Canal Cruises and Tulip Time – Amsterdam and Lisse, Netherlands

Classic History and Blooming Beauty by Boat

Think it’s too touristy to see Venice by gondola? Then you probably won’t be inclined to experience Amsterdam by boat either, but you’ll miss seeing this City of Canals the way it was meant to be seen.

The canalside town houses and warehouses built by merchants in the 17th century were high (four or five stories) and narrow (land was at a premium, and property taxes were steep), each distinguished by its fanciful gables, every one of them different.

Of the five concentric semicircles of elm-lined canals and the 160 smaller canals connecting them to create a fanlike historic center, Herengracht is lined with the largest and most stately of the canal houses.

The “Gentlemen’s Canal,” it was the most stylish address during Amsterdam’s golden age. But the smaller houses on other canals (especially in the Jordaan neighborhood) can be more inter­esting architecturally.

Amsterdam takes pride in its trim brick homes, and has designated a great portion of them as protected landmarks. Many facades are illuminated at night, and so are the city’s 1,281 characteristic arched bridges. Add that to the glow of old-fashioned streetlamps reflected in the glimmering canals and a candlelight cruise makes for a romantic evening along the dark waters of time.

In the spring, riverboats and barges take to the canals to view the largest flower spectacle on earth, offering three- to seven-night cruises that sail through and past the country’s patch- work, rainbow-colored countryside.

Almost all put in at the Keukenhof Gardens, a historic, once-royal park where more than 6 million tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths cover 70 acres. Ten miles of footpaths wind past imaginatively manicured flower beds, fountains, tree-shaded ponds, and large greenhouses that showcase some 500 tulip varieties, among them the pur­plish “black” tulip. Other cruise stops include the remarkable auction house at Aalsmeer (the world’s largest, with 17 million cut flowers on the block daily) and some of the country’s major nurseries.

A Bulb Route (Bloemen Route) originating in Amsterdam encourages the independent travelers to “do it yourself’ (doe het zelf), whether by bike, train, or car. Those who avoid the spring crowds will also miss the tulips, but for a consolation prize, visit Amsterdam’s daily year-round floating Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) along the Singel Canal. For 200 years, barges have come here laden with cut flowers and potted plants.

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