Viva Cuba Libre!

I was sitting in an exceptionally dull Monday Rotary meeting when an exciting text interrupted my boredom. It was an invitation from my Mom: “Would you like to go to Cuba this Thursday to Monday? It is a short cruise.”

We had been discussing the idea of visiting Cuba for a couple of years, since the U.S. eased travel restrictions slightly and images of pop culture icons like the Kardashians, Madonna, Jay Z and Beyonce riding around Old Havana in classic cars ignited our interests. I can remember on a trip to Manzanillo, Mexico when I was a young kid, my parents befriended a couple from Canada who had recently visited Cuba. My Dad was fascinated and often talked about going to Cuba from Canada to try to skirt the U.S. embargo, but we never did.

The U.S. government has limited travel to Cuba since 1960, after Fidel Castro came to power, and to this day, travel for tourist activities remains restricted. The American government has essentially limited sanctioned travel to journalists, academics, government officials, those with immediate family members living on the island and others licensed by the Treasury Department. In 2011, these rules were amended to allow all Americans to visit Cuba as long as they are taking part in a “people-to-people” cultural exchange tour.

The rules were amended again in 2015 and 2016 to effectively allow Americans to travel solo to Cuba for authorized reasons, without getting prior approval from the U.S. State Department. Travelers were still required to prove that they engaged in authorized activities if asked upon return, however.

On June 16, 2017, President Donald Trump announced a return to the strict policies surrounding American travel to Cuba that existed before former President Barack Obama softened the country’s stance in 2014. Americans will no longer be allowed to visit the country as individuals outside the confines of guided tours run by licensed providers as allowed by Obama, and visitors will be required to avoid financial transactions with military-controlled businesses within the country, including certain hotels and restaurants. These changes will go into effect once the Office of Foreign Assets Control issues new regulations, likely in coming months.

But Obama’s new Cuba travel rules opened up direct flights from the U.S. to Havana and other major Cuban cities beginning in the fall of 2016. Cruise ships also have once again started calling on Cuban ports. It was once illegal for any U.S. visitors to bring back any purchased goods from Cuba, such as cigars, and it was also illegal to contribute to the Cuban economy in any way, such as by paying for a hotel room.

However, travelers are now free to spend unlimited amounts of U.S. dollars in Cuba, and can bring home up to $500 in duty free goods (including up to $100 in Cuban rum and cigars). It’s still not easy to spend dollars in Cuba. U.S. credit and debit cards don’t work there (although change is coming), and exchanging dollars for convertible Cuban pesos (CUC) includes an extra fee that’s not charged to any other international currency. That’s why many savvy travelers take Euros, British pounds, or Canadian dollars to Cuba — just remember that you’ll need enough cash to last your whole trip, given the lack of credit cards. I ran out the first day and had to borrow from my Dad. Shocker.

I flew from Detroit to Tampa early Thursday morning, and my parents drove from Ft. Myers to pick me up. We drove to the cruise terminal and boarded the Carnival Paradise, but we were a little apprehensive about lowering our standards to Carnival. The majority of our cruise experiences have been with Princess, including the Mediterranean, Scandinavia and Russia, South America, and Asia.

However, Carnival Paradise was recently refurbished in 2017, and my cabin was clean and large. If you want a stateroom with a balcony, you must book early as there are only 98 available on the entire ship, which was occupied by 2,300 passengers during our cruise.

The final “fantasy class” cruise ship ever created, Carnival Paradise is proof that there’s plenty of fun to be found long before you reach your dream destination. The two-deck Normandie Showroom is done in an art-deco style, with stained-glass chandeliers and cherry wood trim. In the six-story atrium, glass elevators silently glide up and down as passengers relax at the u-shaped bar below, which features a stage with live musical performances.

While they have never stopped adding the latest and greatest features to the ship, this vessel remains classic Carnival — fun-packed from bow to stern. With so much of it indoors, outdoors and everywhere in between, Carnival Paradise features great times in and near the water courtesy of hot tubs, pools and a WaterWorks waterpark featuring a giant spiraling slide and dual racing slides. There’s also Serenity, an adults-only retreat with chaise lounges, hot tubs, sea breeze and, best of all, peace and quiet.

The ship also offers a plethora of entertainment options, including a casino, comedy club, disco, spa and theaters with live stage shows and movies. The Playlist Productions performers presented a memorable and impressive Latin-themed performance on Saturday night as well as an amplified “Epic Rock” show on the last night. The cast had impressive voices; the choreography was good; and the sets and costumes rivaled some of the better cruise lines. The Cruise Director, Jaime, was actually more enthusiastic than some of the cruise directors on other sailings I’ve taken.

On the food front, aboard this ship there’s two of the cruise line’s top casual spots: Guy’s Burger Joint, featuring the goods from Guy Fieri, and BlueIguana Cantina, with authentic south-of-the-border taco/burrito goodness. Refreshments — and good times — abound with RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar. Lucky for me, there was a coffee bar serving my up my favorite iced lattes. The burgers and fries and Mexican fare were all delicious, and my Dad got a kick out of the mechanics’ rags used for napkins at Guy’s Burger Joint. The Destiny and Elations dining rooms offered impressive selections for all courses from appetizers through dessert features. We enjoyed steaks, salmon, sword fish, sea bass, pork, duck and even rabbit. A favorite was the Carnival melting chocolate cake.

Prior to arriving in Cuba, my thoughts were limited to the stories of immigrants like Emilio and Gloria Estefan, which was so wonderfully portrayed in the Broadway musical, “On Your Feet!” Images filled my mind from the news media of people suffering from hunger under communist rule, along with the treacherous journeys of Cubans escaping their homeland and trying to make it to the Florida shores of the U.S. on tiny rafts. I also couldn’t get the Bette Miller song, “Only in Miami” out of my head, in which the singer laments the separation of so many families between America and Cuba:

Standing on the shoreline waiting,

Everyone anticipating.

I can hear the broken hearted say,

Only in Miami

Is Cuba so far away.

All of the previously conceived notions and misperceptions I had were replaced with the modern-day reality of Havana, Cuba on Friday morning when we debarked in the capital city, which is also the largest city, province, major port, and leading commercial center of Cuba. The technicolor capital of La Habana with its pastel buildings and bright colored classic cars is no match for the joyous spirit of the Cuban people.

Cuba is a large Caribbean island with a distinct culture, history, and diverse population. The official language of Cuba is Spanish, as is the case with most of Spain’s former colonies. The Spanish spoken in Cuba is unique in the way people speak, the vocabulary, and colloquial expressions that are used and is not exactly like the Spanish spoken in Spain, Mexico, or South America.

There are a few reasons for the unique language spoken on the island. Cuban Spanish has been influenced largely by west-African languages of the enslaved people the Spaniards brought when they colonized the island. It also contains elements of the indigenous languages of the island’s original inhabitants.

Havana has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, and it spans a total of 281 square miles– making it the largest city by area, the most populous city, and the fourth largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean region. The city extends mostly westward and southward from the bay, which is entered through a narrow inlet and which divides into three main harbors: Marimelena, Guanabacoa and Atarés. The sluggish Almendares River traverses the city from south to north, entering the Straits of Florida a few miles west of the bay.

Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, becoming a stopping point for treasure-laden Spanish galleons returning to Spain. King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592. Walls as well as forts were built to protect the old city. The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor in 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish–American War.

Contemporary Havana can essentially be described as three cities in one: Old Havana, Vedado and the newer suburban districts. The city is the center of the Cuban government, and home to various ministries, headquarters of businesses and over 90 diplomatic offices. The current mayor is Marta Hernández of the Communist Party of Cuba. The city attracts over a million tourists annually.

On our first afternoon in Cuba, we debarked and set out on the “Best of Havana and Local Community Project” tour. The tour includes the top things to do and see in Havana. We rode by air-conditioned, modern motor coach along the Malecon (sea wall) past the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin performed) and the US Embassy. The US embassy, a new addition under the Obama administration, was allegedly the target of a recent sonic attack. Consequently, now the building stands mostly empty. The locals don’t believe the sonic attack actually occurred.

We visited the Fortress de San Carlos de la Cabana, El Cristo (Jesus Christ statue), and Colon Cemetery—one of the Caribbean’s largest burial sites (over 100 acres), which conducts an average of 40 burials a day. It’s one of the largest displays of funerary art in the world, including one mausoleum with doors and windows designed by French crystal artisan, Rene Lalique. We also took a respite at the Plaza de la Revolucion and viewed some of Havana’s most iconic architecture, including the Capitolio, Presidential Palace and Gran Teatro.

We visited a community project that fulfills the requirements of the “people to people” cultural exchange for American tourists. Asociacion Quisicuaba is a social service agency that fights discrimination against seniors, LGBT, persons living with HIV and other vulnerable populations. We were treated to a performance by the senior rap group whose enthusiasm was contagious. The association operates a community museum in a Cuban colonial style house that we also toured.

We had just enough time to return to the ship for dinner and to change clothes before heading into the Havana night. The dining room featured one of my favorites, Ropa Vieja (Spanish for “old clothes”), which is one of the national dishes of Cuba. It consists of shredded stewed beef with vegetables and olives served with rice, beans and fried plantains.

After dinner, we attended the Parisien Cabaret at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Cubans come out of the womb dancing. They have rhythm in their DNA. The Parisien Cabaret tells the story of Cuba in traditional cabaret fashion showcasing the soul of Cuba. The show was a sensational production featuring a combination of colorful and flamboyant costumes, dancing and music that was almost sensory overload.

After only a few hours of rest, I awakened early Saturday morning to explore modern Havana in an American classic—a 1953 Chevy. Cuba is known for its extensive and impressive collection of classic American cars, mostly from the 1950’s, because Fidel Castro forbade the import of newer vehicles for decades, forcing the Cubans to maintain the older ones. Today, the majority of Cuba’s taxis are old American automobiles.

The classic cars look good from the outside with bright colors and big chrome smiles. However, the insides are held together by scotch tape and bubble gum. Much like the rest of Cuba, pretty pastel facades hide crumbling interiors that are reflective of the people, themselves. As one of our guides explained, you can’t even get a credit card in Cuba. They simply don’t exist. You can’t even order from Amazon in Cuba. When Cubans try to order online, the company tells them their country doesn’t exist. It’s a blow to the spirit. However, resilience seems to be a necessity of survival and is readily apparent here. Resilience combined with the Cuban sense of humor makes for a winning combination. Our guide implored us to go back to America as good ambassadors of Cuba and thanked us profusely for our visit.

After cruising through Cuba in a classic car, I engaged in another “people to people”cultural exchange. I had the very special opportunity to experience one of the most admired dance companies in Latin America, Retazos at the Danza Teatro Retazos, learning about their contribution to contemporary dance through a performance entitled, “Moments.” Following the dance presentation in the heart of Old Havana, I explored the charming cobblestone streets featuring beautiful old buildings with wrought iron balconies before boarding the ship to set sail back to Tampa. Old Havana is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Once a thriving international destination, Old Havana is now reflective of a complex history that has, like most of our lives, seen its periods of both triumph and suffering and seems to be on the rebound. Today, the convertible Cuban pesos used in Cuba virtually have the same value as Monopoly money throughout the rest of the world, which is indicative of a country controlled by the government instead of by the people. In Cuba, it’s almost as if time has stood still for over half a century. The Cuban people have been held hostage by their own government and punished by the United States’ policies for decades. Yet they remain a hopeful people, which is a reminder to all of us to be more grateful for how good we have it and to believe that the best is yet to come.

As leaders of the free world, we Americans have an obligation to bring Cuba into modern times instead of continuing to punish the people of this beautiful island for its history, which is mostly attributable to one political leader and one political party. It is said there are no problems in Cuba—only situations. To improve the current situation, perhaps it’s time to harken the old revolutionary cries of “Viva Cuba Libre!” Long Live Free Cuba!

I look forward to hopefully witnessing Cuba’s comeback over the next few decades. In the meantime, hurry and book a trip before the American classic cars are replaced by modern vehicles and the authentic Cuban coffee at the al fresco cafes is replaced by Starbucks.


An Epic 5-Day NOLA Culinary Adventure

New Orleans remains one of my all-time favorite destinations. I’ve been returning regularly for over 20 years. Spring seems to be one of the most pleasant times to visit in terms of weather, and my long-time friend Sena Mourad-Friedman and I visited during French Quarter Fest in April.

This festival has charmed New Orleanians since it first began in 1984, designed to remind locals how fabulous and fun the French Quarter can be. Stages are set up throughout the French Quarter, food from the city’s finest restaurants fills booths in Jackson Square and all along the river in Woldenberg Riverfront Park. It was a secret for a while, rewarding tourists who happened to be in town anyway the second weekend in April. Now this grand fete has evolved into something everyone adores – visitors and locals alike.

Bring your appetite to the festival’s signature event, the “world’s largest jazz brunch” in Woldenberg Riverfront Park, Jackson Square and nearby — a tantalizing spread of beverages and specialty items from some of the best known restaurants in the Crescent City. Sample Pat O’Brien’s Hurricanes, Barbecue Oysters from Red Fish Grill, Prime Rib Po-boy from the Rib Room, Baked Alaska from Antoine’s, Shrimp Remoulade from Galatoire’s and Oysters Rockefeller from Desire Oyster Bar. You can’t try all the restaurants individually during one trip to New Orleans, but you can try a lot of them during this weekend. There’s jambalaya, blackened catfish po-boys, crawfish étouffée, Cajun meat pies, deep fried cupcakes, white chocolate bread pudding and more. More than 60 food and beverage booths are scattered throughout the historic French Quarter and the riverfront. All dishes are priced to sample and savor. Where else can you order Baked Alaska with chocolate sauce at an outdoor food stand?

