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!


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.

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.

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.  

The Aloha Spirit

My first visit to Hawaii was over thirty years ago with my parents. I was in the sixth grade. We landed on Oahu and spent a few days as tourists before flying to Kauai, where we made the breathtaking Princeville Resort our vacation home for three-and-a-half weeks. My memories of the trip are fond but sketchy. I do remember winning a hula contest. More importantly, the beauty of the land and the warmth of the people made a lasting impression.

The aloha spirit was indeed still very much alive and well on my more recent visit. I was the guest of my partner, Sam Yoder and his beautiful and charming mother Geri at their vacation home in Mililani on Oahu, where Geri was born and raised until the age of 15.

Natives are referred to as Kanaka Maoli. Moving from the multicultural melting pot of Hawaii to pre-civil rights era Louisiana was a culture shock for Geri who embraces diversity and inclusiveness. She began wintering in Hawaii almost 30 years ago, and Sam practically grew up on the island.

Geri warmly greeted me upon my arrival at the airport with an enthusiastic “Aloha” and presented me with a fragrant lei of green orchids, white tube roses and red carnations. A lei is a Polynesian garland of flowers. The lei custom was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by early Polynesian voyagers, who took an incredible journey from Tahiti, navigating by the stars in sailing canoes.

Speaking of flowers, the flora of Hawaii is nothing short of amazing, including tropical delights anthurium, bird of paradise, chamelia, Indian ginger, heliconia (looks like a mini bird of paradise), and hibiscus. There are also exotic fruit trees, including mango, guava and papaya.

You will never go hungry on the island. All the major chain restaurants are present–everything from fast food favorites Starbucks and McDonald’s to higher-end establishments like Roy’s and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. I had the best burger in quite some time at Islands Restaurant at Ala Moana.

There are many other local places to try as well. Leonard’s Bakery specializes in malasadas (Portuguese donuts) in Waikiki. Island favorites, including Spam Musubi, chicken katsu, Teri beef, Lumpia, fried saimin noodles, and shave ice are offered around the island.

Duke’s Waikiki is a popular restaurant on the beach named after surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku with strolling musicians serving up Hawaiian melodies table side to accompany the delectable offerings. Geri requested “I Wanna go Back to My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua” and beamed as she sang along.

Geri and I had the Opa fish encrusted with macadamia nuts and herbs accompanied by a lemon butter sauce with capers. It was beyond delicious. Sam had a filet that was scrumptious. Be sure to add the salad bar to your entree for only $4. It features traditional salads along with local favorites like potato macaroni salad and more exotic options like Asian quinoa and an irresistible pesto pasta salad with macadamia nuts.

The macadamia encrusted Opa at Haieiwa Joe’s on the North Shore was also very good. Their sourdough dinner rolls and garlic bread are worth the carbs. Sam’s strip steak and baked potato was mouthwatering. For the ultimate steakhouse experience, be sure to visit d.k. Steakhouse at the Marriott Waikiki, featuring Hawaii’s only on-premise dry aged beef.

Shiro’s in Aiea serves up enormous bowls of saimin with your choice of ingredients in broth. They also have the best local style mac salad on the island.

Other island delights include chocolate covered macadamia nuts, and you can savor fresh pineapple ice cream (known as the Dole whip) right at the Dole Factory. It doesn’t get much fresher than the pineapple plantation where men dressed in protective leather suits harvest the fruits by hand, which grow on top of the plant. The leaves of the pineapple plant are razor sharp, but the fruit is sweet.

Fresh tropical fruit is not the only benefit of the climate, as the island also features some of the most breathtaking beaches attracting surfers and sunbathers from around the world. Beaches include: Ko’Olina, Ala Moana, Waikiki, Makapu’u, Waimanalo, Lanikai, Pipeline (where the surfing championships are held), Haleiwa, and Waimea.  Halona offers a lookout over the blow hole as well as a beach cove that is so majestic it is featured in movies and magazine shoots. The turquoise blue waters in Hawaii are sublime.

