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Published May 31, 2009, 12:00 AM

TRAVEL: Keukenhof gardens are worth the trip to Amsterdam

Serendipity brought us to Holland when the spring flowers were in bloom, but the spectacle is worth planning a trip around. I went to Germany to visit my daughter, who is working there temporarily. A month or so before I arrived, she found round-trip plane tickets for a weekend jaunt from Hamburg to Amsterdam for about $125. They were too inexpensive — and Amsterdam too alluring — to pass up.

By: Judith Evans, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

AMSTERDAM — Serendipity brought us to Holland when the spring flowers were in bloom, but the spectacle is worth planning a trip around.

I went to Germany to visit my daughter, who is working there temporarily. A month or so before I arrived, she found round-trip plane tickets for a weekend jaunt from Hamburg to Amsterdam for about $125. They were too inexpensive — and Amsterdam too alluring — to pass up.

Our time in Holland totaled just under 48 hours. We strolled around Amsterdam, checking out the canals and squares and distinctive architecture. We enjoyed two wonderful dinners, popped into a museum (photography, not Van Gogh or Rembrandt) and browsed a few shops. The highlight was a visit to Keukenhof gardens near the town of Lisse, about an hour from Amsterdam by train and bus.

Keukenhof is open for two months each year. (This year was March 19-May 21; dates vary slightly each year.) We were lucky enough to visit in early May, when the days were on the warm side and flowers were still blooming in some of the fields that surround Keukenhof.

Keukenhof’s gardens cover 80 acres, and the number of flowers are uncountable. The gently rolling grounds are carpeted with blooms: tulips in every color, of course, along with jonquils, iris, hyacinths and many more. Swans swim in lakes and streams, children play, photo opportunities abound ... taken together, Keukenhof is simply spectacular.

As enchanting as the gardens were, the high point of our day was a two-hour bike ride in the surrounding countryside.

We rented the bikes just outside Keukenhof’s gates. They cost about $11 each and they were ours for as long as we wanted. Like everyone else we encountered in Holland, the attendants spoke English, and they gave us an English-language map marked with various routes.

To say Holland is flat is like saying the Mississippi River contains water. We barely encountered a rise or a dip, much less a hill.

We set off through a wooded area, then followed the path along canals, past farms and next to mile after mile of flower fields. Tulips grew close by; a purple haze in the distance could have been iris or hyacinths. We pedaled past a field of daffodils as fragrant as a perfume factory.

When we came to a field designated for photography, we parked our bikes and started snapping pictures. We stood next to dozens of other people who had arrived by car and by bike.

One couple plopped their baby girl amid the tulips. Children ran up and down the rows. Photographers squatted to take close-ups and stood up for panoramic shots. Different languages filled the air. Everyone was smiling, and not just for the camera. Some experiences are universal.

If you go:

• Getting there: Check online travel sites as well as airline sites for the best deals. You’ll have to change planes in the United States; to get the best price, you may have to change planes at a European airport as well. Last week, CheapAir.com listed round-trip flights from St. Louis for as little as $490 plus taxes. From the Amsterdam airport, take a train to the center city.

• Where to stay: Amsterdam is loaded with hotels, hostels, even houseboats available for rent. Tripadvisor.com is a good source of ideas and advice from fellow travelers. We stayed at the Convent Hotel, which has a rack rate of about $400 a night. However, the hotel Web site lists special offers for as little as half of that. The Convent is less than a 10-minute walk from the central railroad station and a few blocks from Dam Square, the Anne Frank House and other attractions. The Convent is affiliated with Accor Hotels. Web site: accorhotels.com; phone: (+31)20/6275900; email: H1159@accor.com.

• What to eat: You’ll find everything from pickled herring to pancakes and waffles to top-of-the line gourmet meals. We enjoyed Spanish tapas the first night at Paso Doble, in the Jordaan neighborhood, and Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table) the next night at Kantjil & de Tijger, in the central city. While the individual dishes were very different, the concepts were similar: small plates holding a variety of dishes meant for sharing. Highlights included bacon-wrapped dates at the tapas restaurant and lamb kebabs at the rijsttafel. If you like mint, order mint tea: You’ll get a glass mug filled with sprigs of mint and boiling water.

• Iamsterdam card: The Iamsterdam card includes bus/trolley passes, tickets on a canal cruise, and admission to 27 museums, including the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, which holds masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer and others, and Foam, the photography museum, where we saw an expansive retrospective of Richard Avedon’s work. The card also provides a 25 percent discount for many other attractions and some restaurants. A card good for 24 hours is about $50; a 48-hour card is about $62; and a 72-hour card is about $75. Information on the card, hotels, restaurants and attractions: iamsterdam.com

• Keukenhof gardens: From Amsterdam, take a train to the Leiden central station, then take a bus to the gardens. For a more scenic trip, take a train to the Haarlem station, then catch a bus. The Haarlem bus will drop you off about ½ mile from the garden. Garden admission is about $17.50, and if you take the bus, you can get a package deal when you buy the ticket. Lines at the garden can be long; you can avoid them by buying your entry ticket online at www.keukenhof.nl.

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