Chicago: A Diamond in the Rough

For the last 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.

Across from the Palmer House is Vapiano–an Italian restaurant. 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. I enjoyed the insalata mista and penne carbonara with salmon. The food is fresh and delicious; the portions are enormous; and the prices are extremely reasonable.

Located at the Palmer House is the chain Freshii. Started in Hawaii, Freshii operates hundreds of locations in cities and countries around the world. Freshii offers healthy food at affordable prices. The Cobb and Zen (Asian) salads were both impressive.

I scored a front row center orchestra seat for the Friday evening performance of the touring production of Broadway’s 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 most popular lines, “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 young, scrappy and hungry Hamilton, himself.

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. 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.

Just like the lead characters Hamilton and Aladdin, Chicago is a diamond in the rough. Should equitable solutions be created to resolve its social issues, Chicago can sparkle flawlessly as a shining example for other American cities to replicate.


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.  

Broadway Bound

With a 24-hour layover in New York on my way to Icleand, I made the most of my short time in the city that never sleeps by taking in two shows, a meal and walking an impressive portion of the island.  My flight was delayed, which precluded my Friday evening dinner reservation at Sardi’s, but I made up for it with a pre-theatre lunch on Saturday.  

In the heart of New York’s Theater District, Sardi’s has been the toast of Broadway for 90 years. Located at 234 West 44th Street the restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. Late supper is served from Tuesday through Saturday.  I enjoy both the food and the vibe here, as well as the celebrity caricatures.  My personal favorite is of the late comedienne extraordinaire, Joan Rivers, with her tiny Yorkie, Spike, after whom my dog is named.  

Planning months in advance, I scored a ticket to see the one-and-only Bette Midler headline in “Hello, Dolly!” during the show’s previews.  I was in the front row of the mezzanine taking in the electric atmosphere, and the New York crowd was raucous, applauding practically every line and nuance Bette delivered.  Indeed, the Divine Miss M brought the house down without so much as even uttering a single note–making her entrance by lowering a newspaper she was holding to conceal her face while riding on a horse-drawn stage coach.  

Midler stormed back to Broadway, returning for the first time since her sold-out run as superagent Sue Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last,” back in 2013. This time she has a bit more company, heading up the fourth revival of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s “Hello, Dolly!” (following the original, which ran from January 1964 through December, 1970).  This is Midler’s first turn at headlining a Broadway musical, having made her debut in a supporting role of the original cast of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964.

The Jerry Zaks-helmed show, co-starring David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame, opened with a record $40 million in advance ticket sales, and posted sales of $1.4 million for five previews at the Shubert Theatre last week.  The show opens April 20.

I joined the eager crowd of theatre patrons in Shubert Alley waiting for the singer-songwriter-actress-comedian to appear post-performance.  Prior to the diva’s exit from the stage door to her chauffeured sedan, the show’s company, including Hyde-Pierce and Kate Baldwin (who plays Irene Molloy), stopped to sign Playbills while Midler’s husband, artist Martin von Haselberg, opened the car door for his 71-years-young wife before they were whisked away into the night, making their way to their luxurious mansion-apartment overlooking Central Park.

On Saturday morning, I walked from 10th Avenue to 5th Avenue, stopping at the mother-ship–the Cartier Mansion to ooh and ahh.  I made my way past Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral as well as the famed Plaza Hotel.  I strolled through Central Park while snowflakes started to fall, eventually making my way back to the theatre district to catch a strictly limited engagement of “Sunset Boulevard” starring Glenn Close. 

Close returns to Broadway in the tour de force performance that earned her the Tony Award back in 1995 for Best Actress – and a place in Broadway history.  Featuring a 40-piece orchestra, the largest in Broadway history, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning masterwork of dreams and desire in the land called Hollywood reigns at the Palace Theatre for 16 weeks only following a sold out run in London’s West End.  The show ends June 25.

While I wished I had more time, I will gladly take Manhattan and make the most of any amount of time in the city that is the center of the universe.  I have loved this metropolis since my first visit at the age of seven.  Everything’s as if we never said goodbye.  

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.

Chicago:  Cosmopolitan Crime Capital

Having traveled all over the planet to some third-world countries at the corners of the globe, including experiences with potentially life-threatening situations, it makes me particularly unsettled when my friends warn me to be careful going to Chicago. What’s going on with Chicago?   

According to USA Today:

“Murders in the nation’s third-largest city are up about 72%, while shootings have surged more than 88% in the first three months of 2016 compared with the same period last year, according to data released Friday by the Chicago Police Department. Police said the disturbing rise in violence is driven by gangs and mostly contained to a handful of pockets on the city’s South and West sides.”

