I was feeling very Dutch that morning: gray skies overhead, my fingers grimy from manhandling a bicycle and a day full of tulips ahead of me. But I didnt have to go to Holland for the experience. I just had to load up my bike and drive two hours north to Skagit Valley, where tulips were opening in a haze of red. I was about to take on those flat flower-field roads by bike.
Its no secret that Skagit Valley looks a lot like the Netherlands. Flat, with drainage ditches beside fields muddy with potatoes and cabbages, dotted with Dutch-style barns and (usually) hung low with rain clouds. It also is filled with that über-Dutch crop tulips.
If you can ignore the postcard-perfect mountains ringing the horizon with snowy peaks, you can pretend youve taken a vacation in the land of polders and windmills.
Now that April is here and all those tulips and daffodils are painting the fields with vivid yellows, reds and pinks, it makes total sense to tour around them on that quintessential Dutch form of transport: the bicycle.
And so I did just in time to catch the first flowers last weekend. After driving up to Mount Vernon (OK, that parts not Dutch, but the train times didnt work out), I took the Tulip Festivals advice and parked just over the Skagit River in Edgewater Park. From there, its a pleasant three miles down McLean Road to where the fields begin in a four-mile square between Young, Calhoun, Beaver Marsh and Best roads. As this isnt actually Holland, there wasnt a separate bike path the whole way, but McLean has a lovely wide asphalt shoulder. Not all the roads do: Best is also good, but its just gravel on Calhoun, and the shoulder disappears entirely on Beaver Marsh, Young and Bradshaw.
But lets face it, no ones going to be charging you down on these country roads. Most of the traffic is either tractors or flower-peepers. At the height of the festival, your bike likely will be the fastest vehicle on the traffic-laden roads. Just another reason to cycle.
Id pulled a map from the Tulip Festivals website and gotten a few tips from Tulip Country Bike Tours, which runs guided tours through April. As I cycled to my first stop, I reveled in the fresh spring smells, waving at locals and admiring daffodil fields as bright as Tour de France jerseys, with snowy Mount Baker in the distance. Roozengaarde was my first stop, and the first on the guided tours. A farm begun in the 1940s by Dutch émigré William Roozen (whose name, charmingly, means rose in Dutch), the display garden has not only elegantly landscaped borders and fields of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and bluebells, but a windmill to boot, adding to the whole Dutch feeling. Admittedly, they dont sell waffles and oliebollen doughnuts in the food truck, just the usual hot dogs and popcorn. But its a fine place to be if the rest of the fields arent totally blooming yet.
Tuliptown is the rival display garden a mile away on Bradshaw Road. Twee and saccharine with a windmill, streams and cutesy waterfalls, its more a place for photo-lovin tourists than flowers. But on a rainy day, the greenhouse display and cafe is a boon for wet cyclists, and theres quite an interesting mural model explaining how the Dutch carted their flowers to market on boats. Both gardens sell fresh flowers and any amount of bulbs plus gift items decorated to the hilt with tulips.
Riding around the fields, though, is the chief delight of a tulip cycle tour. I watched workers pick early blooming pink tulips and load them up in crates, and wandered down rutted farm roads to hazy-red fields sporting No Cars signs. Whenever I wanted a photo, I just veered over. Even when the headwind and saddle-soreness began to take their toll, I still rejoiced in bright sunlight on even brighter fields of daffodils.
Its really nice riding, beautiful scenery, said Natalie Gustafson, who runs Tulip Country Bike Tours with her husband, Derek. You get the whole country vibe.
On Gustafsons advice, I stopped at La Conner Flats on Best Road, a private garden open to visitors and sporting a circular rose garden and very impressive topiary. Next up was Christiansons Nursery, where owing to my small pannier, I couldnt purchase any plants. However, the food stand makes delicious crepes (savory and sweet, plus three kinds of Philly sandwiches) and lemonade so fresh you can watch them squeeze the lemons. I ate in the garden of their 1888 schoolhouse, complete with belfry porch, admiring the espaliered apples and resting my quads.
If you have time, its a fine ride going all the way to La Conner, where theres even more to explore (and a lunch thats worth riding to at the Calico Cupboard Cafe and Bakery). Instead, I headed back to Mount Vernon, thankful for what was now a tailwind and loving that I had a breeze in my face, sun on my back and flowers all around me.
Who needs Holland? Not when you have the Skagit Valley in your backyard and a bike in your garage.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568