After eating and sunbathing, you’ll need to burn some calories. Diamond Head and Koko Head offer hiking, along with many trails all over the island leading to secluded waterfalls.

You can also enjoy a drive around the island. There are many spectacular lookouts. I appreciated seeing Fort Shafter where Geri’s Mom, a young lady from Waipahu with humble beginnings, rose to a high level military communications position. We also saw Saint Augustine by the Sea–the church in Waikiki where Geri was baptized as an infant. The Iolani Palace sparkles at night and across the street is the King Kamehameha Statue, which stands in front of the Hawaii State Supreme Court. A great warrior, diplomat, and leader, King Kamehameha I united the Hawaiian Islands into one royal kingdom in 1810 after years of conflict.

In the event the weather is uncooperative for outdoor activities, you can also Indulge in retail therapy. Ala Moana is a shopper’s paradise in paradise, boasting three levels of stores and restaurants and featuring a center stage highlighting shows with local music and hula dancing. Downtown Waikiki boasts major luxury brands, like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Hermes, Cartier and Tiffany & Co. There’s a swap meet at the Aloha Stadium that offers T-shirts and other souvenirs at a bargain.

Must-see attractions on Oahu are the USS Arizona Memorial and the Polynesian Cultural Center. This past month marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In an official proclamation marking the occasion, Hawaii Governor David Ige stated, “The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and other airfields on the island of Oahu led directly to our country’s entry into WWII. Those events changed our lives forever and triggered our resolve as a nation, our can-do attitude and an unmatched commitment to the defense of freedom.” There are 991 service men entombed on the USS Arizona below the stark white memorial. Survivors of the attack, like my friend Geri, have vivid and terrifying images of the faces of the kamikaze pilots permanently embedded in their memories.

Located on Oahu’s North Shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center is a unique treasure created to preserve, perpetuate and share with the world all the beauty, enchantment and love found here in these isles of the South Pacific. It’s all in the spirit of the islands — all in one place! We opted for the opulent luau that includes a hula show (did you know that hula was banned for 50 years?) as well as the evening magnificent Polynesian performance and extravaganza, Hā. The central theme of Hā—which in Hawaiian means “breath”—is a simple, universal one, capturing the importance of family, love, culture and tradition.

Sometimes called “The Gathering Place,” Oahu certainly lives up to its name. The third largest Hawaiian island is home to the majority of Hawaii’s diverse population, a fusion of east and west cultures rooted in the values and traditions of the native Hawaiian people. It’s this fundamental contrast between the ancient and the modern that makes discovering Oahu so enjoyable.

The people are just as warm as the weather. On the flight over, I watched “Kumu Hina,” a movie about the Mahu–or Hawaiian transgender community. The Mahu are believed to possess the attributes of both genders. More specifically the documentary features a teacher at the Halau Lokahi charter school in Honolulu dedicated to the teaching and preservation of native Hawaiian culture, language and history. Hina Wong-Kalu, the Mahu hula teacher in the film, served as an inspiration to her young students, imploring them to embrace their identities. She went on to announce her candidacy for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, thus becoming the first transgender candidate in American political history.

The story captures the true meaning of Aloha: Unconditional love and respect. As one parent in the film articulated, love is the biggest thing to teach our children, “If you love a person for who they are and let them be who they are that’s a full circle, and life’s a full circle. What goes around comes around.”

Sacred Hearts Academy where Geri went to school and Mililani High School where Sam attended must have instilled these same values for they embody the aloha spirit. The same is true for their neighborhood in Mililani, a community where neighbors are more like extended family who truly care about each other, sharing meals and walking each other’s dogs.

