More reliable than the first robin, Washington, D.C.'s
Cherry Blossom Festival is a sure sign that spring has arrived.
The event, held annually since 1935, draws almost three-quarters of a million visitors to the nation's capital to witness the stunning vision of thousands of cherry blossoms in bloom and celebrate the cultural ties between the U.S. and Japan.
Enjoying the pink and white blossoms is only part of the fun, though. River cruises, exhibits, music and dance performances, sporting events, a gala parade and an all-day street fair are among the activities scheduled for the festival's two-week run, from March 31 to April 15.
The roots of the festival were planted in 1912, when the mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 cherry blossom trees to our capital as a gesture of friendship. In 1965, 3,800 more of the trees were presented to Lady Bird Johnson, who in her role as first lady was active in conservation and beautification initiatives.
In 1999, the number of trees was boosted again with planted cuttings from a Japanese cherry blossom tree believed to be more than 1,500 years old. There are now 12 varieties of these trees spread throughout the Tidal Basin area, East Potomac Park and the grounds of the Washington Monument.
When To Go
The National Park Service predicts that this year's blooms will be at their peak April 3 through April 5, so plan accordingly if the flowers are your priority.
Otherwise, scan the festival's
schedule of events: Some events, such as the
Spirit of Japanese Gardens photo exhibit, the
Japanese Contemporary Prints exhibit,
bike tours and
photo safaris, run for the length of the festival, or even longer.
But you just have one shot at other activities, like the
dinner cruise. Not surprisingly, many of the events are scheduled for the weekends, but you'll miss the crowds if you go during the week.
The biggest crowds turn out for the parade, which starts at 10 a.m. on April 14.
East meets West when grand marshals Mickey and Minnie Mouse, wearing traditional Japanese clothing, lead the parade down Constitution Avenue, followed by floats, huge inflatable balloons, marching bands and Pan-Asian drummers and dancers. There will be musical performances by Bianca Ryan, Ace Young and Grammy-winning vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
After the parade, the throngs head for the 46th annual
Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival, the largest one-day exhibition of Japanese culture in the U.S.
Traditional Japanese performances, karaoke and pop music are showcased on three stages; martial arts will rule on another stage. There are also cultural exhibits, the Ginza Marketplace for shopping, food vendors and a Japanese beer garden in which to relax and rest your feet.
Town for All Seasons
When you've had your fill of celebrating the glorious flowering trees, there's plenty more to see and do in Washington.
Whether your tastes run to biplanes and moon rocks, baby pandas or outsider art, there's something to satisfy your interests at the
Smithsonian's dozen-plus facilities in the area.
Those who haven't been to the District in a while may want to check out the newest Smithsonian museum, the
National Museum of the American Indian.
The curvy limestone building, which opened in 2004, boasts more than 250,000 square feet of exhibition space. Historical pieces collected by Gustave Heye in the early 20th century share space with contemporary objects, such as a pair of Kiowa beaded high-top sneakers.
Anyone interested in Native American culture and collectibles is likely to enjoy an overlooked gem hidden in a government building, the
Indian Craft Shop.
Depression-era murals by renowned Indian artists Gerald Nailor and Allan Houser decorate this space on the ground floor of the Department of the Interior building. Carefully chosen contemporary jewelry, baskets, pottery and weavings are among the items offered for sale in this cozy space.
Visitors who prefer a guided tour -- or one that veers off the beaten path -- have plenty of choices.
One way to see Washington's highlights without wearing out your tootsies is to tour the town via Segway.
Segs in the City's one- or two-hour tours kick off with a quick lesson on operating the 12.5-mile-per-hour two-wheeled conveyances.
Gross National Product, a comedy troupe, offers a different view of Washington with a
tour of the "scandal capital of the world." The bipartisan highlights range from the Watergate to Gary Hart's townhouse to more recent news and tabloid fodder.
Lovers of intrigue and machinations may also enjoy visiting espionage-related sites on the
Spy Drive. This classroom-on-wheels goes to spy-related locations, such as "drop sites" and meeting points. The tour guides, all of whom are former intelligence and security professionals, describe related espionage cases and their consequences.
Bring your binoculars for the
gargoyle tour at the National Cathedral.
These stone sentinels go beyond the standard saints and sinners; see if you can find the yuppies, hippies, birdwatchers, braying donkeys, Darth Vader and other fanciful beasts depicted on the cathedral's facade.
Tour and Tea visits supplement tours of the building and gardens with traditional English tea, including finger sandwiches and scones.
Hotels tend to fill up during cherry-blossom season, so don't even think of heading for Washington without a reservation.
There's a wealth of choices. The seven
Kimpton Hotels are arguably the hippest lodgings in the District. Each hotel has a theme, from funky (Hotel Helix, Hotel George) to glamorous (Hotel Rouge) to artsy (Hotel Palomar) to ethnic (Topaz Hotel) to elegant (Hotel Monaco, Hotel Madera).
These hotels have a variety of specialty rooms and suites, some with fitness equipment, kitchenettes, computers, DVD players and movie libraries, Nintendos or PlayStations and yoga tutorials. Among the more unusual offerings are "Tall Rooms" with high ceilings, extra-long beds and high showerheads; suites with large dining tables in case you're planning on serving dinner for six; and the option of a companion goldfish to keep you company during your stay.
Depending on which of the Kimpton hotels you choose, you may find yourself lounging in an animal-print robe, soaking in a whirlpool, zoning out while staring at a lava lamp or slipping into Frette sheets. In-room spa services are available at all the Kimpton hotels, along with concierge services and other amenities.
On the more traditional end of the spectrum, the
Hay-Adams is rich in old-school splendor.
Each room has comforts large and small: Luxury sheets, goose-down bedding, umbrellas and a Bose CD system. Let your concierge know if you need complimentary town-car service in the morning. Some rooms have carved plaster ceilings, fireplaces or balconies, and views of the White House, St. John's church or Lafayette Park.
Another traditional luxury hotel, the
Willard InterContinental has a rich history going back well over a century. It was already more than 10 years old in 1861 when it was the meeting site for the Peace Congress aiming to avert the Civil War. The current Willard was built in 1901 and remodeled last year.
Why not splurge on the Jenny Lind suite and enjoy a view of the Washington Monument, framed in a round window above the whirlpool tub? Or celebrate a special occasion in the 2,800-square-foot Thomas Jefferson suite, with its marble foyer, oval dining room, original art and Aubusson carpets.
From natural wonders to serious pampering, Washington has something to delight most visitors.
Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.