The Flower Route: the Netherlands

Though it's just 40 kilometres from Haarlem to Naaldwijk, the Flower Route - or the Bloemen Route as it is called in the Netherlands - is arguably one of the most colourful drives in all of Europe.

The road is straight and the ground is flat, but the flower fields are alive with colour. You'll see dahlias, daffodils, irises, gladioli, hyacinths, lilies, narcissi, and of course, tulips - the queen of the lowlands. The flowers are cultivated by colour and type so the fields resemble bold, vibrant ribbons of every imaginable hue.

Begin in the city of Haarlem, the northernmost point on the route and the capitalof the province of North Holland. Haarlem was founded in the 13th century and was mainly known as a beer producer until the year 1593, when the first tulip was planted in Dutch soil.

Now Haarlem is the epicenter of the horticultural industry and the principle place from which flower bulbs are exported to gardens around the world. Like Amsterdam, located just 19 kilometres to the east, Haarlem is riddled with quaint canals and beautiful scenery captured in the canvases of Dutch masters.

From Haarlem, proceed south on highway N208 to Lisse, home to the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens. From its humble origins as a small garden of a 15th century countess, the Keukenhof Gardens occupy 70 acres of wooded parkland and attract more than 700,000 visitors annually.

With 14 kilometres of walking paths that wind around ponds, greenhouse pavilions and a windmills, you can take in the beauty that arises from seven million bulbs that create a dizzying array of color from late March to mid-May. The season culminates each May with aflower paradecalled the Bollenstreekthat runs through Lisse's streets.

Take N208 to the larger highway A44 to reachLeiden,a university town on the banks of the Old Rhine River. In addition to being the birthplace of Rembrandt, Leiden is home to the Netherlands' most august institution.

Founded in 1575, Leiden University was where René Descartes received his education. Leiden's Botanical Gardens are also a great place to learn about both the science and industry of flower growing.

Next on the Flower Route is The Hague, 'Royal City by the Sea'. Located in South Holland, The Hague is the seat of Dutch government and home of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

You'll also find many museums - from the Louwman Automuseum, which houses classic cars, to the Museum voor Communicatie, the national postal museum. The Mauritshuis houses many works by Dutch masters who were, not surprisingly, exceptionally good at painting flowers.

Your journey concludes in Naaldwijk, renowned the world over for its sprawling flower fields and greenhouses. You can take a tour of one of the Naaldwijk flower auction houses and even participate in an auction. Money may not grow on trees but it grows out of the ground in Naaldwijk.

The flower season begins in January and extends throughout the spring, peaking in April and May, which makes the Flower Route the quintessential spring drive. Traffic is considerably lighter on weekdays and the route is popular with cyclists.

If you'd like to take some flowers home with you, there are plenty of flower sellers at roadside stalls. You can also visit auction houses, public gardens and private museums in the picturesque villages that are supported by this billion-dollar industry. Though the drive is short there is plenty to see and do when you stop to smell the flowers.