A Cherry Blossom Weekend in Washington, D.C.
The Seat of Power is also the Seat of Beauty

by Anna Collins


I
had heard of them, but had never seen them in person: the cherry blossoms, the pride and joy of Washington, D.C.. Their magnificence and beauty draws visitors from all over the world. Similarly, I had never been to The White House, visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum. Not to mention the Lincoln Memorial, the Ford Theatre and many other national archives and treasures. So the trip to D.C. was planned.

For a different mode of transportation my traveling companion Barbara and I, decided to take the Amtrak train. It turned out to be a wonderful idea. We left at 9:00 a.m. from Penn Station, NY, and took the three-hour Metroliner to Union Station in D.C. The train was fast, fun, had a great snack car and best of all we didn't hit any traffic along the way. Fare from New York was $229 round trip. And the snack bar stays open practically the whole trip! Check the website for the Amtrak train nearest you. (Arriving in Washington in Union Station is a wonderful experience. The station is a beautifully restored 1908 Beaux Arts train depot that houses 125 shops, 7 restaurants, a food court and a 9-screen cinema. Being in this grandiose building is an adventure in itself.)

Springtime in Washington, D.C. is a particularly beautiful and inspiring site because that's when the cherry blossoms make their yearly debut. The Tidal Basin becomes surrounded by a compelling strand of pale pink, stretching past the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, continuing along the Potomac River to Haines Point and finally laying a magnificent foreground to the Washington Monument. The Cherry Blossoms are celebrated with all kinds of festivities and special events including a parade and even a cruise along the Potomac River. It's hard to pinpoint the exact time they will bloom however, because of weather conditions and temperature, but the official National Cherry Blossom Festival time is from March 25 - April 8. Records for the past 50 years show the earliest date the cherry blossoms bloom is March 20th and the latest, April 15th, but the average date is April 5th. When Barbara and I had arrived, it was the end of March and although there were some cherry blossoms out, they were not all yet in full bloom. But we did get to see some of them.

History of the Cherry Blossoms

The name Cherry Blossom Festival has been around since 1935, and in recent years crowds of visitors as big as half a million have crowded into the city to see the parade, watch the floats and take place in the festivities that include concerts, fashion shows and balls. The celebration opens every year with the lighting of a stone lantern; a carved stone column at the Tidal Basin. This column was a gift from Japan in 1954 to commemorate the centennial of the first treaty with the U.S. that was made by Commodore Matthew Perry.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The cherry blossoms were a gift from Japan to the U.S.. In 1909 when William Howard Taft was President, his wife Helen had seen groves of flowering cherries in Japan. She asked park authorities to purchase the trees, but shortly thereafter the then mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, sent word he was shipping 2,000 of the trees as a gift to the city and Mrs. Taft. Unfortunately, the trees were found to be infested with insects and harbored disease. Sadly, all the trees had to be burned. However, Mayor Ozaki graciously instructed a group of scientists to find healthy trees to resend to the nation's capital. Great care was taken to graft, grow and fumigate this new stock. Within a few years all the newly sent trees were thriving. In 1965, the Japanese government once again bestowed another gift of 3,800 trees, many of which are planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

In a twist of fate, during W.W.II, the once healthy and thriving cherry grove along the Arakawa River in Japan that supplied the first trees for Washington, began to have growing difficulties and was in danger of dying out. In 1952, the National Park Service shipped Japan budwood from the descendants of those very trees back to Japan to try to preserve the original site. In 1982, another 800 cuttings were sent to Japan. The spirit of friendship between the two countries still continues to this day.

Where to Stay

Before I tell you about the other great sites in Washington, let's talk about where to stay. Admittedly, the city has many fine hotels and I feel we stayed at one of the finest; The Crowne Plaza Hotel.

Originally the Hamilton Hotel, this magnificent piece of architecture was designed by Parisian architect Jules Henri de Sibour in 1922. The minute you enter the hotel you find yourself in the middle of a beautiful vaulted lobby; the original ceiling from the 20's has been restored to the elegance and charm befitting this fine hotel. In fact, 45 million dollars has recently been spent on renovating this historic landmark, offering guests old world charm coupled with modern conveniences and the latest technology. Everybody, and I mean everybody at this hotel was more than happy to be of service. It's a pleasure when you stay at a place where the staff is not only friendly, but knowledgeable. The head concierge, Rebecca Mayhew helped us plan our tour of the city, suggested many good restaurants and even offered to book our reservations for us (and she didn't bat an eye when we changed our mind three times about restaurants!)

 

The hotel has 318 guest rooms, with 17 king corner suites. Many rooms offer a view of Franklin Park and the Washington, D.C. skyline. The Franklin Exchange Restaurant and Lounge is a great place to have a casual drink or enjoy a relaxing, delicious meal. Tracy, our bartender at the Franklin Exchange Lounge told us: "Washington has been growing phenomenally in the last two years. It's just unbelievable!"

