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!

Wonderful Washington, DC

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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