Photo Of The Day: The Cherry Blossoms Are Here

Each spring, Washington, D.C., transforms from a city of grey to a city of pink during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual springtime celebration of the capital’s most famous flower. This year’s “Peak Bloom Date” fell on April 9; today’s Photo of the Day, from Flickr user Christopher Skillman, was taken a day later.Do you have any great travel photos? You now have two options to enter your snapshots into the running for Gadling’s Photo of the Day. Upload your shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool, or mention @GadlingTravel and use hashtag #gadling in the caption or comments for your post on Instagram. Don’t forget to give us a follow too!

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Christopher Skillman]

Surviving Spring Break Madness In Washington, DC

While American college kids bake in the sun, pound tequila shooters and do things they hope won’t end up on YouTube in Cancun, South Padre Island and other venues for Spring Break debauchery, their younger siblings all seem to be on class or family trips to Washington, D.C. I’ve visited D.C. many times over the years and lived there on three separate occasions. But until this week, I’ve mostly managed to avoid the hordes of tourists that descend on the place during the Cherry Blossom/School Spring Break season.

I’ve always been an off-season or shoulder-season traveler but now that my kids are in school, I don’t always have the flexibility to travel when the prices are low and the crowds are sparse. When my kids have a break from school, our choice is to: A) hire a babysitter so we can continue to get work done (expensive and hard to do for just one week), B) stay at home and go stir crazy, or C) bite the bullet and travel despite the higher prices and crowds that are inevitable during school breaks.My wife needed to visit D.C. on business, so I had two and a half days in D.C. with my little boys, ages 3 and 5, this week, when hundreds, perhaps thousands of grammar and high schools around the country are on their spring holiday. The city was absolutely crawling with school groups and families on vacation.

I thought that we lucked out when I bid for a 3.5-star hotel on Priceline and got a luxury chain hotel downtown that had rave reviews from customers on Trip Advisor (4.5-star average from more than 800 reviews) for $105 per night. But even the best hotels fall apart when they are jam-packed and this place was a circus. If you didn’t shower by 7 a.m., there was no hot water. Wi-Fi, which cost $9.99 per day, was ridiculously slow, no doubt due to the volume of traffic. And the breakfast lines were unlike anything I’ve experienced at any hotel in my decades of traveling the world.

The place was so overrun and dysfunctional that I actually felt bad for the employees who had to absorb all of the customer complaints. They were clearly sick and tired of the guests’ complaints and were getting creative in their responses. A woman from Georgia whom I commiserated with in the breakfast line told me that a front desk agent suggested she use the pool, when she complained about the lack of hot water in the room.

I wasn’t brave enough to bring my kids into the Air & Space Museum, the National Zoo, the Cherry Blossom Festival, or the Museum of Natural History (they’ve been to these places before) but I saw how crowded they were and was thankful my kids are too young to insist. Instead, we focused on some of D.C.’s less visited museums, like the Freer and Sackler Galleries, The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African Art (all are manageable and are highly recommended). We also went to a couple higher profile museums, like the National Gallery of Art, but made a point of getting there at 10 a.m., right when they opened to beat the crowds.

If you’re visiting the free Smithsonian museums on the weekend or during school holiday periods, plan out your strategy carefully. Visit the most popular museums right when they open (usually 10 a.m.) or after 4 p.m. and use the peak hours, around 11:30-3:30 to visit the more off-the-beaten-track attractions. If you aren’t sure what the most popular museums are, have a look at Trip Advisor and take note of how many reviews the place has. The museums with 1,000 reviews are more are the ones you have to be worried about.

The other minefield is trying to have lunch near the museums during peak hours. Packing a lunch is a great idea but if you can’t be bothered, try to eat by 11:30, or after 2 p.m. The cafeteria at the Smithsonian Museum of American History has excellent food, including good BBQ, sandwiches, craft beers and a lot more, along with high prices, but you do not want to try to eat there or at any other popular lunch spot near noon or 1 p.m.

D.C. in the spring is a peculiar brew. You see armies of guys in dark business suits, badges swinging from their necks, marching around dodging strollers and school kids. But despite the crowds, D.C. is still better in the spring, when the weather is mild, than in the summer, when the humidity is brutal. Just get up nice and early, you’ll be sure to have hot water and you’ll be hungry for lunch before the crowds are.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

The Perfect DC Museum Cafe: Mitsitam

Somewhere between pointing at planes at the Air & Space Museum and browsing the day’s headlines at the Newseum, my baby fell asleep. We had a small window of time to eat and maybe even have an adult conversation, and a McDonald’s inside a food court didn’t seem appealing. There are a lot of great Washington, D.C., museums that are free and world-class, but not many great food spots amidst the tourist spots. FourSquare didn’t find much, save a hot dog truck, but a Yelp search yielded a “glorified cafeteria” listing for the Mitsitam Cafe. It turned out to be inside the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and specializes in indigenous foods from the Western Hemisphere.

Dishes change seasonally and are arranged by region: Northern Woodlands (think Thanksgiving-y foods like roast turkey and corn bread), South America (spicy ceviches), Northwest Coast (wild salmon and bison), Meso America (lots of yucca and corn) and Great Plains (lots of fried goodness). We chose chicken mole tacos with a wild rice and watercress salad, plus beans and sweet potatoes. I also had a venison mincemeat pie with whole grain mustard, pumpkin and blueberry fritters, and a parsnip puree soup. There was a wide selection of local beer and wine and a large variety of tempting desserts.

