Sandy Smith, who drove for 12 hours straight from Saginaw, Mich., with her three children, was determined to stay for the kickoff of the 1985 Cherry Blossom Festival yesterday despite the drizzle and a lack of umbrellas: "We came for the cherry blossoms, so we're here."

The cherry blossoms weren't, however.

The delicate pink and white flowers had peaked a week ago and were little more than a remembrance yesterday, fully in keeping with their reputation as a fickle guest of honor at Washington's traditional rite of spring.

The opening ceremony began with the arrival of soggy but good-natured Cherry Blossom Princesses, marching Noah's Ark-like two abreast in the rain and sporting sashes bearing the names of their home states.

"At least we have the princesses. You can always count on the princesses," said Manus J. Fish Jr., director of National Capital Region of the U.S. National Park Service, which almost annually is called upon to explain the absence of cherry blossoms at the Cherry Blossom Festival.

This year, he said, warm weather followed by a cold and windy spell had been enough to cause the blossoms to bloom then fall and blow away.

"They stayed for quite a while this year," Fish said. But last year's were the best he had seen, he added, and they lasted for three weeks, a virtual Methuselah of a crop.

The opening of the Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual tribute to ephemeral beauty, this year coincided with Easter Sunday, the Christian celebration of eternal life, and both holiday finery and weekend jeanery were in evidence yesterday.

Several hundred attended the kickoff yesterday at the northwest edge of the Tidal Basin, which included the ceremonial lighting of the Japanese Lantern, presented to the city of Washington by the governor of Tokyo in 1954. Effi Barry, wife of Mayor Marion Barry, offered a brief official welcome on behalf of the city, and Japanese Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga was there representing his country.

The cherry blossom trees, a symbol of the nation's capital, were a gift of the Japanese in 1912. Washington has about 5,000 of the trees, most of them lining the Tidal Basin, in East Potomac Park and at the Washington Monument grounds.

A draw to an estimated 1 million tourists from around the country, the festival is scheduled to culminate with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Parade at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. Television personality Ed McMahon is to be the grand marshal for the event, which will feature floats, more than two dozen bands from around the country and national TV coverage.

Other events throughout the week will include an arts tribute at the Connecticut Connection at Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW, a fashion show, a tennis tournament, a paddle boat regatta and the Cherry Blossom Grand Ball Saturday night. At the ball, one of the 56 princesses -- one from each state, the District and U.S. territories -- will be chosen queen.

Traffic around the Tidal Basin was jammed yesterday with sightseers eyeing the border of trees, once again green.

While the blooms burst too early and the clouds right on time, Mary and Ernest Pruitt had driven from Rockville with their two daughters and a friend for the ceremony and decided to stick it out. "I just wish I had been better prepared," said Trina Pruitt. "Like with three more umbrellas."