TRAVEL REVIEW: Discovering tulips from Amsterdam during a spring weekend break
A kaleidoscopic blanket of tulips that stretch as far as the eye can see sprawls in front of you whilst a towering windmill makes a gentle whirring motion above your head - this was a postcard of Amsterdam sprung to life.
But you have to catch this picture-perfect scene while you can: the Keukenhof Gardens only open their gates for eight weeks a year from mid-March.
Each year, the flower exhibition’s rainbow of blooms, seven million of them to be precise, lure in 800,000 visitors from around the world.
And it isn’t just the flower fields which will have you snapping like crazy on your camera, the park has its own sculpture trail and pavilions housing flower shows of archways, hearts and more made entirely of flowers fashioned into fantastical displays.
It’s a chance for the growers to show off the fruits of their labour in spectacular fashion on a global stage. If there was an Oscars of the flower world, this would be its red carpet of show-stoppers.
Perhaps the most beautiful is the Willem-Alexander Pavilion with its bounty of scent and sea of 15,000 lilies of more than 300 varieties.
Back outside, meander your way through the park’s winding paths over 32 hectares and you’ll find plenty of inspiration for your own patch of land at home with themed gardens. A highlight was the striking Delft blue garden, themed around the famous seventeenth century earthenware and its distinctive hue. No wonder Keukenhof is hailed as the “Garden of Europe”: there can be no better place for flower fans to flock.
Despite the delicate nature of the blooms, this is a perfectly child-friendly park with plenty to keep them amused, from a maze to a petting zoo.
Keukenhof is around 45 minutes from Amsterdam and is easily accessible by coach from Schiphol airport - you can’t miss the coaches, they’re covered in tulips.
We hopped on a direct train to the airport from central Amsterdam, which was a five minute walk from our hotel, the Rho Hotel, just off Dam Square.
It may not look much from the outside, but inside it’s a large hotel created in the shell of an Art Deco theatre. Rooms are basic, but were spacious, clean, comfortable and more than reasonably-priced.
What’s more, its location means it’s the perfect base from which to explore this quirky European city and its myriad of charms.
The city straddles its famous 100km of canals, which makes navigating your way around this Capital easier than most as you can just follow the banks of a canal to reach your destination. There’s a reliable tram system and bikes to hire for those brave enough to join the city’s vehement cyclists, who rule the roads with their shrill bells. Seriously, cross them at your peril.
For the bulk of our stay, however, we followed the canals and went by foot. Even on the odd occasion we took a wrong turn it’s really not a hardship to wander your way through the Venice of the North, which throws up another photo opportunity around every canal corner.
For a closer view, canal boat trips are simple to book and there are different companies running them throughout the day. We booked an hour’s trip for 16euros each and learnt more about how these picturesque canals fuelled the city’s economic prosperity.
It was from the canal boat we spotted the Ice Bar, where we returned later to drink spirits in minus 9degrees - don’t worry, they provide you with coats and gloves. It’s a popular attraction here and it’s a great novelty to try, but I defy anyone to last more than 20 minutes in this extremity-chilling bar.
Our Sunday moved at a more leisurely pace and we indulged in the thriving brunch scene that’s sweeping the city.
After much Googling and Twitter suggestions, we discovered the Hotel Not Hotel, which is around a 25-minute walk west of the centre of the city. It’s an unusual name for an unusual place. Unlike most hotels, this is a place where the rooms revolve around the communal area and its artworks. Though they’re not rooms in the traditional sense either: one’s an old tram, another resembles a Mediterranean villa, another can be found behind a library book shelf. They’re not too far removed from installations you’d find in a modern art gallery, just you actually get to sleep in them.
The bar - the Kevin Bacon bar - is far from average too and it was here we enjoyed a pop up brunch by British chef Justin Brown.
Much like the ethos of the hotel, it was a menu that turned the traditional on its head. Take the cauliflower porridge: sounds weird, tastes great.
Each course was paired with a cocktail, such as a cauliflower bloody Mary and a smoky screwdriver, which set our noses twitching with its heady aroma.
For a more traditional meal, head to Five Flies - restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen in its native tongue - an Aladdin’s Cave of five dining rooms spread over five canal houses near the city’s floating flower market which date back to the 1600s.
A maze of cosy Gothic corners for courting couples and larger tables which lie in the shadow of original Delft blue tiles and elaborate antiques, this is the height of Dutch dining.
Its patron list reads like a who’s who of celebrities with Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Kirk Douglas, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger all eating here in the past - and they have the brass plaques bearing their names on the chairs to prove it.
One of Amsterdam’s most famous sons also makes an appearance, with four original Rembrandt etchings on the walls.
Like tens of thousands of other visitors each year, we’d hoped to visit the hideaway of another famous Amsterdam resident: the Anne Frank museum. We headed off on our final day to seek out the famous secret annexe before our late afternoon ferry with plenty of time. Our folly, however, was not to book in advance to see this one time home of the inspirational teen who found herself caught up in the grip of the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.
From 9am to 3.30pm only people with tickets bought online will gain admittance. After that, you have to join the masses in the queue and chance it until the museum closes at 10pm.
It was a slight disappointment, but is just one in many reasons to return to this living, breathing, pulsating picture postcard.
•Katy travelled with DFDS Newcastle to Keukenhof Gardens, Amsterdam (mini break):
DFDS mini-cruises depart daily from Newcastle and Amsterdam. The ships (either King Seaways and Princess Seaways) depart North Shields at 5pm arriving at Ijmuiden near Amsterdam at 9:30am the next morning. The return legs depart Ijmuiden at 5:30pm, arriving in North Shields at 9am the following morning.
Once at the port coach transfers are provided to and from Keukenhof Gardens (approx. 45 minutes), with up to 3 hours to explore the park before returning to the ship for the return leg. Alternatively, extend a trip with transfers and hotel accommodation to Amsterdam (travel from Amsterdam to Keukenhof not included on this option).