 

Many of the people coming to visit this growing city have "discovered" the Crowne Plaza. It has all you need for business and pleasure; a great restaurant, conference facilities, cable in every suite, telephones with data ports and most important—coffee makers! There's a also a state-of-the-art fitness center so you can keep your girlish/boysih figure—but remember, you actually have to use it, to get the benefits.

The Crowne Plaza itself has been in operation for five years and is fast making a name as one of Washington's most popular hotels. Because of its central location at Franklin Square on the K Street business corridor, the hotel is within easy access to many attractions.

For those of you who plan to visit Washington in the summer, the Crowne Plaza is offering a special "Summer Countdown" filled with perks for groups booking 10- 25 rooms or more for July or August. For more info contact: The Crowne Plaza Hotel, 14th and K Streets, NW, Washington D.C. 20005. Tel: (202) 682-0111 or take a virtual tour at www.CrownePlazaWashington.com..

Other Great Washingtonian Sites and Places of Interest

Day 1, Friday

On our first day, after settling into our hotel, we decided to visit the Holocaust Museum. The museum is a must for anyone interested in not only history, but humankind. The museum serves as a national institution for the documentation of Holocaust history and the millions of people who were murdered during WW II.

The museum has four floors and since we were pressed for time, we spent most of our time on the fourth floor. This is really the main exhibition, entitled the Nazi Assault - 1933 to 1939. It chronologically covers the Nazi's use of propaganda and terror to spread their veil of anti-Semitism and racism throughout Germany. Two short films, The Nazi Rise to Power and anti-Semitismare shown. You can easily spend two to three hours on this floor alone.

We also viewed a film entitled Testimony, on the second floor. The film depicts survivors of the concentration camps telling their personal experience of survival. These heartbreaking and incredible stories are not only moving but are a glorious testament to the human spirit. Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl., SW, Washington, D.C. 20024, Tel: (202) 488-0400. www.ushmm.org. Admission is free.

After the museum we headed back to our hotel and tried to plan out our next day's travel. But because there were so many things to see in this historic town (cherry blossoms included) we decided to book a tour. Let me say, I used to be kind of an elitist when it came to taking tours. I pride myself on being an explorer and like to see things on my own time schedule. Well, you're never too old to learn! Thanks to Barbara, who convinced me the best way we could see the most sites in the most efficient time frame, would be to take a tour. She was absolutely right. It beats having to take cabs everywhere (after you figure out where everywhere is) and you have someone explaining the sites to you.

Day 2, Saturday

We decided (with concierge Rebecca Mayhew's help) to book an all day deluxe tour from Nation's Capital Tours that included the U.S. Capitol, The White House, Lincoln Memorial, The Vietnam War Memorial, Smithsonian Institution, The Kennedy Gravesites, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and other sites. Start time: 6:20 a.m.; finish at 5:30 p.m. Cost: $36.

The tour bus arrived at 6:30 a.m. right in front of our hotel. We stumbled aboard. It was a rainy, gray day; perfect actually for going to a cemetery and memorials. The atmosphere lent itself to the poignancy for the memorials we were about to visit. Our tour guide Robert, was articulate, patient and really knew his stuff. The bus seats were comfortable and after taking attendance, Robert gave us a brief history of Washington and described the places we would visit. It felt like you were on a field trip back in 6th grade.

The first place we went was to get vouchers for the White House at the White House Visitor's Center. Although the White House is free and open to the public, there's a limited amount of people that are let in at a time and the building itself can arbitrarily close at any time due to "government business" which includes everything from visiting dignitaries to gala White House parties. The White House actually turned out to be one of our last stops for the day. We waited for an hour and a half near the White House on bleachers under canopies for our group to be called. We were one of the last groups of the day so as a result we didn't get to spend too much time inside, but the rooms we did see (there are 132 in all) were the grandest; the East, Green, Blue, Red, Vermeil and State Dining Rooms plus the Library. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. Tel: (202) 456-2200.

 

 

 

Our first site stop were the war memorials. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982. The black granite walls have the names of over 59,000 of the war's dead or missing. Included here is a statue by Frederick Hart depicting three soldiers standing on a base that has the emblems of the five branches of our armed services.

Another nearby statue is the Vietnam Women's Memorial, a 2,000 pound bronze piece sculpted by Glenna Goodacre that is the first memorial honoring the women who served in Vietnam. It was dedicated Veteran's Day 1993.

 

Closeby is the Korean War Veterans Memorial which was dedicated on July 27, 1995. This site has 19 larger than life statues made of stainless steel, that just seem to capture the fatigue, loneliness and incredible endurance of the Americans who fought this war on foot. Being near the statues gives you a very real feeling that at any moment these oversize men might bark out a command or aim their rifle to fire at the enemy. Behind them is a polished granite wall etched with images of over 2,500 faces that portray our combat and support troops.

