Spring festivals, near and far, mean winter is behind us

It appears we endured winter's last (and first) gasp this week. And if expanded daylight hours and guaranteed milder temps aren't reason enough to rejoice, now is also a wonderful time to celebrate the season at a spring festival.

We've done the digging to find authentic and unique fests. At one, you'll discover birds nursing their chicks before taking their migratory flights along the Jersey shoreline. Down in D.C., embassies are opening their doors and inviting folks in for a look-see. There are distinguished authors presenting new books in the Shenandoah Mountains, hands-on science explorations citywide in Philadelphia and flowers in bloom everywhere — including our beloved cherry blossoms being celebrated in wonderful places, beyond D.C.

North Carolina Azalea Festival.

70th annual North Carolina Azalea Festival

Happening: April 5-9, Wilmington, N.C.


Why you must: Although it's been blossoming since 1948, this ain't your granny's garden club. This scenic seaside community rocks its native blooms with five days of headliner concerts — this year's lineup includes Duran Duran and a shag-dance contest, amid stunning home and garden tours, an enormous spring fair and a vibrant parade.

Stay: The circa-1853 Verandas inn sits two blocks from the Cape Fear River and the Riverwalk, putting you close to the action. From $199.

Info: Fly American or Southwest Air nonstop from BWI to Raleigh-Durham International (from $89), and drive 130 miles to Wilmington.

Around the World Embassy Tour

Happening: May 6, Washington, D.C.

Why you must: Great world travelers will tell you, "Once a year, go someplace you've never been before." Here is your chance. You'll take sari-wrapping lessons, participate in henna and karate demos, watch indigenous dance performances and so much more when more than 40 of Washington's intriguing embassies open their doors to the public for a rare sneak-peek. Each destination hosts its own mini-festival with native cuisine, cultural activities and tours of the embassy.

Info: No passports required, but many embassies require photo ID for entry. Embassy Row is just off Dupont Circle, a 39-mile drive from Baltimore. Many embassies are within walking distance of one another, but free shuttle service is available.

Cape May Spring Festival: So. Many. Birds.


Happening: May 18-21, Cape May, N.J.

Why you must: Tweeting is hot these days, and the New Jersey Audubon Society's biggest bird fest puts you in the epicenter of "The Atlantic Flyway" with a jam-packed weekend of chirpy walks, bird-expert talks, boating trips to hidden habitats, photo shoots, even bird-speak sessions. The entire weekend is truly a hoot.

Stay: Many hotels in town offer birding rates. Try Queen Victoria B&B, whose charming guest rooms feature whirlpool tubs, fireplaces and early-bird breakfasts. Rates from $215.

Info: Admission: $65/day. Cape May is 154 miles from Baltimore.

Virginia Festival of the Book

Happening: March 22-26, Charlottesville, Va.


Why you must: If the names Kwame Alexander, Joseph Stiglitz and Bryan Cranston get your page-turners twitching, this is your fair. Claimed to be the largest community-based book event in the Mid-Atlantic, here are authors, readings, workshops, performances, demonstrations and kids activities honoring every reading genre imaginable: literature, arts, science, medicine, economics, you name it. Where to begin? P.J. O'Rourke suggests, "Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it."

Stay: Since the fest is citywide, your choices are vast. Try the Oakhurst Inn, near the University of Virginia, with en suite Euro-chic bathrooms, and an onsite cafe and espresso bar. From $189.

Info: The events take place in nearly 70 destinations around the region. Most are free of charge. Charlottesville is a 155-mile drive from Baltimore.

70th annual Pennsylvania Maple Festival

Happening: March 25-26 and March 29-April 2, Meyersdale, Pa.

Why you must: Here in Meyersdale, aka Maple City USA, are 93 maple farms producing more than 26,000 gallons of maple syrup each season. A highlight of this fest is the historic song, dance and story pageant about the discovery of maple syrup and the history of Meyersdale, performed by local residents. The fest also hosts a handmade quilt show, a tractor and farm equipment show, and High Tea with the Maple Queen.


Stay: The circa-1900 Levi Deal Mansion is a gilded-age beauty with modern creature comforts like Jacuzzi tubs, WiFi, cushy bedding, and gourmet breakfast. From $150.

Info: Admission: $5/adults, $1/children. Meyersdale is a 162-mile drive from Baltimore.

Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival

Happening: April 29-30, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Why you must: To celebrate the end of Hanami (the Japanese welcoming of spring and flowers) starring those beautiful blossoms, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden stages a weekend of exotic and edgy Japanese performances and activities: taiko drumming, cosplay, comedic magic shows, Samurai sword masters, even a parasol fashion show. There's also a tearoom serving cultural foodstuffs, an art show, book readings and signings, and a cool Japanese crafts market.

Stay: Hipster Hotel Le Bleu in trendy Gowanus, where the minimalist decor still manages to pack in everything you'll need, including oh-so-comfy beds. Rates from $239.


