At some magic turning point during the last week in March, the navy blues, grays, and khaki tones that dominate the walkways of Washington, D.C., give way to the most unsenatorial shade of pink, when thousands of Japanese cherry blossoms erupt into bloom. And for the following two weeks, the capital almost becomes a different town -- where even the most ashen, world-weary legislator gets a blush in his cheeks while walking under the arcade of cotton candy-like trees along the Tidal Basin.
Running from March 26 to April 10, the National Cherry Blossom Festival (tel. 202/661-7584; www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org) commemorates the trees' arrival in the capital, in 1912, as a gift of friendship from the Japan. On March 27, 1912, then-First Lady Helen Taft and the Viscontess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two specimens -- Yoshino cherry trees -- on the northern bank of the basin. Some 3,000 more, of 12 specimens, followed, yielding both pink and white blossoms. Now the city has about 3,700, in East Potomac Park and on the Washington Monument grounds, as well as the Tidal Basin - the most abundantly planted.
Today, the cherry blossom festival is a different animal than the simple, sparsely attended event it celebrates. The April 2 kite festival on the National Mall and the April 9 parade and Sakura Matsuri Japanese street festival -- with sumo wrestling, martial arts, and taiko drumming demonstrations -- are expected to draw about 100,000 visitors.
It's a very bustling time to visit Washington, D.C., so you'll have to dig for bargains, but fantastiwww.orbitz.comcally low airfares will give you a good running start. Through Orbitz (tel. 888/656-4546; www.orbitz.com), New York La Guardia to Washington was $124 round-trip, on American and Delta, for travel from Thursday March 31 through Tuesday April 5. For the same dates from Chicago, it's $175 nonstop on United. From Los Angeles it's $217 on Alaska Air.
The cheapest hotel stays are to be found on the outskirts of D.C., in the nearby suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, which can be minutes from downtown. For the same set of sample dates, we found the least expensive room on Hotwire (tel. 866/468-9473; www.hotwire.com): $53 a night at a three-star hotel, with pool and fitness center, in Rockville/Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Hotwire, like Priceline, won't disclose the hotel name and street until you buy, so you venture a bit of risk for a deal. What you can do is specify vicinity, so research beforehand which neighborhoods are safe and most desirable. The same is true for Priceline (tel. 800/774-2354; www.priceline.com) where we scored a handsome, sunny, four-star room at the Capital Hilton downtown for $75 a night during the 2004 Cherry Blossom Festival.
Hotwire also seems to have the best package deals: For the same time period, airfare and five nights at the three-star Holiday Inn in Gaithersburg, Maryland, are $247. At the four-star Omni Shoreham it's still just $511 a person. On package deals, Hotwire discloses hotels but withholds flight time and airline until after you make your purchase.
For the same dates of travel, Expedia (tel. 800/397-3342; www.expedia.com) is showing more than a dozen budget hotels for less than $85 a night. Most are in the outlying suburbs of Maryland and Virginia.
Remember too that Washington, once you're there, is less expensive than New York or Los Angeles. And the city's splendorous wealth of museums are free -- requisite stops on any visit here. For other information about the capital, contact the Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation (tel. 202/789-7000; www.washington.org). To order a D.C. Visitor's Guide, call tel. 800/422-8644.
See the festival Web site for a complete listing of festival events, dates, times, and other details.
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