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.

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.  

Intriguing Iceland

Iceland is a thinly-populated island in the North Atlantic that has become famous for hot springs, geysers and active volcanoes. This Nordic island nation has a meager population of 332,000.

We arrived into Reykjavik early in the morning to find a bustling and efficient modern international airport. A six hour flight from Newark took us to this Northern European country with intriguing and picturesque natural landscapes that are breathtaking. The mountains are so plentiful and their enormity is near impossible to capture in photos.  

Before our hotel rooms were ready, we embarked on a city tour, enjoying this detailed and comprehensive introduction to Reykjavik’s past and present. Reykjavik’s renowned charm and bustling life is brought to light while viewing the city’s main attractions by motor coach. 

We visited landmarks such as the Pearl (with breathtaking views of the city and the mountains) and the new Harpa Concert and Conference Hall. We took in views of the Old Town Center, the Hofoi House (where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986), and Hallgrimskirkja church and gained invaluable insight into the Icelandic society and how Reykjavik has developed from a small fishing village into a modern capital that is home to the majority of the country’s population (120,000).

All of the energy and heat used by the citizens of Reykjavik come from geothermal plants and renewable hydropower making it the most sustainable and energy efficient city in the world. This city has also been replacing traditional buses with hydrogen-fueled buses, from which the only emissions are water.

The first evening we indulged at Lebowski Bar for burgers and fries and soccer on enormous screens. Be prepared for enthusiastic and slightly intoxicated patrons cheering loudly.  

Strolling the charming Main Street of Laugavegur, we window shopped until it was time for our Northern Lights tour, which we had learned about earlier in the day by visiting the Northern Lights Center. This ethereal display – the aurora borealis – is beautiful but captured more dramatically by sophisticated cameras with tripods than the naked eye.

What causes these lights to appear? Our sun is 93 million miles away. But its effects extend far beyond its visible surface. Great storms on the sun send gusts of charged solar particles hurtling across space. If Earth is in the path of the particle stream, our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere react. When the charged particles from the sun strike atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, they excite those atoms, causing them to light up. This phenomenon is similar to a neon light.

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s unique natural pool of mineral rich geothermal water, located in the middle of a lava field in the pure, beautiful Icelandic wilderness, is not to be missed and worth the hour drive to reach this unique site. A combination of mineral-rich fresh and sea water of 100-110°F, surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges, it is ideal for wading and soaking in the shallow 3-5 foot waters, (swimming not required), while the air temperature ranges from 25-55°F.

The facility is a modern building with clean changing rooms and showers, skin care facility, restaurant and gift shop. A selection beverages can be purchased in the Lagoon Bar, so there’s no need to leave the water! 

The popular Golden Circle tour showcases some of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions including the country’s best known natural, cultural, and historic sites. We visited Hellisheiði Power Plant at the foot of Mt. Hengill Volcano where the earth’s most brutal forces are harnessed and converted to clean energy for space heating. Over 99% of Iceland is heated by natural hot water. There are even pipes underneath the streets and driveways that melt the snow and ice. Instead of turning down the thermostat, Icelanders open their windows.

We also stopped at an Icelandic horse farm to admire the fascinating creatures that are smaller in stature and demonstrate an interesting gait.  Then, we made our way on to the Gullfoss waterfall, the queen of Iceland’s waterfalls, tumbling down a deep gorge. Next stop was the Geysir geothermal area, home of the famous Strokkur geyser. The Strokkur geyser erupts every 6-10 minutes, making it one of the most active geysers in the world. Take care not to stand down wind or you will get soaked. 

Our final stop of the day was Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America meet and one of the world’s oldest parliaments was founded in 930 AD. It was other-worldly walking the fault-lines resulting from earthquakes (Iceland has 400 a day) that have created deep crevices between steep rock walls.

We also opted for the South Shore Adventure tour and experienced the amazing southern portion of Iceland, famous for its black sand coastline and stunning scenery. The first stop of the day was at the gorgeous Seljalandsfoss waterfall. 

Next, we continued on to visit the majestic and much-photographed Skógafoss waterfall. The thundering falls plummet nearly 200 feet over a cliff to the valley floor. Then, we visited the Skogar folk museum to get a taste of how Icelanders lived in centuries past. 

The tour explored as far as Vik, a charming village at the southern tip of Iceland surrounded by beautiful high cliffs. Other highlights of the tour included views of Mýrdalsjökull glacier and the impressive Reynisdrangar rock formations.

On the last day before flying home, I visited Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. Sometimes called “Iceland in miniature,” due to its many different kinds of geology all in one place, you can’t miss this if you want to capture the true spirit and beauty of the island. On the morning of this tour, the weather was less conducive and more typical of Iceland with wind gusts and rains. I was treated to sublime views of fabulous cliffs, seals, glaciers, volcanoes, lava fields and lava beaches as well as interesting rock formations.  

Tourism in recent years has surpassed fishing and fish products to become the leading national industry of Iceland. While the people are friendly and accommodations are adequate, don’t expect five-star service. Hollywood has found a home in this country with films featuring Ben Stiller, Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise having been filmed here. The cost of living, in general, is very expensive in Iceland partly because it’s so far from everything. There are also import fees and taxes. Combine that with a relatively small market and you get the idea of why there’s such a mark-up. For example, a gallon of gas is about $8 and a pint of beer is $10. My selfie stick broke and it cost about $34 to replace it when it would only cost less than $5 anywhere else. The average income is about $3000-$3500 per month.  

I was warned not to have high expectations about the food but was pleasantly surprised. Dining options abound along the Main Street of Laugavegur. We tried the only authentic “Ristorante Italia,” which has been in business for 31 years. There are fish and chips restaurants as well as steakhouses. Vegamot was another outstanding option that features burgers, pizzas, pastas, and salads. For fine dining we tempted our taste buds with beef tenderloin and salmon at Kol Restaurant on Skólavörðustíg in downtown Reykjavik. Skólavörðustíg also features art galleries and shops worthy of exploration.  

This awe-inspiring destination can experience all four seasons in a matter of hours so it’s best to layer clothing when heading out for the day. I purchased a waterproof parka as well as thermal underwear and socks prior to making the journey. Other necessities include an umbrella, gloves and hat. Be sure to pack a bathing suit for the Blue Lagoon. Snacks come in handy, too, as the restaurants, like everything else in Iceland, are pricey. For example, a pizza is $30.  

You can use US currency most places but expect change in the local Icelandic Krona. Wi-fi is plentiful and the people are generally friendly and helpful but do not go out of their way to accommodate. Tipping is not obligatory but it seems compulsory to leave some gratuity. Our tour guide told us “it’s too much” when my Dad handed her cash.

Overall Iceland is worthy of the relatively short journey if for nothing more than the sublime topography. It’s almost like visiting another planet. As our cab driver said, “If you like nature, you will love Iceland.”  

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.  

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!