Springtime in Europe colours your cheeks and adds a new jaunt to your step. After the continent's long, grey winter you can't help smiling at green buds popping on trees, primroses pretty along railway embankments, and newly warm fingers of sunshine to make you hum. But spring in the Netherlands is something else again. After months of scarf-wrapped walks and sulking clouds, the modest little nation explodes in a camera-clicking extravagance of reckless colour. Beyond train windows, fields are striped orange and trumpet-yellow. Great bowls of scarlet tulips sit in living-room windows, and parks become a fanfare of bold blooms.
Keukenhof is the epicentre of this riot of springtime exuberance. It's a delight for the spirit and a sensation for the eyes, and should be right up there with the Taj Mahal and Victoria Falls as one of the great spectacles of travel. Put it on your list.
In that unassuming Dutch way, Keukenhof just means "kitchen garden", but is the world's largest floral display, featuring nearly eight million bulbs. Hyacinths, snowdrops and crocus emerge first, followed by narcissi and daffodils. Tulips, though, dominate both in number and luridness as the best Dutch growers show off the variety and quality of their flowers. Few are less than perfection, with petals glossy as a racehorse's coat, sensuously cupped and vivid in shades from hot pink to moody purple. Flowerbeds are pegged with romantic names: Lover's Dream, Pink of Dawn, Dark Eyes, Snow Prince.
The first avenue of tulips through Keukenhof's entrance gates provokes a frenzy of posing and photographing among visitors. Certainly, a fine spectacle of harlequin tulip beds unfolds under trees, but you'll soon discover this is a minor overture to the vast Wagnerian opera of flowers to come. Don't click away too early or, like me, you'll end up with 500 tulip photos.
Keukenhof is huge, so set aside the whole day to dawdle; bring a picnic or eat in one of the crowded cafes. You could start with an overview on a self-guided audio tour before returning for a slower appreciation. (There's also a free guided tour at 2pm daily.) Paths wander along lakeshores, through sculpture-dotted woodland and among structured parterres and courtyards. Kids can be distracted by Keukenhof's good playground, petting zoo and scavenger hunt. Beyond the garden, fields of tulips stretch to the flat horizon, so take to a boat tour on a canal float through the spectacle.
Several greenhouses and pavilions provide special displays, such as newly-launched or rare varieties of tulips. Each year has a different theme, and this year celebrates the 125th anniversary of the death of Vincent van Gogh with a huge outdoor portrait of the artist made from a mosaic of flowers. One of the pavilions is showing van Gogh paintings linked to flowers, while an amusing Selfie Garden pays homage to van Gogh's love of self-portraits. You can send a selfie before your visit and see it displayed – and take more while you're there, of course.
Yet why try and compete with this psychedelic explosion of colour? The flowers will always win. It's all the more remarkable for its ephemeral nature. After just two months, Keukenhof's gardeners are digging up millions of bulbs and the show is over, leaving only fabulous memories.
The writer travelled as a guest of Viking River Cruises and Keukenhof.
SIX TULIP SPOTS STATESIDE
Thanks mostly to immigrant Dutch populations, North Americans have enthusiastically embraced tulip culture. Here are six top places to indulge.
1. Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in Washington State ( April 1-30) supplies eye-popping fields of colour thanks to local tulip farms. See tulipfestival.org
2. Tulip Time Festival in aptly-named Holland, Michigan (May 2-9) features Dutch dancing, beer tents, a carnival and 4.5 million tulips across town. See tuliptime.com
3. Pella Tulip Time in Pella, Iowa ( May 7-9) has participants wearing Dutch costumes in a Dutch-style village, and culminates in an historical parade. See pellahistorical.org
4. Albany Tulip Festival in Albany, New York (May 9-10) centres on 100,000 tulips in Washington Park and features kids' activities and a tulip ball. See albanyevents.org
5. New York Botanical Gardens has one of the continent's most accessible and impressive tulip displays in early May, with over 45,000 bulbs. See nybg.org
6 Ottawa's Canadian Tulip Festival (May 8-18) is huge. A 15-kilometre Tulip Route links museums, attractions and magnificent tulip displays. See tulipfestival.ca
Emirates flies from both Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai with onward connections to Amsterdam, an hour by bus from Keukenhof. Phone 1300 303 777 or see emirates.com/au
Keukenhof is only open in springtime (March 20– May 17 this year) and costs €16 for adults and €8 for children, with savings on combined entrance-transport tickets. Mid-April usually provides the best spectacle. See keukenhof.nl