The 2015 Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., is currently underway. Each year, locals and visitors celebrate friendship between the United States and Japan during this four-week spring festival.
The history of the festival dates back to 1912, when Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo gifted 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington, D.C. First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador at the time, planted the first two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. The gesture has been celebrated for over 100 years with banquets, parades, walks, and community service.
This year, the average peak bloom date is predicted to be April 4, 2015. Visit the National Park Service's website to find links to the Blossom Cam, cherry blossom photos, and information on how to donate to the Cherry Tree Replacement Fund.
In the meantime, enjoy the food, drinks, and activities around town marking the onset of the blossoms.
Blossoms at the Ritz-Carlton
The exact timing of the blooms may be difficult to predict with the fickle March weather in Washington, DC, but the season is always celebrated regally at the Ritz-Carlton DC.
As soon as I walk through the elegant lobby, the scent of cherry blossoms fills me with happiness. The hotel's signature scent, Sakura (meaning cherry blossom in Japanese), subtly permeates the air, while cherry blossom flower arrangements brighten the public spaces. Downstairs in the conference area, an incredible hand-painted mural depicting a wind-blown cherry blossom tree set against a metallic gold background is perhaps the most photographed location in the hotel. When visitors come to DC, they want to take home a memorable moment with the blossoms as the backdrop, even if they didn't get to see them in bloom.
Located off the main lobby is Westend Bistro, a vibrant modern bar that serves lunch and dinner. I was told that it took the mixologist months of perfection to create the house drink, the Sakura cocktail. A pale, red-colored, gin-infused drink arrives in a cold martini glass. It has layers of flavors starting with the sweetness of cherries and the boldness of Sakura tea and finishing with the dryness of the gin and the bitterness of grapefruit. It is flavorful in a way that one could drink a few glasses and only later realize the alcohol content.
Photo by Sucheta Rawal
In my room at the Ritz, I find a card that reads, "A cherry tree has been planted in your honor." The hotel partners with the National Arbor Day Foundation's Cherry Blossom Give-A-Tree program. Guests can purchase an overnight room package that includes the tree donation.
Afternoon is a time to experience high tea at The Lobby Lounge. During the Cherry Blossom Festival, they offer a lovely Sakura blend tea that is especially designed for the hotel. Notes of bergamot, black currant, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, soft vanilla, and white musk are complimented with, of course, cherry blossom flowers. The tea is served in a traditional Japanese cast iron teapot (tetsubin) and cups, with sliced lemons and rose petals on the side. It is refreshing and deep, without an overwhelming floral presence.
Tea comes with a surprise dessert amenity that is not listed on the menu. Homemade little cherry tart squares and chocolate-covered cookie sticks resembling tree barks with cherry flowers, placed in a Japanese vase, look too beautiful to eat. This presentation is worth taking photos of, even if you are not a dessert person.
Blossoms at The Fairmont
Coinciding with the blooming throughout the city, the interior courtyard at The Fairmont Washington, D.C., flourishes with a variety of plants, trees, and flowers indigenous to the area. Flowering Japanese cherry trees illuminated by a unique lighting system surround the courtyard's Italian Istrian marble fountain and make this one of the most romantic spots in the city. Guests can smell the sweet scent of flowers and herbs all around them while they eat their lunches outside on a crisp spring afternoon.
I decide to sip on a Cherry Bomb Cocktail, a vibrant concoction of cognac, cherry brandy, grenadine, and Cointreau with a splash of lemon juice, in the majestic lobby.
The chefs at Juniper Restaurant create a Smithsonian-themed dessert where a portion of its sales is donated to the Smithsonian Institution. On this particular afternoon, I try beautifully-plated vanilla orchid Profiteroles decorated with Matcha Macarons, chocolate sauce, hibiscus foam, and berries.
Available from March 1 through May 31, 2015, a Cherry Blossom Package at The Fairmont Washington, DC, offers overnight accommodations for two in a luxurious guestroom, complete with complimentary valet parking and a box of assorted note cards featuring scenes of the capital's monuments and cherry blossoms by celebrated Washington, D.C., photographer Jake McGuire.
Blossoms at the Embassy Row Hotel
By the third day, I am pretty familiar with the cherry-cocktail ritual. When I enter the iconic Embassy Row Hotel, located only four metro stops from the National Cherry Blossom Festival, I head straight to Station Kitchen & Cocktails and am surprised to find that their special drink for the season is the Pamplemousse. The grapefruit-infused rye, lychee, and pink peppercorns offer a delicate Asian flavor and are a subtle reminder of the origins of the festival.
The Embassy Row Hotel is one of the official sponsors of the Cherry Blossom Festival, so it offers its guests complimentary drinks, metro-passes, and a gift bag.
After enjoying all the cherry blossom themes at the area's top hotels, it was time to explore the festival-related events in the area. On March 21, world-renowned performers kicked off the opening ceremony at the historic Warner Theatre (FREE to attend).
Over the next few weeks, you will find adults and kids engaging in activities such as paddle boating, fitness classes, exhibits, contests, movie screenings, lectures, concerts, kite flying, and much more. A list of events organized by the National Cherry Blossom Festival can be found on its website and free app.