They held the annual Cherry Blossom Festival lantern lighting ceremony yesterday. In a hotel bar.

A late-season snowburst diverted more than a few Cherry Blossom princesses. It sent transportation workers scrambling for their salt trucks and grounded President Bush's helicopter, forcing him to take the motorcade back from Camp David. In nearby Frederick, the mayor and her two nephews shoveled snow from the finish line of the city's inaugural marathon.

And in the District, Mayor Anthony A. Williams appeared at the Grand Hyatt to read a statement written for the Tidal Basin lantern ceremony. He spoke of the beauty in the "trees that surround us," but quickly interjected: "I mean, the trees that should surround us. You know what I mean."

Though Williams (D) admitted to being a little perturbed by the unfortunately timed snow, he said: "I think people understand that the cherry blossoms are all about the natural cycle of the seasons. And this weather is part of that cycle."

Many area residents woke up yesterday, the 11th day of spring, thinking their clocks had been set back to winter. Even Steve Zubrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, was surprised to see such a dramatic change in the weather when he walked out of church -- from a high of 76 on Saturday at Dulles International Airport to 33 degrees and snow at 9 a.m. yesterday. "I was like, 'Wow, it's snowing. It's late March,' " he said.

Across the region, snow totals varied from zero to several inches.

Although it has snowed here before on March 30 -- most recently in 1991, when Dulles recorded 1.5 inches -- such a late storm is unusual. And the snow tally just keeps piling up: 48.3 inches at Dulles before yesterday, and 40.4 at Reagan National Airport, Zubrick said.

Meteorologists blamed the return of winter on a stalled cold front and an intensifying low-pressure system over the East Coast that also coated parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York with snow. Most of it was light and slushy, although there were pockets of heavier accumulation, especially in the Appalachians.

Today is expected to warm up into the upper 40s, just in time for the Baltimore Orioles' opener against the Cleveland Indians. Yesterday's workouts at Camden Yards were hampered by the weather, and the teams did some hitting indoors.

By Thursday, daytime highs are expected to soar back into the 70s, and the arrival of the cherry blossoms is still on track for sometime between Friday and April 12.

"As long as it stays above 40 degrees, we shouldn't have any problems," said Gentry Davis, deputy regional director of the National Park Service.

Yesterday's snow was more annoyance than inconvenience. Salt trucks were out by 9 a.m. in the westernmost reaches of Northern Virginia, said Joan Morris of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

They weren't the only ones gearing up. Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty, aware that last week's D.C. marathon was canceled for security concerns, wasn't about to let a little snow stand in the way of some 1,250 people prepared to participate in her city's inaugural 26.2-mile race. "It was a little slippery in spots," Dougherty (D) said.

Alex Tomaszczuk, who coaches Babe Ruth baseball in Arlington County, was frustrated to see another practice wiped off the schedule. "We lost much of our basketball season, and now we're not able to practice baseball, so I'm ready to move to California," said Tomaszczuk, 47. "Now we're going shopping. I have 11-year-old twins, and when all else fails, they want to go shopping."

Greg and Valerie Rupert of Leesburg had planned to take the roof off their convertible and dust off their deck. Instead, they donned their winter coats and headed out to play tennis -- indoors -- and have lunch.

"It's kind of depressing," said Valerie Rupert, 45, surveying the inch-deep slush. "It makes you just want to go back to bed."

Her husband, 52, agreed: "We'll go back to the house and relax, but now we'll sit in front of the fire instead of sitting on the deck."

Michele Kelley didn't let yesterday's "nasty surprise" deter her from taking Katie, her Labrador, for a long walk in their Silver Spring neighborhood. "I'm most disappointed about the poor magnolias," she said. "They're going to freeze their buds off."

Nowhere did the sudden climatic turn seem more cruel than at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville, where spring already has arrived with a profusion of color -- the delicate peach of begonias, the beguiling pink of New Guinea impatiens -- nearly all of it still inside.

Customers such as Betty Jean and Paul Benson of Olney came simply to dream. With garden catalogues arriving almost daily in their mailbox, the Bensons have been imagining warm weather and rich soil. "We're thinking past today," she said as the couple wandered the aisles of annuals, warm and protected. "It was a big jolt to look out at the daffodils and forsythia and see them covered in snow."

A few hardy souls inspected possible purchases outside. Willie Thomas of District Heights, with his bundled-but-shivering 14- and 10-year-old daughters, loaded up on azaleas and rhododendrons.

Nursery employee Alice Eichman, her glasses splattered with snow and rain, was undeterred as she put up signs amid the asters. "I would rather work in the cold," said Eichman, well insulated in five layers and a hat. "I find this less horrible than working in July, because then I melt."

Tom Archer, 52, set out from Herndon early yesterday for spring skiing with friends at Maryland's Wisp Mountain. Instead, the powder came to them. Their plans derailed by slick roads, they enjoyed a leisurely brunch in Leesburg and checked out the art galleries and antique shops with daffodils and tulips peeking up from flower beds outside their doors.

When Ed Delaney woke up yesterday, he blinked hard. "I thought, this can't be correct," he said.

"We were convinced it was spring," said his wife, Ann. "The forsythia was blooming."

But the couple, who live in Indianapolis, were determined not to let a few flakes spoil their vacation, so they headed off to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., with their daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren. The good news: no crowds. But they hadn't brought their gloves, hats and winter coats, so the family cut short a tour of the historic park.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Cherry Blossom Festival organizers moved their traditional lantern ceremony to the bar of the Grand Hyatt on H Street NW. City officials and Cherry Blossom princesses tried to maintain a festive mood in the crowded bar, where the Washington Toho Koto Society and the Cardinal Choir entertained.

Event chairman Mark Rhoads had joked with the choir: "Just don't sing 'Frosty the Snowman,' whatever you do." Rhoads said organizers were trying to make the best of a slushy situation. "We've never had this in a bar before," he said.

In the crowd were Gettis Clair, 52, of Capitol Heights and his daughter, April Carter, 31. "It was strange," said Carter, of Beltsville, "but I enjoyed what I could see" from the hotel lobby.

But the pair ducked out before the lighting of a small, make-do lantern. "It won't be the same," Clair said. "We'll go down to the Mall when they light it there."

Staff writers Arthur Santana and Maria Glod contributed to this report.

Lynn Dorfman and her dog, Piper, walk through the big flakes falling but not accumulating in Arlington's Lyon Park neighborhood.Cattle trot across a snow-covered field as they head for shelter from the storm in the Gilberts Corner area of southern Loudoun County.