Macon blooms in Georgia's heartland

Spring brings a wash of floral color to Macon, a city that has quietly become one of the country’s best destinations for cherry blossoms. Along with the blooms come a bevy of great reasons for groups to visit. 

During March, the Macon’s International Cherry Blossom Festival attracts a great many visitors, with numerous associated celebrations and events taking place throughout the city. The festival makes a great backdrop for a tour of the town, which can include stops that highlight Macon’s music history, Georgia’s athletic prowess and African-American art, history and culture.

International Cherry Blossom Festival
In the 1950s, a Macon local became intrigued with the cherry tree growing in his back yard and started a movement that would come to define springtime in the city for decades.

“He began giving cherry trees away to residents,” said Valerie Bradley, communications manager at the Macon-Bibb Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Today, 300,000 cherry trees blossom all over the city. A lot of people don’t realize that we have more Yoshino cherry trees than Washington, D.C.”

Inspired by the growing spring color, the city decided to launch the Macon International Cherry Blossom Festival in the 1980s. The festival, which completed its 31st edition this year, comprises 10 days of celebration, with more than 50 individual events happening around the city.

“They have a huge black-tie gala to start things off the first night,” Bradley said. “At Central City Park, they have things like a pink pancake breakfast and a tiger show. They also incorporate things like food truck competitions and fashion shows.”

Groups can attend many of these events, such as Tunes and Balloons, which features live music and a nighttime exhibit of glowing hot-air balloons. Ocmulgee National Monument offers lantern light tours during the festival, taking groups out to explore the ancient Native American site by lantern light.

The Mulberry Street Art Festival also takes place concurrent with the cherry blossom festival.

“They shut down Mulberry Street on Saturday and Sunday, and have more than 100 vendors selling food and art,” Bradley said.

Tubman African American Museum
You may think that a museum named for Harriet Tubman would be dedicated to her life and accomplishments. But Macon’s Tubman African American Museum goes beyond the famous abolitionist to honor many African-Americans who have contributed to history and culture in Georgia and beyond.

“It’s the largest museum in the Southeast dedicated to African-American art, history and culture,” Bradley said. “It was named in honor of Harriet Tubman, but it’s not just artifacts and information about her.”

Groups that visit the museum will find exhibits covering a broad spectrum of African-American accomplishments. Permanent exhibitions include introductions to African-American folk art, black inventors and Middle Georgia history. The museum also mounts four to six special exhibitions each year to focus on special topics in art, culture and history.

The museum staff puts on a number of special tours, programs and workshops that might be of interest to groups. Options include in-depth studies of folk art and African-American inventions.
For groups that can’t make it to Macon during the cherry blossom festival in March, the museum offers a number of alternative events.

“Their signature event is the Pan-African Festival in April,” Bradley said. “It’s an outdoor festival with vendors celebrating the African influence on culture, music and art.”

The museum is also in the process of constructing a new home that will triple exhibit space when it opens in the fall of 2014.

Rock Candy Tours
While your group is in town to enjoy the cherry blossom festival, take some time to explore another side of Macon: its robust music history. As the birthplace or hometown of artists such as the Allman Brothers Band, Otis Redding, Little Richard and R.E.M., Macon had quite an impact on the popular music of the 20th century.

A new company in town, Rock Candy Tours, takes groups behind the scenes to see some of the places that were instrumental in Macon’s music boom.

“The company was started by Jessica Walden, whose family managed Otis Redding and some of the other great artists who came through Macon,” Bradley said. “She does a fabulous job of telling that story. She takes you through the history of Macon and to all the cool music places and tells you about things that many people don’t know.”

During the tours, visitors will see the homes, offices, “crash pads” and favorite local establishments frequented by some of the famous artists who spent time in Macon. Along the way, they also learn about some of the local characters who played pivotal background roles in helping the area’s rising stars.

Rock Candy Tours offers guided walking tours, trolley tours or step-on tours for motorcoach groups. The company also operates the Free Birds and Night Owls Pub Tour, which takes small groups to some of the downtown landmarks, nightclubs and local bars popular with Macon’s musical heroes.