Hawaiians are fond of their pets, and while it was a process to bring my dogs along with me, it was worth it. They were warmly welcomed throughout this island paradise. Because Hawaii is rabies free, one must begin the process of importing dogs 120 days prior to arrival in Honolulu. Consult with your vet and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

Hawaii’s society is a thriving blend of cultures—food, drink, language, fashion, and folklore. Despite 200 years of oppression by foreign settlers, Hawaiians are still here. They are a strong and resilient people with a celebrated culture and history rooted in living in harmony with the land and with each other. That’s the aloha spirit.

Aruba Azure

Aruba sparkles like a blue diamond being kissed by the sun. Once her magic is experienced, the spell is cast, and one is never the same. And so it is for me. 

This trip marks my 18th return to the island. I can never get enough. In fact, I’ve revised my Bucket List to include a second home in Aruba—a piece of paradise to call my own. 

On the approach to Aruba, sit on the port side (left) of the airplane. You will be taken aback by the myriad shades of turquoise water surrounding the shiny white beaches reflecting up at you as you gaze in a daydream of heaven on earth. As you soar through the clouds anticipating landing, you begin to wonder if the plane has special powers to turn into a ship, as it appears you will land right on top of the water. No worries, the pilots are experienced and soon you are passing safely through customs with ease to collect your luggage and a signature red souvenir bag full of coupons from Little Switzerland. 

Why do I love Aruba more than any other place I’ve traveled? I have been blessed with many opportunities of travel both for work and pleasure. I have been to six of the seven continents, including 53 countries. I’ve been to 35 states, including Hawaii. Still, of all the incredible adventures, of all the fabulous people, nothing comes close to One Happy Island. 

Aruba’s rich, multicultural past is reflected in the cuisine, architecture and warm, friendly people. What began as a fishing outpost for Amerindians has changed hands between the Spanish and Dutch throughout the centuries, and is now a diverse constituent country of the Netherlands.

It is no surprise that tourism provides the largest percentage of the country’s income. Adding to the many blessings of the island is the fact that Aruba lies outside of the hurricane belt, exhibits some of the most beautiful white, sandy beaches, maintains an almost constant temperature in the 80’s, and is cooled by tradewinds from the Atlantic. Unlike many vacation destinations, one is not forced to drive through horrific poverty stricken areas that the locals call home while heading toward a posh resort. Arubans enjoy a good quality of life.   

There are obvious changes since I first visited the island in 1999. The Aruba Tourism Authority has separated itself from the government and is now run like a corporation. After all, tourism is a business, and Aruba’s economy is dependent on it. The ATA has been active in promoting the island as well as improving the quality of life for locals. For example, there is a brand new linear park and boardwalk along the sea, which connects the resorts along Eagle and Palm Beach and snakes along the waterfront all the way to the airport. This provides a picturesque exercise opportunity for locals and visitors alike, and is the longest of its kind in the Caribbean. Forward thinking planning such as this will keep Aruba on the repeat visitor list for years to come.

Aruba’s charming Dutch colonial capital, Oranjestad, has received a facelift, especially along Main Street (Caya Grandi) which runs behind Caya G. F. Betico Croes, the harbor road. Main Street had not been the “main street” for many years, but now new malls, shops, pedestrian walkways, green spaces and attractions — notably, a brand-new trolley service — are bringing visitors back into the heart of the city. The rows of tall palm trees lining both sides of the street are breathtaking. The city’s cargo terminal has also been moved away from the cruise ship terminal, giving visitors arriving by sea a much more pleasant first impression of the city.

The number of restaurants, resorts and shopping has also dramatically increased. Since I first visited, two outdoor shopping malls have sprung up across from the resorts on Palm Beach—Paceo Herencia and Palm Beach Plaza. Downtown still offers luxury brands, though the numbers have increased, including Cartier, Gucci, Dolce & Gabanna, and a gorgeous Louis Vuitton boutique that was not present during my first visit to the island. In addition to wonderful shopping and dining options, there are a plethora of activities, including casinos, water sports, ATV tours, horseback riding, museums, butterfly farm, donkey sanctuary and sky diving.   