2018 marks the 35th anniversary of the festival, and the 300th anniversary of the city. To celebrate, there were nearly two dozen stages rocking the French Quarter and surrounding areas throughout the four-day weekend, starting early in the day and going on through the night. Unfortunately, the festival was rained out on Saturday as we were awakened to tornado warnings followed by torrential downpours resulting in flash flooding. New Orleans is shaped like a bowl and since it’s below sea level, when the rains come, the bowl fills up with water.

The 2018 French Quarter Festival featured stages on nearly every corner highlighting 300 Louisiana acts throughout the weekend. The festival is the largest showcase of Louisiana music in the world and boasts samplings of some of the world’s finest and most unique culinary creations.

Speaking of food, our time in the Crescent City was limited and our restaurant goals ambitious. We managed to visit some of the very best offerings in this culinary Mecca: Café Amelie, Irene’s, Antoine’s, Broussard’s, Palace Café, Galatoire’s and the crown jewel, Commander’s Palace.

We arrived on Friday the 13th, which my late friend Mary Lou always considered lucky. “LuLu,” as she was affectionately known, loved to spend time playing the Blazing 7’s slot machines at Harrah’s New Orleans so we tried our luck on the supposedly lucky day in her honor but the house prevailed. It costs a lot of money to build casinos.

Friday the 13th may not have proven lucky for gambling, but we were blessed with a glorious 80-degree breezy day full of sunshine. We strolled from the JW Marriott, our home away from home, to Café Amelie, all the while taking in the glorious art galleries and antique shops along Rue Royal, my favorite street in the French Quarter, as street musicians offered a vibrant soundtrack.

Founded in 2005, Café Amelie was named for Amelie Miltonberger, the mother of Princess Alice, the first American Princess of Monaco, who lived in an accompanying townhouse in the mid-1800s. Nestled in the historic 150-year-old Princess of Monaco Courtyard and Carriage House on Royal Street in the French Quarter, Café Amelie is a rare combination of superb Louisiana fare served in a lush, enchanting New Orleans courtyard setting.

Café Amelie quickly became a favorite of New Orleans locals and tourists alike, who faithfully flock to the café for its delicious food and refreshing cocktails. Café Amelie is known for having one of the most beautiful and romantic courtyards in the Quarter, where patrons can dine al fresco or inside the lovely air-conditioned dining rooms within the historic Carriage House. We enjoyed cochon de lait and ahi tuna in the fresh air on this magnificently cheerful day and overheard the sounds of live musicians from the street outside the entrance floating through the air like the rays of sunshine filtering through the porous clouds.

We took a respite from our stroll through the Quarter at the Orleans Grapevine, which is managed by the lovely Carrie Ann—a Toledo transplant and long-time friend. Carrie visited with us for about an hour as we quenched our thirst with San Pellegrino and people watched from the sidewalk tables.

Another long-time favorite of locals and tourists alike is Irene’s. I’ve being going to Irene’s for over 20 years. In fact, it was at Irene’s that I dined the night Princess Diana died. Our waiter was from Wales and announced to our table in a fine British accent, “The Princess is dead.” We stopped eating and ordered a bottle of champagne to toast her legacy.

Once the French Quarter’s underground secret, Irene’s Cuisine has emerged over the years as one of the area’s most desired and endearing dining spots. At first, people spoke of it in whispers, as though it was just “our little secret” but then passers-by couldn’t miss the crowds waiting out in the street for tables, and certainly not the garlic and rosemary aromas wafting out into the street from the kitchen’s fans.

Since its opening in 1993, Irene’s has remained one of the hottest tickets in town. How owner Irene DiPietro, a baby boomer from a little town in southern Sicily, came to dazzle the palates of the French Quarter’s jaded souls and create an enticing, enchanting setting that is both intimate and homey, is certainly fodder for dining out fanatics.

Irene’s recently relocated from its long-time home at the corner of St. Philip and Chartres to a new location at 529 Bienville. The move was prompted when the Louisiana State Museum, which owns the building rented by Irene’s, decided not to renew the lease claiming the rent was below market rate and the museum couldn’t risk its precious archives stored above the open flames of a restaurant kitchen.

I was pleasantly receptive to the new location of Irene’s. Sometimes in life, something good comes apart in order for something even better to emerge. The food was just as superb as it has always been and the intimacy of the front dining room at the original location has been replicated in a series of three small dining rooms at the new location. Our dining room featured red walls with mirrors and a fireplace with an antique marble clock on the mantle. In the back is a large lounge area with the original piano. The owner’s son and executive chef hand carved the massive wooden bar which is a masterpiece of craftsmanship.

Our waitress, Denise, was both charming and entertaining. After dinner, she took us on a grand tour of the new and improved Irene’s, which featured an altar to St. Joseph in a private back room that was recently blessed by local clergy who dined al fresco in full regalia with pomp and circumstance in the courtyard that isn’t yet open to the public.

We began with the house tomato garlic bread. Sena ordered escargots and I enjoyed the paneed oysters with grilled shrimp, and we shared a melt-in-your-mouth Bibb lettuce salad accented with a walnut-vinaigrette. Sena broke her meat-free diet to savor the lamb chops.

When Denise described the grouper special that was pan seared, topped with jumbo lump crab, hollandaise sauce and asparagus, I commented, “That sounds scrumptious.” She quipped, “Just like you.” It’s this kind of harmless flirtation that makes New Orleans so charming and enchanting. You can’t help but fall in love.

Thankfully we walked over 11 miles just in the first couple of days, which helped offset the caloric intake. The lack of guilt led us to Antoine’s for lunch. They are known for their three-course lunch offered for the same price as the year—$20.18. Some patrons also enjoy the 25-cent cocktail of the day (there’s a limit of three per person).

Antoine’s Restaurant has a 176 year-old legacy as the longest-running family owned restaurant in America. The restaurant is still owned and operated by fifth generation relatives of the original founder, Antoine Alciatore.

The world-renowned French-Creole cuisine, impeccable service and unique atmosphere have combined to create an unmatched dining experience in New Orleans since 1840. Antoine’s 14 dining rooms each have a unique history and charm, and historical photos featuring the balls of past Mardi Gras Krewes offer a glimpse into the rich history of this magnificent city beneath the sea.

Veteran, seasoned and professional waiter Chuck made recommendations and served us a delightful lunch. My shrimp and crawfish over grits was mouthwatering, and Sena raved about her vegetarian special consisting of a variety of vegetables in a creole tomato sauce served with rice. I cheated on my carb-free diet as we split an order of Pommes de Terre Soufflées, the classic Antoine’s fried puffed potatoes served with a side of sauce Bernaise for dipping. “Y’all can use your fingers for the potatoes,” Chuck reassured us.

In between sessions for the International Fundraising Conference that Sena and I were attending at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center—a monstrous concrete complex along the Mississippi—we managed to squeeze in Sunday Jazz Brunch at the Palace Café, part of the Brennan family of restaurants. This classic New Orleans restaurant, located at the foot of the French Quarter, serves contemporary Creole food in an upbeat and lively grand café. As bearers of the torch keeping Creole cuisine alive and vital, Dickie Brennan and Palace Café’s culinary team are constantly evolving traditional Creole dishes and creating a few new favorites.

The restaurant, housed in the historic Werlein’s music building, has won a number of local and national awards since it opened in 1991 including Best New Restaurant from Esquire Magazine and USA Today, the prestigious Ivy Award from Restaurants and Institutions Magazine, and Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence.

Featuring live music, the Sunday Jazz Brunch offers an intriguing and appealing bounty of a la carte choices, like the Café Eggs Benedict— composed of pork debris, poached eggs, cheddar biscuits, tasso, and hollandaise. Sena had hers with shrimp. We enjoyed the strolling musicians who added to the ambience of the bustling brunch crowd.

We were the guests of long-time friends and Toledo transplants Ron and Laura Blackburn at Broussard’s for a meaningful Sunday dinner comprised of laughing, reminiscing and catching up. You can tell we’re all grown up for in the old days it would have been smoking, drinking and carrying on. I’ve known Ron and Laura for over 20 years and have spent holidays with their families. It’s like the song, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.”

Broussard’s first opened its doors in 1920, after an eminent local chef named Joseph Broussard married Rosalie, of the prominent Borrello bloodline. The couple moved into the early 19th century Borrello Mansion on Conti Street, where the restaurant now stands. At his restaurant, Joseph Broussard combined the excitement of local Creole cuisine with classic culinary dishes inspired by his formal Parisian culinary training. The result was a dynamic menu set to the highest of standards.

Because of the restaurant’s unique imperial décor, fantastic food and incomparable ambiance, Broussard’s has served as a vibrant cultural assembly place, where many famous guests have gathered and an array of exciting events have taken place. Hollywood celebrities, politicians, dignitaries, Mardi Gras Royalty and literary figures such as Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner have all played a role in the history of Broussard’s. They have an exquisite courtyard that was reserved for a private party the night of our visit.

We all enjoyed the Rockefeller Salad, composed of crispy oysters, baby spinach, herbsaint dressing, chopped egg, and shaved red onion. Sena and I both had Pompano, one almandine style and one Pontchartrain style with a Creole tomato glaze and grilled shrimp. The shrimp in New Orleans have such a unique flavor due to the mix of fresh water from the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain with the saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. Ron enjoyed the drum fish Bonaparte style with shrimp and crawfish dressing. Laura savored the filet. Everything was scrumptious. Ron and I indulged in Banana’s Foster, flambeed table-side.

The crown jewel of New Orleans’ restaurant legacy is arguably the world-renowned Commander’s Palace. Commander’s Palace, nestled in the middle of the tree-lined Garden District, has been a New Orleans landmark since 1893.

Known for the award-winning quality of its food and its convivial atmosphere, the history of this famous restaurant offers a glimpse into New Orleans’ storied past and has been the go-to destination for Haute Creole cuisine and whimsical Louisiana charm. The winner of six James Beard Foundation Awards, Commander’s Palace has evolved into a culinary legend.

When Ella, Dottie, Dick and John Brennan took over personal supervision of the restaurant in 1974, they began to give the splendid old landmark a new look both inside and out including painting the outside the iconic “Commander’s Blue.” Now under the watchful eye of co-proprietors Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, the Brennan family’s dedication to perfection has never wavered.

A steady parade of renowned chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Jamie Shannon, and now Tory McPhail have made Commander’s Palace the world-class restaurant that it is today and its leading-edge Haute Creole cuisine reflects the best of the city.

Sena, Laura and I were joined by Jim and Barbara Poure, who divide their time between Toledo and Naples, for a scrumptious dinner at Commander’s. Barbara was also in town for the International Fundraising Conference, and she is one of only 111 Advanced Certified Fund Raising Executives in the world. As a matter of fact, Toledo has more ACFRE’s than any other city in the world—five.

We had various appetizers, including an heirloom tomato salad, soup du jour, Caesar salad, and my favorite—buttermilk gnocchi topped with crawfish and peas swimming in a cream sauce. The cream sauce carried over to the cream corn that decorated the plate under the sheepshead fish that was topped with crab and savory pecans, which I devoured. Laura enjoyed the filet, while Sena had a special vegetarian offering that featured eggplant. Barbara and Jim had the sea bass topped with crawfish and accompanied by haricot verts. A fruit plate, berries with fresh whipped cream and pecan pie rounded out the lovely evening filled with laughter. Laura drove Sena and I back to the hotel and left Barbara and Jim off to disappear into the night at the Maison Bourbon on Bourbon Street—one of the few remaining establishments to offer nightly traditional New Orleans jazz musicians—master craftsmen—performing live.

Our last supper was actually a lunch, which we enjoyed immensely with another Toledo transplant, Lisa Lynn at Galatoire’s—a legend that is a long-remaining staple of the NOLA social and political scene. Lisa Lynn first moved to New Orleans in 1995 to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of New Orleans. That year, for Thanksgiving, a few of us made a road trip from Toledo to New Orleans to visit Lisa Lynn. That was my first ever journey to The Big Easy, and I’ve been returning regularly ever since.

Lisa Lynn is now something of a French Quarter legend, serving as bar matron at Harry’s Corner and performing the occasional singing gig in the Quarter. A talented songstress, she has recorded several CD’s and can be found on iTunes. She is a past performer at the French Quarter Fest.

Founded in 1905 by Jean Galatoire, this infamous address distinguished itself on Bourbon St. from its humble beginning. From the small village of Pardies, France, Jean Galatoire brought recipes and traditions inspired by the familial dining style of his homeland to create the menu and ambiance of the internationally-renowned restaurant.

In its fifth generation, it is the Galatoire family and descendants who have carried the tradition of New Orleans’ fine dining restaurants and influenced its evolution. The restaurant’s culinary customs and reservation statutes have been preserved with little change throughout the decades. Consistency has been the greatest asset that Galatoire’s has displayed for more than a century.

