A bucket list trip for flower lovers is Holland’s Keukenhof Gardens which, for eight weeks each spring, opens its doors to one million visitors coming from the all over the world to view Europe’s largest garden. Located some 20 miles south of Amsterdam in the village of Lisse, an 80-acre landscape masterpiece is planted with seven million bulbs each year. But Keukenhof is so much more than just flowers.
My husband and I were looking forward to a tulip pilgrimage to Keukenhof this spring, but life has a way of throwing curve balls into the best laid plans. A week before our departure date, while walking home from dinner, we were run over in a crosswalk at Kirby and West Alabama. I suffered a broken left leg, a broken right foot and a badly cut eye (along with other indignities).
The emotional injuries were equally serious, and staying home seemed like our only option. We canceled our trip, and spent the next two weeks visiting surgeons, therapists, and a whole cadre of caring people committed to putting us back together again. I returned to work in a wheelchair, although the look of horror on my employees’ faces made me think it was better to work from home.
Although we had canceled our trip, we had not forgotten it.
Every day I peeked in on Keukenhof's social media accounts and watched in wonder as the bulbs started to bloom. I mentioned it to several friends who said, “Oh, just go next year.” Sure I could, but the shock of the accident left me not counting on tomorrow, let alone next year.
With my surgeon’s blessing and enough frequent flier miles for flat-bed seats, we rebooked our trip for Easter weekend, knowing that it would be a different experience now that I was officially a handicapped traveler.
Traveling in a wheelchair is not as difficult as one might think. For the most part, United Airlines handles wheelchair travelers quite well. The only difficulties were feeling vulnerable, because I was totally dependent on others to get me to the plane, feeling anxious that someone would inadvertently run into my broken leg, and feeling self-conscious about my infirmity. Safely ensconced in my seat, I had the executive meal option and went to sleep. Amsterdam’s airport personnel met me at the gate and whisked me through customs. It was a snap.
We chose the Conservatorium, a five-year-old hotel converted from a music school (hence its name) and before that a 19th century bank building. This 129-room luxe modern hotel is located in the heart of the museum district across the street from the Stedelijk Museum, a three-minute walk from the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum, and five minutes to Amsterdam’s canal system.
The hotel's three-story lobby combines the building's original stone and brick facade with walls and ceilings of glass, a steel staircase and smashing green chairs scattered throughout. The vibe is modern, hip and sophisticated, but totally lacking in pretense or stuffiness.
The hotel’s Guest Services (a modern take on the classic concierge) arranged for a Mercedes to meet us at the airport with a wheelchair, and assigned us a room with a large sink at wheelchair level and a large rainfall shower designed for two with a bench and no doors — solving a big challenge for wheelchair guests. Our room had skylights, a deep rectangular free standing tub and heated bathroom floors. Both nights of our stay, we returned to our room to find a large chocolate Easter bunny, compliments of the chef.
Day One: An Afternoon of Touring
Because of our time limitations, we could only visit one museum, and we chose the Stedelijk, with its impressive collection of modern art. We enjoyed the de Koonings and the Mondriaans, along with the hip three-dimensional and mixed media exhibits.
It doesn’t get dark in Amsterdam until after 8:30 p.m. this time of year, and we took advantage of the daylight to tour the canals after the museum closed. Our unfailing Conservatorium Guest Services arranged a small, enclosed (and yes heated) boat tour. This tiny jewel of Dutch craftsmanship was built in 1913 and although it would easily accommodate 10 passengers, we had it to ourselves. Our knowledgeable captain showed us Amsterdam from the water until we ran out of light. Because we had walked (and rolled) to the canal, our Guest Services host awaited as we docked and escorted as back to the hotel.
Day Two: Keukenhof Gardens
Keukenhof is easy to get to by public transportation. Buses leave regularly from the Amsterdam airport, and take about 45 minutes. Because I was wheel chair bound, our hotel arranged for a car and driver to take us. Our driver was native and knowledgeable, and took us though the back roads through the tulip fields.
Words cannot describe how stunningly beautiful these multi-colored fields are as they come into view with row after row of the most beautiful flowers imaginable. We gasped with delight. It is the same thrill that visitors to Africa have when they see their first elephant or leopard. This was our prelude to Keukenhof.
It was cloudy and cold — a brisk 50 degrees. Rain, though a threat, never materialized. We stayed three and one-half hours, though you truly need at least a full day to savor everything.
Keukenhof is more than tulips. Each December, Holland’s growers plant seven million bulbs representing more than 800 varieties of tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, narcissus, lilies, crocus, anemone — the list is endless — in a rainbow of colors and collage of shapes. This park (yes, you can bring your dog) combines lakes, canals, waterfalls, and outdoor art (and of course a windmill), with a broad expanse of trees, perennials and greenhouse exhibits, artfully joined by easily accessible paths and walkways, leading to several family-oriented concourses offering food, music and entertainment.
In this setting, landscape artists create an entirely new thematic design each year for the eye-popping display of flowering bulbs, so that each spring’s experience is new. This year’s theme is "Dutch Design," which is a tip of the hat to Dutch innovation and style. Neither words nor pictures do Keukenhof justice.
The point-counterpoint structure of the gardens is stunning: The seasonal and temporary flowers against the backdrop of permanent landscape and mixed medium sculpture; the fresh but fragile strawberries contrasting with a calliope older than any of us, both being enjoyed by old and young alike. Add to that five restaurants and a petting zoo and you have sensory experience to savor for a lifetime.
There are four large, permanent buildings — greenhouses — each with its own theme. One building featured roses of every conceivable color and variety as lecturers offered tips for those of us hoping to gain a green thumb from the visit. And who knew there is actually a red, white and blue rose?
Another building was devoted to orchids. Most interesting about each of the buildings was the backdrops against which the flowers were featured. Many of the roses were positioned against a 1960-ish Dutch roadster while some of the orchids contrasted with a Dutch-designed bright yellow art deco sofa.
Although we visited the gardens on Easter Sunday and to be sure, it was crowded, there was enough room to capture a moment of solitude. The crowds were polite, friendly and the most camera-ready group I’ve seen. I can envision thousands of 2017 holiday cards with selfies in front of the tulips. Our day ended with our driver picking us up with what else — a bouquet of tulips — as a remembrance of our day at Keukenhof.
Our return to Houston was a breeze and in retrospect the trip seems almost like a dream. Every journey offers many lessons and memories. Mother Nature is a great healer and traveling is good for the soul and an injured body. And the next time someone tells me to take time to smell the roses, I will assume they mean the tulips and hop on a plane to Keukenhof.