From tulips in the north to lavender in the south, Europe comes alive in spring and early summer with an explosion of color and aroma.
You've probably seen those quintessential images of France's Provence region covered in a sea of purple and thought about visiting. But where and when is the best time to get that same impact on the ground? Provence is so inspired by Lavender that there is an entire section of the Provence website dedicated to it (www.provenceweb.fr/e/mag/terroir/lavandes/visites.htm). It outlines growing and distillation locations, museums like the one in Coustellet (www.avignon-et-provence.com/musees/musee-lavande/gb) and even events dedicated to Lavender including the Lavender fête in Riez during the last two weeks in July, the Lavender parade in Valreas on the first weekend of August and Sault's mid August parade, floats and cutting competition.
Fil Franck Tours (tel. 800/669-8165; www.filfranck.com) offers two different Lavender specific day tours in Provence, each departing from Aix-en-Provence during the months of June and July, 2008. Lavender Road #1 departs on Wednesdays June 25, July 02 and 09, 2008 visiting the Vaucluse Plateau, Luberon, and Pays de Saul. Priced at $100 per person, the tour takes visitors through the Luberon Regional Nature Park along the picturesque and winding Combe of Lourmarin, into Pays de Sault where Lavender and lavandin are cultivated and distilled. In the afternoon, journey to the hill top villages of Monieux, St Saturnin-les-Apt and Saignon before returning to Aix through the Plateau of Claparèdes with its numerous bories (typical dry-stone houses) among the Lavender fields.
Lavender Road #2 departs on a Sunday, June 29 and July 06, 2008 visiting Valensole Plateau Moustiers-Ste-Marie and Sainte Croix. Also priced at $100 per person, the trip follows the valley of the Durance River, arriving at the Plateau of Valensole that specializes in the cultivation of "lavandin" and where narrow roads wind through seemingly endless fields of flowers. Stop in the village of Moustiers-Ste-Marie, famous for its earthenware workshops and then on to the breath taking Grand Canyon of the River Verdon and Sainte Croix Lake.
The very aptly named Aroma Tours (tel. +61-3/5331-3254; www.aroma-tours.com) takes the smells and flavors of Provence to a new level with its eight day specialty Provence Lavender Tour. Running this year from July 18 to 25, the height of the Lavender season, join 14 other people who share your passion for fine food, perfume and palate on an adventure through the stunning Provencale countryside visiting lavender cloaked hills, scenic villages and colorful markets. Explore Lavender's traditions, cultivation, distillation and culinary connections plus experience thermal spa treatments and a unique lavender cooking class.
The tour departs from Marseille in a luxury mini van with fellow Lavender aficionados and is priced at $2,595 per person based on double occupancy with seven nights' accommodations (first in a charming Provencale hotel nestled in the heart of a picturesque hilltop village, then in a lovingly restored manor house, complete with petanque pitch and an inviting swimming pool); breakfasts plus either lunch or dinner daily; a lavender cooking class; garden visits; daily excursions and tours; entrance fees and the services of expert guides throughout the tour. Highlights include the Cistercian Abbey of Senanque; Lavender museums; essential oil distilleries; organic herb farms; Mont Ventoux; Prieure de Salagon; Banon; Medieval chateaux; the historic Roman and Medieval center of Vaison La Romaine; the cobblestone streets of St Remy; a Romanesque monastery to hear the Gregorian chants of its Benedictine monks; the vineyards of Cote du Rhone with wine tutorials by an accompanying sommelier; and of course thousands of acres and fields of lavender. Single room accommodation is also available for an additional $520.
Everyone knows that tulips are the Netherlands' most famed export. In fact, the flower has come to symbolize the country and each spring, thousands of visitors descend upon the tiny country to breath in the fresh scent of the multi colored bulbs. The season generally begins in late March/early April and continues until mid/end of May. The tulips, along with crocuses, narcissus and hyacinths, grow in the sandy soil found only in the Bollenstreek, the "bulb area" area situated between Amsterdam and The Hague.
The most famous (and crowded) place to see tulips is at the Keukenhof Gardens (www.keukenhof.com) in the town of Lisse, an easy day trip from Amsterdam. This 70-acre landscaped garden was originally established as a private garden in the 1840s, and opened to the public a little over 50 years ago. It is considered the world's largest flower garden (80 acres) and has been known to attract close to a million visitors during its annual eight-week season. The Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer (www.vba-aalsmeer.nl), or Aalsmeer Flower Auctions, just outside Amsterdam are considered the world's largest and most significant. The market is only open from 7:30-11am Monday to Friday so you'll need to wake up early to get close to the 20 or so million blooms that are sold here daily. During the spring, this is a particular amazing experience for flora lovers.
Bloemencorso van de Bollenstreek, (www.bloemencorso.info) the Bollenstreek Flower Parade is the biggest floral parade in Holland and is due to be held on Saturday, April 26 in 2008. Volunteers create massive floats using millions of different flowers in intricate designs. The sights and the smells are sensational on the route which extends from Haarlem, 12 miles west of Amsterdam to Nordwijk, 15 miles south of Haarlem. Arrive on the Friday night earlier to see the floats being brought in and the town of Nordwijk illuminated in celebration of the event.
Due to the compact size of the country and the flower growing region, most tours that take in the tulip season in the Netherlands are based around river cruises and bicycling. Pack and Pedal Europe (tel. 877-/965-2064; www.packandpedaleurope.com) offers a specialized four-day Tulip tour that combines cruising with bike riding and tulip gazing. It is priced from $1,097 per person based on double occupancy and includes round-trip airfare to Amsterdam from New York flying IcelandAir, three-nights accommodation aboard the Holland or Zeeland ships, breakfast, packed lunches and three course dinners daily, a tour guide, seven to 24-speed hybrid bicycle rental, riding on average of ten miles per day, plus entrance to Keukenhof Gardens, Aalsmeer flower auction, windmills and cheese farms. Airport taxes and fees of approximately $260 are additional. The tour departs on March 29, April 1, 5, 8, 12, 15, 19, 22, 26, and 29 and May 3, 6, 10 and 13, 2008. You can also upgrade to deluxe tour options and extended trips lasting eight days.