HAARLEM, Holland — Don't be surprised if a pretty young girl in a bright blue dress approaches you on a street corner here, flashes a winning smile, pins a tulip or some other bloom on your lapel and asks if you need help or have any questions about her town.
She's just one of many, the Flower Girls of Haarlem, who fan out over the city to greet visitors in tourist offices, sidewalk cafes, perhaps even in the lobby of your hotel. They also take their pretty dresses and radiant faces to other countries, singing the praises of their city and its blossoms to all who will listen.
Haarlem is to flowers what Amsterdam is to diamonds, a dream for those seeking unbridled beauty. Apart from its own bulb-lined streets and canal banks, the world's largest flower auction of Aalsmeer is just minutes away, renowned gardens of Keukenhof no farther with their breathtaking display of iris, lily, daffodil, tulip, narcissus and other flowers.
Yet Haarlem's engaging sights and surroundings don't stop here. It's a charming medieval town, the old center laid out on a network of canals. Most main streets lead to the Big Market, a cobbled expanse ringed with colorful buildings in warm-red stone dating back to the 13th Century.
Here to there: KLM flies nonstop to Amsterdam, El Al and Pan Am with one, British Caledonian, Lufthansa, British Airways, TWA, Air France and CP Air with a change. Take a train beneath the airport for the 20-minute ride to Haarlem.
How long/how much? A day for the town and museums, another full day for Keukenhof and Aalsmeer, maybe another for a 10-minute ride to Zandvoort and its lively beach. Prices are moderate here across the board.
A few fast facts: Holland's guilder was recently valued at about 40 cents, 2 1/2 to the dollar. Mid-April until the end of May for the most spectacular flower show, fine weather until late fall, bundle up well for winters.
Getting settled in: Lion d'Or (Kruisweg 34; $50-72 double B&B) is the best within town, also a fine location opposite the train-bus station. Bright and attractive rooms generous in size, a Dutch breakfast buffet of juice, cereal, ham, cheeses, rolls, toast and coffee that should hold you. Friendliest of folks drown you with service.
Iepenhove (Hartenlustlaan 4; $64 B&B) is an old-fashioned country hotel set before a small lake and parkland in the suburb of Bloemendaal five minutes from town. Fresh and cheerful rooms, flowers everywhere indoors and out, cozy bar, more about dining room later. Reservations are a must here.
Roozendaal (Bloemendaalsweg 260; $40 B&B) is in the same area, one of the best known garden suburbs of Holland. This is another spread out place with a decidedly country feel to it, charming public rooms bordering on the luxurious, large and inviting dining room with candles flickering on each table at night. Cafe outside under the trees.
Regional food and drink: Holland really shines in its preparation of fresh seafood, sole, turbot and haddock showing up on most menus. Springtime brings the treasure of fresh and tender asparagus from Limbourg, every restaurant offering three or more specialties such as au vinaigrette, with smoked salmon, in clear or creamed soup, with Limbourg ham as an entree, often just with browned butter. We built a meal around them with joy.
Amstel and Heineken beer straight from the wood is a far cry from the exported variety, old and new jeneve, Dutch gin, the hard stuff of favor.
Moderate-cost dining: Don't miss a minute of the passing parade when you have a meal at De Kroon (market square). Dine at tables right on the square, or within the super-modern rooms. Our roast beef sandwich at lunch would have fed three, or a three-course affair of soup, steak and dessert for less than $4.
Also on the square is De Coninckshoek, a gracious 17th-Century wine merchant's house with oak beams, ornate candelabra, small bouquets of flowers on dining tables, a large picture of Queen Juliana as a young girl on the wall. Divine food the likes of magret de canard, tournedos alsacienne or turbot with lobster sauce, all about $14. The present owner was also once a wine merchant, so the selection is superb.
Hotel Iepenhove serves its guests a luncheon menu for $12 that starts with bisque d'ecrevisse, moves on to San Danielle ham and asparagus, finishes with a vanilla coupe with wild-berry liqueur. Non-guests will pay a couple of dollars more. Many locals come here for festive occasions.
On your own: Built in 1608 as an old men's home, later an orphanage, the Frans Hals Museum is a splendid building with a formidable collection of the master's work plus other Dutch painters of his era, with emphasis on group portraits of local citizens, still lifes, genre and landscapes.
Teylers Museum is a fascinating mixture of arts and sciences, bequeathed by a local 18th-Century merchant to extoll scientific advances made during the Age of Enlightenment. Now add 4,500 drawings, including many by Michelangelo and Rembrandt, and you begin to sense the museum's scope.
During your strolls about town, try to visit a few of the many almshouses with their tranquil courtyards. Then stop in St. Bavo Cathedral and marvel at the famous Muller organ that captivated Mozart when he played it.
If you feel you might need help during a short stay here, contact guide Greta Tjaden at 23 Zuider Stationsweg in Bloemendaal. She makes the sights and history of Haarlem come alive.
For additional information: Call the Netherlands National Tourist Office at (415) 543-6772, or write (605 Market St., San Francisco 94105) for a 20-page color booklet on Haarlem, a brochure on Keukenhof, map of Holland and a booklet on dining inexpensively.