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Itís Cherry Blossom Time


Late this month the nearly 4,000 Japanese cherry trees of Washington, D.C. will herald the arrival of spring with a magical burst of vibrant color.

Courtesy of The National Cherry Blossom Festival.As winter gives up its last, reluctant hold on the city, the trees’ beautiful pink-and-white blossoms will encircle the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin, cover the grounds of the Washington Monument, and line the pathways of East Potomac Park. It’s a breathtaking sight.

So breathtaking, in fact, that each year thousands of visitors travel from around the world just to see these very blossoms. Most try to arrive during the two-week blooming peak (estimated this year to start on March 26) so they can participate in the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Jammed with free entertainment – concerts, boat races, dances, cherry-tree plantings and lots more – the Festival ends with the city’s largest annual spectator event: the Cherry Blossom Parade.

Cherry Blossom Parade. Courtesy of Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Association. On this day traffic is closed on Constitution Avenue, replaced by spectacular floats, colorful marching bands, high-kicking drill teams, costumed dance troupes, and smiling celebrities waving to the crowds from chauffeured convertibles. The annual highlight is the appearance of the festival’s queen, accompanied by princesses from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories.

But let’s not get sidetracked: the real story here is those cherry trees. They first appeared in the capital city back in 1912, when Japan sent the U.S. a gift of more than 3,000 trees. In late March the First Lady, Mrs. Taft, and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador, Mrs. Chinda, ceremonially planted two Yoshino trees on the Tidal Basin. Mrs. Taft then presented Mrs. Chinda with a bouquet of American Beauty roses (it’s said that this polite offering gave birth to the Cherry Blossom Festival). By the way, those two trees still stand; look for a commemorative plaque about them near the statue of John Paul Jones.

If you can’t get to Washington this month, don’t despair. Even without cherry blossoms the nation’s capital makes for a memorable and exciting family vacation at any time of the year, one that combines fun with learning. In the course of a day you can marvel over the size of the Hope Diamond, stand on the "deck" of an aircraft carrier to watch planes land, study a Rembrandt or Picasso way up close, march to the top of the Washington Monument, pay homage at the Vietnam Memorial, or – if you’re an American citizen, and maybe even if you’re not – swell with unexpected pride at the sight of the Declaration of Independence.

And that’s just for starters. The capital city of the United States, perhaps the most powerful city in the history of humankind, provides visitors with a limitless treasure trove of things to do. It is, quite simply, a good-time place.

What’s more, it can be a very easy-going place to be. Since many of the city’s greatest attractions are grouped together around the Mall, you can easily walk from one to another (see the sidebar entitled "Washington Cheap ‘n Easy"). The Mall, by the way, is a grassy, open-space area. It’s about 300 feet wide, stretches for over two miles, and is anchored on one end by the Capitol and on the other by the Lincoln Memorial. No matter where you stand, its views are awe-inspiring.

Here’s a brief sampling of what you’ll find on or very close to the Mall.

The Smithsonian Institution:

The Smithsonian actually consists of many separate, quite diverse museums. Visit the official information center first. It’s located in a striking building known as the "Castle." You’ll find videos, architectural models, electronic maps and lots of other helpful tools to help you wend your way through the vast Smithsonian complex (be sure to take away a copy of the free guide and map). Entry to all museums is free.

The National Air and Space Museum. Courtesy of Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Association. The Air and Space Museum, the most-visited museum in the entire world, covers the history of flight. The National Museum of Natural History houses dinosaurs, fossils, gems, insects and much more (this place is wildly popular with kids). The National Museum of American History is home to the huge Star-Spangled Banner, which inspired Frances Scott Key to write the national anthem. You’ll also find hundreds of unique exhibits about U.S. history – gowns of the First Ladies, a tent used by George Washington, Muhammed Ali’s boxing gloves. The Arts and Industries Building hosts a wide variety of changing exhibits. The National Museum of the American Indian is scheduled to open in 2001.

Art-lovers have a generous choice of Smithsonian museums, too. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden holds a stunning collection of 20th-century art. (The garden is a fabulous place to enjoy a picnic!) Both the Sackler and Freer Galleries specialize in Asian art. The National Museum of African Art concentrates on crafts and ceremonial objects from the sub-Saharan region of Africa. The National Museum of American Art owns 40,000 works covering the history of art in America. The National Portrait Gallery contains historical portraits of many who have contributed to the country’s growth. The Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventeenth Street, N.W.) displays traditional and modern American crafts.

