Tulip Time

By Chris & Rick Millikan

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Roozengaarde display gardens. Photos by Chris & Rick Millikan

Packing light, we rack up our bikes and head for the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. A comfortable Arlington base awaits us in Washington State, an easy drive south of the border. Welcomed by friendly hotel staff and gear stored in our spacious room, we’re ready to explore the Skagit River Valley, best known for glorious spring flower fields.

Every spring, saucy yellow daffodils trumpet the coming of the renowned tulips. And thousands of visitors like us flock to Mt. Vernon to stroll amid acres of beautiful blooms or attend hundreds of scheduled events and activities taking place all month. Inaugurated in 1984, the Tulip Festival has long marked the flowers’ arrival with art shows, galas, parades, concerts, salmon barbeques and much more.

Undeterred by unsettled weather, we’re ready for tulip adventures. Fields typically blossom in April, though Mother Nature determines exactly when! At festival headquarters, locals tell us plants flowered much earlier than usual, so we feel lucky to arrive before the end of the bloom.

Passing Mt. Vernon’s tulip tower, we follow a well-marked route toward two bulb-growing farms extraordinaire: Roozengaarde and Tulip Town, long-time festival sponsors. Each one offers dazzling fields, display gardens worthy of memorable photos, spectacular ideas for home gardens and compelling stories. In previous years, we joined others cycling farm roads to far-flung venues.  

Across the flat green valley, we soon sight Roozengaarde’s tulip fields. The Roozen family began raising tulips in Holland during the 1700s. With six-generations of expertise behind him, William Roozen emigrated in 1947, starting his own bulb farm on five acres in 1950. Now the world’s largest bulb grower, he raises tulip, daffodil and iris bulbs on over 1,000 acres of land and inside 16 acres of greenhouses.

Roozengaarde’s manicured, three-acre display gardens showcase 300,000 spring-flowering bulbs every year. Amid this magnificence, one chatty gardener tells us how thousands of fertile acres in the Skagit delta have been farmed since the early 1900s. “Yup. Crops of all kinds thrive in our mild maritime climate, including spinach, cabbage and Brussels sprouts,” he grins. “And did you know 3,000 acres of cucumbers are planted just for pickles? It’s one of our biggest crops. Altogether, over 100 commercial crops are grown here, but the showiest by far is the tulip crop!” Clearly, bulb growing and flower harvesting has become big business. And one little known fact intrigues us: for every acre of tulips, there are TWO of daffodils!

There’s also a lot going on at nearby Tulip Town, including the valley’s only indoor show-garden. No matter what the weather outside, folks can browse inside the spacious barn. Amid a profusion of displays, we find artsy souvenirs such as beautiful posters from past festivals. As well, we meet owners Tom De Goede, originally from Holland, wife Jeannette, from Quebec and even sister-in-law Helga, who comes from Holland every season to help with the flower shop.  

They point out huge murals decorating both sides of the long gallery, perfect backdrops for stunning flower arrangements. The Dutch landscapes on one side represent Tom’s hometown, complete with skiffs floating fresh tulips to market along the canals. Its flower shop displays Jeanette and Helga’s names. An opposite mural depicts Mt. Vernon’s tulip farms, sweeping green countryside and snowcapped Mount Baker; a mock stream carries tulips in little boats.
With a twinkle in her eye, Jeanette tells us their story. “One weekend in the 1980s, I was picking tulips, when two cars parked at the roadside. The drivers wanted to buy flowers and walk in our fields. That was the beginning! Over time, more folks came by. Eventually, cars lined up alongside the road as far as the eye could see. To get into the fields or to buy bouquets required crossing the ditch on a rough plank. Well, it didn’t take long before we became a two-plank operation, one going and one coming back. About 1982, I started selling tulip bunches to the public from a borrowed roadside stand and even more people took notice. Visitors now come here from all over.” Today, apple, pear and cherry trees divide their 500-car parking lot. And recalling past harvesting and planting days, old farm machinery decorates landscaped borders.

