It was civilised to leave Keith on the 8.13 am train for Aberdeen, where a stroll along the platform took me to the Virgin East Coast super train that goes to London. A word of warning. In the UK our train fares are just crazy. I booked the two legs of the journey separately and saved money. I took advantage of an online offer from Virgin and got first class for £1.60 cheaper than second class – so shop around.
The train arrived at Newcastle on time, and it is a short stroll across the road to the special bus that connects you to the ferry. The bus ride takes about 25 minutes, but there is plenty of time. Check in was smooth and swift, and on to the boat in no time. There are helpful staff everywhere to see you to your cabin. It is a great service. After we set sail, with the sun heading for the horizon, it was time to explore. There are many restaurants, catering for all tastes and budgets and styles. There is a cinema, live music, it is great.At Ijmuiden (the nearest port to Amsterdam) we disembarked and after customs (which was a bit strict – a sign of the times) out into the sunshine and the line of waiting buses. My Keukenhof luxury mini bus took me to the massive gardens. There were an unbelievable number of buses parked there, and thousands of people. In the four months of their spring season they receive over a million people.
The displays are just fantastic. They told me that all the millions of bulbs are planted by hand. This is the only way to ensure that they grow to make the patterns they are after, and by planting at different depths the flowers blossom at different times.
This year they were reflecting Dutch design – in particular Mondrian, and that school of art and design that uses only vertical or horizontal lines, and only basic prime colours. The variety of tulips is astonishing. I had no idea that the Dutch had propagated them into so many shapes and sizes, colours and varieties. The smell as you go round is wonderful. Then there are the hyacinths, daffodils, and so many other bulb flowers.
The whole 32 hectares is wheel chair friendly. There are five pavilions dotted around the site, each with a shop, café and very clean toilets. Each one specialises in part of the story of the plants. One is dedicated to orchids. I knew that orchids are fantastic flowers, but had never seen such blossoms.
With the waterways, fountains, statues, and just never ending panoramas of flower beds, trees, shrubs and beauty it is easy to see why it is so popular.
What surprised me was that this entire infrastructure is viable with such a short season. In 2018 the season is going to be from the 22nd of March to the 21st of May. Of course, this is when the flowers are naturally in bloom. Naively I asked what they do for the rest of the year. Stupid question. They have to lift all the bulbs and sort them. Prepare the ground. Plant another 7 or 8 million for next season.
They are on a treadmill – the work is never ending. The park is open from 08.00 to 19.30 hrs. Every day. There are also special flower shows, themed, and amazing, in the pavilions. There are things for the children too. There is a large playground, a petting zoo, a maze and a scavenging hunt. The things I noticed that seemed more popular than all these for the children was a stepping stone path wavering across one arm of the lake.
There is also a typically Dutch windmill, and you can climb up and see that all the surrounding area is bulb fields. You can visit them by boat, or bike – all very Dutch.
The DFDS bus will whisk you back to the ferry for the evening sailing – and you can even leave your bags in your cabin – with no questions about how much they weigh, or whether you have a pen knife in your pocket.
I had other plans, and would stay the night in the De Duif hotel in the town of Lisse, which is where Keukenhof is. The hotel has a variety of special offers, see www.hoteldeduif.nl It is a short walk from the gardens. The town is just SO Dutch. The streets are green, with separate walking lanes and of course bike lanes. The houses are generally two storeys, but not very high. They are made of brick and all look like they have been specially cleaned and tidied up. Unlike the UK, there is hardly any litter at all.
After I checked in at the hotel, I explored the town. Recognising where it is, and the importance of the flower business, many of the streets are named after flowers.There is Hyacinthstraat, Narcissenstraat, Geraniumstraat, Gladiolenstraat, all of which sound pretty difficult to pronounce and spell! Peace and quiet everywhere. The church of St. Agatha is magnificent – there was one other man taking a photo of it – the only other tourist I saw. Lisse has a railway station, but today it is a café restaurant. This is a pity as Dutch railways are so good; it would be great to be able to get here by train, or onwards to Amsterdam. As it is you have to catch a bus to Leiden, but then they run every 20 minutes or so, so it is not difficult.
The next morning I went off to explore another part of the Netherlands, which is another story. I ended up in Amsterdam and the DFDS buses run from a big hotel opposite the Centraal Station to the ferry. Once again, a simple, seamless trip and on in to my cabin. Many people are apprehensive about going by boat, fearing the North Sea and its reputation for being stormy. I don’t know whether I was lucky, or whether the stabilisers on the ferry really are as good as they say. All I know is that the slight roll we had at one stage was no worse than having one glass of wine too many!
It was a calm trip, none of the hectic noise and bustle of airports. There were many buses, cars, motorbikes and caravans crossing too. You have plenty of time, and time to relax.