Chicago has historically been synonymous with crime. Chicago’s criminal reputation long preceded Al Capone and the beer wars. By the end of the 1840s, observers both within the city and beyond regularly noted the existence of an identifiable criminal underworld. In the words of the Democrat, it was “getting to be a notorious fact that robbers, pickpockets, thimble riggers [literally, those who played the three-shell game, but more broadly any who used sly tricks to cheat] are perfectly at home in our city.”

The visibility of vice enhanced the city’s criminal reputation. At midcentury, Chicago reportedly had more gambling establishments than the larger city of Philadelphia and more per capita than New York. Vice first concentrated in an area along the Chicago River known as “the Patches,” places, as the Tribune put it, of “the most beastly sensuality and darkest crimes.”

So wicked was the city’s reputation that many saw the Fire of 1871 as divine retribution against a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Lawlessness after the conflagration gave no cause for optimism. “The city,” one newspaper reported, “is infested with a horde of thieves, burglars and cut-throats, bent on plunder, and who will not hesitate to burn, pillage and even murder.”

You won’t see that on any tourism slogan or advertisement. Since I’ve been coming to Chicago since I was in junior high with no incidences of crime, I choose to focus on the cosmopolitan nature of this Midwest metropolis. It’s a city known for shopping and eating. And Oprah. What’s not to love?

I came to Chicago this time for a short business trip. I stayed at the W City Center located downtown on Adams. Shopping within walking distance includes State Street, featuring Macy’s, Nordstrom Rack and Saks Off Fifth Avenue. I managed to cover all of State Street on my first free afternoon. The W City Center is also in close proximity to the theatres.

I was fortunate to be invited to a retirement dinner at the Cliff Dwellers on the 22nd floor of the building at 200 South Michigan Avenue. In 1907, Chicago author Hamlin Garland and friends founded the Attic Club, which two years later was re-named The Cliff Dwellers. Now, as then, it is a private club and functions as a non-profit organization for men and women either professionally engaged in, or who support, the fine arts and the performing arts.

Since its 1996 move from atop Symphony Center (formerly Orchestra Hall) next door, all the facilities of The Cliff Dwellers Club are located in the 22nd floor penthouse of the office building at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue at Adams Street. Its lakefront facilities overlook Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago, offering some of the most spectacular views of the city and Lake Michigan. The artwork on display in the dining room reflected India, which seemed to foreshadow my upcoming sojourn there at Thanksgiving.

My favorite restaurant in Chicago and one of my top choices in the entire country is located adjacent to the world’s largest Polo store, the Chicago Flagship on Michigan Avenue, RL Restaurant represents Ralph Lauren’s debut into the restaurant industry. Opened in 1999, the restaurant features the vision and décor of Ralph Lauren and modern city-club cuisine. This establishment is also one of Oprah’s personal favorites.

The food is inspired by American classics – seafood, steaks, chops, salads, sandwiches – a menu that stands apart from fashion and trends. Some of our more popular items are prepared table side. The cuisine combines with a unique club atmosphere– where even the first time diner is treated as a member. There are only two other Ralph Lauren dining establishments in the world—The Polo Bar in New York City and Ralph’s in Paris.

The vicinity of the restaurant to The Miracle Mile makes it a perfect watering hole for a nosh to replenish the energy required for some fierce retail therapy. All along Michigan Avenue are names, names, names: Macy’s, Bloomies, Saks, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Gucci, Tiffany & Co., to highlight just the tip of the iceberg. When you’ve exceeded your shopping budget, consider visiting one of the many parks and museums that are unique to Chicago.

The Field Museum of Natural History, for example, is offering what’s virtually a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Stand among larger-than-life soldiers in The Field Museum’s newest exhibition, “China’s First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors.” Tasked to guard Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb for eternity, archers, infantrymen, and armored officers hold watch over a striking underground model of China’s first empire. Explore the life of the ruler who vanquished his rivals, unified China’s many warring states, constructed the first Great Wall, built roads throughout his vast territory, and standardized China’s script, currency, weights, and measures. Learn about his desire to reign over the universe and his obsession with immortality. See priceless treasures from one of the world’s greatest archaeological discoveries, including the fierce warriors that are so revered.

The Field Museum is the only place in North America they can be seen this year. The exhibit costs $41.80 with tax and runs through January 8, 2017. This checked an item of my bucket list in a timely fashion. Making the pilgrimage to Xian, China to see the Terracotta Warriors on our Grand Asia tour earlier this year was about the only thing we failed to accomplish. Now I won’t have to go back to China, after all.

