THE NATIONAL CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL, WASHINGTON D.C., April 10-15, 2018
(All photos are by the author. Click on them to enlarge and read the captions).
Washington DC is always a delight for travelers, but so much more so during the annual cherry-blossom festival. The problem is knowing when to book your hotel and flight, less of a problem if you live within driving distance. I booked for the five days ending with the parade on April 14, figuring that date must be near the peak of the blossoms. I learned from locals that the trees usually flower by the last week in March, and I might have missed the peak except for the last two Nor’easters of the winter whose chill slowed down the flowering. The blossoms actually peaked the weekend of April 7, and the trees were still sensational when I arrived April 10. After a few windy days, the trees were starting to look bare when I flew out April 15. I would have been sadly disappointed to have arrived to find the color so diminished. It is so hard to predict when to book your trip but the festival has a website you can google with weather and blossom predictions.
Had I missed the peak of the blossoms, I could have been consoled by the wealth of magnificent museums and monuments the capital offers. The Smithsonian Institution alone comprises 17 museums and the national zoo, all free to the public. You can start your planning here: https://washington.org/smithsonian-institution-museums. With so many free venues the capital is a great place for an economical family vacation. And the festival often coincides with spring break at many schools. Of course, the city is at its tourist peak then also, with crowds to contend with at many places.
Tues. April 10: I flew AeroMexico nonstop from Mexico City, arriving at Dulles (IAD) by 2:30 pm. I had booked a car transfer for $75 plus tip, I could not find the driver and the company phone was on voice mail for over half an hour. The driver was waiting at the drop-off doors upstairs instead of the pick-up doors downstairs in order to avoid paying to park. I lost about 40 minutes and wished I had picked a company that offers a driver waiting for you with a name sign. But I was at my hotel, the Hyatt Place “on the mall” at 4th and E Street SW. I had chosen it for location but it was not really on the mall, and the nearest museum was a twenty-minute walk. There is a metro stop nearby. A hot breakfast and free internet are included, as well as a large gym one doesn’t use after walking ten miles a day. The roof-top bar and the pool were not yet open for the season. In restrospect I would have preferred a hotel downtown where there are numerous shops and restaurants not much further from the mall on the northwest side.
There was no time for much sight-seeing by the time I got settled, but I did have a great dinner. Washington is famous for its steakhouses and I chose Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse for its location with a view of the Capitol. It holds a large capacity, and on a weekday night with Congress not in session, I was able to get a table without a reservation. I celebrated my arrival with a luxurious, delicious, expensive dinner with a great window-view of the illuminated capitol.
Wed. April 11: My hours of research taught me that the currently most popular site, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, required a timed ticket booked online and that many dates were sold out. But starting in April, admission on Wednesday is open without a ticket though ticket-holders have a priority line. I got to to the museum on Wednesday morning at 9:30 am, a half hour before opening. There was already a sizable line for those with tickets, but the line for those without tickets was just forming with only about 30 people ahead of me. By opening time, that line stretched for a hundred yards and was still growing longer. I have no idea if those at the end of the line got in or how long they had to wait. Once the doors opened, those with tickets moved quickly inside since one only has to pass through the metal-screening equipment. On an overcast morning with temperatures about 45 degrees my leather jacket was just barely enough to ward off the cold, and I was grateful to get inside by 10:15.
I was overwhelmed with the quantity and quality of the exhibits. As a beginning history professor at the College of Brockport (SUNY) in the late 60s, I taught an elective called “ Issues in American History” in which I devoted a third of the course to the struggle for civil rights. I wish I had been able to access the superb videos the museum offers, showing the leaders of movement, excerpts from Martin Luther King’s speeches, and tragic events like the violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Emmet Till murder. Some generous philanthropist needs to finance copying the videos and making them available free to the nation’s schools.
There are rooms and displays dedicated to African-American sports heroes (Joe Lewis, Muhammed Ali, the Williams sisters, et al.), entertainment stars and celebrities (Marion Anderson, Lena Horne, Oprah Winfrey, et al.), “ Musical Crossroads (Chuck Berry, Sammy Davis Jr., et al), and so much more. One can get a better idea of the 3500 artifacts on display online at https://nmaahc.si.edu. Click on ” Explore the collection. The museum was too crowded to get good photos of displays without lots of people in them.
