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Want to tiptoe through the tulips? Head for Holland.

With 7 million flowering bulbs, Keukenhof reigns supreme in the horticulture world.

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Ever since the first tulips arrived in the Netherlands in 1593, enchanting the nation and setting off "tulipmania," these colorful blooms have reigned supreme in this flat, fertile land.

Today, nowhere is the love affair with genus Tulipa more dazzlingly displayed than at Keukenhof gardens, 30 minutes southwest of Amsterdam in the heart of the Netherlands' renowned bulb district.

Keukenhof bills itself as the world's largest flower garden. Seven million flowering bulbs - 7 million! - carpet 80 acres of wooded parkland. From March to May, more than 12,000 visitors a day meander along nine miles of winding paths, clicking cameras and exclaiming over the profusion of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils artfully planted among shade trees, flowering shrubs, and manicured lawns.

It all adds up to a Dutch masterpiece, botanic-style. No wonder superlatives abound here.

Fountains arc skyward and splash softly in pools as swans glide by. With seven themed gardens, a maze, sculptures, weekend musical programs, restaurants, and a children's play area, Keukenhof offers a something-for-everyone approach.

At the edge of the gardens stands another classic symbol of Holland, a wooden windmill. For a panoramic view of neighboring bulb fields, climb the steps and stroll around the circular platform. Ribbons of floral color stretch to the horizon.

In the 15th century, this property consisted of woods and dunes. It also formed part of the vast estate of the Countess of Holland, Jacoba van Beieren. Because she gathered herbs here for the castle's kitchen, the area came to be known as Keukenhof, or "kitchen garden."

About1850, two well-known horticultural architects, a father and son, modeled the grounds after an English landscape garden. A century later, in 1949, the mayor of nearby Lisse joined with prominent bulb growers to create a showcase for Dutch flowers.

This year marks the 52nd spring exhibition. Last spring the gardens drew 800,000 visitors. (Take heed: Grounds and pavilions can get very crowded. If possible, try to arrive early in the day.)

Flower lovers unable to be here for the blazing glory of the spring gardens have a second chance: the summer show in August and September. Then dahlias, gladioluses, roses, begonias, and lilies play starring roles. Created in 1999 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Keukenhof, the summer exhibit attracts fewer people - 60,000 visitors last year.


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