Back in the 17th century, one of the first documented economic bubbles took place when the tulip, a flower originally cultivated by the Ottoman Empire, came to the Netherlands. The flowers became so popular that prices skyrocketed, with a single bulb selling for 10 times the salary of a skilled worker.
Speculators jumped in, bidding up prices on future crops in transactions where actual bulbs never changed hands. When the ceiling fell in 1637, many investors went bankrupt, similar to the bubbles we see today. Historians have called the Dutch experience “tulip mania,” and cite it as one of the reasons that country’s Golden Age ended.
Washington sees its own form of tulip mania in April, when the flower fields of the Skagit Valley north of Seattle start to bloom. Suddenly this rural area becomes a major tourist attraction, and roads that normally see tractors and pickup trucks are clogged with buses carrying camera-toting visitors.
The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival runs most of April, although it’s up to Mother Nature whether or not the flowers will actually bloom during that time. During the festival, major bulb producers such as Washington Bulb Company and Skagit Valley Bulb Farm open the colorful fields of daffodils, irises and tulips to visitors. Nearby towns such as Mt. Vernon and La Connor also have tulip-themed events.
For our tulip weekend, we stayed north of Skagit County in Bellingham, a Washington town known for its proximity to all kinds of outdoor activities. We took advantage of the Tiptoe through the Tulips package from the Hotel Bellwether that includes a night’s stay, breakfast, a picnic lunch, a set of plastic gardening tools and maps to the Skagit Valley fields. (The package costs $228 during the week; $235 on weekends through April 30).
The Hotel Bellwether is located on the Port of Bellingham, where sailboats to the San Juans dock next to Alaska-bound fishing vessels. The city has redeveloped the marina with a walking trail that takes you by the boats to a park overlooking Bellingham Bay and Lummi Island. Ask for a west-facing room and you’ll get a great sunset, weather permitting.
The Hotel Bellingham has upped its dining game in the past few months, hiring managers and chefs who are determined to turn it into a local hotspot. Their efforts seem to be working, as the bar was hopping with locals on a Friday night.
We ate dinner at the hotel’s Harborside Bistro, where we were pleased by the size of the oysters they were serving (Don and I have been shocked at how small some of the oysters are that we’ve received at Seattle Happy Hours. Maybe that’s because we’re used to big Gulf of Mexico oysters from Louisiana).
And we loved the fiddleheads that the chef paired with Don’s halibut (they are the curly greens on the right in the picture above). Fiddleheads – the unfurled fronds of a young fern – don’t appear on menus too often because their growing season is short, which tends to make them expensive. They tasted a little bit like asparagus, only firmer and “greener.” I’m now a huge fan.
(Most entrees at Harborside Bistro were in the $25-$30 range. That’s on the expensive side for Bellingham, but the food stood up to the price tag – and you’d pay just as much at the Anthony’s next door).
On Saturday, we picked up our picnic lunch from the front desk and headed down to Skagit Valley, about a 20 minute trip. We couldn’t see much color from I-5, but as we drove the local roads, bursts of color – primarily yellow, from the daffodil crop – appeared on the horizon.
Visiting the fields is muddy business. The ground is soft and loamy, to the point where it springs as you walk on it. If you go, make sure you wear boots or shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
Unfortunately, we were a little too early for peak tulip season, and many of the tulip fields hadn’t bloomed yet. That’s the difficulty of an agricultural trip sometimes; you can’t exactly predict when the fields will be ready. Suffice it to say that if you go in the first weekend in April, you may be seeing a lot more green than color.
The few tulip fields that were in bloom were in the middle of harvest. Not surprisingly, the farms use itinerant workers, mostly from Mexico, for much of this labor.
While tulips are my favorite flower, I had never thought of them as a business.
Maybe it’s time I picked up Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire. If you’ve read it, let me know how it is.
We spent most of our time at RoozenGaarde, the tourist arm of the Washington Bulb Company. Besides opening the fields for tours, the company has a “Show Garden” where you can check out the different varieties of flowers (unlike the fields, the gardens are protected so the tulips are guaranteed to bloom at the beginning of the tourist season).
Don doesn’t have the same love for tulips that I do; he’s more of an orchid man. But he did find a favorite in the garden – these Red Hill daffodils with the red-orange center.
And I am love with Kung Fu tulips. Bright pink with white tips, these tulips rock my world and it was fun to see so many of them in one place.
After we toured a few fields and saw the garden, we were done with flowers and ready to head home. We determined that you don’t need to stay overnight to go to the festival; it’s an easy daytrip from either Vancouver or Seattle.
But our quick jaunt did remind us that while we love to go to exotic places overseas, there’s a lot to explore here in our own backyard. The muted blues and greens of the Pacific Northwest can be spectacular, with or without the sun, and we’re looking forward to more weekend getaways like this one in the future.
Thanks to the Hotel Bellwether for sponsoring our trip.