Laura and I once took my tiny teacup Yorkie LuLu to lunch at Galatoire’s on a Friday, which is the most popular day for locals to lunch. As LuLu sat propped on a pillow at the table, eating salad, fellow patrons sang Happy Birthday to a 90 year old at a nearby table while everyone else around the place was carrying on as if each table was a microcosm. Combined, the noise can be a bit overwhelming but the energy is both eclectic and electric. Think pearls, hats and seersucker. A boozy mix of eccentricities.

On this particular lunch visit, a waiter brought the loud dining room to a hush when he clinked a spoon against a water glass and proceeded to request everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to a patron named Daniel. We all obliged and paused from lunch to join in the festive chorus. Sena remarked, “I want to come back here to celebrate my birthday!” This is true N’awlins culture, which is big on celebration. I am convinced they have a parade every time someone sneezes.

After an appetizer platter composed of Oysters en Brouchette, crabmeat maison, shrimp Remoulade, and crawfish maison, we anxiously awaited the arrival of our entrees as we savored the last crumbs of French baguette. Because New Orleans is below sea level, certain adjustments need to be made to the bread recipes, and the result is some of the most magnificent bread in the world both in texture and taste. Lisa Lynn enjoyed the crabmeat Yvonne while I relished the shrimp Clemenceau with garlic, mushrooms, peas and cubed potatoes. Sena savored a Creole vegetarian dish featuring zucchini and green beans over rice.

Thankfully I walked over 30 miles during the time I was in NOLA, which helped to burn off all the calories. It’s nearly impossible not to indulge in all of the great restaurants as well as the more simple pleasures like po-boys, Zapp’s potato chips, muffuletta sandwiches from Central Grocery, Jackson Square chocolates and pralines from Southern Candymakers and New Orleans Ice Cream Company ice cream—bananas foster is my favorite flavor, with Creole cream cheese coming in a close second.

The best memories in life are centered around travel and food combined with the people and places we love. New Orleans celebrates the joys of life—food, fun, and laughter. It’s a timeless international destination—truly a world class city—rich in both culture and cultural diversity like no other. New Orleans is second only to Philadelphia in terms of American cities with the most French influence—in the food, architecture, and culture. If Europe isn’t in your budget, consider a trip to New Orleans. It’s the closest thing America has to Europe. It’s also the perfect setting to enjoy with old friends and to make new acquaintances. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Maui Magic

Visiting the magical island paradise of Maui was something I’d been wanting to do since my first vacation to the Aloha State over 30 years ago. During one of my recent and more frequent journeys to Oahu to spend time with my beloved partner, Sam Yoder and his endearing Mom, Geri, Sam fulfilled my dream and took me to the Valley Isle for a three-day, two-night adventure to celebrate my 45th birthday and to commemorate my graduation from real estate school at the top of my class. I also passed both the national and state exams on the first try, earning my State of Hawaii Real Estate Salesperson license.

Maui is the second largest of the Hawaiian islands with over 727 square miles and over 150,000 residents who call this nature-lover’s oasis home. We flew the very short 18 minute flight from Honolulu to Kahului and rented a Suburban, setting out to explore everything possible in our limited amount of time. We didn’t leave any stones unturned.

Despite rain showers upon arrival, within the first few hours, we managed to explore several areas of the island, including Wailea, where I hit the Gucci store for a new messenger bag and matching wallet that I had forfeited to another shopper who was quicker to pull the trigger at Ala Moana in Honolulu. In case you didn’t know, some luxury brands, including both Gucci and Louis Vuitton, have a lower retail price in Hawaii than on the mainland.

The Shops at Wailea is a destination in itself, featuring world-class restaurants and luxury brands, along with regular entertainment programs. Known for its five beautiful, crescent-shaped beaches and stellar golf courses, Wailea is a luxurious resort community in South Maui that spans 1,500 acres of land with staggering ocean views. The area exudes a sense of privacy, serenity and freedom spread across an area three times the size of Waikiki.

There are five hotels tucked into the town, including opulent resorts like the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa and the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea. This resort community also includes distinctive condominiums and stately private homes.

The area’s signature beaches include Wailea Beach, named “America’s Best Beach” in 1999, Polo Beach, with excellent swimming and snorkeling, and Ulua Beach Park, where early morning and sunset walkers and joggers abound.

We stopped at a roadside vista overlooking the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and spotted a couple of the enormous creatures out in the bay. Seeing the whales from a distance was not satisfactory, so we took Sam’s cousin Rysie’s recommendation to experience the Ultimate Whale Watch and Snorkeling Company’s small group rafting vessel that allows the cozy group to rapidly reach locations and explore the area while searching for the planet’s largest mammals. We experienced one of the last great migrations of the animal kingdom within the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The whales come to the sanctuary, which is located between Maui, Lanai and Kahoolawe, to mate then travel to Alaska for the pregnancy and return to Maui for the birth. While on the raft, we could see four of the eight Hawaiian islands simultaneously—Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, and Molokai.

Departing from historic Lahaina, the company guarantees Humpback Whale encounters and the crystalline offshore waters frequently provide a passing subsurface eye-to-eye view. Indeed, we came upon a mother with her calf in the shallow waters, and the mother literally anchored herself underneath our small raft where we could make out the white portions of her school-bus sized body. The baby was the size of a pick-up truck. Our captain turned the motor off as you are forbidden to navigate within 100 yards of the creatures, which are larger than any of the dinosaurs that once walked on Earth. If they approach you, as these two did, then it’s considered “mugging.” As if this and other whale sightings weren’t enough, this excursion offered my first glimpse of bottle nose dolphins in all of my trips to Hawaii.

After we disembarked from the over-sized dinghy, we breathed a sigh of relief and made our way through the charming old town of Lahaina, which reminded us of New England. Lahaina is a location that is experienced by two million people, or approximately 80% percent of all of Maui tourism per year. Lahaina has over a thousand years of rich history, and was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1820 to 1845. From beaches to restaurants, Lahaina has some of the best attractions Maui has to offer.

Lahaina’s Front Street has been ranked one of the “Top Ten Greatest Streets” by the American Planning Association. Enjoy a relaxing stroll, and if rest is needed, take a break under the massive Banyan tree located in the town square.

We dined at Lahaina Grill upon the recommendation of Sam’s salesperson, Theresa, from Louis Vuitton at Ala Moana. Theresa raved about the dining establishment, and we were not disappointed.

Lahaina Grill opened in 1990 as a little 55-seat bistro off Lahaina’s thoroughfare called Front Street, and almost 20 years later the restaurant has garnered international-acclaim as a culinary Mecca—these days, it’s sometimes difficult to book one of the restaurant’s 130 seats!

Considered by many to be Maui’s prettiest, freestanding restaurant, the soft tones are accented by a gorgeous, pressed tin ceiling, reminiscent of bistros in the American south, complete with ceiling fans. I had to remind myself I was in Maui and not in New Orleans or Charleston.

The tabletops are set with fine china, flatware and crystal. The artwork hanging throughout the restaurant is by Maui’s premier colorist, Jan Kasprzycki. His big, bountiful paintings, mostly of colorful flowers, are the perfect complement to the distinctive flavors found in the food. Lahaina Grill has been voted Maui’s best restaurant continuously for the past 25 years!

We began our dining experience with the Maui onion soup and a tomato and bufala mozzarella stacked salad that exploded with flavors. The waitress brought us Molokai black lava sea salt to sprinkle, which turned Sam’s fingers black from the charcoal infusion. Sam enjoyed an enormous New York Strip served with a head of roasted garlic, while I savored the baked salmon prepared with spinach, roasted tomato, and caramelized Maui onions accompanied by a sweet vanilla jasmine rice that almost sufficed as a dessert. Almost. Until we strolled to our car, making a stop at Hawaii Gelato along the way. The Kona mud pie flavor was my favorite, but Sam’s combo of salted caramel and chocolate was almost too simple to believe the paring could be so satiable. I was disappointed with the Maui pie flavor, however, as it had too much coconut for my liking.

After a full-day of travel and exploring, it was time for some rest. We made the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua our home while on Maui. Having been a devoted fan of Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Resorts for over a quarter-century, staying at this property was on my bucket list.

While it has been centuries since Maui welcomed its first inhabitants, the message behind Kapalua, meaning “arms embracing the sea,” remains today. Among Hawaii’s most breathtaking resorts, The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua captivates guests with luxury amenities including two golf courses, a locally inspired spa, six restaurants, shopping and outdoor activities that highlight the island’s surrounding natural beauty.

We were greeted at the entrance to the resort with leis made of seashells, considered to be Hawaiian folk art. Enormous white orchids in tall brown ceramic pots lined the colonnade of the hotel’s entrance and other impressive tropical floral arrangements, featuring indigenous anthuriums and birds of paradise, were delightfully placed throughout the property.

A lanai off the back of the lobby overlooks the three-level pool, with each level cascading into the next. Beyond the pools and hot tubs is the beach. Tall palm trees gracefully sway in the breeze as visitors enjoy mai tais waterside.

The next morning was overcast but we stuck to our plan of driving the epic Road to Hana since it often rains on the Road to Hana anyway. In fact, part of the trip is through the Rain Forest, so pack umbrellas and wear closed-toed shoes.

The legendary Road to Hana is only 52 miles from Kahului, and 42 miles from mile marker 0, where Route 36 becomes Route 360 outside of Paia. However, the drive takes several hours to complete since it’s fraught with narrow one-lane bridges, hairpin turns and some of the word’s most breathtaking ocean front scenery. The Hana Highway (HI-360) is literally carved into the side of the island and has 620 curves and 59 (mostly one-lane) bridges, many of which offer spectacular up-close-and-personal views of waterfalls and streams.

We began our sojourn in the North Shore surfing town of Paia, where we ordered delicious sandwiches for the road from The Hana Picnic Lunch Co., which also offers espresso drinks and gelato. Wanting to save my sandwich for later on in the journey, I walked down the road to Paia Bowls and ordered an açaí bowl for breakfast, topped with cocoa nuggets, strawberries, bananas, honey, almond butter and coconut. I became addicted to açaí bowls during this visit to Hawaii.

There are many food trends out there that are unwarranted, but when it comes to açaí bowls — which feature the super superfood from Brazil — the buzz is 100 percent deserved. The açaí berry has been heralded for an array of health benefits, but its strongest asset is definitely its taste. Açaí is a delicious tropical fruit and when it comes served as a bowl it makes waking up a whole lot easier.

Açaí bowls look like dessert, almost taste like ice cream or sorbet, and make you feel good about your breakfast choice. It’s what breakfast dreams are made of. An açaí bowl is basically a really thick smoothie that’s been topped with granola, fruit and honey, and then you wolf it down with a spoon. I literally feel a mood boost immediately upon consumption.

Not only is it important to pack snacks and drinks to fuel your body for the long journey (there are limited roadside stands along the Road to Hana), it is equally important to fill your gas tank before starting out. When we finally reached Hana a few hours after our adventure began, we paid $5.75 a gallon to fill up at a two-pump service station.

Along the Road to Hana we made our first stop at the Garden of Eden, located between Mile Marker 10 and 11. The Garden of Eden Arboretum and Botanical Garden is the vision and creation of Alan Bradbury, Maui’s first ISA certified arborist, musician and landscape designer. The project began in 1991 and opened to the public in 1996, featuring over 500 varieties of the most beautiful indigenous specimens of flowers and fauna. From the vantage point above, one can look down upon a giant rock formation that is the location for the opening sequence of the film, “Jurassic Park.”

Our next stop along the way was Keanae Peninsula. Keep a lookout for the sign for the Keanae Aroboretum. Shortly after you pass it, you’ll take a left at the Keanae sign, which will lead to Keanae Peninsula. As the Road descends, you’ll see a flat area of land and some taro beds and a beautiful old church. Get out of the car and explore the sublime shoreline featuring enormous black lava rock formations emerging from the rough sea. It’s magical!

From Keanae Peninsula, we made our way along the snaking road to Waianapanapa State Park. Just before you reach the town of Hana and a little past Mile Marker 32, Waianapanapa is one of the most special places on Maui. This small family-run recreational and camping area offers incredible views, pounding surf, a blowhole (that wasn’t active the day we visited) and a pebbly black sand beach. There are a plethora of hiking trails and caves.

When you finally get to Hana you realize that the experience is all about the journey — not the destination. There isn’t much in Hana except for a hotel, general store, restaurant and gas station.

Continuing on past Hana for 9.1 miles, one reaches Oheo Gulch at Mile Marker 42. Located within the backside of Haleakala National Park, Oheo Gulch, often referred to as the “Seven Sacred Pools,” features multiple waterfalls cascading into pools, eventually making their exit to the Pacific.

After a short hike along the Seven Sacred Pools we made the reverse trek back winding along cliffs that I was happy I couldn’t see in the dark. While Sam grew more and more car sick from driving in the rain all the way back along the curving roads, I enjoyed the exhilarating rush from the passenger seat as we listened to 94.3 with the windows down. KDLX FM is a current music intensive station with hits by Kesha, Rhianna, Pharrell, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Usher and Katy Perry, offering music for the 21st century all delivered in an upbeat mass appeal presentation. It seemed to be the perfect soundtrack for the drive as the beats synchronized with the back and forth rhythm of the bends in the Road to Hana.

The smell of salt air mixed with rain drops combined with music was a treat for all of my senses. Indeed, in all of my extensive travel experiences, the Road to Hana is near the top. It was an adrenaline rush rewarded by sublime nature scapes.

