We decided to quit whilst ahead. I’d love to come back and visit with the girls another time, hopefully including a cycle tour of the fields too. The Keukenhof is a remarkable experience, even at the end of the season and a definite must if you are in Holland during tulip season. Just go early to avoid the crowds!
The Keukenhof will be open between 24th March to 16th June 2016. Visit their website for full details, directions and tickets.