My favorite place to call home while on the island is the Ritz-Carlton. The island’s only five-star resort, this property offers the most gorgeous views of sunset over the azure waters from the lobby lounge as well as the Club Lounge on the top floor. Service on the beach is expedited by waiters on Segways. There is a new restaurant at the Ritz called BLT Steakhouse, which I had to try. It’s my friend Neely’s favorite, and she spends half the year on the island, so she is, indeed, a resident expert.

Art is one of my favorite items to collect from my travels. I have added some well-know Aruban artists to my ever-expanding collection, including Elisa Lejuez-Peters, who has commanded exhibits in Miami and New York City. She is now selling scarves with her colorful silkscreen designs, which incorporate some of the ancient cave drawings on Aruba, at the airport as well as TH Palm & Co., a fabulous little shop owned by my friend Jodi Tobman. Jodi also owns the Caribbean Queen at Palm Beach Plaza and offers unique ladies’ fashion.   

Other artists in my collection include Elvis Tromp and, as of this most recent visit, two artists who paint on found driftwood. Mana Lepsanovic specializes in iguanas and owls, while Maria Onni paints the driftwood to look like masks. I met the gorgeous and talented Vanessa Paulina, who has commanded international exhibitions. She’s on my list of future acquisitions.   Vanessa facilitates “Soul Art,” a meditation/art therapy combo that connects you with your spirit and your creative genius.  

Another friend of mine, Anita Hugen teaches art at the International School. L’America Gallery is new within the last few years and highlights the work of many local artists. It’s located behind Ling & Sons Supermarket, which, by the way, is the best American-style grocery on the island.

You’ll find it easy to make new, life-long friends on Aruba, as I have done over the years. Two of my closest friends, Tina Causey Bislick and Rona Coster Kahan are extraordinary examples of entrepreneurship. Together, they started the award-winning Island Temptations magazine, a four-color glossy publication with stories that delve into the rich history, fashion and lifestyle that is the Caribbean. Rona also has a gossip column, Bati Bleki and a radio show. She is the PR diva of the island, and everyone knows Rona. I’m honored to call her a friend. Tina, along with her husband, Mike, and son, Taylor, opened the Hollywood Smokehouse, which draws on her Carolina roots, offering smoked meats, barbecue and the best cole slaw I’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, after a two-year run, the restaurant will be closing. “There are 50,000 restaurant seats on the island and only 10,000 visitors at any given time. You do the math,” explains Tina. Look for a surprise reinvention featuring the Hollywood’s award-winning craft beers and cocktails coming soon.

I spent a day of pampering at Tierra del Sol Country Club and had lunch in their newly renovated restaurant. If you’re a golfer, this is your go-to destination. Neely and I soaked up the sun poolside before indulging in spa treatments.  

Another great place for a Thai massage is Shalom Spa at the Alhambra Plaza. Essie, a Filipino woman, is small but mighty. She walks on your back performing chiropractic magic with her feet then stretches you into contortions you weren’t sure your body was meant to configure. Snap. Crackle. Pop. In a good way.   

My not-to-be missed list for first timers includes Baby Beach, Arikok National Park, glass bottom boat, sunset catamaran cruise, the new Main Street, the nighttime light and fountain show at Paceo Herencia, and everyone’s favorite restaurant, Madame Janette. Also try to make a visit to the California Lighthouse for a sunset cocktail. Mulligan’s overlooking the Divi Links golf course is great for lunch or dinner. They have scrumptious pizzas, while Windows on Aruba, one floor above, offers a Sunday brunch that the locals favor, especially for special occasions.  Other great restaurants include Pinchos on the water, Passions on the beach, Yemanja, Gianni’s, La Scala, Casa Tua, Barefoot, and Screming Eagle.  You can also literally have a “Cheeseburger in Paradise” at the Nikki Beach Club, which offers oversized mattress-like lounges.  Additionally, skip Starbucks and try Juan Valdez instead for your favorite caffeinated pick-me-up.  

