Image: Cherry blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial
Ron Edmonds  /  AP file
Cherry blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial in 2005 in Washington, D.C. This year's National Cherry Blossom Festival runs March 28–April 12.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/17/2009 8:28:28 AM ET 2009-03-17T12:28:28

We’ve turned the clocks ahead, the vernal equinox is just days away, and spring is busting out all over.

I say bring it on. After months of dark and depressing news, I think we could all use a break, don’t you? Yes, money’s tight and the economy’s shaky, but the sun is shining somewhere, the days are getting longer and there’s a sense of rebirth and renewal in the air.

That’s where spring festivals come in. This may not be the time for that trip to Paris or Phuket, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay home. Across the country, communities are celebrating the annual return of local flowers, fruits and vegetables — and inviting visitors to join in the festivities.

Each of the following seven events highlights a specific species, but all promise plenty of fresh air and family-friendly activities. Better yet, they’re either free or exceedingly affordable.

Washington, D.C.
Budding cherry blossoms are a sure sign of spring — and cause for city-wide celebrations from Philadelphia to San Francisco — but the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., remains the belle of the ball. Some 3,800 cherry trees line the shores of the Tidal Basin and East Potomac Park, drawing upward of a million visitors each year.

This year, the festival runs March 28–April 12 with a full calendar of cultural performances, family activities, and guided walks and bike tours. Highlights include the annual Festival Parade and Japanese Street Festival, both on April 4 — excellent timing as this year’s bloom is expected to peak April 3–9.

Wilmington, N.C.
Now in its 62nd year, the North Carolina Azalea Festival (April 1–5) celebrates art, culture and the pink and white flowers that brighten the city each spring. For free fun, check out the annual parade (April 4), street fair and art show or simply stroll the local streets where flowers bloom everywhere from front yards to city parks. For a fee, you can also tour historic homes and private gardens or catch a concert by Kellie Pickler (April 1) or David Cook (April 2).

Skagit Valley, Wash.
Midway between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., the Skagit Valley is one of the nation’s leading producers of tulip bulbs. The happy byproduct: thousands of flowering tulips in dozens of shades arrayed in rows that stretch to the horizon. Like other spring flings, the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival features a variety of community events — including a parade, fun run and art shows — but the real treat is strolling the rainbow-like fields and determining what bulbs to buy for planting back home. The festival runs April 1-30; the bloom dates, as they say, are “according to Mother Nature.”

Ponchatoula, La.
Fortunately, strawberries are more predictable, and they should be in ample supply during the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, held April 3-5 in this small town 30 miles east of Baton Rouge. Festivities include a parade, live music, carnival rides and food booths offering dozens of strawberry-inspired dishes. (Don’t miss the deep-fried strawberries with powdered sugar.) Held in Memorial Park, the festival is free, although organizers are asking visitors to bring a canned item to support a Boy Scout food drive.

Fallbrook, Calif.
Avocados: They’re not just for guacamole anymore. At least that’s the consensus at the Avocado Festival, which takes place in downtown Fallbrook on April 19. With up to 20 varieties on display, you can try avocado tamales, avocado gelato and, yes, deep-fried avocados. You can also try your luck at pit-putting (think miniature golf), pit-spitting (think watermelon seeds, only bigger) and the kids-only Avo 500 (think soapbox derby, only much, much smaller). And if you haven’t gotten enough, you can always buy an avocado tree to take home.

Stockton, Calif.
A true harbinger of spring, asparagus is hardy, fast-growing and the raison d’etre for the Stockton Asparagus Festival, set for April 24–26. During the three-day event, it turns up in burritos and tri-tip sandwiches, in recipes by celebrity chefs (including Martin Yan) and in the tempura-fried-asparagus eating contest. (Last year’s winner downed 8.8 pounds in 10 minutes!) Other highlights include live music, sea lion encounters and the Amazing Skyy Dogs canine show. Admission is $12, with the proceeds supporting more than 100 charities in the area.

Hana, Maui, Hawaii
The East Maui Taro Festival (April 24–26) isn’t the easiest event to get to — it takes place in Hana, at the tail end of the dizzyingly twisty Hana Highway — but its setting is certainly among the most spectacular. With the green flanks of Haleakala on one side and the blue Pacific on the other, the festival is also a great way to get a taste of old Hawaii. In addition to the traditional taro paste known as poi, you can try a taro burger or seafood chowder with taro, enjoy indigenous music and hula performances, or simply soak up the scenery and aloha spirit.

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