- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What tourists know: That the last week in March and the first in April is the time to descend upon Washington for the Cherry Blossom Festival. That the two weeks are packed with festivities, street performances, a parade and a kite festival — and that hotel rooms are packed.

What Washingtonians know: That traffic crawls on 14th Street or Independence Avenue near the Tidal Basin on a sunny “cherry blossom” weekend. That parking spots can’t be found at all downtown, much less near the parade route on Constitution Avenue. That there’s got to be a better way to see this rite of spring.

Thus this insider’s guide to the 2006 Cherry Blossom Festival, the 94th celebration of the gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the city of Tokyo to the people of Washington in 1912. The spring fling begins Saturday and runs through April 9.

This guide offers highlights of the official festivities, some insight into residents’ tricks for getting around traffic, and tips on alternative cherry blossom sites in the area.

Festival of bloom

Bracketing the Cherry Blossom Festival are two major and all-American events, the Smithsonian Kite Festival and the Cherry Blossom Parade.

As it does every year, the kite festival will kick off the 2006 cherry celebration on the Mall Saturday, with a Sunday rain date. This year’s kite party is the 40th, and it’s dubbed “Blowin’ in the Wind” in homage to the 1960s, the decade of its birth, and the Bob Dylan song that came to define that era. Entrants are asked to recreate those years in the sky.

The parade on April 8, the festival’s penultimate day, runs from 10 a.m. to noon down Constitution Avenue between Seventh and 17th streets Northwest. Pat Sajak, of TV’s “Wheel of Fortune,” will host the cavalcade, which will include performances by “American Idol” finalist Anthony Federov and Grammy-nominated singer Martha Wash.

Also on hand: 70 cherry blossom princesses — representing states, territories, and embassies — on floats, marching bands from across the country, giant cartoon balloons and high-stepping baton twirlers and majorettes.

Luckily for festival organizers, peak blossom time for the Yoshino cherries — the dominant species among the 12 that brighten the Tidal Basin and waterfront — will occur between Monday and April 1, according to Robert DeFeo, the National Park Service’s regional chief horticulturist. Mr. DeFeo bases his predictions upon the local weather patterns, the forecast, and development of the trees’ buds in early March.

That means that festival planners got it just right this year. The blossoms stay intact for a week or two, unless hit with a series of drenching rainstorms or high winds at peak bloom time.

Major festival events focus heavily on Japanese culture and family activities. On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., for instance, the National Building Museum and the festival present a free family frolic dedicated to Japanese art and design. The family day will include several paper-folding activities, including traditional origami, origami architecture and an origami city.

Family members will also get to try their hand at writing haiku at a haiku workshop, watch Japanese anime and try on kimonos and hopi coats.

Not to be missed on April 8 is the 45th annual Sakura Matsuri (“sakura” is Japanese for cherry tree), or Japanese street festival, produced by the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C.

The festival, running from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, highlights traditional and contemporary culture by focusing on performing arts, martial arts, Japanese cuisine and a Japanese marketplace.

For children and teenagers, the J-Pop music and Japanese “manga,” or comic books, are expected to be a big draw. Martial artists will demonstrate judo, karate and Aikido skills.

Blossoms by Metro

The traditional way to see the blossoms is to load family or friends into a car and head to the Tidal Basin.

Don’t make that mistake, especially on a weekend — unless you want the family on board to start clamoring for the Air and Space Museum instead. Expect the roads and all the approaches and parking lots near the Tidal Basin, the Washington Monument and West Potomac Park to fill up by 8:30 a.m.

The Metro is the saner transportation option upon which savvy locals rely. If you’re visiting the Tidal Basin, use the L’Enfant Plaza or Smithsonian Metro stops, get out near Independence Avenue or the Agriculture Department, and walk west on Independence Ave toward the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Holocaust Museum (the Tidal Basin is behind these two buildings).

If possible, take a morning or afternoon off work and use the Metro to visit the Tidal Basin or the Washington Monument grounds during the workweek, or try visiting on an overcast weekend day when the trees are blooming.

You’ll bump into out-of-towners around the Tidal Basin taking the inevitable photographs of family members posed against the flowering trees, but at least the crowds will have thinned out some.

