Belinda Szonert discovers how a spectacular late summer cruise sale offers an escape from clogged up UK airports.
The sweet scent of a myriad of spring bulbs fills the air, with an aroma that takes your breath away.
Stepping into the Villa Flora is like entering another world - one filled with thousands of plants, from the familiar to the exotic, strange to beautiful and large to small - all encased in a huge glass building. An enchanting, giant greenhouse.
It forms part of Floriade 2012, the World Horticultural Expo, so vast and special that it only takes place once every ten years.
No wonder it’s one of Holland’s top events - truly a floral extravaganza. A unique celebration of nature and, like bees to nectar, people flock in their droves from all over the world to attend.
Two million are expected to visit this year’s event, which started on April 5 and runs until October 7. It’s taking place near the city of Venlo in northern Limburg, close to the German border.
The region has good transport links, both by rail and road, and though the Floriade itself is reason enough to visit, this southernmost province of the Netherlands is largely unspoilt and relatively undiscovered by tourists - making it ideal for an extended break.
The Floriade site is so vast (a giant park covering 66 hectares, or just over 163 acres, has been created especially) that a day is probably not enough to see everything. So plan ahead by checking out the website or taking time to peruse a map before heading off.
For a bird’s eye view of the park, take the cable car that whisks you from one side to the other in five minutes. From this lofty position, you can get your bearings for the day ahead.
Before arriving, I learn that the theme for Floriade 2012 is: ‘Be part of the theatre of nature!’
And it is a theatrical experience - not just for the eyes but for all the senses, from the gorgeous aromas, to the endless seas of colour, and the variety of textures I am greeted with.
The theme is reflected throughout the park’s five zones - relax and heal, green engine (where the Villa Flora can be found), education and innovation, environment and the world show stage.
Each features displays and creations representing different corners of the world. You can watch the craftsmen at work, too.
Be sure to take some spare euros with you, as there’s an array of things to buy, from exquisite pieces of furniture and embroidered cushions to fabulous and affordable, jewellery. I couldn’t resist a bangle from Ecuador.
Of course, the plants are the star attraction.
The shopping list for planting out the site included 1.8 million bulbs, 18,000 shrubs, 190,000 perennials, 15,000 hedge plants, 5,000 rose bushes and 3,000 trees - and the results are spectacular.
The hard work won’t go to waste - after Floriade 2012 is over the site will be used as a business park.
The Innovatoren - a newly-built 70ft-high building, towering above the Limburg landscape and forming a striking icon for Floriade 2012 - will be used as a base for research into food production methods, reflecting the importance of horticulture in the region.
Local produce is big here, with strawberries, blueberries and mushrooms among the fare available. There are centres where you can pick, taste and learn more about these products.
Everywhere you look, there are signs advertising ‘asperges’ - asparagus - which thrives in Limburg’s dry, sandy soil. Known as ‘white gold’, the harvest runs from mid April until June 24 (St John’s day) with most restaurants serving it in that period.
The vegetable is gently cooked and served with either melted butter or Hollandaise sauce, chopped boiled eggs and ham.
Delicious asparagus can be sampled at De Beejekurf, a chic restaurant in Venray, where hosts Paul and Ilse Franssen have built up a formidable reputation for fine dining.
Since opening their doors three years ago, the Franssens have twice won the title of best restaurant in Limburg and source local produce to create their dishes, including fish and game.
Asparagus is also on the menu at Clevers in the charming village of Grubbenvorst. But Clevers isn’t a restaurant - it’s an award-winning ice-cream parlour. Asparagus is just one of the 50 flavours on offer at the delightful place - a popular refreshment stop for cyclists.
There are more than 80 cycle routes in northern Limburg that lead through pretty villages, along the banks of the River Meuse and through the De Groote Peel National Park.
The countryside is also a haven for walkers with more than 100 marked routes, including some designed for families and children.
Historical town and city walks are a good way to explore.
Our guide was Venlo-born Riet, who led us through the vibrant city treating us to a story (and cafe stop!) at every corner.
Venlo’s residents are intensely proud of their city, which witnessed intense Allied bombing towards the end of the Second World War to secure the Dutch their liberation.
Thousands of buildings were damaged but sensitive restoration means that it’s often difficult to see where old and new merge.
During the tour, we also stop at the Museum van Bommel van Dam, which is running a Japanese photography exhibition (Korakuen Garden Okayama), from May 6 until August 19, to complement the flower festival.
The whole city is embracing Floriade 2012 and, after dipping into the fantastical floral realm, I am not surprised. From start to finish, it’s a blooming treat.
Key facts: Floriade, Holland
:: Best for: A break in a green, peaceful region with great food.
:: Time to go: Floriade ends on October 7 but good life here goes on.
:: Don’t miss: Delicious ice-creams at Clevers.
:: Need to know: Floriade only happens every 10 years.
:: Don’t forget: To take extra euros to buy some wonderful local produce.
Belinda Szonert was a guest of Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions and P&O Ferries.
Venlo is close to Rotterdam by road and rail. Admission to Floriade 2012 costs riade 201
B&B, in deluxe room at Bilderberg Hotel De Bovenste Molen in Venlo from °†÷
P&O Ferries offers daily Hull- Rotterdam crossings, with minicruises from £83, or £119 each way for car with two passengers, incl standard cabin.
P&O Ferries has teamed up with Superbreak to offer Floriade minicruises from £220 on selected dates throughout festival. Package includes return ferry crossings ex-Hull, two nights in four-star hotel in Amsterdam, day’s entry and transport to Floriade and coach transfers.
Fares on P&O Dover-Calais crossings start at £35 each way (car and up to nine passengers).
Ferry reservations: 0871 664 6464/www.poferries.com
By coach, Shearings four-day Floriade packages start at £199, five days £339, incl excursions to Amsterdam and (over five days) Bruges. Included in price of four day trip are three nights’ B&B, two excursions and return coach travel, for deps May-Sept.
Shearings Holidays: 0844 209 7143 or www.shearings.com