The cafeteria itself is large and airy, if crowded (we lucked into an empty table quickly at 2 p.m. on a Saturday). The downside is the prices: entrees can run over $20, and sides around $5 each (you can get a sample of 4 for $14). I blanched handing over my credit card to pay $50 for lunch, especially when I had to carry it myself on a tray. Still, the food was delicious and we left sated and ready to take on the next museum. If you are heading to D.C. this month for the Cherry Blossom Festival, it’s a great way to eat locally without leaving the museum district.

For more on good museum cafes, check out our guide to the best food at museums across the country.

[Photo credit: Meg Nesterov]

Cyrus Cylinder, ‘The First Bill Of Rights,’ Tours US

The famous Cyrus Cylinder, a baked clay tablet from the 6th century B.C. that’s often called the “first bill of rights,” has made its U.S. debut at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The Cyrus Cylinder was deposited in the foundations of a building in Babylon during the reign of the Persian king Cyrus the Great. It commemorates his conquest of Babylon and announces religious freedom for the people displaced by the Babylonian king Nabonidus. Among them were the Jews, who had been in captivity in Babylon. Many Jews soon returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple.

While Cyrus’ announcement and inscription isn’t unique for that time, the cylinder became instantly famous upon its discovery in 1879 because of its connection to events that are mentioned in the Bible. Ever since, Cyrus has been considered the model of a just king ruling over a diverse empire.

It’s the centerpiece of a new exhibition titled “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning,” which examines the religious, cultural and linguistic traditions of the vast and powerful Achaemenid Empire (539–331 B.C.) founded by Cyrus the Great.

The exhibition runs until April 28. After the Smithsonian, the Cyrus Cylinder will tour the U.S., stopping at Houston, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. You can see the full details of the schedule here.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Hotel News We Noted: March 8, 2013

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Hotel News We Noted,” where we round up the week’s best, most interesting and just downright odd news of note in the hospitality world. Have a tip? Send us a note or leave a comment below.

The hotel world has been buzzing this winter with new and planned openings, extreme amenities and packages galore. Here’s our take on what you need to know this week:

Shangri-La Goes After Saudi Princess Who Skipped Out on $7.5 Million Hotel Bill
The Shangri-La hotel in Paris is going after the Saudi princess who left in the dead of the night and skipped out on her $7.5 million hotel bill, Business Insider reports. The princess spent six months on the 41st floor of the hotel, and her father, the King, has refused to pay her debts. The king has since confined the princess to a palace in Saudi Arabia after she left a trail of unpaid debts across Europe. Nothing quite says “princess” like palace confinement, hmm?

Hotel Openings: ME London
The first ME by Melia hotel in the UK and the fifth in the brand opened last week in one of the world’s hottest cities for hotel growth – London. ME London is located in the heart of the West End, on the site formerly inhabited by the famous Gaiety Theatre. The 157-room property will feature a rooftop bar, Radio, offering panoramic views of the city, as well as the brand trademark penthouse, SuiteME – a two-level superlative experience offering a fire-pit warmed private terrace, a private lounge, separate dining room, three 3-D televisions, a pillow menu and much more. (Remember the crazy Cancun penthouse from the Real World Cancun?) NYC-based The ONE Group is the hotel’s official F&B provider, with two of its iconic brands opening venues within the property – STK London and Cucina Asellina.

Luxury Hotels Coming Your Way: Four Seasons Madrid, An Aman In Venice and Multi-Billion Dollar Las Vegas
While much of our hotel news is often focused on newly opened or revamped properties, this week seemed to have much to offer in the way of “soon-to-come” luxury hotels. Four Seasons announced their first property in Spain, Four Seasons Madrid, in the next four years, Aman is coming to the Grand Canal with a new ultra-luxury property opening on this summer boasting 24 suite-style rooms, and a Malaysian investment firm has paid $350 million for a multi-billion dollar hotel complex to come in the former Echelon site in Las Vegas, USA Today reported.Tech Tips: Eventi Offers Hi-Tech Amenities For Travelers
Sick of traveling with tons of gadgets? Eventi, a New York City Kimpton property, now has a “Business Bar” where travelers can rent gadgets ranging from iPads and MacBook Pros to Kindles, Nooks and even digital cameras. This free service is geared to help travelers who like to pack light, but who would love to sample some of these gadgets as a trial before buying, particularly the cameras!

Sleep Better: Accor’s Ibis Offers a Sleep App
We’ve certainly written about hotels with great sleep programs before, but this is the first time we’ve seen a hotel brand unveil their own sleep app. ibis Styles and ibis budget are transforming your restful night into a digital work of art. Every morning, it allows iPhone users to see how their night’s sleep has been transformed into an original digital work of art. Once the Sleep Art app has been programed, the iPhone becomes a sensor that captures movements and sounds. This data is converted real-time into a virtual “work of art” as the user sleeps. Every night is different. These virtual works of art are stored in the gallery and users can therefore compare each night’s sleep and share results by email or on Facebook, so that as many people as possible can also find out about this unique digital experience.

The President Dines at The Jefferson in Washington, DC
Much buzz has been heard in the news this week about President Obama’s dining with 12 republican leaders. But we’ve got the inside scoop on where he dined – most outlets only called it a “discreet” Washington hotel. The property was, in fact, The Jefferson, a Preferred Boutique property in downtown Washington. The congressmen and President dined on everything from Blue Crab Risotto to Lobster “Thermidor” to Peanut Butter Crumble. We hear that the president picked up the tab!

[Image Credit: The Jefferson Washington, DC]