By Bobbie Jo Sheriff

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When the burly, unaffected tour bus driver rounded the corner and entered the farmer's field, the clouds made way for the sun, casting dazzling light on brilliant colour. The sight overtook him as his eyes welled with tears: "I've never seen anything this beautiful."

What he saw was row upon row of tulips. Blooms as far as the eye could see, like Dorothy's poppy field in 1939 blockbuster The Wizard of Oz.

"People are truly amazed when they see the sight of hundreds of acres of tulips," says Cindy Verge, executive director of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. "Even if you're not a flower fan, you'll be impressed by the fields of flowers you'll see."

With the area's ideal climate conditions, tulips have long been a lucrative crop in the Skagit Valley, 112 km south of Vancouver. Hundreds of visitors would drop by every year at the dawn of spring to take in the sights and smells of Mother Nature.

So, in 1984, the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce decided to celebrate the Valley's rich agricultural heritage by launching the first annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.

Today, Verge estimates they welcome between 300,000-400,000 visitors throughout April. And what started with five activities has blossomed into 40 events and activities, engaging business owners, fundraising groups, volunteers and locals.

Beginning March 31, the Kiwanis Club will serve their traditional Salmon Barbecue daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the historic Hillcrest Lodge. Club members estimate they serve between 10,000-12,000 meals each year. There's special pricing for seniors and groups of 15 or more can e-mail their orders in advance to kiwanisbbq@hotmail.com

Larger events are organized around the weekends, but there's plenty to do during the week.

"People enjoy touring the gardens," says Verge, "but they should allow themselves enough time to poke around the Valley and [embrace] the agricultural flavour of our area."

There's a month-long art show, and a two-day quilt show that attracted over 3,000 people last year. Visitors come from as far away as Korea, Israel and Europe. Verge says 12 per cent of the Festival-goers venture down from British Columbia, and many more flock from all corners of the United States. Hawaii residents are especially captivated with the tulip fields since tulips do not grow in Hawaii. And the same goes for Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, where winters never get cold enough to create natural growing conditions for the spring bloom.

In addition to the farmers' fields where visitors can tramp around in the mud, there are two display gardens - Roozengaarde and Tulip Town. Here, nature has a little help, so the tulips are in bloom the entire month. In the fields, the bloom happens when the tulips are ready.

"The busiest day of the Festival is the sunniest Saturday in April, when the tulips are in full bloom," says Verge.

When that is, is anybody's guess. But Verge assures there is "always" a bloom in April.

Behind the scenes, the Festival only has two paid staff, but hundreds of volunteers work tirelessly to make the annual event a success.

"We couldn't work the Festival without our volunteers," says Verge, "and many of them are senior citizens."

On April 14 in La Conner, the Festival Parade will get underway at 2 p.m. Two stages will host performances and there'll be a salmon dinner, activities for the grandkids and the Shriners for a laugh.

Verge suggests packing gardening mud shoes to trudge around the tulip fields. The weather at this time of year can be unpredictable, so be prepared for cold, clouds, rain, sleet, wind, sun and warmth - all within a 30-minute block.

For visitors with mobility challenges, the display gardens have either gravel or paved walkways. And the magnificence of most farmers' fields can be viewed from the comfort of a car.

To request a brochure or download it online, visit www.tulipfestival.org or call 1-360-428-5959.

This article has been viewed 1853 times.

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