April: Back to Nature
With spring flowers blooming and trees cloaked in fresh greens,
Mother Nature reminds us to get out and enjoy her bounty
By the Vacations Staff
National Cherry Blossom Festival
(Scroll down to see a slide show.)DC in bloom
It's a capital rite of spring when the Japanese cherry trees around the shrines of Washington, DC, burst forth in a froth of pink and white. The city's stoic demeanor is shed for a few weeks, replaced by a festive mood and the laughter of battalions of children arriving on school buses from Maryland and Virginia to view the floral display. Thousands of the trees frame the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. In 1912, Japan presented more than 3,000 saplings as a gesture of friendship to the people of the United States. These were joined by another 3,800 donated by the Japanese government in the 1960s. The blossoms, with their ample beauty, rarely disappoint. See for yourself on the seven-day "Washington, DC" tour with Collette Vacations, which has departures scheduled for the month of April in both 2013 and 2014. Guests visit the White House Visitor Center, the Smithsonian Institution and the Washington National Cathedral. Other stops include the Virginia home of George Washington in Mount Vernon and Fort McHenry in Maryland, where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the lyrics for "The Star-Spangled Banner."
See the canyon lands
During National Park Week, April 22-26, all 398 U.S. sanctuaries offer free admission. You can take in three of the country's landmark spots on an escorted tour to the scenic lands of the Southwest, visiting Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. Both the seven-day "Southwest Kaleidoscope of Canyons and Las Vegas" with Gate 1 Travel (from Phoenix to Las Vegas) and Cosmos' eight-day "Highlights of the Canyonlands" (round trip from Vegas) spend at least a day in each of the three preserves. Explore the iconic mile-deep gorge of the Grand Canyon, sliced through by the Colorado River, then view the twisted hoodoos -- limestone spires formed by ice and rainwater -- of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. After a stop at Utah's Zion National Park to see the massive rock monoliths and slot canyons, enjoy the dazzle of Las Vegas at your leisure, playing the casinos, shopping along the Strip or taking in a show.
In the 17th century, the Dutch were willing to pay thousands of dollars for rare tulip bulbs. These vibrant, coveted buds from Turkey were a sensation and led to a phenomenon known as tulipomania. Now the long-stemmed beauties blanket the Netherlands' flat countryside in springtime. It's a sight to behold -- waves of red, pink and yellow stretch as far as the eye can see. In April and early May, several flora-themed river cruises drift by green pastures, windmills and villages in the Netherlands and Belgium. The small vessels of AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Tauck, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Viking River Cruises cast off in Amsterdam, the storied canal city populated by gabled houses and fashionably dressed hipsters on bicycles. These itineraries spend a day at Keukenhof gardens in Lisse, where more than 7 million tulip, daffodil and hyacinth bulbs are planted across 80 acres to create dazzling mosaics of color for a procession of visitors.
Giants of the forest
Arbor Day was the brainchild of gardening enthusiast, journalist and politician J. Sterling Morton, who used the holiday's 1872 inauguration to spruce up his home state of Nebraska. More than 1 million trees were planted in that first year and, according to the Arbor Day Foundation, 21st-century celebrants gather on the last Friday of April to add nearly 10 times that number across America. Join "Pacific Coast Explorer" a 15-day escorted tour with Cosmos, and you'll see some impressive greenery on your way from San Diego to Seattle. At Pebble Beach, CA, 17-Mile Drive is a dramatic stretch of cliff-hugging road that includes a 250-year-old landmark, the stalwart Lone Cypress. After a drive through the Avenue of the Giants, a shady section of old Highway 101 known for its old-growth canopy, guests head on to Redwood National and State Parks, 132,000 acres of sequoias and other towering species. Keep an eye out for Hyperion, a 379-foot specimen known as the world's tallest tree.
Whether it's planting a tree or releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean, volunteering your time and talents can be a life-changing experience. There's no better time to get in the selfless spirit than National Volunteer Week, April 21-27. Several cruise lines offer "voluntourism" shore excursions that get into giving back, like Crystal Cruises' You Care, We Care program -- free of charge to all Crystal guests. The Crystal Serenity's April 21 sailing from Barcelona to Venice, which starts with an overnight on the six-star ship in the Spanish embarkation city, features an optional day trip to a rescue and recovery facility for endangered marine wildlife in El Prat de Llobregat, Spain. Volunteers are welcomed with a 30-minute general introduction to the issues facing ocean species and their habitats. Then it's on to the clinic, where injured animals are treated, followed by a practice drill where you'll learn the procedure of rescuing an ailing dolphin or other creature. Manage the floating stretcher and climb into the support swimming pool under the watchful eyes of a center specialist.
In celebration of Earth Day on April 22, make this the month for an eco-friendly escape to Mexico's Riviera Maya. Roughly 40 miles south of Cancun's airport, the 401-room Fairmont Mayakoba is nestled among mangrove forests and pristine beaches. The resort has earned kudos from the Rainforest Alliance and Audubon International for green practices including water- and energy-saving efforts, and it is a member of the World Heritage Alliance, which promotes sustainable tourism through partnerships with local communities. Electric boats gliding along lagoons, golf carts and bicycles are the modes of transportation on this no-cars-allowed property, and each room comes with a recycling bin. But your environmentally friendly vacation will not lack for amenities: Guests enjoy five swimming pools, four restaurants, tennis courts, the Willow Stream Spa and access to El Camaleon, an 18-hole golf course that hosts the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, a stop on the PGA Tour.
-- Jennifer Davoren, Kimberly Garza, Alexis Loyd and Van Sheridan
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2013. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 998-6925 for current rates and details.