Finally returning to Lahaina, we obtained the last seating reservation at 9:15 p.m. for dinner at Duke’s Beach House. Having dined multiple times at Duke’s Waikiki, this location was a familiar respite after a simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting day.

Duke’s Beach House honors renowned waterman and Hawaii’s most famous son, Duke Kahanamoku. He was an Olympic swimmer and the father of modern day surfing but he may be best known for sharing his genuine spirit of Aloha. Duke was Sam’s Mom Geri’s swim instructor when she was a child.

Here just steps from the sand, you are treated to sweeping views of the Pacific framed by the islands of Molokai and Lanai along with a casual, nostalgic ambiance and a glimpse into the life of the restaurant’s namesake, Duke. Honua Kai Resort’s open-air beach eatery offers island menus, surfer decor, tiki torches and vistas.

I indulged in the au fish encrusted with herbs and macadamia nuts and finished with a tomato infused lemon caper butter sauce. A red meat connoisseur, Sam once again devoured an enormous and scrumptious 14 oz. New York strip with horseradish mashed potatoes and Maui sweet cream corn that exploded in your mouth. The taro rolls were also delicious. We opted to skip the famous Hula Pie dessert this time. It’s a favorite dessert with Island visitors, but we were too full to indulge. Hula Pie is made with macadamia nut ice cream piled high on a chocolate cookie crust and topped with chocolate fudge, whipped cream, and more macadamia nuts. It is sized for sharing, but rarely goes unfinished!

In addition to fantastic dining, Maui is known for its natural beauty, which has attracted the rich and famous from around the world. International media icon and actress Oprah Winfrey bought the former Thompson Ranch in the tiny town of Kula in Maui’s Upcountry. Even across the Pacific and far from her roots, Oprah has created a place to call home. “I love, love, love my house,” she says. “It’s a gem, so sweet and exquisite. Such a real, normal house. It feels like a nice blanket.” Then she adds, “A lovely and soft cashmere one.”

While most of us will never see the interior, which is featured online (, the estate has become something of a tourist attraction. The best way to find it is to ask Siri for directions to Grandma’s Coffee House in Kula. Following Highway 37 out toward Ulupalakua, you will eventually pass mile marker 12, then mile marker 13. You will pass Rice Park on the left. Keep going until you see mile marker 16.5 and Keokea Park will be on the left.

Now, SLOW DOWN. You will see a sign for “Thompson Ranch Road” because Oprah bought Thompson Ranch. Grandma’s Coffee House will be on the right, and make the left onto Thompson Ranch Road, which immediately veers to the right. Be careful to make this right or you will be going uphill to Kula Hospital.

Thompson Ranch Road is a bit like a small roller-coaster ride, up and down and all around. It’s pretty much one lane, so be careful of all the people going in the other direction who have already been to view Miss Oprah’s house, and are now probably on their way for coffee at Grandma’s. You won’t know you are at Oprah’s house unless you are watching the hillside on the left. About a quarter mile down there it is, white and gleaming, perched on the hill. Lucky for us there happens to be a little turnaround were we can pull off on the right and view it.

Meandering down Thompson Ranch Road, lined with a lava rock wall on both sides, I asked Sam to take my picture in front of the driveway gate. I wanted a picture to go with the one I took in front of Oprah’s gatehouse at her Montecito Estate five years previously on a trip to California for my 40th birthday. Noticing several similar gates with driveways, we stopped to inquire of a gardener, “Which of these gates is Oprah’s?” “All of them,” was his reply. All of them. Indeed, Oprah owns the whole damn mountainside, which includes spectacular views sweeping down to the valley floor below, across to the West Maui Mountains and boasting views of the ocean on both coasts of the island.

After Oprah failed to invite us in for lunch, we made our way to Haleakala National Park. Every year, more than a million tourists visit Haleakala National Park, home to the world’s largest dormant volcano. The entire park occupies 30,000 acres of land in Upcountry Maui, though most visitors focus on a few specific areas of the park. Of course, there’s the mountain: Haleakala’s summit stands more than 10,000 feet above sea level (in fact, you can see it from any point on the island). Travelers recommend planning your visit to the summit in the morning to see the sunrise (keep in mind you’ll have to make reservations online in advance and you’ll be required to pay a small fee). A fairly winding road (Route 378) will lead you to the top. The drive ascending through the rain clouds was almost more nerve wracking than the Road to Hana. No matter when you visit, be sure to wear warm layers. The air up top is thin and chilly.

Once you reach the top of Haleakala, you can keep going down into the mouth of the volcano. The Haleakala Crater measures 19 square miles and offers a stark glimpse into Hawaii’s early beginnings. Trails into the crater will lead you past a desert-like landscape, making for unique photo opportunities. We were lucky that the clouds cleared just enough to offer us some sublime views into the vibrant red, orange and white colors of the crater, framed by green vegetation. We also could see the telescope observatories and the clouds parted just long enough to see all the way down to the coastline 10,000 feet below.

Haleakala National Park is located in southern Maui and welcomes visitors 24 hours a day. If you’re driving to the park, set aside several hours for the journey (it’s about three hours from Wailea). You’ll find three visitor centers: The Park Headquarter Visitors Center sits near the northern corner of the park along the road to the summit, the Haleakala Visitor Center can be found near the top of the mountain and the Kipahulu Visitor Center sits along the southeast portion of the park (at the head of the Pipiwai trail). Roll your windows down to smell the sensational eucalyptus forest along the snaking highway to the summit.

From Haleakala National Park, we descended from the mountain and headed back to Paia for our last evening of strolling, shopping (don’t miss Alice in Hulaland for unique and amusing souvenirs) and sipping lattes before heading to nyloS for dinner.

AT nyloS, we experienced an amazing Maui finale featuring modern gastronomy by extraordinarily talented chef/owner Jeremy Solyn and his wife, Paulina. Jeremy is from my the same neighborhood in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio and is a fellow Liberty High School alum.

nyloS’ (Solyn spelled backwards) intimate and limited-seating dining room features a three-course menu that changes nightly. Guests with dietary restrictions are requested to call ahead and Jeremy accommodated Sam’s shellfish allergy. After an amuse bouche of cucumber and tomato with a strawberry vinaigrette, we savored braised and crisped pork belly followed by prime beef paired with King Crab for me and organic chicken for Sam (which he said was “to die for”). A highlight was the dessert of house-made puffed sushi rice, strawberry Chantilly cream, Cacao Pascha chocolate paint and cayenne syrup garnished with an edible 99.99% silver paper. Paulina brought me my dessert with a candle wishing me a happy birthday and congratulating me on my recent accomplishments regarding my Hawaiian real estate endeavors.

It was the perfect ending to a memorable escapade on Maui. Not to be outdone by man-made experiences, Mother Nature seemed to have the final blessing as she smiled with a breathtaking sunset painted across the sky above the mountains. Mahalo to magical Maui for your hospitality. A hui hou.

Hawaii is Always a Good Idea

Since Hawaii has become my favorite destination and virtually my second home, you’ll accept why it’s the topic of many of my travel blogs. It was an extraordinary month spent on Oahu that began in mid-December just before the holiday break with sketchy weather and record-breaking rainfall that culminated in a live concert by Diana Ross and eventually concluded with a ballistic missile threat.

Needless to say, it was not a dull adventure. We should have anticipated this given the first dose of excitement we received on our flight from LA to Honolulu. Academy Award winning actress, Geena Davis was on our flight. The “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own” star flashed her recognizable smile as she passed by and stopped to pet our Yorkies, LuLu and Spike.

As many of you will recall from previous blogs, my handsome and entertaining partner, Sam Yoder and his beautiful and endearing Mom, Geri, have a house in Mililani and we have a wonderful and charming ohana (family) of aunties, uncles and cousins on the island known as “The Gathering Place.” This is a blessing that none of us takes for granted. Life is, after all, short, and no one is promised tomorrow. Spending time with loved ones is the best gift you can give to them and to yourself.

Understandably, I was filled with anticipation about the excitement of spending the Christmas season with our relatives there and how much fun we would have together. I was not disappointed. Our cousins Tricia and Darren kicked off the holidays with a festive party at their home that included a gift exchange game that had us in tears with laughter. Another game consisted of guessing how many candies were in a container. We all had a guffaw over the faux pas I made by eating the chocolates instead of guessing how many there were!

A highlight was Christmas Eve spent with our engaging and uplifting friend, Keri Hall and her delightful daughter, Hannah—California transplants from Ohio. We joined Keri’s parents at d.k. Steakhouse at the Marriott Waikiki for a scrumptious meal of steaks and seafood. Unfortunately the restaurant ran out of their famous Mud Pie dessert, which takes a few days to concoct, but on the bright side, it spared us some unnecessary calories.

Keri’s nephew is stationed in Guam in the US military. His wife has been temporarily relocated to Oahu in anticipation of the birth of their twins—a boy and a girl. Keri’s Mom, Penny, who is retired, has the good fortune to be with her granddaughter-in-law on the island to support her through the pregnancy and birth.

We had many hiking and beaching adventures with Keri and Hannah, including the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail where we climbed around a fence that was blocking the path to the lighthouse and made the trek all the way to the white beacon with red roof, ignoring the warning signs to “keep out.” Makapu’u remains my favorite vista on the island, combining both mountains and beaches with the smaller Rabbit and Turtle islands in the distance—so many beautiful shades of green, turquoise and blue.

We saw paragliders taking off right before our very eyes from the treacherous cliffs at Makapu’u! We also had the blessing to witness a double rainbow and something I had never seen before—the sublime formation of a rainbow underneath the clouds extending down from the sky to the ocean. We also watched adventurous tourists and locals plunge from the tops of the cliffs at Spitting Caves down into the swirling waters of the Pacific.

On Christmas Day, Sam and I, along with his cousin, Anna and her daughter Kaylin, visited Lanikai Beach where we enjoyed an afternoon in the sun. Many others had the same idea which made for a crowd with challenging parking but we enjoyed looking at the snowmen made of sand. We laughed as we got photo-bombed by a Golden Retriever. After the beach, we returned to have dinner with the rest of the family in Kaneohe, including Uncle Lionel and Auntie Bobbi, Auntie Dorothy, cousins Keana and Braddah and Tricia and Darren and Rysie and Mike as well as Anna’s husband Darryl, cousin Brandi, cousins Brittney and Shane and their son, Kaeo as well as Kaylin’s boyfriend, Elliott. Brittney made my day when I gave her the Shaka sign and she said I looked just like a Kanaka (native). The Shaka sign, sometimes known as “hang loose” by outsiders, is a gesture of friendly intent often associated with Hawaii and surf culture.

We over-indulged in a Christmas dinner combination of Honey Baked ham and turkey, along with Japanese and Portuguese delicacies—both savory and sweet, including butter mochi (a sweet rice dessert). Counting calories is never an option in Hawaii. The food is too good to resist. We devoured all of my favorites, including many local features from Zippy’s, which is a chain restaurant/bakery. I particularly love their island Mac salad, Somen salad (with Japanese noodles) and the lilikoi (passion fruit) cream cheese squares. Sam swears by the Korean fried chicken. Our neighbor, Auntie June, once again made lumpia, which is a Filipino take on the Chinese egg roll—longer and stuffed with beef, garlic, been sprouts, cabbage and carrots. I peeled the lumpia wrappers; Sam stuffed and rolled them; and Auntie June fried them. We had our own efficient system and joked that we could make 500 a week and sell them at the Swap Meet. Geri made Spam fried rice; Sam fried us Portuguese sausage; and I made breakfast frittata. The chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies from the Cookie Corner are irresistible as is the Choco Mochi manufactured by Island Princess. Choco Mochi is a salty, savory, sweet and crunchy combination. The special rich milk chocolate covers crunchy Japanese rice crackers that are also known as Arare or Kaki Mochi crackers. My colleagues at work requested that I bring plenty back to them to satiate their cravings. The stuff is that addictive.

In addition to eating, hiking and beaching, we also did some shopping at Macy’s and the outlets at Waikele and worked around the house, especially during the first week which was demonstrative of the rainy season. We lined the trim of the house and landscape with multi-colored Christmas lights and made Reese’s Temptation cookies as well as toffee candy. The day after Christmas, it rained non-stop all day and night, breaking records for the amount of rainfall. Honolulu recorded a new daily rainfall record — 2.7 inches — beating the previous record of 2.09 inches on the same day in 1992, according to the National Weather Service. Even the Honolulu Zoo had to close.

While visiting with Geri’s brother, Gary, and his wife, LaDawn, we FaceTimed with my family in Ohio. My Dad and Geri shared holiday greetings and joked back and forth essentially planting the seed for their trip to paradise. The next morning I awoke to text messages and emails from my Dad saying they had searched for airline tickets. We called them, and a few hours later their trip was booked.

Two days later, my enthusiastic and highly energetic parents, Mickey and Carol, arrived from Ohio with their sense of humor and zest for adventure intact, hoping to escape the arctic chill and snowfall. To our delight, they enjoyed terrific weather for most of their 12-night visit. After greeting them at the airport with leis, we took them to the Royal Hawaiian, my favorite hotel on Waikiki Beach. We gobbled over-stuffed burgers and onion rings al fresco and watched the sun set to the sound of live music and a hula dancer. The shops in the arcade at the Royal Hawaiian are delightful and feature unique items, many in pink colors because the hotel is known as the Pink Palace of the Pacific—apparently a palace fit for a movie star because Geena Davis was a guest. We ran into her kids in one of the shops. The Christmas decorations were also all in pink to match the façade of the iconic landmark. It was surreal to experience Christmas in the land where palm trees sway. Mele Kalikimaka, indeed!