The National Gallery of Art:

Truly one of the world’s greatest art museums, the National Gallery is housed in two buildings. The West building holds masterpieces from the 13th through the 18th century, works by artists such as Rembrandt, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Whistler and Homer. Here, too, is the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington. The East building, designed by I. M. Pei, provides a glorious backdrop for modern art. The permanent collection is world-class and the temporary exhibits are brilliantly imaginative. Free entry.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum:

The only U.S. memorial to those murdered during the Holocaust, the museum’s huge permanent exhibit draws record crowds. As you enter you’ll be given the identity card of an actual Holocaust victim, and moving through the exhibit you’ll experience some of the horrors such victims lived through (for instance, you’ll board a freight train similar to those used to transport Jews to Treblinka). Entry to the museum is free. However, because the permanent exhibit is so popular you’ll need to obtain an entry pass with a specific entry time. (Temporary exhibits and the computer learning center don’t require a pass). Free entry passes can be picked up at the museum any day. For a small service charge, you might prefer to reserve them by phone (800-400-9373).

The White House:

A short walk from the Mall, the White House is open to the public only from 10 a.m. to noon each day. BUT, you can obtain a VIP tour ticket from your senator or congressperson entitling you to a far-less-crowded morning tour. Request VIP tickets as far in advance as possible, since House and Senate members are allowed only 10 per week for distribution to voters. Free entry.

The Capitol Building:

Located on the Mall’s eastern edge, the domed white Capitol symbolizes American democracy: no less a figure than George Washington laid the cornerstone back in 1793.

U.S. Capitol in springtime. Courtesy of Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Association. British soldiers burned the interior in 1814, but the Capitol, arguably the single most important building in the United States, survived. Free guided tours are given throughout the day starting from the rotunda. Be sure to check out Statuary Hall, where bronze and marble statues honor important Americans. Free entry.

The Washington Monument:

At 555 feet high, this classic obelisk towers over everything else in the city. The cornerstone was laid in 1848 and building proceeded until 1853, when funds ran out. It took another 25 years to get construction underway again, and the monument was finally completed in 1884. Most people take the elevator to the top, but you might enjoy the challenge of walking up or the shaky-kneed fun of racing down. Free entry.

The Lincoln Memorial:

Surely this is one of the most majestic monuments in the world. It’s an awe-inspiring feeling to stand at the feet of this great, good man, surrounded by what seems like acres of soaring marble. The building itself, with its many fluted Doric columns, reminds one of the Parthenon. The view over the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument is superb. Free entry.

The Jefferson Memorial:

Third and some say greatest President of the United States, Jefferson was also an inventor, farmer, architect, historian, scientist – and author of the Declaration of Independence. Phrases from that glorious document are engraved on the walls of the marble surrounding his statue. The Memorial is located on the Tidal Basin, making for an especially lovely view when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial:

Opened in 1997, this delightful, open-air, 7-acre memorial lies on the west side of the Tidal Basin. Modern sculpture, huge blocks of granite and waterfalls combine to create a feeling of beauty and peace. A small museum recounts the lives of both Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. Free entry.

National Archives:

You may have to stand on line to enter the Exhibition Hall under the rotunda, but it’s worth it to rest your gaze on three of the most important documents ever created by human beings: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. Many other important documents are on display, as well. Free entry.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial:

You don’t see this Memorial until you’re almost on top of it, and then it immediately blocks out your perception of everything else. The brilliant design – you slowly descend between walls of black granite 246 feet long inscribed with the names of Americans dead or missing in the Vietnam War – was created by architect Maya Ying Lin when she was only 21 years old. Directory kiosks help visitors locate the names of friends and loved ones inscribed on the granite slabs. Two nearby sculptures honor both men and women who served in the war.

Botanic Gardens:

Close by the Capitol, this 9,000-square-foot glass conservatory was opened in 1820 and contains rare tropical, sub-tropical and desert plants. You’ll find African cacti, South American ferns, bromeliads, palms, gladioli, poinsettias – more than 8,000 species and varieties. In fine weather you can sit on the terrace, enjoy a picnic, and gaze over the Capitol’s reflecting pool.

And so much more!

