Ah, springtime. When nature takes a box of crayons to the drab gray winter. In the immortal words of Robin Williams, “Spring is nature’s way of saying ‘let’s party.'” The world (well, the northern hemisphere) blooms March through May, offering blossoms so beautiful they’re worth the trip alone. But luckily, most destinations also host seasonal festivals to celebrate their gorgeous spring blooms, from the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC to the Madeira Flower Festival in Portugal and beyond.
We could recommend the top ten cherry blossom festivals alone (Vancouver, San Francisco, and Macon, Georgia, the so-called Cherry Blossom Capital of the World). And let’s not forget the informal wildflower shows put on by Mother Nature herself, from the Arizona desert to the Appalachian Trail.
But let’s narrow it down; here are the nine most fabulous spring flower fests around the globe.
Matsumae, Japan: Cherry Blossoms
Matsumae Koen Park Cherry Blossom Festival (Late April to mid-May, 2013
The sakura (cherry blossom) is Japan’s national flower. And the country’s festivals have revered its beauty for nearly 1,500 years. Blossoms bloom in February in Okinawa then travel northward to Hokkaido, where they peak in early May. Mountains, parks, and cities are covered in pink and mauve, and petals shower bypassers like confetti. Reflecting the fleeting blooming cycle (usually just 1-2 weeks), the revelries are tinged with a sense of the evanescence of life, a Buddhist belief.
Of the dozens of festivals, Matsumae’s may be the most magnificent. More than 10,000 cherry trees paint this seaside town on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. The grounds of the exquisite 17th-century Matsumae Castle hold more than 250 varieties of the famed tree. Commencing with a grand parade, the festivities also feature booths purveying local seafood, tea ceremonies, crafts, haiku competitions, fireworks, and even a karaoke contest.
Where to Stay: The only large town, Hakodate, is a three-hour bus ride. The 52 rooms of the Hakodate Danshaku Club have a classic clean aesthetic; many have views of Mount Hakodate and the harbor. The setting is ideal, a few minutes’ stroll from the Morning Market where you can savor grilled sea urchin for breakfast.
Insider Tip: If you can’t make it up to Hokkaido, consider the Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival, held in early April, 60 miles northwest of Kyoto.
Washington DC: Cherry Blossoms
National Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20-April 14, 2013)
National Park Service horticulturalists predict the Tidal Basin and Mall blossoms will peak March 26-30 this year, when 70% will flower. The annual event, inaugurated in 1927, celebrates Japan’s 1912 gift of 3,000 ornamental cherry trees. Highlights include the Blossom Kite Festival with handmade kite displays and competitions. Paddleboat rides in the Tidal Basin delight families and couples alike. Travel photographers conduct workshops, including special sunrise and twilight safaris. Kids construct koi mobiles at the Textile Museum (April 6). And Cherry Blossom Food Tours show guests delectable dishes inspired by both cherries and the area’s Japanese influence. And those merely scratch the surface of all the cherry blossom celebrations in DC, which climax with the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade down Constitution Avenue—one of the nation’s largest spectacles
Where to Stay: It is hard to beat the Fodor’s Choice Mandarin Oriental. Many of the minimalist yet luxurious rooms overlook the Basin and Mall.
Insider Tip: Visit the U.S. National Arboretum for its self-guided “Beyond the Tidal Basin” tour, showcasing nearly 40 varieties of flowering cherry trees, including some developed by its scientists (the so-called, willow-like weeping Yoshinos are extraordinary).
Copenhagen, Denmark: Cherry Blossoms
Copenhagen Sakura Festival (April 27-28, 2013)
In 2005, the Danish Honorary Consul of Hiroshima gave Copenhagen 200 flowering cherry trees to commemorate the bicentennial of beloved storyteller Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. The festival locale Langelinie Park, home to the first plantings as well as the famous Little Mermaid statue inspired by an Andersen tale, appropriately resembles a fairytale come to life. Traditional martial arts demonstrations from karate to kendo (fencing with bamboo rods), authentic folk dances, taiko drum performances, and tea ceremonies enliven the proceedings. Free workshops highlight such Japanese crafts as origami, calligraphy, and ikebana (the art of flower arranging).