It was both a dream come true and an answer to prayers to have my parents spend quality time and bond with Sam and Geri. It was a perpetual laugh fest combined with over-eating, and we didn’t let any grass grow under our feet as we covered practically every speck of sand on the island from the North Shore to Waianae; from Honolulu and Waikiki to Sandy Beach and Halona; from Waimea to Pearl Harbor. We saw dolphins, whales and turtles. Sam took my parents to the Swap Meet at the Aloha Stadium where they bargained for treasures of sandals, koa wood souvenirs and T-shirts. We hiked Diamond Head and Manoa Falls and voted unanimously that our favorite shave ice is at Dave’s Ice Cream in Waimanalo. I am particularly fond of having the shave ice atop of a scoop of the pineapple ice cream with chunks of fresh pineapple. Sam and my Dad discovered the custom of pouring sweetened condensed milk overtop of the shave ice to make it more of an ice cream consistency. My Dad’s favorite delicacy must have been the malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery. These Portuguese doughnuts are served warm and filled with custard, chocolate, or haupia. He loved them so much he endangered the lives of my Mom and Geri by doing a U-Turn in the middle of a busy boulevard to turn around and buy some more.

We ate in many great restaurants, including the Haleiwa Beach House where we savored Kalua Pork grilled cheese sandwiches and Kua Aina Sandwhich Shop for burgers. We scarfed down Pineapple Whip at the Dole Plantation. Sam and I like ours sprinkled with li hing mui, a powder of salty dried plum—a sweet and salty combination that complements the pineapple. Not to be missed, of course, is Duke’s Waikiki at the Outrigger Hotel. Their Hula Pie dessert is world famous.

Hula Pie is made with macadamia nut ice cream piled high on a chocolate cookie crust and topped with chocolate fudge, whipped cream, and more macadamia nuts. It is sized for sharing, but rarely goes unfinished! We ordered a slice, just as Sam left to use the restroom. The instructions recommend turning the dessert on its side before devouring. By the time he returned to the table, there was only one bite left. The four of us practically stabbed each other with our giant metal sporks assembling the perfect bite of chocolate crust, ice cream, fudge, whipped cream and a little of the chocolate sauce and chopped macadamia nuts garnishing the plate.

Another irresistible discovery this trip was chocolate macadamia nut ice cream made by Roselani. In 1932 at the Maui Soda & Ice Works plant in Wailuku, Maui, Manuel Nobriga began making ice cream from scratch for local ice cream parlors. Everyone loved the velvety smooth texture and the richness of his flavors and the business grew to eventually include half-gallon cartons that folks could enjoy at home. Four decades later in 1970, Manuel’s son, David “Buddy” Nobriga, gave ice cream a fitting Maui name — Roselani. Today, third generation ice cream maker Cathy Nobriga Kim continues the family tradition, adding innovative island flavors to old-time favorites.

The name Roselani is always of interest, especially to folks outside of Maui. It is the Americanization of the Hawaiian word Lokelani, which means “heavenly rose” and is Maui’s official flower. The red blossom is proudly displayed on Roselani Ice Cream cartons, which are a available throughout the Aloha State.

“It honors my grandfather’s and my father’s identity. A rose is the queen of perfection,” says Cathy—just like the ice cream which bears its name. When I return for my next visit, Auntie June and I plan to make our own version of Hula Pie at home using the Roselani chocolate macadamia nut ice cream, which is available on Oahu at Times Supermarket.

On New Year’s Eve, to the dismay of LuLu and Spike, the island erupts with fireworks and becomes enveloped in smog. While the dogs were hiding and trembling from terror, we stood on the back lanai of the house in Mililani looking down over Waikiki, Honolulu, Pearl City and Ewa Beach with our jaws open in amazement over the ongoing display of fireworks that seemed to go on for hours non-stop. I’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve in many places, including Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, but I’ve never witnessed a display of this magnitude and duration.

After Mom and Dad made their way back to the frozen Midwest tundra, we had some more time to relax, including some much-needed beach time spent floating in the lagoons at Ko’Olina Resort on the island’s leeward side, despite jelly fish warnings. Did you know that Hawaiian legend predicts jelly fish will arrive at the beach ten days after a full moon?

On the Friday night of my last weekend on the island, Sam and Geri and I, along with cousins Anna and Tricia, as well as Auntie Bobbi, enjoyed dinner at Moku Kitchen. Named after the Hawaiian word for “island,” Moku is a chef-driven concept that brings Hawaii’s rich upcountry farming and ranching heritage to downtown Honolulu’s urban lifestyle. The upcountry way of life echoes a simpler time where food was locally-sourced and cooked over an open fire on the ranch.

As we chuckled in the car on the way to dinner, Auntie Bobbi said, “This evening is going to be anything but dull.” She was spot on with her forecast. Following dinner, we made our way to the Neil Blaisdell Center for a special, sold-out, one-night-only performance by Motown legend and international super star, Diana Ross.

The 73-year-old entertainer did not disappoint. Her enormous hair and outrageous costumes delighted the audience, whose enthusiasm resulted in an unprecedented third encore during which the diva gave an impromptu performance of “Endless Love” after taking questions from the audience. The Detroit native sang all of her famous hit songs, from her early days with The Supremes through her movies and onto disco and pop favorites. Her voice is still perfection.

On the Saturday morning following the concert, we all received emergency messages on our phones alerting us to an inbound ballistic missile threat and warning us to take cover. While this sent many tourists and locals into a frenzy of panic, I simply rolled over in bed, pulled the covers over my head and thanked God that I could die happily in paradise and never have to return to the depressing winter conditions of Ohio. No such luck, as it was a false alarm. The incident made international news and corrective measures have been instituted to avoid future similar occurrences. Nevertheless, it sent terrified tourists running into the streets of Waikiki and some folks even lowered their children into sewer drains in an effort to protect them.

After the mayhem subsided, it gave me time to reflect on the significance of this momentous experience. Melding our families together through love and making memories is what life is all about and is reflective of the Aloha Spirit that is the essence of the magic that is Hawaii. Indulging in exceptional foods and laughing until your cheeks hurt is a magnificent and nurturing component of the human experience. To do all of this in a place that is Heaven on Earth is a blessing I will never forget. Mahalo to everyone who made this adventure possible.

We were so busy that I failed to accomplish a few items on my list: eating at the original Roy’s in Hawaii Kai, hiking Koko Head, zip lining and making a visit to the outer islands. Hopefully next time. As my late best friend Mary Lou Barber used to say, “It’s important to always have something to look forward to.” I’m anticipating making many more memories with loved ones in the Paradise of the Pacific.

Amazing Austin

Austin, Texas had been on my radar for a while. I had been to Houston, Dallas and San Antonio but had heard that Austin, the capital of Texas, with its liberal slant, vibrant music scene and home to the University of Texas, was like the Ann Arbor of the Lone Star State. The city has an artsy, eclectic vibe, and its many parks and lakes are popular for hiking, biking, swimming and boating. South of the city, Formula One’s Circuit of the Americas raceway has hosted the United States Grand Prix.

The Revival-style 1888 capitol building, sheathed in pink marble, is an iconic sight. Nearby on the University of Texas’ sprawling campus are the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art, with many modern Latin American works. To the east, Sixth Street is home to many of the city’s oldest music venues and Victorian buildings. Two large festivals, South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits, focus on music but also offer events related to food, film and technology. The trail-lined Lady Bird Lake runs through the city center. It adjoins the 350-acre Zilker Park, home to Barton Springs Pool, a swimming hole supposedly warmed by natural springs. We were warned, however, that the springs aren’t actually warm at all.

Beloved South Congress Avenue (So Co) boasts a plethora of restaurants and shops. Locals recommended we try Perla’s for brunch. Perla’s was founded in the Spring of 2009 by chefs Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman Jr. with the goal of establishing a great oyster bar and seafood joint. Perla’s offers fresh fish and oysters flown in daily from both coasts with an emphasis on sourcing from the Gulf of Mexico and simple, clean preparations.

Perla’s has Austin’s prettiest oak-shaded patio and a comfortable airy dining room featuring a huge saltwater fish tank, poured concrete oyster bar and open kitchen. My partner, Sam Yoder, ordered the delicious wedge salad and oversized cheeseburger. His Mom, Geri relished the lobster roll and I loved my lobster omelette with melted leeks, white cheddar, chive and a baby lettuce salad. Our friend Mike Vernier enjoyed the shrimp po-boy with house-cut fries, and our friend Candy Corbett delighted in the house-made granola with Brazilian yogurt and berries.

Austin has mild winters and very hot, humid summers that make some outdoor activities inadvisable. Late October proved to be unseasonably chilly and windy but at least the sun was shining.

We made the trip specifically to attend the 10th and final Black & White Gala fundraiser for the the Bob Mayberry Foundation, which was founded in 2008 by our friend Diane Judah-Mayberry to honor her late husband, Bob Mayberry, a non-smoker, and his five-year battle with lung cancer. Bob was the best friend of Geri and her late husband, John, and I’d met Bob and Diane at Fifi’s Restaurant in Toledo almost 20 years ago.

The statistics surrounding lung cancer are both surprising and alarming. More people – men and women – die each year from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. In 2005, lung cancer accounted for more deaths than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer combined. Only 50% of people treated for Stage IV lung cancer live for one year. Approximately 20% of all lung cancer diagnoses are patients who never smoked in their lives.

Yet, because of the stigma associated with the disease, lung cancer research remains extremely under-funded. For example, for every person who dies of breast cancer, approximately $27,000 is spent on research, compared to less than $1,300 for each person who dies of lung cancer. Breast cancer survival rates are at 89% after five years while lung cancer survival rates are less than 15%.

We need more research, more information and, ultimately, more saved lives. Money raised for the Bob Mayberry Foundation goes toward the cancer treatment research being done at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where Toledo native Mr. Mayberry underwent treatment. Diane has raised over $600,000 during the past 10 years of galas, and we were pleased to dress up and participate in this worthwhile and personally meaningful fundraiser. Geri sparkled in her black jacket with shiny blue threading and flared sleeves, and Sam even donned an Armani suit. I finally wore a custom tuxedo jacket that I had made in Vietnam last year, and one animated attendee, Kathy Montana, said to me, “If I could come as anyone tonight, it would be you! You are just breathtaking!”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Toledoan Bobbi Johnson-Filipiak shared her emotional and moving testimony of being diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 40, after having just given birth to her daughter. The beneficiary of some of the experimental treatments created at MD Anderson Cancer Center, which are funded by the Bob Mayberry Foundation, Bobbi illuminated with beauty and resembled Nicole Kidman at the Oscars. Her husband, Jim beamed with pride. She delivered an inspirational message of hope as did some of the other lung cancer survivors in attendance.

Over 200 people attended the black-tie optional Black & White Gala, featuring live and silent auctions and dancing to the entertainment provided by Suede. Diane’s partner, Mike Hutton, a jeweler, designed, appropriately, a black and white diamond pendant that was raffled.

The event was held at the spectacular Lakeway Resort & Spa, which is a hill country escape perched atop Lake Travis, providing a variety of sports and recreational amenities for the entire family. The resort also features a full-service spa, three large swimming pools, a whirlpool, a swim-up bar and a slide area that’s terrific for kids. Enjoy cocktails with a view at the rustic lower lobby bar and savor creative Southern cuisine at the restaurant with outside seating featuring panoramic lake views. Guests can get energized in the state of the art fitness center, set sail for a day on the lake from the marina or tee off from a championship golf course. For families, Lakeway Resort & Spa offers a fantastic Kid Zone complete with arts, crafts, movies, and games.

We visited San Marcos Premium Outlets, an outdoor shopping mecca offering an impressive collection of 145 luxury and name brand stores including designer fashions for men, women and children, sportswear, shoes, jewelry, housewares and more. The shopping mall features outlet stores that cannot be found anywhere else within the sate of Texas. Shop exclusive brands such as Gucci, Burberry, Armani and Prada. There’s even a Starbucks for a caffeine boost to bolster your power shopping.

We spent a day taking a drive through the Texas countryside featuring rolling hills with green trees peppered with herds of deer as well as Texas Longhorn cattle to Stonewall to visit the LBJ National Park. Texas-born President Lyndon B. Johnson had a deep attachment for place and heritage. The LBJ Ranch was where he was born, lived, died, and was buried. After the President’s death in 1973, Mrs. Johnson continued to live at the Ranch part time until her death in 2007. The Ranch was officially opened to the public on August 27, 2008.

The slogan for the LBJ Ranch aka The Texas White House is “All the World is Welcome Here.” The entire ground floor is available for public tours. Rooms on the tour include the President’s Office, living room, dining room, and the Johnsons’ bedroom suites. The majority of rooms have been restored to their appearance during the presidential years (1963-1968) while the bedroom suites retain their appearance at the time of President and Mrs. Johnson’s deaths.

Having worked in fair housing and civil rights for over 20 years, I found this site to be both personally and professionally meaningful. It was LBJ who signed the Federal Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968—nearly 50 years ago—exactly one week after of MLK’s assassination.