We’re running out of room, but there’s still lots more to see and do close to the Mall. Here’s a glimpse of what else awaits: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Ford’s Theater, the National Aquarium, the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial, the Corcoran Gallery of American Art, the Library of Congress, the Butterfly Habitat Garden. A short Metro (subway) ride brings you the Postal Museum, the National Zoo, the Philipps Collection (home to Renoir’s The Boating Party), the National Geographic Society’s Explorer’s Hall, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the U. S. Navy Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the National Building Museum…

There is more, so much more. You’ll just have to come here and find out for yourself! 

Washington Cheap ‘n Easy:

 

With a little judicious planning, a trip to Washington, DC can be low-hassle and relatively inexpensive. I know, I know: it’s hard to believe. But it’s true – and here are three good reasons why:

1. Attractions are Centrally Located.

The Smithsonian While you’ll find great things to see and do all over town, most popular attractions are grouped on or near the Mall: the White House, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Capitol, the Tidal Basin, the Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, ad infinitum.

Stress Savings: To go from one attraction to another you merely stroll across the street or down the block. Everything moves at your pace. You don’t need to hurtle in exhaustion from one side of town to another, you don’t need to drive a car through traffic, you don’t need to fruitlessly search for parking. An added bonus: you’ll get a bit of exercise.

Money Savings: You’re not paying to be carted about by taxi. If you’ve come to Washington in your own car (or have a rental), you’ve left it at your lodgings and are thus not paying hefty tourist-area parking fees.

2. Attractions are Free (Most of them, anyway).

With few exceptions most Mall offerings are absolutely free. This is an amazingly generous gift from the government of the United States to the world’s citizens, one duplicated by few national capitals. Just before my recent visit to Washington I’d been in Paris, where every time I poked my head through a museum door I had to fork over a minimum 30 francs (about US$6). Such fees add up, especially for families, and limit choices for those on a budget. In Washington you needn’t make decisions about what to see, or how often to see it, based on money. If you want to pop into the National Gallery’s Tower Room twice a day just to feast on the Matisse cutouts, go ahead!

Stress/Money Savings: Isn’t it obvious?

3. You Don’t Need to Rent a Car.

Thanks to the city’s safe, fast and efficient Metro (subway) system, you can get along just fine here without a rental car. If you book accommodations close to the Mall, you can walk to most major attractions from your hotel, getting around at night via the Metro or taxis. If you prefer staying elsewhere in the city, book a hotel close to a Metro stop so you can travel easily to the Mall (and other locations). Of course, if you’re planning a side trip outside the city – the Naval Academy at Annapolis, say, or Jefferson’s Monticello home – you can always rent a car for one or two days. By the way, if you fly into Washington National Airport (as opposed to Baltimore or Dulles), you can hop the Metro there as easily as you’d hail a taxi – yet another reason to book a hotel near a Metro stop.

Stress Savings: It’s a big, probably unfamiliar city: why hassel the driving if you don’t have to? Why worry about the cost of car rental if you don’t really need a car?

Money Savings: Auto rental/insurance is costly. Hotel parking (and other parking fees) can be extremely expensive. Avoid them.

When you go:

As befits the nation’s capital, Washington is served by most major airlines and three airports. Washington National Airport is most convenient, as it’s only a short taxi or Metro subway ride from downtown; however, it doesn’t service international flights or U. S. flights originating more than 1,250 miles away. Dulles International is 26 miles from the city, but frequent public transport gets you into town in less than an hour. Bargain flights tend to fly into Baltimore-Washington International, which is about the same distance from Washington as its more glamorous kin, Dulles.

Where to Stay:

Washington has lodgings to suit every taste and pocketbook. I stayed at Loew’s l’Enfant Plaza Hotel (202-484-1000). Located only a block from the Mall, my stay here made daily sightseeing effortless. If I tired, it was a simple matter to return to my room, take a short nap, and head off again refreshed. Room service meals were way above average, and dinner at the American Grill was nothing short of excellent. The only drawback to this hotel is that it’s surrounded by government buildings. At night, when workers go home, there’s not much to see on the surrounding streets. However, taxis and the Metro (accessible from within the hotel) took me anywhere I wanted to go.

The city’s visitor’s bureau can assist you with finding hotel rooms and even making reservations: (800-823-9652).

For more information:

The Washington, D.C. Convention and Visitors Association will be happy to assist with plans for your trip. You can reach them by phone (202) 789-7000, fax (202) 789-7037, or on the Web at www.washington.org.