 

 

Next was the Lincoln Memorial. Designed by Henry Bacon and completed in 1922, this memorial was modeled after the Greek Parthenon, and its 36 Doric columns represent the number of states in the Union at the time when Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. In the center, is a 19-foot tall statue of President Lincoln. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech here. The Memorial is located on the banks of the Potomac River.

On to Arlington National Cemetery home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and the Kennedy Graves; JFK, RFK, Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis and two of the Kennedy children.

I asked our tour guide Robert, what the stipulations were to be buried in ANC. He told me that, for a price, you can be buried here if you served in some branch of the military. To my surprise I saw the graves of heavy weight champion Joe Louis, and actor Lee Marvin.We went on to witness the ceremonial changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. This ceremony had look-a-like soldiers, very precisely and methodically changing positions.There are exactly 21 steps from the beginning to the end of their walk in front of the tombs. The guards change every hour. A crowd (a very silent crowd) gathers to watch these young men as they perform the ceremony. First there's the one guard, then another comes out and orders the first guard to step aside to let the replacement guard take over. It's amazing to watch the synchronicity of the performance and the incredible discipline these men have.

After our visit to ANC, we headed to the Capital Building but Since the wait was over an hour long, Robert decided to take us to Ford's Theatre instead, the infamous place where President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865 by John Wilkes Booth. We went inside and sat in the balcony adjacent to where President Lincoln's box was; the very place he was shot. The theatre has a museum in the basement that contains exhibits on Lincoln's life, career and assassination, including the derringer that Booth shot him with as well as the overcoat Lincoln had been wearing that night.

 

Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel. Robert dropped us off and we thanked him for an interesting and professionally guided tour. For more info contact: Nation's Capital Tours, Tel: (301) 565-9192, www.nationscapitaltours.com.

 




Let's Eat!

Ah, dinner time! We asked around for the restaurants that best represented Washington, and were given some names at the front desk. But since we had had the whole day planned for us, we decided to take a cab to Georgetown and choose a restaurant that suited our fancy once we got there. We spontaneously decided to be spontaneous.

The first place we tried was Clyde's, a very popular spot that is a favorite among locals. But it was Saturday night and very crowded and we didn't feel like waiting. We walked on. To our delight we came across a wonderful French restaurant called Bistro Francais. This charming and friendly eatery gave you the impression you could easily be dining in Paris; lots of wood, brass railings and small intimate tables with white table cloths. An attentive and efficient staff was always around to serve customers, from the minute you stepped in the door. Our waitress, Natalie, was from Lyon, France and she made sure we were well taken care of (and she didn't know I was writing this article until after we ate!).

For appetizers we ordered the Salad du Marche: fresh greens with walnut dressing that was fresh and tasty ($7.95); fabulous Escargots that were served hot, in garlic butter with just enough garlic not to overpower the snails ($7.95); Mousse de Foie de Volaille Au Sheuy (homemade liver mousse) which was some of the best liver mousses I have ever tasted; light, yet distinct, and with enough spices to enhance but not smother the flavor of the liver ($5.25).

For the main course I had the Tournedos Grille au Poivre Vert (Grilled beef tenderloin with green peppercorn sauce, served with potato au gratin, $19.95). The beef was moist, tender and flavorful and served generously. Barbara had Demi Canard aux Framboises (Braised half duck with raspberry sauce and wild rice, $17.95). Both of us remarked that we generally ate duck with orange sauce; the raspberry sauce was a nice compliment to the distinct flavor of the bird and to my friend's delight the duck was not greasy at all; rather plump, juicy and very fresh tasting. Our general consensus about the food was that it was excellent. The only weird thing about this wonderful French restaurant was—they had no French bread! Go figure. We were given garden variety bread rolls and when I asked the bread server for French bread she said that the rolls were all they had. The lack of a nice crusty French loaf was a bizarre exclusion from the otherwise genuine and well-prepared French menu.

For dessert we shared a traditional French Napoleon. Again, it was a pleasant experience; the pastry was light and flaky and the creme tasted fresh and was not soaked into the crust. After this wonderful meal, we both agreed we would be back and gave this magnificent little bistro a Five Fork rating! Bistro Français, 3124-28 M Street, Washington, D.C. 20007, Tel: (202) 338-1421

After the meal we did some window shopping along the streets of Georgetown. This quaint, old section of Washington is filled with enticing little shops and wonderful places to eat and drink. You can have a great time just walking around and taking in the scenery.

The next day was Sunday and we headed back to Union Station. We easily could have used another couple of days here; there's so much we still wanted to see. But considering our time frame, we'd seen and done a lot.

Our weekend in the Nation's Capital was a rich experience of history, beauty, humanity and some damn good food. It made us proud to be Americans.

 

to top