The cafeteria, Sweet Home Café, provides numerous choices like barbecue, butter-milk fried chicken, grits, and the like. It’s not a place to meet friends for a quiet lunch given the crowds that have made the museum so popular, but prices are reasonable and shared seating in plentiful, so it’s a good place to rest before returning to other displays or moving on to another site. I spent more time here than in any other museum, but the sun was coming out and I wanted to see the blossoms.
The towering Washington Monument, currently closed to the public, sits adjacent to the museum so I shot some photos before walking about half a mile to the Tidal Basin where the trees are most prolific. Enroute, I walked past the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I have seen the holocaust museum in Warsaw and visited Auschwitz and I find the displays so depressing. In Auschwitz the pile of hundreds if not thousands of toddlers’ shoes crushed my spirit so I decided to skip this one.
The annual cherry blossom festival commemorates the gift by the mayor of Tokyo of 3000 cherry trees to the city of Washington, and reaffirms the friendship and warm ties between the two countries. Many Japanese-Americans visit the capital during the festival, and Japanese schools and cultural associations send representatives. By early afternoon, hundreds of visitors crowded the tidal basin making it difficult to take photos of the trees unobstructed by people. One can see trees on the opposite shore of the basin as well as along side the majestic Jefferson Memorial, my favorite.
From there I moved on to the World War II monument, with East and West towers for the Atlantic and Pacific crusades, graced in the center by a huge pool with its spraying fountains. One can see the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol building from the site.
By now, after more than five hours on my feet, I walked zombie-like to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It’s hard not to choke up viewing the long, black-granite wall inscribed with the names of 58,286 service members who died in that war or went missing in action. Facing the wall is a life-size statue of three servicemen of different ethnicities and another of three uniformed women. It was not surprising to see one man walking away bawling.
After all this, I took a taxi back to my hotel, collapsed in bed for almost an hour, then roused myself for dinner. I had been in contact with one of my former tour clients (After retirement from the college I led 150 tour groups to 20 different destinations) and I have kept in touch with many clients who became friends. Nancy Eddy served in diplomatic posts for the U.S. government for many years along with her recently deceased diplomat husband Jake. She emailed me the night before that a long-time friend of hers who had also taken my tour of Mexico’s colonial cities, was in town for book signings and interviews. Grace Kennan Warnecke just published Daughter of the Cold War, (U Pittsburgh Press), a memoir of her life as daughter of George F. Kennan, regarded as the most important diplomat of the 20th century, who contributed to designing the U.S. policy of Soviet containment in the cold war, and had served as ambassador to the Soviet Union as well as holding many other government and academic posts and authoring 21 books, several prize-winners. The cold war was another subject included in my classes on American history. I read my inscribed copy of the book on my flight back to Mexico and finished it the next evening in two marathon reads. I couldn’t put it down, thrilled to learn more of Grace’s life and her own significant accomplishments despite the many obstacles to women’s careers even for the daughter of a famous official. Grace is now chairman of the board of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. We dined at a Turkish restaurant in Georgetown. Nancy and Jake had been posted for two years in Istanbul, and I was delighted at the introduction to Turkish food as we enjoyed getting reacquainted.
Thursday April 12: I was up by 7:15 am since the Hyatt warned there would be lines at breakfast later. A hot breakfast and internet were both free in the hotel. The museums don’t open until 10 am so I had more time to upload photos and post them on Facebook. My first stop was the National Museum of the American Indian. The building is as attractive as the reviews claim, and I was delighted that the collection includes some artifacts from Mexican and South American cultures, but I was disappointed with the displays overall. Perhaps it was because I compared it to the more spectacular collection of the African American museum the day before. I did not spend as much time here as I might have but I did have lunch in the cafeteria where choices included buffalo burgers and tacos, for example.
The museum is on Maryland Avenue, and the map showed the National Botanical Garden within walking distance on the same street. I found it less than a mile away, adjacent to the Capitol Building. The outdoor garden showed the signs of a longer than usual winter with only a few trees in blossom. There were colorful tulip beds at the entrance to the conservatory. Inside the glass-covered building I found a riot of color with hundreds of orchids in bloom. There were many varieties but the showy Phalaenopsis predominated and I enjoyed how magnificently they were displayed. Many of the other tropical plants grow in my garden in Mexico. There are comfortable benches throughout the conservatory where one can rest and rehydrate. The lively, colorful blooms are a delightful change of pace after so many museum displays.
