The Oaks at Ojai, (pronounced O-Hi) is one of the oldest and most experienced spas in the United States and listed in the 26 top spas in the world. The Oaks was the brain-child of Sheila, who was a fitness trainer in the 1960’s. After nearly a decade of teaching enthusiasts how to perfect their appearance and their optimum body strength and flexibility, she decided to start a spa.
Sheila visited famous spas in Europe, but she realized those provided retreat and massage treatments and emphasized restorative relaxation, beauty and skin treatments, but none featured total health through healthy habits. She returned to California and decided to create a spa which would combine the retreat and pampering aspects of European spas with a happy holiday for people to experience healthy lifestyles. She purchased the beautiful, historical property in Ojai, in the mountains near Ventura. She and her daughter now own and manage The Oaks together.
The lovely Spanish mission style property built in 1917 was the center of this little mountain town, a perfect location less than an hour from the ocean and close to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. She had the old buildings gutted and restyled to create the most comfortable and beautiful get-away anyone could want. The floral landscaped grounds further create the perfect, serene setting for re-creation for her guests. The popularity of this famous spa has grown ever since.
We stayed in one of the lovely bungalow cottage suites. With our living room comfortably furnished as well as having a cozy fireplace (which lighted with the flip of a switch), refrigerator, WiFi, TV and lots of room. Our spacious bedroom had two perfect queen beds, TV and a large private bathroom with a whirlpool tub, a large tile shower, and vanity with two sinks. Our wide porch was furnished with chairs and table and gorgeous flowers in our private garden behind the wall. We felt like we had moved to California… a perfect home away from home. You can also stay in the lovely guestrooms in the hotel proper.
People come to The Oaks for many different reasons, and most of the ones we talked to have been here many times, saying they always feel like they are returning to a family of friends. Since meals are family style and classes are varied, you simply introduce yourself to many different people in a day and easily make new friends in this relaxed atmosphere where everyone is learning and practicing together. The largest percentage of The Oaks clients are professional women. Others are all ages, shapes, sizes, married, widowed, and single. Not as many men stay here, but they are missing some great opportunities, as Bill will testify. Anyone can learn how to live healthier and enjoy the classes and delicious meals here, feeling pampered and welcome 24/7. Fathers’ Day week is the time of year to introduce your man to The Oaks, since it is popular then for men, who often follow their retreat here with an extended golf, fishing, and tennis holiday in or near Ojai.
Guests at The Oaks can choose just to relax, sleep late, hike, bicycle, skate, swim, kayak, or you can use this as your make-over lifestyle vacation to learn how to create great new habits for body and mind while being pampered with all kinds of recreation, massages, reiki or acupuncture therapy, sauna, steam room, hot tub, and facial treatments. A variety of packages include different options. We started our days early with either a brisk hike or a leisurely stroll for up to an hour. The scenery of the surrounding area is California beautiful, and you can select steep climbs or flatlands. Breakfast is wholesome, healthy, and delicious with many different choices. The daily meal plan is designed to train our bodies to enjoy eating small, nutritious meals seven times a day (to keep the right blood-sugar level, so you don’t have the starving cravings when you cannot resist high calory junk food.)
Each hour of the day you choose from many kinds of fitness classes, burning unwanted fat while toning muscles and having fun. The excellent teachers know how to make exercise enjoyable for even those who thought they did not like to move their bodies! You can select yoga, weight machines, pool activities, stretching, pilates, balance balls, and many more indoor or outdoor fitness classes. I especially loved the simple but quite unique classes geared for movements to do on an airplane or in a desk chair to keep circulation going and prevent brain and body fatigue. Always practically minded, Sheila even showed us how to devise equipment anyone can afford: elastic straps and weights made from empty plastic bottles filled with rocks.
Many teachers come here to care for themselves while they learn unique and clever, inexpensive teaching tools to help students grow up with healthy lifestyles. Nancy teaches everyone how to “Enjoy It Here and Take It Home!” Her great tips make it easy to incorporate small changes into anyone’s life to make huge differences in health, energy, and appearance.
After several morning classes you can enjoy the mid-morning snack and then a mid-day delicious meal with soup, salad, protein and dessert. Then you are filled with energy to continue your convivial fitness classes and a healthy snack for the afternoon, or simply take a nap…whatever you choose because opportunities abound, but never does anyone question or pressure you about your choices. Dinner time is delightful with excellent menus. Food presentation is noticably elegant and appealing and the the cuisine is absolutely delicious and satisfying. We completely forgot that we had only about 1,000 calories in a day and we never even missed salt or sugar or unhealthy fat in the tasty recipes. The experienced chef is a master in creating fabulous food with only healthy and natural ingredients, every bite was as good as it is good for you! We shopped at The Nest, the shop in The Oaks, to bring home some of the spices and cookbooks to continue what we enjoyed here.

