Relax… on a slow boat through the tulip fields
being beamed aboard with the barge’s selection of satellite TV. My fellow travellers were hopefully all still alive. Twenty minutes later up on the main deck, everyone was indeed present and correct, and breakfasting hard. The American schoolteachers, the accountants from Boston, the British financial director, and even the party of six female German doctors, with whom we’d been playing cards long into the night. Furthermore, there was a hum of subdued excitement, because after a couple of days of circling our prey like hungry predators, today was the day for swooping; there were tulips to see. Tulip tourism is a long-established phenomenon, and the issue these days is how to approach it in a new and innovative way. Which is where the luxurious Magnifique II comes in, with its hot tub on the roof, its bar, its three-course dinners, and its state-of-the-art fleet of bikes. Boat and bike tours are rapidly increasing in popularity. The boat is the floating hotel, relocating every day, while the bikes are for getting stuck into the fabric of the place. Given that the mother lode of tulip-growing also happens to have 3,100 miles of waterways and 22,000 miles of bike paths, choosing this method of exploration is a no-brainer. Accordingly, UTracks’ five-day itinerary had attracted a very interesting cross-section of people, with barely a scrap of Lycra to rub between us. Prior to the morning of our own tulip fever, we’d already covered a fair bit of ground. The first day had involved an evening cruise to Zaandam, followed by a wander through the nursery rhyme architecture of its modern town centre.
The second day started with a morning cycle, past a parade of riverside cocoa-processing plants smelling of bedtime drinks and on to picturesque Zaanse Schans, an open-air museum with windmills, cheesemaking, clogs and herons hired by central casting to fish the ditches.
But that afternoon was when our tweewielers really started to come into their own, on our onward route to the city of Haarlem. Led by guide Arie, we cycled along dykes through agricultural land stitched with water, populated with lapwings and livestock, the crisp spring air fragrant with cow dung. We clattered down the cobbled streets of villages of gabled wooden houses that looked a bit like the upturned hulls of ships, dating back to a time when merchants had set off to trade with the New World.
Haarlem, when it emerged from the mist, turned out to be a mini Amsterdam without the stag parties, a place of brick-built cottages and gable ends on the waterside, and with a cobbled Grote Markt bounded by a 16th-century Vleeshal (meat hall), a church and a city hall, all of them also looking like they had just stepped out of an Old Master.
And then came tulip day. As a morning prelude, the cycle southwards from Haarlem was past aristocratic mansions and fields of daffodils and hyacinths in searing strips of colour, like technicolour tablecloths spread out ready for a giant picnic. The sandy soil of this below-sea-level setting was perfect for tulips, explained Arie, but we were early in the season, so only a couple of blooms were popping their heads up as if to say: “I’m ready – where is everyone else?”
Fortunately it all crescendoed nicely at the Keukenhof Gardens, where from late March to late May, rivers of colour, some garish, some delicate enough to make a grown man go weak at the knees, flow through woodlands and turn cartwheels in ornamental beds. Seven million bulbs are planted here every October and to wander through the result is to walk through a riot of nature’s colours. It is like a slowmotion firework display, with screaming yellow Giuseppi Verdi tulips spreading their petals indecently wide on one side, while fritillaria Early Magic are woven with hyacinths on the other, creating a tweedy floral tartan.
All in all it was inspiring stuff, and it turned out to be re-energising, too, as we ate up the miles back towards the boat. Someone up front started singing, “When it’s spring again I’ll