Blossoms by bike

Even better: Use area bike paths, the Mall or the C&O Canal towpath

Rockville resident Bob Lalush, 49, says he likes to bicycle across the Potomac from Virginia to avoid automobile traffic, yet still get some quality blossom viewing in.

“The blossoms are really spectacular by the side of the river,” he says. Mr. Lalush says he drives his car, with the bike on a rack, to the National Park Service’s Theodore Roosevelt Island parking lot off George Washington Parkway, then cycles along the hiker-biker path there and over the Memorial Bridge toward the Jefferson Memorial.

If you follow Mr. Lalush’s lead, try to be parked with your bike at the Roosevelt Island lot by 9 a.m., as it is heavily used by joggers, birders and other bicyclists as a main access point to the jogger-biker path that runs from Rosslyn to the Pentagon and Mount Vernon bike trail.

Bicycling to the Tidal Basin is not a bad idea. Several inexpensive parking sites within a 2-to-3-mile bike ride of the basin make this option attractive.

One is the enormous harbor parking lot underneath the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and K Street Northwest. The C&O Canal towpath connects to a bike path paralleling the Potomac at the edge of this parking lot.

Or try any of the free Rock Creek Park parking areas on roads leading to Beach Drive near the National Zoo, such as the parking lots off Tilden Road. (Be mindful that the Park Service closes Beach Drive itself for bicyclists and strollers on weekends). The Rock Creek bike path runs along Rock Creek and then south along the Potomac to the monuments, if you follow it downstream.

You could also park a car with a bike somewhere on Capitol Hill near the Library of Congress or at the enormous Union Station parking garage (get lunch at one of the Union Station eateries on the way back and get your parking ticket stamped to defray part of the $10-per-day-plus parking garage costs), and then bicycle west on the Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument grounds. The monument grounds themselves feature a beautiful display of cherry trees only a half mile from the Tidal Basin.

Arboretum alternative

A desire to see the cherry blossoms in spring is a good excuse to visit the U.S. National Arboretum near the intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Northeast Washington.

The arboretum, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claims not only the 12 traditional cherry tree species on view downtown, but 76 varieties of flowering cherries and their close relatives.

It may be a little bit off the beaten path, but those who have experienced it go back often.

“It is well worth the trip during cherry blossom season and for a return visit” during other flowering seasons, says Hyattsville resident Winifred Cummings, 38.

Ms. Cummings says she likes to walk her dog there (the arboretum allows leashed dogs only), but the grounds are so huge, many people use their cars for self-guided driving tours through the different sections of the arboretum.

This year, the arboretum staff has put together a self-guided tour of the grounds that runs from Saturday to April 9, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The tour includes “breathtaking specimens of weeping cherries, plus acres of cherry tree research fields,” according to the arboretum’s Web site. The tour, which is described in brochures available at the arboretum’s visitor center, is free, with no registration required.

The suburban option: Kenwood

People who live in Bethesda and Chevy Chase have known for years that the Kenwood neighborhood, which lies between Little Falls Parkway and River Road in Bethesda, is a great place to view cherry blossoms at a leisurely pace.

Starting in late March, blossom-lovers park their cars along one of the side streets in Kenwood, where every lane is lined with dozens of white-flowering Yoshino cherry trees. Every time the wind blows in Kenwood, the lawns and streets fill with the falling blossoms, almost like a dusting of snow. Most people walk up and down the sidewalks or bike along the side streets to take in the effect.

Entrepreneurial youngsters who live in Kenwood have figured out that their neighborhood is a big draw in the spring, and many have set up lemonade stands to accommodate the thirst of strolling blossom-watchers.

The neighborhood is a big draw to the international set, who like to spread blankets or picnic cloths on the grass median strips between Kenwood’s streets and eat light picnic lunches.

The suburban option: Public gardens

For a romantic view of the blossoms, says Rockville resident Terence McArdle, 45, he takes dates for a walk among the weeping cherries and flowering plum trees at Brookside Gardens, adjacent to Wheaton Regional Park in Glenmont.

The outdoor formal gardens feature flowered-covered walkways, a pond, a Japanese garden and several partially hidden benches and pergolas favored by couples in love in springtime. Brookside Gardens and the nearby Wheaton Regional Park are open from sunrise to sunset.