Where to Stay: Built in 1960 and recently renovated in fine retro fashion, the 260-room Fodor’s Choice Radisson Blu Royal Hotel is epitomizes Scandinavian utilitarian chic. Rooms are appointed with Swan and Egg chairs, lamps, even door handles fashioned by Jacobsen; many have splendid vistas of the Tivoli Gardens amusement park.
Insider Tip: The nomi no ichi (flea market) near the main stage is a treasure-trove of manga comics, wooden carvings, wire sculptures, and more.
Wilmington, North Carolina: Azaleas
North Carolina Azalea Festival (April 10-14, 2013)
Founded in 1948, the North Carolina Azalea Festival is the state’s largest event of its kind: a virtual country fair featuring a circus, competitions, celebrity headliners, galas, and more. More than 200,000 celebrants attend the annual street fair and throng to watch the main parade. Over 1,000 volunteers help stage 50-plus events ranging from concerts to art contests to coin shows. Proud locals open their homes and gardens for tours. The traditional arrival of Queen Azalea opens the festivities, but the pink, lavender, and white blossoms preen all spring long.
Where to Stay: The late 19th-century Graystone Inn offers posh pampering without pretension. Crown moldings, ornate fireplaces, and coffered ceilings attest to the original owner’s taste. Don’t miss the inn’s signature key lime-stuffed French toast.
Insider Tip: The blossoms take the spotlight during the Cape Fear Garden Club’s Azalea Tour, which opens private residences ranging from fanciful cottages to stately antebellum mansions.
Sobaeksan National Park, South Korea: Azaleas
Royal Azalea Festival (late May-early June 2013)
Sobaeksan, one of the 12 Sobaek Mountains skirting the border between Chungbuk Province and Gyeongbuk in South Korea, comprises a national park famed for its biodiversity, yew trees, wildflowers, and royal azaleas. By late May, its peaks like Birobong, often compared to the Swiss Alps, seem to don a pale pink jeogori (traditional Korean jacket). Noted Confucian scholar Toegye Yi Hwang says its like “walking through a colorful silk curtain as if I’ve arrived at an extravagant party.” Various musical performances, activities, and artisanal workshops celebrate the energetic qualities of the azalea.
Where to Stay: The 856-unit Daemyung Resort in Danyang-gun is notable for Korea’s only indoor water park, replete with faux grottoes; you can also luxuriate in the property’s sauna or hot springs. Western-style accommodations feature kitchenettes, flat-screen TVs, and minimalist but comfy decor including tatami mattresses.
Insider Tip: The more adventuresome can enjoy the rugged region’s highs (ridge hikes between Birobong and Yeonhwabong peaks or down riverbeds, where you’ll pass breathtaking temples and waterfalls) and lows (subterranean spelunking amid the crystal gardens of Gosu Cave).
Ottawa, Canada: Tulips
Canadian Tulip Festival (May 3-20, 2013)
In gratitude for Canada’s providing safe harbor to the Dutch royal family during World War II, Princess Juliana presented Ottawa with 100,000 tulip bulbs. The Canadian capital has memorialized the gift for six decades through this funfest where millions of tulips rim the iconic Rideau Canal. The entire city participates, with a virtual United Nations of neighborhoods from Little Italy to Chinatown offering their unique spin. Highlights include the black-tie Tulip Ball, the Floral Hair Competition, and such kid-friendly happenings as a Tulip Treasure Hunt and the Mad Hatter Tea Party on Mother’s Day.
Where to Stay: Opened in 1912, the historic Fairmont Chateau Laurier out-Disneys Disney with its fairytale turrets. The stately limestone edifice enjoys a superb central location adjacent to the Parliament Buildings.