I have been in the Capitol Building and had no desire to return, so I retraced my steps back Maryland Avenue past the American Indian museum to the Hirshhorn Gallery and Sculpture Garden, both disappointments to me. The contemporary art exhibits called out for someone to jury the selections, and only a few sculptures grabbed my attention. Since I had scheduled a night tour of the monuments, I returned to the hotel early to rest and post photos.
I had booked only one tour online, a night tour on Viator.com, now affiliated with Trip Advisor. Viator is omnipresent in tourist areas in the U.S., Europe, and beyond, though they work with local companies. While booking is supposed to be confirmed quickly I waited three days with no response, then e-mailed the company, finally getting a confirmation before I arrived in the capital. The downside of booking ,with Viator is that I have been getting hundreds of pop-ups when I am online, day after day for more than a week, and even now several days after the trip ended. The delay in confirmation was probably due to the tour being over-sold. The company farmed me out to another local tour operator (confirmed by local phone call) whose driver arrived as promised at 6:45 with only three other clients booked for the 11-passenger van. Two people cancelled late and we waited at a hotel downtown for a half hour and the third client never showed. I was impatient with the delay, but I ended up with a private tour and I could decide how much time I wanted at each site. We toured the downtown area, Capitol Hill, the major monuments, and even drove past the Iwo Jima monument in Virginia. I had seen that up close on a previous trip and declined a photo-stop. I got to see most of the sites I had visited in daylight, including those like the World War II monument that are even more spectacular at night. I had missed the Martin Luther King monument, more inspiring than photos I had seen, and the beautiful Korean War Veterans Memorial. I had plenty of time at my favorite monument at night, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial is always stunning, day and night, but more majestic illuminated. The driver asked me if I wanted to see any other sites but I declined and he dropped me at my hotel just after 10 pm, where I quickly poured a drink (my room was directly across the hall from the ice machine) and began tagging photos to share.
Friday, April 13: After another early breakfast, I started the morning at the National Gallery of Art where I was enthralled on my first trip over 40 years ago. The neoclassic style west wing (1937) houses European and American masters from the middle ages to the present. In the 1970s, a spectacular east wing for modern art opened, designed by I. M. Pei. The collections include over 141 thousand pieces, and one cannot even begin to read the title plates on every painting and get out in one day. One has to make choices. I started at the special exhibit of Cezanne portraits, mostly of homely men, then moved quickly to the impressionists. I enjoyed new-to-me works by Italian Renaissance artists whose masterpieces I had seen in Florence, Rome, and Venice, and Spanish masters at the Prado in Madrid. The Dutch and Flemish masters are not my favorites, monotonous works of men dressed in black with white lace collars, so many of which I had seen in Amsterdam. I was really impressed with pieces I had missed 40 years ago, especially the early-American furniture and decorative arts.
Despite skipping some salons, I had still spent nearly three hours in the west wing before before passing through the wonderful gift shop to the underground corridor to the east wing. I admired the magnificent Pei architecture with its soaring entry hall featuring the largest-ever Calder mobile. I do like Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, Warhol and the other modern artists, but I was too tired to spend the amount of time this wing required to do it justice.
Saturated after four hours, I decided to do the shopping I had intended to do for things I couldn’t find in Mexico, so I took a cab downtown to Macy’s and CVS. I knew a highly-touted restaurant was nearby so I planned on a large, late lunch with a light supper later at the hotel. I left Macy’s empty-handed but did stock up on vitamins and toiletries at CVS, buying brands scarce in Mexico. It was a short walk to Old Ebbett’s Grill. I thought that after 2 pm the lunch crowd would have thinned, but even those with reservations were lined up in the crowded entryway. I was able to grab a stool in the crowded bar where the barman said things never slowed down during tourist season. I nursed a cold draught beer while waiting for a small portion of oyster gumbo, and later two huge, delicious crab cakes, loaded with chunks of crab, unlike the crab-flavored bread crumbs one gets up north. But the crowd and noise did not make for a fine-dining experience. Despite the fine menu I can’t recommend the restaurant except at odd hours or in the off-season.
The lunch did afford me time to rest and rehydrate, so I had enough energy afterward to pay a brief visit to the nearby National Portrait Gallery, also Smithsonian. I had no intention of a making a thorough visit and concentrated on the American presidential portraits and famous American celebrities, so I got to see the recently added portraits of Barak and Michelle Obama, in separate salons.
