flocking toward flowers

By Glenda Winders  //  Photography submitted

Fantastic trips stem from these festivities

“The earth laughs in flowers,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. And if he was right, Mother Nature must surely be chuckling about now. From coast to coast and north to south, colorful buds are bursting into blossoms, and local residents are heralding the arrival of spring with festivals and other celebrations.

Cheering for cherry blossoms

Perhaps the most famous is Washington, D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Festival, this year March 20 to April 12. What isn’t so well-known is how the annual event began. It started in 1912 when the mayor of Tokyo gave the United States 3,000 of the trees as a token of friendship. The Japanese ambassador’s wife and first lady Helen Herron Taft planted the first two on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. In 1915, the United States reciprocated with 50 dogwood trees, and in 1927 schoolchildren began doing re-enactments of the original planting. Civic groups built on this ritual and expanded it to an official festival in 1935. The friendly exchange came full circle in 1981 when many of Japan’s cherry trees were damaged in a flood, and the U.S. government was able to send clippings from the original trees back to Japanese horticulturalists so that they could be planted there again.

Most first ladies have taken an interest in the festival, recently with Laura Bush’s 2001 opening ceremony remarks and Michelle Obama planting a tree in 2012. Today the festival is four weeks long and includes events such as a Blossom Kite Festival, a parade and a Pink Tie Party. Another highlight is “Petalpalooza,” which brings the Capitol Riverfront to life with live music, a beer garden, interactive art installations and fireworks. The Smithsonian American Art Museum hosts its own celebration with Japanese entertainment and interactive art workshops. Pennsylvania Avenue will be closed between Third and Seventh streets for the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival.

“The National Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the world’s greatest celebrations of spring,” says Nora Strumpf, the festival’s communications and media manager. “There truly is something for everyone to enjoy during the festival’s four weeks.”

Hilton is the official hotel partner for the festival, so if you stay at one of its hotels you’ll receive special cherry treats. The Capitol Hilton will offer a Cherry Blossom Happy Hour that includes flights of Japanese whisky and cherry-themed cocktails and appetizers. At the Embassy Suites guests will receive a cherry-themed tote and umbrella, and a “Petal Pass” will entitle them to special events. A Days Inn and Fairfield by Marriott are also located near the action.

Restaurants taking part in the festivities will be KAZ Sushi Bistro, City Winery, Kellari Taverna, the Occidental, Wildfire and Mirabelle. Another possibility is Ana at District Winery in Yards Park, where Petalpalooza will be held.

Traveling for tulips

Meanwhile in Holland, Michigan, it’s time for the annual Tulip Time Festival. With its signature Big Red Lighthouse and the DeZwaan Windmill — where you can still buy the flour it produces — this Dutch settlement on the shores of Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan is a fun place to go at any time of year, but spring is truly special. That’s when the 4.5 million tulips planted through downtown parks and local attractions will bloom and bring with them special events that will run between May 2 and 10 this year.

“Be sure to tour the city with a Dutch-costumed guide on a trolley and learn about the history of the community as well as the Holland of today,” says Tulip Time Festival Executive Director Gwen Auwerda. “And while you’re here, you can visit artisan markets, watch parades, see great local and national entertainment and visit the quaint downtown.”

And that’s just the beginning. Watch a Dutch Dance Exhibit and take a Lindy Lou Cruise on Lake Macatawa or tour dockside tall ships. Then look for 20 pairs of Dutch shoes decorated by professional and amateur artists during a stroll through Klompen Gardens, see the Tulip Time Quilt Show and view the results of the Festival Artwork Competition. Gladys Knight will be performing “Midnight Train to Georgia” and many other of her hits, and Elton Rohn’s performance will pay tribute to Elton John. The Windmill Chorus will perform “All That Jazz.”

If you really want to immerse yourself in the activities, take part in the Tulip Time Run, join a flower-arranging class or roll out your mat for Yoga in the Tulips. Then enjoy a meal and craft beers at a Dutch Comfort and Craft dinner.

