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Bloomin' wonder

Just about anyone can tell you that spring is the time to visit Washington, D.C., because it is then that the city's famous cherry trees garland the Tidal Basin with a border of pink and white blooms. But few folks realize that Macon boasts of having "170,000 cherry trees more than 30 times as many as Washington, D.C."

And while Washington's trees were planted in 1912, it has been just 40 years since William A. Fickling Sr. discovered the first of Macon's cherry trees among some nursery plantings on his 9-acre estate.

Fickling learned how to propagate the tree _ not then thought to grow in the South _ and subsequently donated more than 120,000 of them to the city and to fellow residents.

Appropriately, the trees traditionally come into bloom on his birthday in March, which is also when the city stages its annual Cherry Blossom Festival. More than 400,000 visitors from at least 18 states, Canada, Japan and Ireland came for last year's event.

This year's celebration, the 10th annual, will have more than 250 events spread over 10 days, starting March 20. There will be an unabashedly patriotic parade of 100 units on March 22, plus crafts displays, an international food fair, flower and fashion shows, concerts, sports (e.g., a "Million-Dollar Hole-in-One Shootout"), flights of hot-air balloons. Among the exhibits: a Desert Storm display by an Air Force combat communications unit and a presentation of what is said to be "the world's largest private collection of Gone With the Wind memorabilia."

In the evening, there are dances keyed to the preferences of just about every generation; a black-tie affair on the 27th features society's favorite orchestra, Peter Duchin's. Concerts cover the spectrum from J.

S. Bach to Tanya Tucker to the Band of the Air Force Reserve. On stage, there will be musical comedy, drama and even Bill Cosby. Try to catch at least one event in Macon's magnificent Grand Opera House.

March 28, a Saturday, features a concert of patriotic music followed by fireworks. Knowledgeable spectators trek to Coleman Hill with blankets or lawn chairs for that show.

Daytime activities feature the delicate blooms of Yashino cherry trees. Their pastel flowers not only festoon the city's parks but add springtime color to numerous residences. Visitors can stroll among the trees, board a bus for a tour of residential streets or drive the route, along which colorfully costumed southern belles wave from the gardens of historic homes.

Macon is surprisingly rich in history. Even its Rose Hill Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is said to be one of the oldest public cemeteries in this country (dating from 1839). Among the many unusual tombs and stones are those marking the graves of hundreds of Confederate soldiers; of "Just A Brown Dog"; and of Duane Allman, whose rock music was cherished by many in the late '60s.

Besides the festival events, visitors might want to make meal reservations in one of the magnificent, white-columned antebellum mansions, such as Macon's Beall's 1860, or the popular Green Jacket Restaurant.

Macon's Convention & Visitors Bureau reports that more than 3,000 hotel, motel and bed-and-breakfast rooms are available to handle the surge in visitors. Just about every major motel chain is represented. For something a bit different, you might try the antebellum 1842 Inn or the Victorian Village B&B.

If you can't get to Macon this year, write the dates now on your 1993 calendar for next year's festival: March 19-28.

John Nash is a free-lance writer living in Homosassa.

IF YOU GO

Getting there. The festival's official airline, Delta, offers a 35 percent discount off regular fares for visitors flying to Atlanta for the festival; call (800) 822-2974 for details; ask for the Cherry Blossom account. There are convenient air and limousine connections from Atlanta to Macon's airport; if you drive yourself, it takes less than 90 minutes from Atlanta. Many tour companies feature the festival.

Staying there. (All mailing addresses are in Macon unless otherwise specified.)

1842 Historic Inn, 353 College St., 31201; telephone (912) 741-1842.

Victorian Village Inn, 1841 Hardeman Ave., 31201; (912) 743-3333.

Macon's Downtown Hotel, 108 First St., 31201; (912) 746-1461.

Holiday Inns: "Macon I-75," 575 Arkwright Interchange, 31210; (912) 474-2610; "Of Macon," I-475 and U.S. 80, 31206; (912) 788-0120.

Days Inn North, 2737 Sheraton Drive, 31204; (912) 745-8521.

Best Westerns: "Riverside," 2400 Riverside Drive, 31201; (912) 743-6311; "Regency," I-475 and U.S. 80, 31206; (912) 781-7131.

Ramada Inn West, I-475 and U.S. 80, 31206; (912) 474-0871.

For more information:

Concerning festival events, tickets, schedules, etc., contact the Macon, Ga. Cherry Blossom Festival, 794 Cherry St., Macon, Ga. 31201; (912) 751-7429.

Concerning accommodations, contact the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 200 Cherry St. (Terminal Station), Macon, Ga. 31201; (912) 743-3401.

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