Forget the crime, make a visit to Chicago part of your future travel plans. The best times to visit are in the spring and fall. Summer is too hot and winter too cold. “Hamilton: An American Musical” opens on September 27 if you need a good excuse.

And don’t forget your Garrett’s popcorn.  The unique Garrett Mix features CaramelCrisp mixed with CheeseCorn.  It’s irresistible, and they put moist towelettes in the bag to wipe the orange residue off your fingers.  

Dolly Parton’s Pure & Simple Tour Covers North America

Dolly Parton, the 70-year-old multifaceted entertainer, is a national treasure and one of those rare celebrities that everyone seems to love. I’ve had an infatuation with her since I was a little boy. I used to put nerf balls in my shirt, don a wig, and sing “Two Doors Down” into my Mister Microphone, entertaining my parens and their friends. I’ve seen her several times in concert, and this year, my dream of meeting the international icon came true during her Pure & Simple Tour.

Dolly brings her boundless energy to stages in over 60 cities as she embarks on her first major U.S. and Canadian tour in more than 25 years. For the last 20 years, she has only played select dates in the U.S., but her 2016 tour covers cities across North America.

In what has been one of the summer’s most sought-out concerts, Dolly performs her hit songs all while weaving in a few new songs from her new double-disc album “Pure & Simple with Dolly’s Biggest Hits.” She delights fans by playing songs they have not heard live for decades.

Dolly said, “We’re so excited to get out there and see the fans again. I’m really looking forward to singing songs the fans have not heard in a while, as well as the hits, while debuting a few new ones off Pure & Simple.”

“Pure & Simple with Dolly’s Biggest Hits” 2-CD set will include all new material as well as a compilation of Dolly’s biggest hits. Dolly officially announced the details of her Aug. 19 release, Pure & Simple, revealing it will be released under a new joint venture of Dolly Records and RCA Nashville, marking her return to the label she called home from for nearly 20 years.

In a press release, Dolly noted: “I may not be pure, but I’m as simple as they come! This new Pure & Simple project is really special to me because I’m taking my fans back to my roots. I feel like these songs have a pure, tender side and we didn’t go overboard with arrangements. I’m so glad we’ve teamed up with our friends at Sony to get this album out to the fans.”

Doug Morris, CEO of RCA parent company Sony Music Entertainment, said in the press release: “Dolly Parton is a national treasure and an iconic singer/songwriter. We are thrilled to be expanding our successful relationship with her through this new global agreement. We are very proud to call her a member of the Sony Music family.” Sony Music Nashville Chairman and CEO Randy Goodman added: “This is a special reunion for Dolly, RCA Nashville and for me personally. Our entire Sony Music Nashville team is elated. We have a firm foundation of Dolly’s incredible catalog of hits on RCA Nashville as well as Columbia Nashville.” (Sony Music owns Monument Records – where Dolly recorded 1965-67, RCA – where she was 1968-86, and Columbia – where she was under contract 1987-96; basically covering her career recordings from 1965 through 1996 except for her Trio project with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on Warner Brothers in 1987.) The press release also provided the album’s cover art and the track listing:

Pure and Simple

Say Forever You’ll Be Mine

Never Not Love You

Kiss It (And Make It All Better)

Can’t Be That Wrong

Outside Your Door

Tomorrow Is Forever

I’m Sixteen

Head Over High Heels

Forever Love

The British version of the announcement noted that the album there will be paired with a live CD from her 2014 Glastonbury Festival headlining concert, although it was unclear whether that companion CD will be available in the U.S. The U.K. edition of The Huffington Post premiered a lyric video of the album’s title track. Multiple media outlets reported on the news repeating the details of the press release, with the only one that added new information being Billboard that noted her most recent release, Blue Smoke, has sold 88,000 units in the U.S. since its release in 2014 on Dolly Records and Sony’s Masterworks imprint. (By comparison, the album has sold about 400,000 copies in Great Britain.) The publication explained that since the SoundScan era began in 1991, Dolly has sold 9.25 million albums in the U.S. and since they began tracking individual U.S. song downloads in 2003 she has sold 3.3 million tracks on top of the album sales. They added that in the first six and a half months of this year alone, she has sold 53,000 albums from her various catalog titles and 123,000 individual song downloads.

While the American version of Pure & Simple on iTunes is a single-disc edition, the double-disc set will be a Walmart exclusive stateside and will offer her greatest hits in addition to the new material.

The Country Music Hall of Famer is on one of the biggest hot streaks of her career after her hugely successful TV movie, “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” attracted a network record of 15.8 million viewers making it the most-watched movie on network TV in more than six years. “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” was released on DVD on May 3. Disappointingly, however, the movie did not receive any Emmy nominations.