The “Rainbow of Colour” field exhibits over 70 tulip varieties. The Peace Garden flies flags from the World’s Tulip Summit, a gathering of 14 countries promoting peace. The De Goede’s are especially proud of their World Peace tulip. Offering something new every year, this year’s Dutch Village features a windmill replicating the one in Tom’s village.      

Joining hordes of families, we walk among brilliant swaths of alternating red, yellow, pink, purple and white. Rippling in gentle breezes, row after row of dancing blossoms drench surrounding landscapes with vibrant colour.    

Before returning to our digs, we check out La Conner, Skagit County’s oldest community. This waterfront village began in the mid-1800s, a trading post on the river. A series of turn-of-the-century disasters led to its decline. Attracted to its distinctive light and picturesque nature, artists later settled in and made this historic town an art colony. Restored Victorian-era homes and turn-of-the-century buildings now house boutiques, galleries, restaurants and museums. A boardwalk skirting the marina and numerous outdoor sculptures add further charm.
On our last morning in Arlington, we take a bike ride on a stretch of the Centennial Trail, built on abandoned rail lines. The downtown trailhead is only one of 12 linking communities, parks and town centres on the 29-mile-long paved route. Dog walkers, joggers and horses share the wide, paved pathway with us. At the outset, a giant bicycle sculpture encourages us onward.

Pedaling off, we soon pass a series of murals depicting Arlington’s history as a train town, logging centre and agricultural hub. Pausing frequently, we admire trailside sculptures and read informative storyboards regarding local industries. Chugging up a gentle slope and over a trestle, we pass through arcades of alders into the rustic countryside before turning back.    

Back on the road again, we drive northward and stop for another night’s stay in a resort opposite Blaine Harbour. Phil, the service engineer, takes us bird watching. Armed with powerful telescopes and binoculars, he leads us around the long sandy spit separating Semiahmoo Bay and Drayton Harbour and helps us sight numerous water fowl, all flaunting spring plumage. In the bay, we’re excited to see western and golden horned grebes and scoter ducks. Pelagic and double crested cormorants perch upon old pilings. Coots and graceful loons swim in the harbour.  Several blue herons and long-beaked curlews wade offshore. Plovers and Bonaparte gulls strut upon the sandy beach.  

At the onsite restaurant, we’re later treated to the sun setting over the bay. Dropping by diners’ tables, Chef tells us, “Our produce comes fresh from Blaine’s farms. The seafood is local. The oysters grow right here in Drayton Harbour. You just can’t get fresher than that!” Sumptuous grilled salmon and cioppino dinners conclude another satisfying day.

Following hearty breakfasts, another bike ride takes us along Semiahmoo spit, renewing acquaintance with new found feathered friends. A couple’s massage follows, soothing muscles and minds before driving back across the US border for home. Our getaway around Washington State motivates further escapades and inspires a flurry of spring gardening.

When You Go:
Stay in Arlington: www.angelofthewinds.com
Onsite, Watershed Restaurant: www.angelofthewinds.com/dining/watershed
Further information: www.tulipfestival.org  OR www.visitskagitvalley.com
Check out bloom status: www.tulips.com/bloommap (note: tulip crops rotate every year)
Roozengaarde tulip field: www.Tulips.com  
Tulip Town: www.TulipTown.com
Semiahmoo Resort: www.semiahmoo.com
Onsite restaurant: Pierside Kitchen www.semiahmoo.com/wine-dine/pierside-kitchen

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Showing 1 to 3 of 3 comments.

Hi just wondering how far you were cycling each day & if terrain surrounding this area is fairly flat? thanks so much

Posted by colette houle | June 16, 2016 Report Violation

Ahhh...tiptoeing through the tulips What a lovely relaxing time!

Posted by Irene Butler | April 7, 2016 Report Violation

Very informative article and the Tulip Festival sounds like a great event to take in.

Posted by Lynda Roberts | April 6, 2016 Report Violation

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