Virginia residents do their cherry blossom viewing at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna. The gardens, a favorite spot for weddings, include three lakes surrounded by Yoshino, pink Akebono, and the double-flowered Kwanzan trees, according to information on Meadowlark’s Web site.

Unlike Brookside, Meadowlark charges an entry fee of $4, and is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in March (open until 6:30 p.m. in April).

Getting in on cherry festival action

Do you like kimonos, sushi and sake, martial arts displays and other symbols of Japanese culture? Washington has it all during the Cherry Blossom Festival. Here are highlights, many happening this weekend. For complete details call 202/661-7580 or see the Web site at www.nationalcherry blossomfestival.org.

• Beyond the Tidal Basin: Introducing Other Great Flowering Cherry Trees: U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave. NE. Learn about the region’s best flowering cherries through the arboretum’s self-guided tour. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. March 25-April 9. 202/245-4523 or www.usna.usda.gov.

• Blossoms by Bike: Meet at “Bike the Sites” kiosk, Old Post Office rear plaza, Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street Northwest. Explore beyond the Tidal Basin with a cherry blossom bike tour. 3 p.m.-5 p.m. daily during the festival. Additional weekend tours from 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 12:30-2:30 p.m. daily. 202/842-2553 or bikethesites.com.

• Cherry Blossoms from the River Tours: Washington Marina, 1300 Maine Ave., SW. View 500 cherry blossoms from the water by chartered yacht. Tours depart every two hours 9 a.m.-9 p.m. April 1-2. 202/554-0677 or www.capitalyacht.com

• The 40th Annual Smithsonian Kite Festival — “Blowin’ in the Wind”: Grounds of the Washington Monument, on the Mall. Handmade kite competition, rokkaku kite battle, “Hot Tricks” competition. Awards in more than 36 categories. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 25 (rain date March 26). 202/357-3030 or kitefestival.org.

• From Geisha to Diva: The Kimonos of Ichimaru: National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall, 1145 17th St. NW. This exhibition tells the story of Ichimaru, a geisha and recording artist of the early 20th century. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sunday through April 23. 202/857-5828 or nationalgeographic.com/museum.

• Hiroshi Sugimoto: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest. A 30-year retrospective of the career of one of Japan’s most important contemporary artists, organized with the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, features 120 photographs, most of them black and white. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily through May 14. 202/633-1000 or hirshhorn.si.edu.

• Mikio Naruse Film Festival: At the Freer Gallery of Art Meyer Auditorium, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; the National Gallery of Art East Building Auditorium, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue Northwest; and the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. A 30-film retrospective of the work of one of Japan’s most acclaimed filmmakers. Through April 9. For film times and locations call 202/633-4880 or see www.asia.si.edu.

• National Cherry Blossom Festival Family Day: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Daylong event with hands-on, family friendly activities, followed by ceremonial program with remarks by Washington dignitaries. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. March 25. 202/661-7584 or nbm.org.

• The NOVA Cherry Blossom Go Tournament: Charles Sumner School, 1201 17th St. NW. A Go/Baduk/Wei Chi tournament sponsored by the Northern Virginia Go Club and featuring the premier board game, demanding intuition and analysis. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. March 25. 703/684-7676 or novagoclub.org/tournaments.htm.

• Sushi and Sake Celebration: Landmark Restaurant, Melrose Hotel, 2430 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. Gala built around traditional Japanese food and drink. 4-7 p.m. March 25. 202/955-3863 or melrosehoteldc.com.

• Tidal Basin Stage Cultural Performances: Steps of the Jefferson Memorial, south bank of the Tidal Basin. Performances featuring music, dance and martial arts demonstrations. Noon, March 25-April 9. 202/661-7584.

Identifying the cherry trees

Yoshino cherry: single, white flowers

Kwanzan cherry: double, white flowers

Akebono cherry: single, pale pink flowers

Takesimensis cherry: single or double, white flowers

Usuzumi cherry: single white-gray flowers

Weeping Japanese cherry: single or double, white to dark pink flowers

Autumn-flowering cherry: single or double, white to dark pink flowers

Sargent cherry: single, deep pink flowers

Fugenzo cherry: double, rose-pink flowers

Afterglow cherry: single, pink flowers

Shirofugen cherry: double, white flowers

Okame cherry: single or double, pink flowers

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