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Washington Weekend

By Rebekah Sanderlin

For years people in Fayetteville dutifully made the five hour drive up I-95 to Washington, DC, for work, fun, or sometimes just to catch an international flight. You could fly to DC, but doing so would require a layover in Atlanta or Charlotte, which made flying no faster than driving. All of that changed in 2012, when daily, non-stop flights to Dulles Airport from Fayetteville became a reality. Now United Airlines operates three daily, one-hour-and-twenty-minutes-long, flights between our city and our nation’s capitol. A recent search showed the cost for roundtrip airfare to be about $175.

Of course, many will still choose to drive, and some may opt to enter DC by train. If you book your Amtrak tickets from the Washington.org website, you’ll get a 30 percent discount on companion fares. Trains leave from the Hay Street station downtown and arrive at Washington’s Union Station, a beautiful and historic depot that is, itself, a tourist attraction.

However you get to Washington, spring is one of the prettiest times to visit and The National Cherry Blossom Festival, which takes place from March 20 through April 14, is well worth your time.

The Festival Every year since 1927, The National Cherry Blossom Festival has celebrated spring in DC and Japan’s 1912 gift of the cherry blossom trees, which are meant to symbolize the enduring friendship between our two nations. The Festival includes more than 150 daily cultural events, which are primarily free and open to the public. You can find a full listing of events on nationalcherryblossomfestival.org, where you’ll also find a downloadable smartphone app that will help you navigate the Festival. The culmination of the Festival is a parade held on April 13 along 10 blocks of Constitution Avenue.

This year you can also get a Petal Pass from most DC-area Capital One Bank locations. The Pass will get you discounts at numerous businesses throughout the city and there’s a smartphone app available to help you find them all.

But the Festival is not just about the attractions, it’s about seeing the beautiful blooms of those 3,750 cherry trees. You’ll find the trees around the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, in East Potomac Park (Hains Point), and on the Washington Monument grounds.

What to Do Of course, there’s plenty to see and do in DC any time of the year — and much of it won’t cost you a cent. The 19 museums and galleries in the Smithsonian Institution complex are all free. Also free? The Washington National Cathedral, National Geographic Society and the Library of Congress, and every evening the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage hosts a free performance. You can walk into most of these attractions without reservations or tickets. That said, visitors interested in taking a self-guided tour of the White House must have a group of 10 or more and request the tour through their member of Congress.

Guided tours of the U.S. Capitol are available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Free tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Capitol Guide Service Kiosk. The same-day, free tickets to the Washington Monument can be difficult to get, but for $1.50, you can make advance reservations through recreation.gov.

While you’re calling your Congressman or woman (most likely Mike McIntyre or Renee Elmers) to book that White House tour, you should also ask about visiting that representative. Congressional offices often offer special services and tips for visitors.

All that sight-seeing work up an appetite? Washington is a dream come true for those with an adventurous palate. The city has residents hailing from around the world, which means there are restaurants serving every kind of food imaginable. Download the Yelp.com smartphone app and you’ll be able to easily search for whatever is most tempting to you.

Getting Around Even if you drive into DC, you’ll probably be happiest just leaving your vehicle parked at your hotel. Legend has it that Pierre L’Enfant designed Washington’s streets so that enemy troops who might attack would get confused and frustrated — and it certainly works that way for modern drivers. Not only that, but parking spaces are few and pricey — and definitely not easily managed in a big truck or SUV.

The good news? Public transportation is clean, easy and inexpensive and taxis are plentiful. The website for the DC Metro (subway) system (wmata.com) has a great travel planner function. Just type where you’d like to go in the search field and the site will tell you the best way to get there.

I highly recommend downloading one of the many Metro map apps to your smartphone. On a crowded train it can be very difficult to see the map and to track which stop is next, and the conductors often mumble through the announcements. On a recent Metro trip the conductor announced, “Next stop, L’Enfant Plaza” but to me and everyone around me it sounded like he said, “blah, blah, blah”. Fortunately, I had the map app and was able to figure out that my stop was next.

Where to Stay It is certainly possible to find hotel deals in Washington. Any travel site will help you search for the best prices, and many travelers swear by calling hotels directly and simply asking for the best rate. For the most ease in getting around, aim for a hotel near a Metro stop, and preferably within walking distance to attractions and restaurants. My favorite trick is to wait until after 3 p.m. on the day I arrive (when most hotels are willing to let the rooms go for less) and use the Priceline Negotiator App on my smartphone. I know, it’s a little risky. But with nearly 100,000 rooms in the DC-area, it’s not that risky. I’ve never paid more than $100 a night for an excellent room in a great neighborhood, including Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Crystal City, using this method. Of course, rates will be higher during the Cherry Blossom Festival, but even during the super-busy Inauguration Weekend this year I paid just $175 for a room in a beautiful boutique hotel right in the middle of everything, and I booked the room just three days before the Inauguration.

If you have such a great time during your National Cherry Blossom Festival visit that you want a long-lasting souvenir of your trip, you’re in luck: The Arbor Day Foundation (arborday.org) will sell you a cherry tree to plant in your own yard for between $5 and $15.

It seems fitting that the city named for a man who may or may not have lied about cutting down a cherry tree is now so committed to growing and celebrating them.