Evening brings intriguing entertainment in the form of well-chosen movies and popcorn or a program with other types of activities. Everyone says their favorite is with artist Lena Rivkin, who comes from Los Angeles, where she teaches art. She usually comes to The Oaks once a month. She designs and leads various art activities on one evening and presents a fascinating lecture/demonstration as a Graphologist on another evening. Lena is known worldwide for her handwriting analysis skills, and she makes this available to visitors here.

Before you leave Ojai, be SURE to enjoy a lunch or dinner in the beautiful Suzanne’s Cuisine, the favorite of locals and visitors alike. The food is fabulous and the ambience delightful!

Photography by Emma Krasov

Traveling to Vienna in spring is a double treat – the weather in this gorgeous European capital is balmy, and white asparagus is in season. Let me elaborate.

I remember how I came to try white asparagus for the first time. It was in Chicago, and the preparation was done by the world-famous chef. Under my server’s intense gaze I bit into a pale meek stalk, and couldn’t force myself to take another bite. “So, how is it?” he said. “Bland,” said I – to his barely contained outrage. Since then I was not actively seeking this perennial shoot intentionally held underneath the soil to keep it colorless. It didn’t do anything to me – until I’ve tried it at Palmenhaus restaurant in Burggarten, Vienna.

Silky, tender, mild, but full of spring-like fresh flavor, it was simply served with a boiled potato, some bitter greens, and buttery-lemony hollandaise sauce. What a delight!

Steel-and-glass Art Deco Palmenhaus, where Emperor Franz Joseph liked to spend his time off admiring the hot house palm trees, is not the only place that serves white asparagus. Every self-respecting eatery in the city does it in spring and early summer.

While I continued to order it everywhere, I took time to explore other notable staples of local cuisine and the local culinary scene in general.
At Le Loft, located at the top floor of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom overlooking downtown, I appreciated traditional marinated herring in mustard sauce, paired with a local wine.
At Zum Schwarzen Kameel, a historic restaurant first open in 1618, I indulged in the Tafelspitz, a favorite dish of Emperor Franz Joseph, who allegedly ate it every day for dinner.
At Meierei im Stadtpark, a former milk drinking hall on the Wien River, I devoured a world-famous Wiener schnitzel, deliciously breaded and sprinkled with lemon.

At least once a day during my trip, exhausted by the sightseeing overdose, I did what tourists do – lounged on a banquette at one or another notorious Viennese café drinking coffee and snacking on chocolaty Sachertorte or vanilla-drenched Apfelstrudel.
There is nothing like a cup of strong mélange to lift a weary traveler’s spirits at a modern Café Motto am Fluss on Danube Canal, or a glass of creamy Wiener Eiskaffee at Café Schwarzenberg, in operation since 1861.
The city is brimming with all kinds of indulgences. Viennese inherent sophistication defines everything here from art and design to sublime culinary delights.

Before leaving Vienna, I stopped at Demel – the historic café und konditorei heading into the third century of its relentless excellence. Formerly a supplier to the imperial court, Demel still carries Empress Sissi’s favorite candid violets and Les Langues de Chat (cat tongues) chocolates exquisitely packed in vintage design boxes tied with silk ribbons.

Oscar Hammerstein in his lyrics in “Oklahoma” said Kansas City was up to date in a humorous way, but it’s even more true today, as Kansas City is updating its attractions with multi-million dollar investments. Culture and cuisine is always high on my travel itineraries and while I only saw a few of Kansas City standouts on this trip, there is a lot to absorb in Kansas City, Mo. One example is the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial with its symbolic see-through bridge over a field of 9,000 poppies, which represents a thousand casualties for each poppy.
The Belger Arts Center/Red Star Studios is an example of a partnership of industry and a passion in art collecting. Besides its display of contemporary art from the personal collection of businessman and wife, John and Maxine Belger, it is also home to a number of rotating solo exhibitions as well as touring group artists. The converted warehouse at 2100 Walnut St.,offers loft-like exhibition space for a number of large scale art. Dr. Kathleen Desmond of REVIEW magazine said, “The Belger Arts Center is amazing in its presence in Kansas City; not quite a museum, not a university gallery, not a commercial gallery. It is an entity in itself that defies definition. It is an incredible resource and contribution to the visual arts in Kansas City.”
Another outstanding contribution is the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art where the building itself, built in 1994 is a work of art. It’s airy and up lifting design, lightens the spirit and is a complement to the upbeat contemporary art it contains. With a new exhibition almost every month it’s easy to see why this is a Kansas City favorite, as is the outstanding museum’s Café Sebastienne. I had a delightful lunch surrounded by a variety of paintings reminiscent of famous artists. My dining companion/painting was a coy girl in a Mary Cassatt style. Relaxing in the café setting or in the light filled and enclosed courtyard is as much a treat as is the contemporary cuisine by executive chef Jennifer Maloney.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art brings together masterful examples from many periods and world cultures. The May 2010 opening of the new Egyptian gallery featuring treasure from the 2,300 year old noble woman, Meretites, allows visitors to peek inside her spectacular coffin. The American Indian gallery, which opened in November of 2009 is extensive – I’m told is one of the largest exhibits devoted to Native Americans.When I visited, there was a collection of Rodin bronzes, on temporary display through June 3, with an outstanding impact on this viewer. The museum’s newest addition, the Bloch building houses several of the contemporary collections and illuminates at night. There are several galleries I did not get a chance to see, and there are many concerts and special events held throughout each season.
The performing arts are not to be overlooked as I took in a charming local concert revue of the lyrics of the Bergman’s at the Quality Hill Playhouse, called “Make Someone Happy.” They are noted for their family of repertory singers/performers in an intimate setting. Many special shows sell out like the upcoming Marilyn Maye concert – a near local town girl, and veteran songstress. I can recommend this upcoming concert, as I was privileged to hear Marilyn Maye in concert last year – never a disappointing note!