He said, “Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.”

Austin is, in a lot of ways, the heart of Texas, celebrating Texan culture and history, as well as the uniqueness of the state, from its origins as a Mexican territory to its independence and, finally, to its incorporation into the U.S. If you want to experience a little bit of Texas—and a little bit of Americana in the process—Austin is your next stop. Whether you want to try some Tex-Mex cuisine, indulge in outdoor activities, listen to live music, visit Native American monuments or learn more about people from Austin and its surrounding areas, the city is all too happy to oblige.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

In all of my travels, including 55 countries and 39 states, New Orleans is still one of my favorite destinations. I love the vibe, and you can eat your way through the French Quarter. My first trip to the Big Easy was 22 years ago when my friend Lisa Lynn relocated from Toledo to do her MFA in creative writing at the University of New Orleans. She now sings in the quarter and tends bar at Harry’s Corner on Chartres. I’ve since had other friends who have relocated from the north and have been visiting the crescent city annually.

For this journey, we loaded up the Newmar Essex with four dogs, five adults, plenty of snacks and the world’s largest dog stroller. We also bought a Starbucks machine for the bus, so I served as the barista. This is an enjoyable and comfortable way to travel, but it’s still a long trek—about 15 hours from Toledo to the city beneath the sea. Thankfully, my partner Sam Yoder is a pro at driving us. In fact, he wanted to drive straight through, but his Mom Geri and I pleaded for an overnight respite outside Birmingham, Alabama.

We parked the motor home at the French Quarter RV Resort, which is gated, clean and well-kept with pavers instead of grass. Some campsites even feature gazebos. Many entertainers park their tour buses there when they are in town. Located adjacent to a cemetery and next to an overpass, the neighborhood is questionable, but then again, crime is a way of life in New Orleans. We parked under a giant billboard and prayed no one could climb over the cement wall with metal spikes.

We also took a room at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, across from the Orleans Grapevine Restaurant, which our friend Carrie Chalwick-Lis manages. We had dinner al fresco in the charming courtyard with our friends Laura and Ron Blackburn, transplants from Toledo. The Orleans Grapevine is casual yet elegant and enjoyed by locals as well as the likes of Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson who retreat to the intimate courtyard when they’re in town. Geri and I enjoyed the drum fish pan seared and topped with a brown butter Almondine and jumbo lump crab meat, served with chef’s choice of vegetables and popcorn rice. Sam enjoyed the filet, and our friend Mike Vernier raved about the enormous pork chop.

Other dining delights during this visit included Café Amelie (where the courtyard makes you feel like you’re in Paris) and Arnaud’s Remoulade. The cochon de lait sandwich is a favorite at Amelie, while Remoulade offers all the NOLA favorites, like gumbo and jambalaya. Geri loved the red beans and rice with fried catfish; Sam swore by the sauce on the baby back ribs; and our friend Candy Corbett savored the shrimp bisque. Don’t pass up the Shrimp Arnaud’s with a house-made Remoulade sauce, and the fried shrimp po boy is also delightful—dressed, of course. We also enjoyed espresso drinks from Antoine’s Annex, along with overstuffed breakfast croissant sandwiches.

Strolling the French Quarter, we visited ChiwawaGaga for dog clothes and crossed Decatur to the French Market, indulging in sweets from Southern Candymakers, where I always send a box of Rocky River Road to my Mom. The Jackson Squares are not be missed. They’re thick bars of chocolate stuffed with peanut butter, caramel and rice crispies. They are always making fresh pralines and offer free samples. We passed Café DuMonde, watching them make beignets through the windows and posed for a photo in front of St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square on a gloriously warm fall day with bright blue skies and plenty of southern sunshine. Be sure to visit the back of the cathedral at night to see the famous “Touchdown Jesus,” the shadow reflected by a spotlight shone upon a Jesus statue with arms raised triumphantly.

We thoroughly enjoyed a visit to the Ritz-Carlton to hear Jeremy Davenport play the trumpet and sing with his quartet and even had the chance to meet him. A late night rendezvous at Rouse’s on Royal resulted in $80 spent on Zapp’s potato chips and New Orleans Ice Cream Company ice cream. The Banana’s Foster flavor (made famous by Brennan’s) was the favorite of our group of taste testers. On the way out of town, we stopped at Central Grocery on Decatur to pick up the original mufaletta sandwich.

From New Orleans, we made our way to Natchitoches, a small city and the parish seat of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. Established in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis as part of French Louisiana, the community was named after the indigenous Natchitoches people.

Natchitoches is famous as the filming location for the movie “Steel Magnolias.” We visited the hair salon that served as the inspiration for Dolly Parton’s character in the film, Truvy Jones. Natchitoches is also known for meat pies, which we found to be irresistible. We strolled the charming historic downtown along the Cane River, which was decorated in festive fall fashion.

From there it was on to Zwolle for Geri’s best friend Nannette Martinez’s 75th birthday party. We parked the RV at Nannette’s sprawling lake house with extravagant outdoor kitchen that is more like an entertainment event center. Her Spanish style “cottage” is stuccoed in a mauve tint and built on a peninsula on the Toledo Bend Reservoir, which is a man-made lake on the Sabine River between Texas and Louisiana. The lake has an area of 185,000 acres, the largest man-made body of water in Texas, the largest in the South, and the fifth largest in the United States. Nannette’s grandfather owned 180 acres before the dam was released to flood the reservoir when he lost 100 acres to the state of Louisiana. Nannette’s vacation home is on the family’s property, and her daughter Missy is building next door.

The party was at the Wildwood Resort, featuring 38 cabins on Toledo Bend Lake and event facilities. Whether you are taking advantage of the spectacular fishing and boating on Toledo Bend Lake, hosting a special event, planning a family reunion or holding a business/corporate meeting or retreat, Wildwood can work with you to make sure your stay at the resort is a complete success. Nannette’s party was definitely a success and memories were forged in celebration of her special milestone birthday.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Pelican State. Louisiana’s history as a melting pot of French, African, American and French-Canadian cultures is reflected in its Creole and Cajun cultures. Good food and warm people are the highlights of travel, and Louisiana is known for exceptional examples of both.

Chicago: A Diamond in the Rough

For 25 years, at the end of the week after Labor Day, the John Marshall Law School, located in downtown Chicago’s Loop, presents a training on fair housing that I try to attend for work. This is an excellent opportunity to gather with colleagues from around the country to talk about our critical work in advancing the fair housing agenda and expanding opportunities for all Americans. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act—one week to the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—yet our country remains largely segregated. In fact, Chicago tops the list of America’s most segregated cities.

Chicago is a simple, one-hour flight from Toledo, and you arrive at the same time you left, given that you gain an hour with the time change. On this visit to the Windy City, I stayed at the Palmer House. Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel in the Loop, is the oldest hotel in Chicago and considered the oldest continuously operating hotel in the USA. It has 1,639 sleeping rooms and so many legendary entertainers have performed here. Their black and white portraits frame the corridors of the guest wings.

In 1870, Potter Palmer gave his bride the Palmer House as an incredible wedding gift. Conveniently situated in downtown Chicago, the Palmer House has coincidentally hosted 9,000 weddings. Guests are greeted in opulence in the Grand Lobby, which features a ceiling of 21 Greek mythological panels.

Ralph Lauren Bar and Grill, along the Magnificent Mile, is a must-visit for me every time I go to Chicago. The service and food is always extraordinary. The only disappointment is that in all of the times I’ve dined there—even al fresco—I’ve never seen Ralph or Oprah. Supposedly, it’s Ms. O’s fave. It’s mine, too. I opted for my usual veal Milanese, which is a veal chop pounded thin, breaded and pan fried. It comes with a refreshing arugula salad on the side and half a lemon to add extra zip. It’s to die for. Unfortunately, RL no longer offers my go-to dessert—a rich but heavenly chocolate ganache torte to which I add a scoop of vanilla gelato. This time I had the decadent homemade walnut brownie, served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate garnish. The waiter bathes the sundae in hot fudge table side. Eat here and diet home.

I scored a front row center orchestra seat for the Friday evening performance of the touring production of Broadways’ Aladdin. Disney’s blockbuster Broadway musical is heading out on its first ever national tour, and what better venue to kick it off than Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre! Based on the classic animated movie from 1992, the story follows the lovable street urchin Aladdin, who must defeat the evil sorcerer Jafar, while trying to win the heart of the Princess Jasmine. As everyone’s child knows, he’s helped along the way by the larger than life Genie.

Aladdin premiered at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in 2011. After several regional and international productions in 2012, the musical was given a Toronto tryout in 2013. It opened on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre on March 20, 2014, to mostly warm reviews and was nominated for five Tony Awards. The show continues to dominate the weekly Broadway box office grosses. The Chicago production features the original Broadway lead, Adam Jacobs.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creative force behind the Broadway sensation Hamilton, which is also playing in Chicago, San Francisco, and London. The national tour begins next year. I took in the Saturday matinee. This was my second time seeing this revolutionary show. The first time was back in February when I won a $10 box seat through the ticket lottery, which you can enter online through the web site or “there’s an app for that,” of course.

The musical is about Alexander Hamilton, the scrappy young immigrant who forever changed America. In 2016, Hamilton received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations, winning 11, including Best Musical, and was also the recipient of the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Notably incorporating hip-hop, rhythm and blues, pop music, traditional-style show tunes, and color-conscious casting of non-white actors as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures, the musical achieved both critical acclaim and box office success.

Hamilton’s themes, particularly highlighted by one of the songs, “Immigrants (we get the job done)” seem eerily timely given the current political climate of our country and the Trump administration’s recent attack on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA is an American immigration policy established by the Obama administration in June 2012. DACA allows certain illegal immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. Hamilton reminds us that our country was founded on the work ethics of immigrants, like scrappy young Hamilton.

Near the Palmer House is the Italian Restaurant Vapiano. Pasta, pizzas, antipasti and salads are ordered directly from the chefs at the individual stations in the middle of Vapiano.  The chefs prepare all of the dishes to order in front of the guests.  Everyone can have his meal prepared to his own personal preference. I also enjoyed the Hawaii-based chain Freshii, located at the Palmer House, offering healthy food at affordable prices.

Before flying out on Saturday night, I stopped at the Fashion Outlets of Chicago for some retail therapy. Fashion Outlets of Chicago is conveniently located just five minutes from O’Hare International Airport and about 15 miles from downtown Chicago in Rosemont, Illinois. It is the area’s only two-level indoor outlet shopping experience featuring over 130 designer outlets offering great savings. Fashion Outlets of Chicago boasts some impressive names, including my favorites, Gucci, Burberry, David Yurman, Armani, and UGG. There’s also Barney’s New York, Saks, Bloomies, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom outlets.

Don’t forget your Garrett’s popcorn on the way out. A Chicago tradition since 1949, be sure to try the Garrett Mix, which combines sweet CaramelCrisp with savory CheeseCorn. There’s a location at the airport, which makes it convenient to purchase some for gifts and some for snacks on the flight home.

While Chicago is a world class tourist destination on Lake Michigan that offers a plethora of cultural amenities, like shopping, dining, theatre and museums, the city is not without its share of challenges. Much like the lead characters in Aladdin and Hamilton, Chicago is a diamond in the rough. As we learned during our training, affordable housing units are being demolished and removed. They are being replaced with expensive, luxury options that result in many working class, poor and minority individuals and families being displaced. There’s also a homelessness problem, like many urban areas of our country. Chicago is also a notorious crime capital. It will take all facets of the market—corporate, non-profit and government—to create viable solutions to these challenges in order for the Windy City to be one of America’s sustainable and equitable urban meccas.

Oahu Ohana

Most people who are fortunate enough to visit the Hawaiian islands do so briefly as tourists and take in as much of the culture and natural beauty as possible during a limited timeframe. While they are sure to experience the Aloha Spirit, they may never have the full benefit of cultural immersion. For many, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime sojourn. I’ve been blessed beyond measure to experience the island of Oahu as part of the local ohana (family) because my partner, Sam Yoder, and his family have a vacation home in Mililani. His Mom, Geri, is a Kanaka Maoli, meaning native Hawaiian.

It was a family wedding that led to my third visit this year to the island known as the Gathering Place. The experience of feeling a part of the local culture and family was further cemented by the wedding of Sam’s gorgeous cousin Charyse “Ryse” Iseri to her handsome fiancé Mike Klem. The official ceremony took place in the Mormon church so those of us who are not of that faith were unable to witness the official vows.

The first ten Mormon missionaries departed San Francisco for Hawaii during the California Gold Rush on the ship Imaum of Muscat, arriving on December 12, 1850, in Honolulu Harbor of what was then known as the Sandwich Islands. The Laie Hawaii Temple sits on the original Mormon landholdings of Hawaii known as Laie Plantation. The 6,000-acre parcel was purchased in 1865 for $14,000. Church President Joseph F. Smith was in Hawaii on business in the spring of 1915 when he was moved by a spiritual impulse to dedicate a site for the Laie Hawaii Temple. The action was later ratified by the brethren and publicly sustained in the October 1915 General Conference.

