Re­lax… on a slow boat through the tulip fields

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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