Tip-toe Through the Tulips Avec Moi

Whatever you’re doing, I want you to stop and make a note to plan a trip to The Netherlands during tulip season (late March to Mid May).  It is an experience you will enjoy, even if you have a black thumb like me.

We moved to Toulouse last April, and since then whenever I bring up wanting to take a weekend trip somewhere, Jim has said, “How about we go to Amsterdam.”  And I’ve responded with, “No, we have to go there in April.”  I think Jim was questioning my judgment until we finally took a trip out to the Keukenhof down near Lisse.  Then he fully understood my insistence to visit in April.

The Keukenhof is an insane tulip & flower garden south of Amsterdam near Lisse in The Netherlands.  To be more specific, it’s more than seven million tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, covering over 32 hectares.

We decided to visit on a Sunday (when the sun was supposed to be out) and after our experience at Versailles on a Sunday, we decided to get up early and arrive close to 9am.  Friends, this is (maybe) the best advice I could offer you if you attend.  Buy the Combi Bus Ticket from Amsterdam (29 euro/person), but take the train to the airport and pick up the 858 Shuttle Bus from there.  Get there as early as you can, definitely before 9am.  There was essentially one shuttle of people in front of us when we arrived at the airport, and almost five minutes after we joined the line, it had multiplied to almost 10x the size and length (when we returned it looked like the wait to get on a shuttle was in the multiple hours).  The shuttle ride seemed to last maybe 30 minutes and drops you off at the entrance (and picks you up when you’re ready to leave).

We arrived to a sea of people (only crazier when we left, which was about 5x the crowd size in the afternoon) and made our way through the entrance and began exploring the park.  Initially, I had told Jim I thought we should rent bikes and see the tulips that way, but bikes are not allowed in the park (and there’s NO WAY anyone could ride a bike through those crowds).  So we wandered in and out of gorgeous plots with the most marvelous smells.

Jim decided his favorite tulips were the white ones (middle photo below), while I was more partial to the yellow/orange and pink mixtures.  Though my favorite groupings were the melange of tulips as well as the red with white tips.

We stopped for a mid-morning waffle snack (they were tasty, but not quite as good as the ones in Bruges) and considered taking a boat tour around the garden.  This is when we found out you CAN rent bikes (as I had planned), but through the tulip fields outside of the garden.  With that in mind, we practically bolted out of the garden and made our way toward the bike rentals.

I’ve talked up the Keukenhof, but really what was incredibly memorable and wonderful was the bike ride through the tulip fields, made possible by Keukenhof Bike Rentals.  It’s eight or 10 euro extremely well spent.  Go here.  Rent these.  Thank me later.

After about an hour or an hour and a half inside the garden, we left and made our way to the bike rentals.  There was no line.  We talked to the woman running the rentals and she armed us with a map, detailed with things to watch out for, places to stop for food (and her favorites).  She asked us what sort of tour we’d like to go on.  We said we weren’t busy, had the afternoon to explore.  She excitedly said, “Perfect – you should try Route 3 – it’s a 25 kilometer ride that’ll take you 2-3 hours to complete through the flower fields, past the lake, and out to the North Sea by the dunes.”  We excitedly paid her and her excitement back made us wonder if we’re the ONLY people who take the 25 kilometer bike ride (after completing it, I think we were).

Then we were moved to the guy who set us up with bikes.  The whole time we were looking at the bikes and talking to the guy, I just kept thinking of my friend, Amanda (who is Irish/Dutch and lives in Rotterdam), who always spoke so highly of her Dutch bike while we were in college.  The guy asked me if the seat was too high.  Shamefully, I wasn’t sure if it was (after the 25 km, I can safely say it was), as I hadn’t been on a bike in 18 years.  18 years.  I was literally going to see if the old adage – just like riding a bike was true (it was, though at times I thought I was going to die).  With our bikes chosen, we set out for Route 3 with the wind in our hair, sun on our backs, and flowers as far as the eye could see.

We exited the parking lot to our right and came across the first of the fields we’d see all day.  It’s at this point I realized I could not take photos and steady the bike at the same time.  In fact, I could not even take my hand off the handlebar without practically losing control of the bike.  This was the heaviest bike I’ve ever been on…and I do not remember my 10 speed being like this, at all.  I was a no hands rider for years.  Now, 18 years later, I was white knuckling it for 25 km.  As such, there are only photos from when we got off our bike to enjoy the view.

Tulips are beautiful.  Period.  Look at the sky that day.  It was an absolutely perfect day.  Perfect.  In the above photos, you’ll also notice other people on orange bikes.  This is the beginning of our trek and the last time we saw other orange bikes.