Info: Amtrak runs between the Penn Stations in Baltimore and New York in about 3 hours. From there, take the Line 2 subway directly to the gardens.

Las Vegas Uncork'd

Happening: April 27-30, Las Vegas, Nev.

Why you must: Despite its name, this is about more than just wine; it's a downright eating orgy of phenomenal food. Joined together here are some of the world's top chefs (the likes of Alain Ducasse, Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck) competing (or starring) in food and mixology competitions, demonstrations, tastings and dinners. Also included this year are previews and sampling at the new and upcoming dining spots around Vegas. After all, says Virginia Woolf, one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

Stay: The Cromwell is a Parisian-themed boutique hotel centrally located on The Strip, offering well appointed king rooms. From $99.

Info: Individual tickets are required for each event, from $79. Southwest Air flies nonstop from BWI to Las Vegas, from $136.


Bear on the Square Mountain Festival

Happening: April 21-23, Dahlonega, Ga.

Why you must: This unabashed celebration of Appalachian music, art and folklore was named for the brazen bear cub that took refuge in a sycamore tree in the center of Dahlonega's public square. The pickers usually arrive first, settle themselves down in the square and jam all festival long. Throughout the weekend are live performances by regional and nationally renowned Bluegrass and old-timey musicians. There's a live and silent country auction in the Main Stage Tent alongside locally purveyed food and wine. A juried Artists Marketplace features traditional mountain crafts and artist demonstrations. Other highlights include storytelling, music workshops/demonstrations, an acoustic open mic event, clogging and flatfooting demonstrations, and Master Music classes. The picturesque town itself, buried deep in the mountains, is also worth exploring.

Stay: The Mountain Laurel Creek Inn and Spa offers attractive guest rooms with fireplaces and jetted tubs, a swimming pool and spa. From $154.

Info: Southwest and Delta fly nonstop from BWI to Atlanta, from $69. Dahlonega is a 65-mile drive from Atlanta.

Festival of Houses and Gardens in Charleston, S.C.

70th annual Festival of Houses and Gardens


Happening: March 16-April 22, Charleston, S.C.

Why it's great: Who doesn't dream about getting inside and snooping around those exquisite majestic residences in historic Charleston? Afterward, there are history walks, garden tours, lectures, sightseeing through historic neighborhoods, and an antique show.

Stay: Grand Bohemian Hotel offers artsy decor, lavish guest rooms and a chic wine tasting room. From $269.

Info: Southwest Air flies nonstop from BWI to Charleston International, from $129.

NOLA Jazz & Heritage Festival

Happening: April 28-May 7, New Orleans, La.


Why you must: In a city renowned for its melodic soul, this fest delivers more than its advertised 12 stages of the all-time greats in jazz — and practically every other genre of music. This year's lineup features Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Wynton Marsalis, Herb Alpert, Tom Petty, Maroon 5, Dave Matthews, Kings of Leon, Usher, Harry Connick Jr. and dozens more. With so many musicians in town, even the impromtu collaborations are mind-blowing. And when you're in need of a recharge, there's heaps of jambalaya, gumbo, muffulettas and beignets all over town, just waiting to be washed down with gin fizzes and Sazerac, because you're in arguably the best eating city in the U.S.

Stay: Omni Royal Orleans is a historic French Quarter property with the ambience of a European inn. Jazz Fest rates from $339.

Info: Fly Southwest Air nonstop from BWI to New Orleans (MSY), from $250.

The Philadelphia Science Festival.

Philadelphia Science Festival

Happening: April 21-29, Philadelphia, Pa.

Why you must: Offering more than 80 events over eight days around the city, there's enough discovery here to thrill even the most jaded. Along with plenty of kids' activities, grownups can savor the science of a perfect pint and learn what kindles personal chemistry. Try to visit on Sunday, April 23, when there are 23 events happening around the city ranging from digs for 65-million-year-old fossils to activities in marine biology, audiology, surgical nursing, mural artistry, forensic crime scene investigation and more.


Stay: Philadelphia is an easy day trip, but if you choose to stay overnight, try the circa-1769 Thomas Bond House B&B. Located in Independence National Park, luxurious guest rooms are outfitted with period furniture and private baths. From $145.

Info: Most activities are free of charge. Philadelphia is a 115-mile drive from Baltimore, or just one hour away via Amtrak, from $37.

26th annual Ocean City Spring Fest

Happening: May 4-7, Ocean City, Md.

Why you must: For 26 years, Ocean City has been opening beach season with a weekend of music events (this year includes Josh Turner and Joan Jett), an arts and crafts show featuring 250 artisans (it's ranked among the top five in the U.S. by Sunshine Artists Magazine), and dozens of vendors of OC's iconic boardwalk-fare foodstuff.

Info: Ocean City is a 147-mile drive from Baltimore.