Other relevant Web sites:

www.gwjapan.com/cherry/index.html is the official home page for the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

www.nps.gov/nacc/cherry/ is the cherry blossom site of the National Park Service.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum:

The only U.S. memorial to those murdered during the Holocaust, the museum’s huge permanent exhibit draws record crowds. As you enter you’ll be given the identity card of an actual Holocaust victim, and moving through the exhibit you’ll experience some of the horrors such victims lived through (for instance, you’ll board a freight train similar to those used to transport Jews to Treblinka). Entry to the museum is free. However, because the permanent exhibit is so popular you’ll need to obtain an entry pass with a specific entry time. (Temporary exhibits and the computer learning center don’t require a pass). Free entry passes can be picked up at the museum any day. For a small service charge, you might prefer to reserve them by phone (800-400-9373).

The White House:

A short walk from the Mall, the White House is open to the public only from 10 a.m. to noon each day. BUT, you can obtain a VIP tour ticket from your senator or congressperson entitling you to a far-less-crowded morning tour. Request VIP tickets as far in advance as possible, since House and Senate members are allowed only 10 per week for distribution to voters. Free entry.

The Capitol Building:

Located on the Mall’s eastern edge, the domed white Capitol symbolizes American democracy: no less a figure than George Washington laid the cornerstone back in 1793.

U.S. Capitol in springtime. Courtesy of Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Association. British soldiers burned the interior in 1814, but the Capitol, arguably the single most important building in the United States, survived. Free guided tours are given throughout the day starting from the rotunda. Be sure to check out Statuary Hall, where bronze and marble statues honor important Americans. Free entry.

The Washington Monument:

At 555 feet high, this classic obelisk towers over everything else in the city. The cornerstone was laid in 1848 and building proceeded until 1853, when funds ran out. It took another 25 years to get construction underway again, and the monument was finally completed in 1884. Most people take the elevator to the top, but you might enjoy the challenge of walking up or the shaky-kneed fun of racing down. Free entry.

The Lincoln Memorial:

Surely this is one of the most majestic monuments in the world. It’s an awe-inspiring feeling to stand at the feet of this great, good man, surrounded by what seems like acres of soaring marble. The building itself, with its many fluted Doric columns, reminds one of the Parthenon. The view over the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument is superb. Free entry.

The Jefferson Memorial:

Third and some say greatest President of the United States, Jefferson was also an inventor, farmer, architect, historian, scientist – and author of the Declaration of Independence. Phrases from that glorious document are engraved on the walls of the marble surrounding his statue. The Memorial is located on the Tidal Basin, making for an especially lovely view when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial:

Opened in 1997, this delightful, open-air, 7-acre memorial lies on the west side of the Tidal Basin. Modern sculpture, huge blocks of granite and waterfalls combine to create a feeling of beauty and peace. A small museum recounts the lives of both Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. Free entry.

National Archives:

You may have to stand on line to enter the Exhibition Hall under the rotunda, but it’s worth it to rest your gaze on three of the most important documents ever created by human beings: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. Many other important documents are on display, as well. Free entry.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial:

You don’t see this Memorial until you’re almost on top of it, and then it immediately blocks out your perception of everything else. The brilliant design – you slowly descend between walls of black granite 246 feet long inscribed with the names of Americans dead or missing in the Vietnam War – was created by architect Maya Ying Lin when she was only 21 years old. Directory kiosks help visitors locate the names of friends and loved ones inscribed on the granite slabs. Two nearby sculptures honor both men and women who served in the war.

Botanic Gardens:

Close by the Capitol, this 9,000-square-foot glass conservatory was opened in 1820 and contains rare tropical, sub-tropical and desert plants. You’ll find African cacti, South American ferns, bromeliads, palms, gladioli, poinsettias – more than 8,000 species and varieties. In fine weather you can sit on the terrace, enjoy a picnic, and gaze over the Capitol’s reflecting pool.

And so much more!

We’re running out of room, but there’s still lots more to see and do close to the Mall. Here’s a glimpse of what else awaits: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Ford’s Theater, the National Aquarium, the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial, the Corcoran Gallery of American Art, the Library of Congress, the Butterfly Habitat Garden. A short Metro (subway) ride brings you the Postal Museum, the National Zoo, the Philipps Collection (home to Renoir’s The Boating Party), the National Geographic Society’s Explorer’s Hall, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the U. S. Navy Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the National Building Museum…

There is more, so much more. You’ll just have to come here and find out for yourself! 