Surrounded by lush Hawaiian flora on a gently rising hill that features cascading pools and a large fountain, the Laie Hawaii Temple graces the north shore of Oahu just a half mile from the Pacific Ocean. Travelers along Kamehameha Highway can’t miss the striking Hale Laa Boulevard that leads the short distance from the highway to the temple. The exquisite boulevard features a tropical garden on one end and palm trees and decorative lights on the other. Sharing the temple grounds is a highly visited public visitors’ center. Down the street is Church-owned Brigham Young University–Hawaii and Hawaii’s number-one paid attraction, the Polynesian Cultural Center.

The Laie Hawaii Temple was the first temple built in Polynesia (and in Hawaii) and was the first temple “brought to the people,” as it was the first temple dedicated outside of the state (or territory) where church headquarters was located. The Laie Hawaii Temple was also the first temple built outside of the continental United States.

The ring ceremony and wedding reception for Ryse and Mike took place at Waimea Falls Park in Haleiwa on the North Shore. Waimea Falls Park, ranking amongst some of the best Oahu hikes, is more like a pleasurable one mile stroll through lush botanical gardens, that lead up to the grand Waimea Falls. Still known as the popular Waimea Falls Park, this Oahu waterfall and tropical grounds are now run by the stewards of Waimea Valley Hi’ipaka.

Unlike the other waterfalls on Oahu, Waimea Falls Park was once an entertainment theme park where you could drive right up and park, grab a seat, and sip on a pineapple juice beverage while watching cliff divers take death defying plunges alongside the Waimea Waterfall. Hula dancers used to provide additional entertainment with dance performances as well.

After years of neglect, this area was transformed into the non-profit Waimea Valley Gardens that now benefits and preserves the Hawaiian culture and community. The road that you once drove inland to the waterfall has been turned into a beautiful botanical garden walk. The type of entertainment now offered is more educational with presentations and workshops on Hawaiian culture and history, including the surrounding lands, animals and different species of plant life. There are usually demonstrations, workshops, tours, works of art, and Hawaiian performances taking place in the main entrance courtyard. Waimea Bay across from the park is a perfect spot to relax on the beach and watch the sunset. Beware: There had been shark sightings when we were there!

The vows were exchanged under the sprawling canopy of a monkey pod tree on the greens that were framed by spectacular Hawaiian flora and fauna. The bride danced a moving hula for her groom, and guests dined under the Pikake Pavilion on chicken, opa, asparagus, rice and potatoes with mixed greens accented by goat cheese and a to-die-for lilikoi balsamic dressing. The sweet fragrance of wedding leis featuring ginger, tube roses and orchids floated in the air as family and friends danced in celebration of the couple’s love and bright future together. We gorged on the dessert table that boasted lilikoi lemon bars, mochi brownies, cupcakes, guava cheesecake, and fried mochi.

Other than floating in the ocean lagoons at Ko’Olina and overeating in the many fantastic variety of dining venues, hiking and nature walks have become my favorite island activity. Oahu offers a bounty of sublime trails. The flora and fauna are other-worldly (after all, this is where Jurassic Park was filmed). The physical exertion is always rewarded by incredible focal points that offer breathtaking views and boast photo ops that aren’t a part of the traditional tourist brochures.

Some of the hikes and nature walks we’ve experienced, include Pu’u Ma’eli’eli Trail, Diamond Head Crater, Manoa Falls, Ka’ena Point, Spitting Cave, Macapu’u Point Lighthouse, and Mermaid Caves. We saw seals, sea turtles and Hawaiian spinner dolphins on our hikes and nature walks.

We also experienced the Sandbar. On the windward side of Oahu, this natural formation can be found at the center of reef-protected Kaneohe Bay. The sandbar and its surrounding coral reefs are perfect for snorkeling, playing beach volleyball, having a picnic lunch and especially for enjoying panoramic views of the spectacular Koolau Mountains and nearby islets. Depending on the tide, it can be covered with waist-high water or completely exposed, making a small beach. The sandbar is almost a mile away from shore, so you’ll need a boat or kayak to get there. Captain Elliot (Sam’s cousin Kaylin’s boyfriend) took us to the sandbar on his fishing boat.

Afterward we joined the family—Auntie Bobbi and Uncle Lionel, cousins Darryl and Anna, Keana and Braddah, Darren and Tricia, Kaylin, Ryse, Brandi, and Brittney and Shane with their son, Kaeo along with 97-years-young Auntie Dorothy who always brings her feisty appetite. We celebrated Sam’s birthday with dinner, including chicken and pork katsu, spare ribs, stir fry, fried saimin, gauji, and potato mac salad. In addition to a Chantilly birthday cake, we also enjoyed homemade chocolate cake and the famous island tradition of banana pie from Flamingo Bakery.

We shared many meals and made countless memories with the ohana. Other out of town family visiting for the wedding included Auntie Betsy and Uncle Jim as well as cousin Lynnel, all from California, and also the bride’s Mom, Yvette, who traveled from the ninth island—Las Vegas. We enjoyed breakfast at our favorite—the local chain diner and bakery, Zippy’s—with Geri’s brother Gary and wife LaDawn.

On this trip, I finally visited Iolani Palace, a living restoration of a proud Hawaiian national identity that is recognized as the spiritual and physical multicultural epicenter of Hawaii. Built in 1882 by King Kalakaua, Iolani Palace was the home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs and served as the official royal residence and the headquarters of the Kingdom’s political and social life until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. Of particular impression is the fact that the palace can boast that it had electricity before the White House and Buckingham Palace.

Registered as a National Historic Landmark since 1962 and the only official royal residence in the United States, Iolani Palace is one of the most recognizable buildings in Hawaii. Meticulously restored to its former grandeur, Iolani Palace tells of a time when their Majesties, King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani walked the grand halls.

Eating like royalty is pretty easy to do in this island paradise. The local foods are plentiful and tempting and also feature a wide-range of cultural and enthic influences from around the world. From the island-style Mac salad to spam musubi, from chicken katsu to hamburger steak, from saimin to spam fried rice and from Portuguese sausage to sushi, most everything comes with a side of rice. My new favorite is the Somen salad at Zippy’s. The salad features somen noodles on a bed of fresh tossed salad tapped with ham, fish cake, cucumber, green onions and topped with a ginger sesame dressing. Local sweets to indulge include shave ice, malasadas (Portuguese donuts), mochi (Japanese rice cake), and my personal favorite, lilikoi cream cheese squares (from Zippy’s Napoleon Bakery). The Cookie Corner is also difficult to resist. Be sure to try the chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies.

What fun we had making lumpias at home with our neighbor, Auntie June. Lumpia is a spring roll of Chinese origin commonly found in Indonesia and the Philippines. It is a savory snack made of thin crepe pastry skin called “lumpia wrapper” enveloping a mixture of savory fillings, consisting of chopped vegetables (carrots, cabbages, green beans, bamboo shoots and leeks) and shrimp, chicken or beef. It is often served as an appetizer or snack, and might be served deep fried or fresh. We stuffed ours with veggies, garlic and beef and deep fried them.

In addition to eating, hiking, multiple family gatherings and floating in the ocean, we had the good fortune to attend the 71st Annual Aloha Festivals Floral Parade—A colorful equestrian procession of pā‘ū (long-skirted) riders, exquisite floats with cascades of Hawaiian flowers, hula hālau, marching bands and dignitaries that enlivened Kalākaua Avenue from Ala Moana Park to Kapiolani Park. The Aloha Festivals are an annual series of free cultural celebrations observed in the state of Hawaii. It is the only statewide cultural festival in the nation.

Hawaii is a warm and welcoming place. The Aloha State is home to rainbows and plentiful mountains, majestic waterfalls, and beautiful beaches meeting the turquoise ocean. The best and certainly most meaningful component of the Aloha Spirit, of course, is the people. Mahalo to Sam and Geri, their relatives and friends for making me feel a part of the Oahu ohana.

An Epic American Adventure: East Coast by Luxury Private Coach

Meetings for work took me to Baltimore for a long weekend in June that presented an opportunity to morph into a New England adventure by luxury motor-coach. I flew to Charm City and participated in my work events, all the while anticipating the reward for my hard work all weekend-long—the arrival of my partner, Sam Yoder, and his Mom, Geri, who picked me up at my inner harbor hotel in their tour bus after they stopped to visit Arlington National Cemetery on the way.  

We began to blaze a trail living the RV lifestyle in their 45-foot Newmar Essex, as we explored the East Coast of America, traveling all the way up to Maine, crossing over to Vermont and returning home to Ohio through Niagara Falls. We covered an ambitious territory—over 3,000 miles—in just over a week’s time, making memories and laughing all the way. 

An East Coast sojourn had been on Geri’s bucket list for a long time, so we loaded up the tour bus with our friends Candy Corbett and Mike Vernier, along with our four dogs and about 600 pounds of food to nosh on along the way—God forbid we go hungry. This was an opportunity to combine two of our passions, traveling and eating.

Baltimore, MD

When I made my way through the lobby of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel where my work events were held, one of the staff, Gary, was particularly helpful. I told him Sam and Geri were circling the block in the coach and that we needed to find a place to park it for the night. I asked him, “What do you do when celebrities are here in their tour buses?” He instantly replied, “You ARE a celebrity!” His kindness resulted in the bus spending the night prominently parked out front of the hotel prompting other hotel guests and pedestrians to turn their heads in speculation of what celebrity was in residence.  Eat your heart out, Dolly Parton!

On Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, we dined waterside at M&S grill on steaks and seafood. Little did we know it would be dinner and a show, as two separate domestic disputes broke out before our eyes, leaving one gal’s hair weave lying on the sidewalk with cop cars dispatched. This made the experience uncomfortable and confirmed what I’d already experienced on previous visits—Baltimore is gritty. Despite its efforts to polish its image, Baltimore is still very much a blue collar town with an edgy vibe that makes me slightly uneasy.

Mystic, CT

From Baltimore, we made our way to Mystic, Connecticut, arriving in time for a sunset dinner on the water at S&P Oyster, followed by dessert at Drawbridge Ice Cream. Swab the decks, batten down the hatches and get ready to soak up adventure in this seaside city devoted to all things maritime. The historical atmosphere is highlighted by a multitude of unique gift shops. While most of Mystic’s attractions have a marine theme, there are a couple of exceptions: landlubbers may want to check out the Mystic Art Association’s galleries and studios, which showcase the work of local and regional artists. Or have a lunch at Mystic Pizza, the eatery made famous by the Julia Roberts movie of the same name.

Be sure to visit Foxwoods Resort Casino–the premier resort destination in the Northeast. As the largest resort casino in North America, Foxwoods offers a vast array of gaming in seven casinos, AAA Four-Diamond hotels, restaurants from gourmet to quick service, world-renowned spas, award-winning golf, state-of-the-art theaters, and exclusive retailers. Like a city unto itself, Foxwoods Resort Casino is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

Newport, RI

The next day we made our way to Newport, Rhode Island and toured The Breakers, which is the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America.

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad, which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century. An international team of craftsmen and artisans created the 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin.

The Vanderbilts had seven children. Their youngest daughter, Gladys, who married Count Laszlo Szechenyi of Hungary, inherited the house on her mother’s death in 1934. An ardent supporter of The Preservation Society of Newport County, she opened The Breakers in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Preservation Society purchased the house from her heirs. Today, the house is designated a National Historic Landmark. The third floor of the mansion is still preserved as a private retreat for Gloria Vanderbilt when she visits.

Hyannis Port, MA

From Newport we continued to Cape Cod. Hyannis is the largest town and economic center of Cape Cod. The limelight shone on Hyannis Port during John F. Kennedy’s presidency and the Kennedy Compound, although not open to the public, is still a popular sight to see from Hyannis Harbor, which we did aboard a ferry. 

Hyannis is a good choice for those who want to be centrally located and enjoy a bit of everything the Cape has to offer in an upbeat, popular location. Hyannis Harbor is bustling with activity—ferries to the islands, fishing and sailing charters as well as visits to the JFK Monument and the HyArts Shanties. Main Street is home to shops, galleries, restaurants and night clubs. Hyannis Port, home to the Kennedy Compound, is a quiet and residential part of Hyannis. At the Black Cat Tavern, we enjoyed dining al fresco on scrumptious seafood options, including a lobster and asparagus risotto that Geri and I both thought was the best meal of the trip.

Plymouth, MA

We overnighted in the charming town of Plymouth at the Hotel 1620 and visited Plymouth Rock the next day. Plymouth is a coastal town in Massachusetts, south of Boston. It is the site of the first Pilgrim settlement, founded in 1620. Plymouth Rock, a boulder in Pilgrim Memorial State Park, marks the place where settlers are thought to have landed on the shores. After driving through downtown Boston and around the Seaport area on the harbor, we made our way through Portsmouth, New Hampshire, stopping at the USS Albacore submarine before traveling into Maine.


Maine had been on my bucket list for some time. Our first stop was the town centers of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, which are separated by five miles and two rivers, but united by a common history and a laid-back seaside vibe. Perhaps best described as the Hamptons of the Pine Tree State, Kennebunkport has been a resort area since the 19th century. Its most recent residents have made it even more famous: the dynastic Bush family is often in residence on its immense estate here, which sits dramatically out on Walker’s Point on Cape Arundel. Newer homes have sprung up alongside the old, and a great way to take them all in is with a slow drive out Ocean Avenue along the cape.