Insider Tip: Arguably the single most impressive tulip display is in Commissioner’s Park at Dow’s Lake: almost 300,000 tulips from 60 different varieties bloom in 30 flower beds.
Noordoostpolder, Netherlands: Tulips
Countus Tulpenfestival (April 17-May 5, 2013)
Noordoostpolder, an hour’s drive northeast of Amsterdam in central Flevoland, is the Netherlands’ youngest tulip-growing area, but one of its largest. You can drive, bike, or hike during the annual Countus Tulpenfestival, which attracted 50,000 passionate visitors last year. Horse-drawn carriage tours and organized hikes also escort you along canals and over bridges to view the vividly hued tulip fields. The Centrum Amateurkunst Flevoland’s Passie in de Polder (Passion in the Polder) tours visit specially created art installations that interact with their surroundings. In the annual Koetsentocht, coachmen of Menvereniging Castle drive the tulip queen and her entourage in a special authentic coach, followed by a procession of horse- and pony-drawn carriages.
Where to Stay: Urk’s charming Roos van Saron B&B overlooks the harbor. Reception doubles as an old-time general store with antiques, local crafts, and sweets. There’s also an infrared sauna, hot tub, solarium, and steam room, as well as a terrace with beach and harbor views.
Insider Tip: Though it’s in the opposite direction, flower fans should visit the renowned Keukenhof, occupying 15th-century hunting grounds outside Amsterdam.
Winchester, Virginia: Apple Blossoms
Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival (April 26-May 5, 2013)
One of Virginia’s oldest civic celebrations, the annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival was first held in 1924. Locals adorn the streets (and themselves) in green, pink, and white to welcome the 250,000+ revelers (more than 10 times the town’s population). Savvy promoters with Hollywood ties have long lured celebrity guests like Lucille Ball, Al Roker, Susan Lucci, Michael Vick, Katie Couric, Joan Rivers, Mario Lopez (2012 Grand Marshal), and Jerry Rice (whose daughter served as Queen in 2008). Highlights include a Grand Feature Parade, Firefighters’ Parade, apple pie competitions, a meet-and-greet with the Budweiser Clydesdales, the Cole Brothers Circus of the Stars, fireworks, concerts, carnivals, wine tastings, and pro-am golf tournaments.
Where to Stay: The historic 90-room George Washington Hotel has been Winchester’s see-and-be-scene locale since its 1924 opening. Don’t miss the Half Note Lounge which channels the Roaring Twenties with live jazz.
Insider Tip: Though many events evoke classic Southern gentility, don’t miss such zany traditions as the Blooming Bowtie Contest and Thursday Night Fever Disco (think bellbottoms, platform boots, and psychedelically hued Afros).
Madeira, Portugal: Camellias, Lilies, Mimosas
Madeira Flower Festival (May 9-15, 2013)
Nicknamed the “Floating Garden of the Atlantic,” Madeira is a 90-minute flight from Lisbon. In Funchal, the island’s largest city, the annual Flower Festival has been called the botanical equivalent to Mardi Gras. The week overflows with concerts, folkloric performances, and more. Local artists create exquisite floral carpets and sculptures along the main streets. The Flower Exhibition in the Largo da Restauração showcases the plants in a quaint setting where saleswomen dress in traditional costume. Hundreds of flower-bedecked youths, each carrying a single blossom, proceed in the Children’s Parade to the Praça do Município (Town Hall Square), where they construct the Wall of Hope with their flowers. The festival culminates with the Allegorical Flower Parade, featuring dozens of elaborate floats and thousands of costumed dancers.
Where to Stay: Though the Orient Express Reid’s Palace is the grande dame, the 18th-century Quinta Jardins do Lago is an exclusive enclave, set amid botanic gardens. The 40 handsome rooms face the azure Atlantic or the lush landscaping.
Insider Tip: While there, sample Madeira at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge, try toboganning down the hillside roads, and take a hike along one of the scenic levadas (irrigation canals that spiral around the island’s hills).