Next we passed the lake the woman had mentioned.  There were lots of sailboats sailing.  It was gorgeous.  We stopped for a quick look to really enjoy the moment, which is also where I snapped the photo of Jim on his bike and he got a few of me riding by.  These photos are still early in the ride, when 25 kilometers seemed like a breeze.  This is also when we started to encounter pedestrians, cars, marathon runners, cyclists, and (even) ponies (crazy, I know).  Here I began to dread roundabouts and the height of my bike seat (though Jim said I was impressively good at getting off my bike).  Normally I complain about cyclists (when I’m a pedestrian in the city), but once I was on a bike, I picked up the cyclist attitude with impressive ease, “Can you believe that lady with her dog?!  She practically ran me off the path!”  Jim’s response, “Wow, that didn’t take you long to switch sides.”  Hehe 🙂  But, I really thought I’d fall off on numerous occasions.

There are no photos of the most grueling aspects of the bike ride.  I’ll be honest, there were times when we were leaving the dunes that I thought my legs might stop working or my heart might stop.  It was an uphill climb against seriously strong winds for what felt like miles (Jim contends it wasn’t that much of a hill…but it was painful all the same).  Jim sped ahead of me and I found him waiting at a crossroad, where we decided maybe we’d take a 10 minute breather before continuing on.  It felt amazing to hop off the bike.  I decided it was also time to take off my coat.  What was strange was my legs felt fine, it was my wrists that were killing me.

After the dunes we rode through a wooded area where we were told we might see deer (we did!  We saw 5), and we also saw some glider planes.  I was almost expecting a hot air balloon to float past, but none of those were in sight.  After the arduous dunes, it was basically smooth, shade until the photos below.  I haven’t mentioned it before, but there are canals EVERYWHERE.  It’s just so pretty…unlike any place I’ve ever been before.

After this photo was taken, we had still had a lot of ground to cover, but there are zero photos, as this is the point where we started sharing the road with cars and tiny drop-offs into ditches next to the canals.  No one was chancing a photo opportunity on that leg of the ride.  It’s also where we began to ride through more and more tulip fields.

We did it – biked 25 kilometers through Holland!  It felt like quite the accomplishment, even if the rest of our bodies felt like goo.

About 3 hours from our departure, we returned to the bike rental spot to an insanely large line and no bikes to rent.  We couldn’t believe how long the line was just a few hours later.  I imagine we were quite the sight to see as our bikes were immediately handed off to other people who’d been waiting for who knows how long.  Tip, again, go early.  And if you’re interested in renting a bike, do that early, too.  Jim said he’d even recommend skipping the garden (though I think it’s nice to see), but he might recommend doing the bike ride, first.

We then hobbled to a gas station and picked up some sparkle water and m&ms then hobbled back to the 858 bus stop back to Amsterdam.  We’d had a full day and it wasn’t even 2pm!

The shuttle dropped us off at the Airport, and then we transferred to the Combi bus that takes you back into Amsterdam, where we planned to get off at the end of the line and walk back past the Anne Frank House (we bought a canal print at an art studio across the street) then made a second trip to Arendsnest, which was just as perfect on a Sunday afternoon as it was on a Friday night, maybe a little better (we got an immediate seat at the bar and the bartenders were super chatty and great with the recommendations).

After our afternoon beer and cheese, we started our trek back to our hotel, passing some crooked houses along the way.  One thing we learned from our cruise – these crooked houses cannot be fixed because most are historical.  Wild.

I’d only made one dinner reservation for our whole trip and that was at a restaurant a little off the beaten path (not terribly far from the Red Light District, I think in the old Jewish neighborhood) called Greetje, featuring traditional Dutch cuisine.  We loved everything about this spot from the homey decor (there was a party table in front of a window with a chandelier that made me want to book it for my next birthday) and friendly waitstaff to the outstanding food.  A real perk of this place is that they offer a fixed price dinner where the entree (or starter) is a sampler of ALL of their entrees, your choice of a main, and then dessert is also a sampler of all their desserts.  We started off with champagne aperitifs (which we never do), and they were lovely.  Then we opted for a bottle of Pinot Noir from New Zealand (can’t get that in France).  All of the food was delicious.  Even things I didn’t think I’d like – like licorice ice-cream and black pudding (I’m still not convinced it had organs…I think it was a cinnamon bread pudding).  We couldn’t finish all the desserts, but our waiter assured us no one can.  If you’re going to Amsterdam, I cannot recommend this restaurant enough.  It’s outstanding and won’t break the bank.  If I lived there, this would be my go-to restaurant for out of town visitors (and to celebrate my birthday).

After dinner we found ourselves walking through the Red Light District.  I have to say, it is not what we expected.  Most of my thoughts of what it would be like were far seedier and darker than what it was.  I faintly remember Ruth’s depiction as quite different in John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, but that was written a few decades earlier.  Instead of a seedy underbelly, it seemed a little more like a Disneyland of legal prostitution.  It was insanely crowded, people were taking pictures left and right, and the weirdest part was there were SO many tour groups walking through.  We’re talking a guide walking with a giant flag, leading 40 and 50 somethings through the Red Light District.  Not what I expected, at all.  Also, not a tour I’d sign up to take.

We lingered and wandered through the streets a bit more before calling it a night and heading back to our hotel.  It was an absolutely perfect long weekend with a little bit of everything.  One of those weekends that reminds you – this is why we travel.  These are the memories you can make only here.  This trip is what living abroad is all about.

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