The Colony Hotel, also located on Ocean Avenue, is a recognizable landmark from land and sea overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Kennebunk River and private beach. The 1914 resort is a picturesque getaway with guestrooms in five buildings each with its own distinctive style and ocean, river, or garden views. The Colony Hotel is ranked as one of the best coastal eco-resorts and is pet friendly. We made this hotel our home for the night, enjoying the spectacular pool and ocean views from one of only two rooms that feature oversized balconies. The guestrooms in the main building do not have air condition or television.

The sidewalks roll up early in Kennebunkport so be sure to plan accordingly. The restaurants all close at 9:00 p.m.—even the pizza delivery ceases at the same time. Breakfast concludes promptly at 10:00 a.m. and it’s difficult to even find coffee. Were it not for the food prepped and packed on the bus, we’d have starved to death, though we could afford to skip a meal, considering all the snacking we did on lovingly created noshes of chicken, pasta and potato salad, sloppy joes, and desserts of lilikoi cheesecake and peanut butter fudge brownies.

After driving by the Bush estate, we progressed toward Bar Harbor, driving through Portland and stopping in Boothbay Harbor along the way. The coastal town of Boothbay Harbor, Maine is a perfect destination for a reprieve from hustle of every day. Between its rich history, quaint local shops and boutiques, delicious dining and world-class boat excursions, there are all kinds of fun things to do in Boothbay Harbor, including whale watching cruises, clam bakes and simply enjoying ice cream while people watching on the boardwalk.

In Lincolnville, the Lobster Pound is a restaurant that is the place to go for great Maine Lobster, with impressive views and friendly service. You can eat your lobster dinner outback on the patio and even watch the sunset on the water.

Driving through the New England countryside, we were all impressed by the many beautiful homes and inns with perfectly manicured lawns and gardens. There are some enormous homes along the water’s edge as well as in charming neighborhoods. The flowers thrive in the climate of the northeast. 

 We spent the night at the Blue Nose Inn in Bar Harbor with impressive views of Frenchman Bay and friendly service. We shopped the boutiques downtown and had a lovely, relaxing lunch on the water at Fish House Grill. They had the best onion rings and delicious lobster rolls. Don’t skip the blueberry pie a la mode.   

Adventure, romance, the rock-bound coast and soaring granite cliffs—there is a special mystique to Bar Harbor. Surrounded by Acadia National Park and located at the edge of the sea, Bar Harbor has welcomed visitors for over a hundred years.

If you’re considering a vacation in Maine or planning to travel New England, Bar Harbor should top your list of destinations, as it is truly one of the best places to visit in Maine and New England. Not exactly a well-guarded secret, but not overrun with tourism either, Bar Harbor is a Maine/New England vacation spot beyond compare. And of course one of its many attractions is its close proximity to Acadia National Park—over 50 square miles of mountains, lakes, hiking, biking, views and dramatic coastline.

We drove through Acadia National Park on our way out of town. It was near the top of our list for the trip and it’s sublime views did not disappoint. The waves crashed on the rock cliffs with beautiful pine trees and flowers perched atop the coastal edge serving as a framework as we made our winding way through the vistas.

On the way out of the area, we stopped at the LL Bean Outlet in Ellsworth before heading on to Burlington, Vermont. Driving through New Hampshire at night on a two-lane road with rain, fog and limited visibility was a challenge that Sam handled like a champ.  We saw a deer, a black bear and, unfortunately, hit a skunk on along the way, but we didn’t see any moose.


Burlington is a city in northwestern Vermont, on the eastern shore of beautiful Lake Champlain, south of the Canadian border. Downtown, shops and restaurants line pedestrianized Church Street Marketplace—Vermont’s award-winning open air mall is a hub of activity where you’ll find historic architecture, year-round festivals, street entertainers, music and over 100 places to shop and dine. There’s even free wi-fi sponsored by LL Bean.

Halvorson’s Upstreet Cafe has been owned and operated by the Halvorson family for over 30 years. We stopped by to enjoy the great food and casual atmosphere, featuring unique sandwiches like a Texan short rib, tantalizing appetizers of prime rib egg rolls and more traditional fare, like burgers, chili and steak frites. 

We visited the Ben & Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury, VT. From a renovated gas station in Burlington, to far-off places, the journey that began in 1978 with 2 guys and the ice cream business they built is as legendary as the ice cream is euphoric. We stopped at the original scoop shop on Church Street in downtown Burlington for a treat but you can tour the actual factory in Waterbury. 

Shelburne, VT is home to the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory , which we toured. All visitors enter the building through the Bear Shop, which features stuffed Bears, Vermont-made products, and an area where you can create your own Bear. You’ll want to take a tour of the factory, with one of the Bear Ambassadors who will guide you through a fun, informative tour where you’ll watch the small group of craftspeople creating the toys by hand, one-by-one.   

Niagara Falls, NY

After Sam made us rough it overnight at a Super 8 Motel in Amsterdam, New York (we survived), we played good Samaritans and rescued a couple who were left behind by the Greyhound Bus at a rest stop. After some phone calls and u-turns, we eventually reunited the couple with their bus, on which they’d left their personal belongings, including their passports. They were grateful.

After a day-long drive through New York State, we finally arrived at Niagara Falls, which is the collective name for three waterfalls that straddle the international border between Canada and the United States; more specifically, between the province of Ontario and the state of New York. They form the southern end of the Niagara Gorge.  

From largest to smallest, the three waterfalls are the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls. The Horseshoe Falls lies on the border of the United States and Canada with the American Falls entirely on the American side, separated by Goat Island. The smaller Bridal Veil Falls are also on the American side, separated from the other waterfalls by Luna Island. 

Located on the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, the combined falls form the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world that has a vertical drop of more than 165 feet. Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America, as measured by flow rate. Niagara Falls was formed when glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age. Niagara Falls is famed both for its beauty and as a valuable source of hydroelectric power. 

Checking off an item on his bucket list, Sam said Niagara Falls was “absolutely the most awesome thing I’ve seen on this trip.”

As the only restaurant overlooking Niagara Falls, Top of the Falls Restaurant offers visitors to Niagara Falls State Park a one-of-a-kind dining experience. The Top of the Falls menu offers modern American cuisine and classic dishes, and every meal is accompanied by spectacular waterfall views. The venue, located within Niagara Falls State Park, on Goat Island, overlooks Terrapin Point, and panoramic views of Horseshoe Falls through floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor dining decks.

After dinner we were treated to views of the falls at dusk illuminated by large LED spotlights in various colors. On the walk back to the bus, the Casino set off a spectacular fireworks display just in time for the Fourth of July holiday.

On the way back home to Toledo, we made our last stop to visit with my parents where I grew up in Liberty Township in Youngstown, Ohio, which is on the Pennsylvania border. Bringing our families together was a sweet finish to the adventure of a lifetime. I’m eternally grateful for the everlasting memories we made on this magnificent journey. It truly was an epic American adventure!  

Las Vegas & Hoover Dam

Las Vegas, in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, is a resort city famed for its vibrant nightlife, centered around 24-hour casinos and other entertainment options. Its main street and focal point is the Strip, just over four miles long. This boulevard is home to themed hotels with elaborate displays such as fountains synchronized to music as well as replicas of an Egyptian pyramid, the Venetian Grand Canal, and the Eiffel Tower. One can literally journey around the world in an evening even taking in New York, NY and feeling hot, hot, hot by purchasing havaianas, the world’s most famous flip flop brand from Rio de Janeiro. 

Some 42.9 million people visited Southern Nevada last year, spending $35.5 billion — 16.3 percent more than in 2015 when they left behind $30.5 billion. Per person, Las Vegas visitors spent an average of $827, up from $721 in 2015.

I feel sorry for the many foreign tourists whose first, and perhaps only, point of entry into the United States is Las Vegas. They are exposed to a microcosm of decadent American culture. Vegas isn’t called Sin City for nothing. All vices are well-represented, including sex, drugs, and rock and roll plus gambling, shopping and over indulgence in calories. And smoking, which seems to have all but disappeared everywhere but here–Vegas smells like a giant ash tray.

One cannot help but acknowledge the juxtaposition of seedy and sensational. In addition to the debauchery, there are a plethora of fantastic shows, limitless luxury shopping and endless fine dining options.  The Bellagio Fountains are captivating and don’t miss the horticultural display off the lobby with its stunning Chihuly installation on the ceiling.  

I hadn’t been to Vegas in about 12 years. I used to go once or twice a year as the guest of my late best friend Mary Lou Barber, who was a high roller. We usually stayed in a comped penthouse suite at New York New York Hotel and Casino. This time I was invited by my partner, Sam Yoder, who got us a “free” suite at Caesar’s Palace. As much as the comps and so-called freebies seem enjoyable, it all adds up when you are losing big at the slots and tables. Vegas didn’t earn the nickname “Lost Wages” by accident.  

While there I took advantage of two headliners: Cher and Celine. Cher arrived fashionably late and changed outfits every song or two, from her wig to her shoes.

“Classic Cher” takes you on a non-stop feast for the senses for 1.5 hours. The show is a journey of the 70-years-young diva’s half century career of hits with movie clips and other footage displayed on giant screens. Even the late Sony Bono makes an appearance to duet on the iconic “I Got You Babe.”

 “Classic Cher” is a sensational Vegas extravaganza with elaborate sets, dancers and Bob Mackie-designed wardrobe. Cher even rides a mechanical elephant at one point. Cher. On an elephant. In Vegas.  

Celine Dione has been the headliner at Caesar’s Colosseum since the theater was built for her in 2003. The Canadian songstress still fills the seats with “Celine at The Colosseum,” a glamorous show directed by legendary Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich and presented jointly by AEG Live and Caesars Entertainment. 

Celine’s updated Las Vegas show includes her biggest hits mixed with timeless classics by iconic artists that celebrate all generations and genres of music ranging from Elvis to the Bee Gees, Queen, Tina Turner and Prince. The show features a full orchestra and band and is set to a visually stunning presentation designed exclusively for the 4,300-seat state-of-the-art venue. Celine also returns to The Colosseum with a new stage wardrobe composed of exclusive designs developed by her stylist in collaboration with Atelier Versace, Schiaparelli, Elie Saab and Mugler. The show is sensational, especially Celine’s voice, which hasn’t lost any of its luster. Gone, though, are the dance troupe and Franco Dragone’s Cirque du Soleil influences of the earlier days, which was disappointing. This is Vegas after all.  

It’s hard to believe it’s the 20th anniversary of “Titanic,” which featured the diva’s blockbuster hit “My Heart will go On.” At this rate it seems Celine’s Vegas run will go on and on (and on). She even joked about making sure the audience returns 30-years from now impersonating her future self.  

In addition to the entertainment, we enjoyed Italian food at Giordano’s, a Chicago-outpost offering their famous deep-dish pizza. We met up with Sam’s cousins from Hawaii who were also there on vacation (Keana and Braddah Aina and Darryl and Anna Iseri). There are so many transplants and visitors from Hawaii that Vegas is referred to as the “Ninth Island.” We enjoyed Sam’s cousin Anna’s birthday dinner at Lawry’s The Prime Rib. 

Lawry’s The Prime Rib invites you to a lavish dinner experience found nowhere else on or off the strip. Enjoy the beautiful Art Deco design, exceptional service and unique menu featuring famous Roasted Prime Ribs of Beef carved tableside from gleaming silver carts. At Lawry’s in Vegas, rich traditions, warm hospitality and award-winning food make for a sure bet.

The Vegas outpost of LA’s Mr. Chow is at Caesar’s Palace. I opted for the social hour, which offers specially priced Bar Bites and half-off drinks. The lounge overlooks the swimming pool. The glazed shrimp was scrumptious.

Also at Caesar’s is Gordon Ramsay’s Pub. Sam said the English ale onion soup and wedge salad were the best he’d ever had. Tracey Itts, my dining companion and childhood friend who lives in Vegas, raved about the fish and chips paired with what the waiter claimed to be the “best tartar sauce in the world,”‘with a hint of dill.  

There’s also a great Gelateria at The Forum Shops. I opted for the VIP with three flavors (Oreo, bananas foster cheesecake, and chocolate truffle mousse) with whipped cream on top. 

On previous visits I’ve enjoyed dining at Smith & Wollensky, Gallagher’s Steakhouse at New York New York, La Cirque and Olives (both at Bellagio) and The Eiffel Tower Restaurant inside Paris. Starbucks is now happily featured throughout the strip, with one conveniently located at the bottom of our elevator at Caesars, making the morning commute short and sweet.

We took a day and drove out to Hoover Dam. Hoover Dam, originally known as Boulder Dam from 1933 to 1947, when it was officially renamed Hoover Dam by a joint resolution of Congress, is a concretearch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, on the border between Nevada and Arizona. It was constructed between 1931 and 1936 during the Great Depressionand was dedicated on September 30, 1935, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Its construction was the result of a massive effort involving thousands of workers, and cost over one hundred lives. The dam was named after President Herbert Hoover. The dam impounds Lake Mead, contains flooding and produces hydroelectric power.  

We stopped at the Sunset Casino on the way back to try our luck off the strip. I was the only one in our group of four who came out a little ahead.  

Overall, Vegas is like an adult Disney World on steroids. I’ve not witnessed so many intoxicated “adults” with questionable behavior in quite some time. As they say, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Lost Wages definitely requires stamina but if you play your cards right, you can find harmony in the balance of deviance and relaxation. If you win a little money gambling, treat yourself to the spa or rent a cabana at the pool–feeling pampered always makes for a fulfilling vacation.