Most hotels here are locally owned chains. Two of the best places to stay for festival-goers are Courtyard Marriott and City Flats, both located within walking distance of most activities and events.
Start your evening with tasting beer and spirits at New Holland Brewing, where you can also dine on local favorites such as Dragon Fire Chicken and a Michigan Hot Brown. For more beer and burgers as well as intriguing vegetarian options, head to Big Lake Brewing. Want to splurge? Check out the high-end American fare at Seventy-Six or the European cuisine of Alpenrose.

Wild for wildflowers

In the Texas Hill Country, they’re watching for wildflowers.

“When the right amount of rainfall is provided by Mother Nature in the fall and winter to germinate the seeds, springtime in the Texas Hill Country offers a glorious palette of colors across fields and along the roadsides,” says Ernie Loeffler, president and CEO of the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The wildflower season here typically starts mid- to late March and continues through the end of May. The famous Texas bluebonnets tend to be among the earliest wildflowers to bloom.”

Loeffler says one not-to-be missed location is 200-acre Wildseed Farms, the world’s largest working wildflower farm, where visitors can tour fields of wildflowers in various stages of production and then purchase seed mixes that will grow in their area. The farm’s special Wildflower Celebration will be held April 4 to 19.

Another spot he suggests is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center near Austin. Founded by the first lady and actress Helen Hayes, the center is a part of the University of Texas and is complementary to the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. Considered to be the botanic garden of Texas, its mission is to inspire the conservation of native plants. Here you’ll find more than 900 native Texas plants in a landscape created from locally harvested stones and a 68,500-gallon system for collecting rainwater.

“We are concerned for all of North America’s native plants, from the smallest sprout to the tallest tree,” Johnson once said, and that concern also extends to what the center calls “the vast web of life,” which includes animals, birds and insects.

Another event that celebrates local flora is the Wine and Wildflower Journey between March 27 and April 12, where you’ll sip local wines as you take in the blossoms. With more than 50 wineries in the area, you’ll find plenty to try.

Fredericksburg has many hotels at every price point, but one place that is especially fun is the Hangar Hotel — literally a hangar at the airport that is decorated with aviation memorabilia. The Fredericksburg Herb Farm wraps history with comfortable lodging. Here the rooms are “Sunday haus” replicas of cottages built by German farmers for when they came into town for church.
While you’re at Wildseed Farms, stop in at the Brewbonnet Biergarten for a lunch of fresh sandwiches and peach ice cream as well as beer and wine. Or sample German heritage at the Auslander, Der Lindenbaum or Otto’s German Bistro. If auf Deutsch isn’t your thing, try the Tex-Mex cuisine at either Mamacita’s Restaurant or Hilda’s Tortillas.

Just deserts

Flowers bloom year-round in southern California, but in the spring the deserts come to life with bright colors and unusual blossoms not seen anywhere else or at any other time of year. There are no festivals connected with this event because the season depends on rainfall and temperatures and can’t be accurately predicted, but if you come at the right time — typically during February and March — you are in for an unforgettable treat.

“In years when we have a good wildflower bloom, visitors can see the desert floor carpeted in color,” says Dennis Stephen, interpretive specialist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego. “Some of the wildflowers may include sand verbena, lupine and desert sunflowers.”

The park completely surrounds Borrego Springs, which, for a town of 2,400 permanent residents, has a wide choice of places to stay. Most smaller, less-expensive hotels have a mid-century vibe. Among these are Hacienda del Sol, The Oasis and Borrego Valley Inn. Resorts include La Casa del Zorro, Palm Canyon Hotel and the Palms at Indian Head. If you’re traveling in an RV, be sure to stop at Desert Sands Vintage RV Park. Enjoy their pool, Jacuzzi and laundry facilities, or try “glamping” in one of the vintage trailers they have fitted out for this experience.

Food choices are also surprising here. Locals say the best place for breakfast is Kendal’s, and they recommend the huevos rancheros or eggs Benedict. Pablito’s and Carmaletia’s offer good Mexican food, and for a hip, modern vibe try the ahi tuna salad at Red Ocatillo in the Palm Canyon Hotel. Finish your day with an adult beverage at the Fox Den Bar. It’s quiet and cozy and perfectly captures the essence of the desert experience.