Hawaii is Always a Good Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amazing Austin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago: A Diamond in the Rough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oahu Ohana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Epic American Adventure: East Coast by Luxury Private Coach

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

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

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

Baltimore, MD

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

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

Mystic, CT

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

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

Newport, RI

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

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

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

Hyannis Port, MA

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

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

Plymouth, MA

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Niagara Falls, NY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Las Vegas & Hoover Dam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.