If you can’t check them all off your list on your first visit, don’t worry, you’ll want to go back again and again. Aruba holds the record for most repeat visitors of any island in the Caribbean.  Bon Dia, mi Dushi, from the One Happy Island!

Wonderful Washington, DC

I checked into the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill on a Friday evening and made my hungry way across the street to Art and Soul. Inspired by Chef Art Smith’s southern roots, Capitol Hill’s Art and Soul serves simple, honest food with a modern twist.

Chef Smith has received the culinary profession’s highest accolades and cooked for some of the most famous celebrities. He began a 10-year stint as the personal, day-to-day chef for none other than Oprah Winfrey in 1997. Chef Smith is the founder of Common Threads, a non-profit organization teaching low-income children to cook wholesome and affordable meals since 2003. He believes that through hands-on cooking and introducing children to fresh foods we can help prevent childhood obesity, reverse the trend of poor eating habits and learn about diversity and tolerance through the celebration of our cultural differences and our commonalities.

I dined with a colleague al fresco on shrimp and grits before the rain drops forced us inside for dessert. The chocolate and salted caramel cheesecake accented with English toffee crumbles is worth a second or even a third visit. The outdoor area offers a pooch patio menu, and my Yorkies thoroughly enjoyed sliced sirloin (enough to fill a literal doggy bag that lasted the rest of the stay) and two, giant frozen bones that they gnawed on as if they were kids enjoying summer vacation, lingering in the hotel bed and watching cartoons while I went to meetings.  

In town for work, the Hyatt is a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building and a short walk to my meetings at the Senate and Congressional office buildings. I have stayed at this property many times over the years, and it’s always comfortable. The hotel remains remarkably clean given the high volume of traffic. Speaking of traffic, I emphatically recommend using Uber over the local taxi services. DC cab drivers are some of the rudest I’ve encountered in my worldwide travels. 

A lunch break on Saturday afforded the opportunity for my other favorite pastime—second only to eating—shopping—at City Center DC. This wonderful new development near the convention center is a hub of luxury with names like Hermes and Gucci, my two other faves. Imagine my delight when the Gucci store had sandals in my size that I have lusted after since I first saw them in Vietnam, earlier this year. They have been on back-order online and not many of the stores stock the new Tian Sandal with double GG canvas featuring an overlay pattern of tropical flowers and birds that is actually taken from a Chinese painting. They’ll look great on my upcoming trip to Aruba!

A combination of retail and residential, City Center DC boasts an arch featuring cool videos that frames a serene courtyard with fountains, while famous restaurants Momofuku, Fig and Olive and DBGB Kitchen and Bar add buzz to the spot. Encompassing 10-acres in the heart of the District, City Center DC is a 2.5 million square foot vibrant neighborhood development enlivened with a mix of condominiums, apartments, offices, public spaces, hotel, restaurants and shops. City Center DC’s boundaries are New York Avenue NW, 9th Street NW, H Street NW, and 11th Street NW. This has become a must-visit destination every time I’m in the District.

Don’t forget that all the monuments and museums in DC have free admission because we are the tax payers who foot the bills for operations. The Botanical Gardens are not to be missed. The Kennedy Center offers behind-the-scenes tours of this magical theatrical complex where the annual Kennedy Center Honors take place. The “nation’s stage” offers a full-slate of programming that includes family-friendly musicals, free nightly shows on the Millennium stage and kids’ concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra. Kinky Boots is playing there this summer, but I already saw that a few years back during its pre-Broadway trial run in Chicago. Featuring songs by Cyndi Lauper, it’s colorful and fabulous!  