Coming off the phenomenal performance of last year’s holiday special and looking to recapture the enthusiasm of the nearly 16 million viewers who tuned in, NBC is announcing the sequel “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love.”

“Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love” is the next chapter in the life of young Dolly Parton. The film delivers Christmas joy and peril as an unexpected blizzard threatens the Parton family while at the same time Dolly’s father (and his kids) make sacrifices to raise enough money to finally buy his loving wife the wedding ring he could never afford to give her. Meanwhile, an important person in little Dolly’s life begins to see that her amazing voice and musical gift might just be made for something bigger than rural Tennessee.

The original cast will return for the sequel: Jennifer Nettles as Avie Lee Parton, Ricky Schroder as Robert Lee Parton, Gerald McRaney as Rev. Jake Owens and Alyvia Alyn Lind as young Dolly Parton. Other members of the cast, as well as a premiere date, will be announced in the coming months. Dolly announced from the stage of one her shows that she will be playing the town tramp, after whom she modeled her trademark look.

“I was so overwhelmed and touched by how many people watched ‘Coat of Many Colors’ and their reaction to it. The song ‘Coat of Many Colors,’ of course, has always been my favorite and has touched so many people through the years, especially me. It is a true story from a very special time in my childhood. I am so happy to share this story with the viewers and to say there is so much more to tell because mine truly has been a life of many colors. I hope the viewers will fall in love all over again,” said Dolly.

I caught the superstar twice during the tour—once at the Hard Rock Rocksino in Northfield, OH—outside of Cleveland—and again at Caesars Windsor in Canada. The show is a lightning bolt of energy peppered with down-home country tales of Dolly’s humble upbringing in the Smoky Mountains and topped with a heaping helping of comedy. The chatter-box spends plenty of time gettin’ homey in between songs which include the plethora of hits from county to pop and back again, along with two singles off the new album, the title track and “Outside Your Door.” She also plays many instruments, including acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, saxophone, piano and harmonica, and the show features one intermission and costume change. The performance lasts about two hours with intermission. Even the instruments are bedazzled, and as Dolly says, “I never leave a rhinestone unturned.”

In Cleveland, I arrived early to meet Dolly’s niece, the delightful and beautiful, Hannah Denison, whose smile is infectious just like her Aunt’s. Hannah fell in love with my two tiny Yorkies, LuLu and Spike and many of the VIP guests requested to have their photos taken with Hannah and my pups. The VIP reception featured hors d’oeuvres, dessert and a cash bar, along with about two-dozen, life-sized cardboard cutouts of Dolly.

A special touring museum features Dolly’s costumes from movies, tours and photo shoots, along with instruments. After touring the museum, I made my way to meet the legend in person. We were escorted into a small room with a step and repeat, bright lights and professional photographer. My heart was beating as the doors swung open and a couple of huge security guards entered, behind whom you could see a tiny puff of platinum blond hair. The security guards parted to reveal the tiny Dolly Parton teetering on high heels, bedecked with rhinestones, sheer material and white, shiny satin framing her famous cleavage. Her hair piled high on top of her head, she seemed to illuminate from the inside out—angelic, indeed.

Before greeting any of the human guests, Parton saw Hannah with my two dogs, and said, “It didn’t take you long to find critters!” As I made my way through the photograph line, I handed her a bouquet of sunflowers and thanked her for making my lifelong dream come true. She let me hold her hand for a photo and then asked me, “You want your babies in here, too, dontcha?” So, Hannah popped in with LuLu and Spike for a precious, group photo. This was the best night of my life!

Dolly asked, “Are they coming to the show, too?” I responded, “Yes, we will be in the front row singing ‘Two Doors Down,’”and this seemed to delight her as she giggled. Dolly’s team is so thoughtful and friendly. When they saw I was seated in the front row of the concert hall next to a large speaker, they expressed concern for my dogs’ ears. This was no problem for Hannah who took the babies backstage to frolic and play in Dolly’s dressing room for the duration of the show, returning them to me following the encore. If only they had been suited with go-pro cameras, or if they could talk—what stories they could tell.

Once was not enough to see this fantastic show, so I also purchased a second-row center seat for the performance at Caesars Windsor, in Canada– just across the river from Detroit. The show in Cleveland was better for several reason. There is no hassle of border-crossing and trying to navigate without the iPhone gps working well in Canadian communication channels. The staging was better in Cleveland and well as the crowd. Overall, the show is worth seeing but I would think twice about making the trek to Windsor—I didn’t get home till after 1:00 a.m. With the border-crossing and highway construction. Perhaps if one travels to Windsor for a show, it would be better to spend the night at Caesars’ Hotel.

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.