Washington Cheap ‘n Easy:

With a little judicious planning, a trip to Washington, DC can be low-hassle and relatively inexpensive. I know, I know: it’s hard to believe. But it’s true – and here are three good reasons why:

1. Attractions are Centrally Located.

The Smithsonian "Castle" Building. Courtesy of Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Association. While you’ll find great things to see and do all over town, most popular attractions are grouped on or near the Mall: the White House, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Capitol, the Tidal Basin, the Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, ad infinitum.

Stress Savings: To go from one attraction to another you merely stroll across the street or down the block. Everything moves at your pace. You don’t need to hurtle in exhaustion from one side of town to another, you don’t need to drive a car through traffic, you don’t need to fruitlessly search for parking. An added bonus: you’ll get a bit of exercise.

Money Savings: You’re not paying to be carted about by taxi. If you’ve come to Washington in your own car (or have a rental), you’ve left it at your lodgings and are thus not paying hefty tourist-area parking fees.

2. Attractions are Free (Most of them, anyway).

With few exceptions most Mall offerings are absolutely free. This is an amazingly generous gift from the government of the United States to the world’s citizens, one duplicated by few national capitals. Just before my recent visit to Washington I’d been in Paris, where every time I poked my head through a museum door I had to fork over a minimum 30 francs (about US$6). Such fees add up, especially for families, and limit choices for those on a budget. In Washington you needn’t make decisions about what to see, or how often to see it, based on money. If you want to pop into the National Gallery’s Tower Room twice a day just to feast on the Matisse cutouts, go ahead!

Stress/Money Savings: Isn’t it obvious?

3. You Don’t Need to Rent a Car.

Thanks to the city’s safe, fast and efficient Metro (subway) system, you can get along just fine here without a rental car. If you book accommodations close to the Mall, you can walk to most major attractions from your hotel, getting around at night via the Metro or taxis. If you prefer staying elsewhere in the city, book a hotel close to a Metro stop so you can travel easily to the Mall (and other locations). Of course, if you’re planning a side trip outside the city – the Naval Academy at Annapolis, say, or Jefferson’s Monticello home – you can always rent a car for one or two days. By the way, if you fly into Washington National Airport (as opposed to Baltimore or Dulles), you can hop the Metro there as easily as you’d hail a taxi – yet another reason to book a hotel near a Metro stop.

Stress Savings: It’s a big, probably unfamiliar city: why hassel the driving if you don’t have to? Why worry about the cost of car rental if you don’t really need a car?

Money Savings: Auto rental/insurance is costly. Hotel parking (and other parking fees) can be extremely expensive. Avoid them.

When you go:

As befits the nation’s capital, Washington is served by most major airlines and three airports. Washington National Airport is most convenient, as it’s only a short taxi or Metro subway ride from downtown; however, it doesn’t service international flights or U. S. flights originating more than 1,250 miles away. Dulles International is 26 miles from the city, but frequent public transport gets you into town in less than an hour. Bargain flights tend to fly into Baltimore-Washington International, which is about the same distance from Washington as its more glamorous kin, Dulles.

Where to Stay:

Washington has lodgings to suit every taste and pocketbook. I stayed at Loew’s l’Enfant Plaza Hotel (202-484-1000). Located only a block from the Mall, my stay here made daily sightseeing effortless. If I tired, it was a simple matter to return to my room, take a short nap, and head off again refreshed. Room service meals were way above average, and dinner at the American Grill was nothing short of excellent. The only drawback to this hotel is that it’s surrounded by government buildings. At night, when workers go home, there’s not much to see on the surrounding streets. However, taxis and the Metro (accessible from within the hotel) took me anywhere I wanted to go.

The city’s visitor’s bureau can assist you with finding hotel rooms and even making reservations: (800-823-9652).

For more information:

The Washington, D.C. Convention and Visitors Association will be happy to assist with plans for your trip. You can reach them by phone (202) 789-7000, fax (202) 789-7037, or on the Web at www.washington.org.

Other relevant Web sites:

www.gwjapan.com/cherry/index.html is the official home page for the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

www.nps.gov/nacc/cherry/ is the cherry blossom site of the National Park Service.