If you want to visit the White House, which I did a few years ago, make sure to contact your United States Senator’s or Congressperson’s office. They can arrange for tickets. Reach out to them in advance. That was one of the coolest things I ever experienced in the District, aside from the the time at the holidays when I saw Wayne Newton making an exit from one of the luxury hotels to his limousine after performing at the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Despite enormous amounts of gentrification, comprised of outrageous housing costs that prevent many working class people, including those of the white collar variety, from living in the District, there is still a high level of diversity. There are a variety of neighborhoods, including a vibrant Chinatown, as well as restaurants for all taste preferences.   

My favorite neighborhood is Capitol Hill with gorgeous, tree lined streets, brick sidewalks and 19th century residences. Capitol Hill features a dog park (Lincoln Park) where your four-legged kids can frolic and play. Lincoln Park was part of the original plan by Pierre L’Enfant for the District of Columbia in 1791 and is the largest park in Capitol Hill.

The park is presided over by Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, which is a bronze statue honoring educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, by Robert Berks. The monument is the first statue erected on public land in Washington, D.C. to honor an African American and a woman. The statue features an elderly Mrs. Bethune handing a copy of her legacy to two young black children. She is supporting herself with a cane given to her by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There’s a charming little place at the edge of the park for dinner called the Lincoln Park Kitchen and Wine Bar, featuring charcuterie, cheese boards, flat breads, salads and a variety of main courses, including crab cake, scallops and short ribs. I opted for the arugula salad with walnuts, pears and blue cheese for a starter and the Campanelle pasta with sausage, broccoli rabe and kalamata olives for the main course. It truly feels like a neighborhood in Capitol Hill and you don’t even feel like you’re in Washington, DC.

Another hot spot north of Capitol Hill is Union Station, which is also within walking distance from the Hyatt and the Capitol. Daniel-Burnahm designed this Beaux Arts landmark, now a bustling Amtrak hub and bus depot with cafes and shops. The Eastern Market is the city’s oldest public market and features a Farmers’ Line on Saturdays and Sundays as well as a flea market on Sunday, featuring handmade jewelry, vintage linens, printing press letters and other antique treasures.

One place on my list to visit this time was Ebenezers Coffeehouse, formerly an abandoned building one block from Union Station that was once a crack house. National Community Church owns Ebenezers and promotes free trade coffee with a cause. All proceeds go to community outreach projects with a focus on ending homelesnness. The church’s driving motivation behind building a coffeehouse was that Jesus hung out at wells. They were natural gathering places in ancient culture. Ebenezers is a postmodern well that has served more than a million customers—neighbors, business people and elected officials from Capitol Hill alike.

Walking and riding around DC begs the question, “Where does community development end and gentrification begin?” This made the reason for my visit all the more important and timeline . I was there to attend the National Fair Housing Alliance annual conference, where we tackled issues such as fair and equal access to safe and affordable housing, displacement due to economic factors, and disparities in access to opportunities.

After all, your zip code is more than just a number—it’s an identity. Where you live determines your access to opportunities, including health care, education, transportation and employment. Where you live can also predict your future—your success or failure. Will you end up a college graduate with a job that pays enough to live in a high opportunity area, or will you become a statistic, winding up in a cycle of poverty and incarceration?

All of these options seem plausible in our Nation’s Capital, which is ripe with diversity, yet the wealth divide is readily apparent as well. For example, there is a giant “TRUMP COMING 2016” sign in front of the soon to open five-star Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, just down the street from the White House, where the nation’s first Black President and First Lady currently live with their family. Simultaneously, the first female candidate is set to make history as the Democratic nominee to vie for the Presidency. The fact that all of the aforementioned people, Trump, Obama and Clinton, are members of the one-percent club, is eerily reflective of the struggle of the American working class and the disappearance of the middle class as the wealth divide grows as fast as the rate of inflation. At the same time, one doesn’t have to strain to see the abundance of homeless people and panhandlers in the District, with an obvious presence of untreated mental illness and substance abuse. The struggle, as they say, is real.

Indeed, Washington DC is a city full of disparities and ironies. Perhaps Washington, DC really does embody and reflect the spectrum and diversity of the American population and culture after all.