Exhausted after the long day, I headed back to the hotel for a long siesta, then a session online posting photos which I can now upload from my camera to my picture archive and post in Facebook quite quickly. If I wait until I get home, I sometimes confuse which photo was taken where. After this rest, I was ready to do some carousing, but I am not a night owl and was back at the hotel before midnight.
Sat. April 14: After breakfast and a check of mail and headlines online, I took a cab to Constitution Avenue, the site of the annual cherry-blossom parade, scheduled to begin at 10 am near the National Museum of Art. I had not purchased a grandstand seat online not knowing in advance what the weather would be like. No way I would sit through rain for parade, and I wasn’t sure in advance I wanted to attend. So I had to join the thousands standing on the sidewalk on both sides of the street for the one-mile parade route. I was lucky to squeeze into the third row of six or seven, and move up to the front as more and more people left before the end of the two-hour parade. I hadn’t seen a parade in years and it was fun to listen to the many high school bands and see the colorful floats. I find it easier to walk than stand on my flat feet, but I lasted until about 20 minutes before the end of the parade when I walked into the nearby sculpture garden to sit awhile.
When the parade ended, thousands of people scattered in many directions, including forming lines at the museums that line Constitution Avenue. Many probably had the same idea I did, the surety of a clean restroom. I had visited the National Museum of American History years ago but, as a historian, I felt obligated to go back, assuming there would be displays added over the years. The line to get into the museum was about 75 yards long, but I pleaded age and urgency with the guard at the door and she kindly took me in. The museum is showing its age and lacks the sparkle of the newer Smithsonian buildings. I only visited three exhibit sections, starting with the various wars with exhibits of arms and uniforms, and excellent videos. Then I moved on to the section on American presidents, and the exhibits on the first ladies including their inaugural ball gowns. I was shocked at how dowdy some of the gowns are, perhaps because the event takes place in winter. There were so many people in front of every display I didn’t take any photos, but one can view some of the displays online.
After 90 minutes in the museum, I decided to have lunch there in the crowded cafeteria. The food was mediocre, but it was late and the museum zone does not feature private restaurants. I still had some energy after resting at lunch, so I decided to visit the new area of the city called the wharf. I had seen mention of it online and it was a sunny balmy day, so a riverfront port sounded inviting.
The Wharf is still growing, adding restaurants and other venues. I would have liked to dine there but there were lines at all the restaurants and fast-food venues. I did try to reserve a spot for dinner later in the evening but there was no opening until 10 pm, too late for me. I wasn’t surprised given that the parade date is probably the busiest of all days in the city calendar. I did enjoy a small Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cone for $6.40 and relaxed on the wharf watching boats go by and people watching. There was a huge line for the water taxi based there, another sign that one is best to visit this site on a weekday or off-season. Check it out here: https://www.wharfdc.com.
The wharf is in the southwest section of the capital, not far from my Hyatt Place hotel, where I retreated for a siesta and more photo posting. I imagined I would have a hard time as a single getting into any of the well-known capital restaurants. The hotel recommends Station 4, about a half mile away on 4th street. I got there early, before 7 pm, and the captain was turning away groups but had a seat for me at a tight table amid a row of tables for two. The restaurant was really packed and very noisy, but I was grateful for a seat despite the slow service, and I enjoyed three seafood appetizers instead of a main course. Again, I would recommend dining here on a weekday night. After dinner it was still early enough to post photos and relax with a good book. I saved packing for the morning.
Sun. April 15: Yesterday’s balmy, breezy 80-degree weather turned sour overnight as a cold front brought in drizzle and a high in the 50s. I had plenty of time to pack and read the Sunday papers before my 12:45 pickup for Dulles airport. I had arranged with the driver of the night tour to drive me for a bit less than taxis charge, plus a tip. Leaving the city, I noticed the cherry trees had lost most of their blossoms and I would have been really disappointed had I arrived to find the trees looking dowdy. I had been so fortunate to select dates when I could see the spectacle at its peak. I hadn’t visited all of the Smithsonian museums, nor any of the interesting private museums, nor the zoo, but I had seen more than I had hoped for, and I will bask in the memories of the beautiful capital city, blossoming culturally and physically. It’s surely a city every American should visit more than once, and what better time than when the cherry trees bless the visitor with such color.