In the 1630s, tulips were so highly prized in Holland you could trade one in for a small estate or even a wife, as a single bulb was considered suitable dowry. The flowers aren't indigenous to the Netherlands, as one might assume. A gift to Austria from Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, some of the bulbs ended up in the hands of a Viennese botanist, who planted them at the University of Leiden when he took a position there in 1593. Though the breeding and trading frenzy that ensued nearly toppled the Dutch economy in 1637, the bright, upright early bloomers remain a Dutch trademark -- not to mention an icon of spring in the Western world. What better way to celebrate the warm weather and long days they herald than an April trip to the Netherlands? Deals from the east coast abound, from cheap hotel-flight packages, to guided bicycle tours of the most abundant tulip fields and gardens, with accommodations on floating hotel barges.
A barge and cycling tour is the ideal way to see Holland in April. Though it's not the cheapest option, it's fairly reasonable if you can find inexpensive airfare. Infohub's April Barge and Bike tour (no phone; www.infohub.com) includes all meals, a 24-speed bicycle, an easy guided trip covering 20 to 35 miles a day, and seven nights on a barge, for $820 to $1,235 (depending on the type of boat available at the time you're traveling). Travel takes you over mostly flat, paved bike paths, past windmills and tulip fields, through sand dunes and polders, to Amsterdam, Delft, the Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, and Kinderdijk. Highlights include Keukenhof garden, with its seven million flowers, Rembrandt's hometown of Leiden, the medieval town of Delft, Kinderdijk's windmills, and the old city center of Hague, the government seat. Tours depart every Saturday from April through September 24 (though only the April tours include tulips). Prices are based on double occupancy and do not include taxes.
The shorter, cheaper bike and barge option is Infohub's four-day Short Tulip Tour for $570 a person. This trip covers Keukenhof, the Aalsmeer flower auction, bulb growing fields, a cheese factory, and the cities of Leiden and Haarlem. Trips depart April 16, 19, 23, and 26.
If you're queasy, and uneasy about sleeping on a barge, consider Infohub's Country of Tulips Tour: a seven day guided cycling journey with nightly accommodations in four-star hotels, six breakfasts, five dinners, and admission to the Keukenhof, for $1,795. Travelers stay for two nights in Noordwijk, on the North Sea, two nights in Delft, and two nights near Noorden, known for its many windmills and lakes. Bicycle rental isn't included on this one; single bikes are $135 for the week, and tandems are $200. For all the Infohub tours, airfare must be purchased separately.
For midweek travel in April, Icelandair (tel. 800/223-5500; www.icelandair.net) is flying from New York to Amsterdam for $320 round-trip, without taxes. 1800flyeurope (800/359-3876; www.1-800-flyeurope.com) is offering round-trip fares to Amsterdam as low as $351 from Boston or Philadelphia, and $362 from Washington, D.C. Taxes and fees of $185 not included. See the Web site for additional departure cities.
The cheapest route to Holland in April is to buy an air-hotel package and tiptoe through the tulips on your own. Gate 1 Travel (tel. 800/682-3330; www.gate1travel.com) is promoting Tulip Time in Amsterdam: six days and four nights in Amsterdam for $599 from New York, for travel from April to October. For the list price, you stay in the Mercure Aan de Amstel, a four-star highrise on the outskirts of the city. An optional tulip tour is available at extra cost. If you love Amsterdam with or without the bulbs, take advantage of Gate 1's considerably cheaper late winter rates: round-trip air and four nights at the Amsterdam Novotel for $399.
Daily breakfast is included in both deals, but not airport taxes and fees, of $50 to $200 a person. Additional departure cities are available at slightly higher rates.
If you're not up for pedal pushing, and like to book your own hotels, look into Go Today's Amsterdam Holland Fly & Drive package (tel. 800/227-3235; www.go-today.com): round-trip air, from New York or Newark, and seven-day Hertz economy car rental are $549, for travel from April 4 through May 29. Optional departure cities are available (the cheapest are from Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.).
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