LISSE, the Netherlands - Seeing tulips in full bloom in the Netherlands is a wish on many a traveler's list. My dream came true in April.
The best place to see gardens gone wild with color is Keukenhof, the famous Dutch gardens where flowers bloom their heads off mid-March to mid-May. This year's peak was two weeks early, and I hit it April 25.
Stepping into the gardens of Keukenhof is like wandering into an impressionist painting, where every dot of color morphs into a stunning flower. It becomes more and more dreamlike as the gardens spread on, bursting with the 7 million flower bulbs planted each fall.
Not all the flowers are tulips, but the 80,000 tulips are the star performers. They are so regal, so captivating as they stand tall on their stems, with just the slightest graceful lean. Their petals are sleek, coalescing into soft petal cups, like gently cupped hands holding something fragile.
Then there is the range of color. Some evoke memory -- melting sherbet oranges, buttercup yellows, fire engine reds.
Others bloom in dreamlike colors -- the soft pinks of clouds at sunset, the mild buttermilk yellow of one named "Cheers." Then there's dashing "Black Hero," which is actually a deep purple, but when hundreds of them stand sentinel, they do look black.
Keukenhof plants 600 varieties, so it's a veritable palette of color. A first stroll through the many gardens fills the senses with the beautiful designs of each bed. Some are
Then there are the all-tulip displays, armies of single-color tulips standing at attention. The uniformity of the flowers en masse -- a thousand perfectly formed yellow cups -- is a commanding sight. This is the visual image so many of us associate with Holland.
(By the way, Holland, the Netherlands -- what's the proper term? Holland, in fact, refers to only two provinces in the Netherlands.
After one tromp through the grounds, I realized I had been admiring only the gardens' compositions. The spectrum doesn't stray too far from flowers, flowers and more flowers, but of course there is an area with a windmill surrounded by its own lovely displays. And there's a swan pond.
Plus there are seven inspiration gardens, one of this year's dedicated to the Netherlands' friendship with Sweden. Little Absolut bottles hang from shrubs, Swedish flag colors of blue and yellow fill out a garden and IKEA swing chairs hang from trees.
My second sweep of Keukenhof was an up-close-and-personal tour to learn the names of charmers I'd like to plant in my own garden.
As I wandered deep in tulip reverie, some flowers grabbed me. I fell in love with "Angelique," a soft white tulip with shell-pink, fluffy-edged petals. Massed together, they looked floaty -- as if they might lift off into the air.
Another favorite was "Perestroyka," a tall, coral-colored elegant variety.
On this trip to the Holland, I had planned to bring bulbs home. But I also had been advised not to buy tulip bulbs in the spring, for only last year's bulbs are available. This year's crop will be ready in late summer and fall. At Keukenhof, they were busy taking orders for 2007 bulbs, but for me it made sense just to order from my usual U.S. catalog supplier, which gets the bulbs from Holland.
Still, I was determined to bring home some flower bulbs. In the spring here, you can get summer-blooming bulbs; the assortment sold at Keukenhof cost about $13.60. But alas, I watched as two other shoppers snatched up the last two bags certified for the United States and Canada -- necessary so the bulbs don't carry in bugs and pests destructive to U.S. agriculture.
You do need to declare when you're carrying bulbs through U.S. customs, and the USDA will open your bag to look for the certification label.
I knew I would find certified bulbs at Amsterdam's shopping mall-like Schiphol Airport, having purchased them there in the past. That same bag of summer bulbs cost me $68 at the airport. Oops.
But the price didn't daunt me. I wasn't about to return home from this flowery kingdom without something to pop cheerfully out of the ground to remind me of my trip.
IF YOU GO
Keukenhof is a little more than an hour's drive from Amsterdam. Many coach tours are offered from the city. Or check out the Netherlands official tourism site, www.holland.com, which offers a four-day spring package timed for peak blooming at Keukenhof. www.keukenhof.nl, (011-31-252) 465-564.