Before or after a show you may want to drop by, The Drop, for a cocktail or late night dinner, as it’s located in what is known as Martini corner. And for upscale dining the menu and service at Pierponts, lived up to its reputation as a “culinary jewel.” Named after railroad baron. J. P. Morgan, Pierpont’s is located appropriately enough in Union Station where other attractions also reside. But don’t let that put you off, as Pierpont’s interior is as elegant and yet friendly as can be. No wonder it was named by the local press “Best Place to Entertain an out-of-town Guest.” Their prime steaks and seafood along with their wine list, is a must to enjoy.
The Kansas City Ballet has a relatively new permanent home, the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity, a top notch renovation of an old energy generating factory. Semblances of its history can hardly be seen amid the state of the art rehearsal halls and pragmatic architecture. Unique to this home of ballet is the rehearsal hall where studio productions are held, with seated viewing above the dance floor. Just watching a class of these artistic athletes is inspiring. Also inspiring is the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts with its two theatres, and expansive lobbies. An expansive view of downtown Kansas City is available for prime viewing from the lobby at intermission with the innovative slanted panorama glass walls. I vow I will experience a performance there, on my next visit. I did however sample a delightful menu at the nearby Webster House, where I was also tempted by their antique and modern home décor shop. But the star of this visit was the fried green tomatoes with tomato jam ~ inventive and flavor packed. Webster House, a historic renovated school house, is within walking distance to the Kauffman Center and thus is perfect for pre-theatre dining.
And let’s not forget your home base for a restful retreat from all that Kansas City offers, and that would be the Crowne Plaza Kansas City located amid all the action downtown. Comfortable, convenient and affordable, what more could you want except room service and they have that too!



For more information and upcoming schedules:
Terry Zinn – Travel Editor –

“A diplomat’s life is made up of three ingredients: protocol, Geritol and alcohol.”- Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.

The Diplomat hotel in Greater Fort Lauderdale, Florida, began in 1953 as the 150-room Envoy, erected by Samuel Friedland, the founder of the Pantry Pride supermarket chain. In 1954 he expanded the hotel to 370 rooms and it was renamed the Diplomat. It was run by Irving and Marjorie Cowan, Mr. Friedland’s daughter and son-in-law. There was very little between Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale to entertain people until the Diplomat opened, and entertain they did with Bing Crosby, Xavier Cugat, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Lena Horne, Joan Rivers, Sammy Davis Jr. and Judy Garland appearing in either the Café Crystal or the Tack Room Lounge. Jay Leno and Billy Crystal were opening acts. On a personal note I stayed at the old Diplomat many times during the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.

Lawrence Welk filmed his first TV show from the hotel in 1962 as did the Jackie Gleason Show, and Arthur Godfrey taped his radio show there starting in 1965. Harry Truman, as well as every U.S. president since 1974, has addressed labor unions at the hotel. In a 2002 article for Travel & Leisure Magazine the Diplomat was described as “A playground for rich Northerners down for the season in their fur coats and string bikinis.” On New Years Eve 1974 Frank Sinatra returned from retirement and was paid $200,000 for his hour-long performance.

Over the years the Diplomat Resort continued to add rooms topping off at 1,170 with two golf courses and 19 tennis courts. But the hotel floundered economically, especially after a series of arson fires in 1983. Reopened in 1984 the hotel welcomed President Reagan, who addressed the International Longshoreman’s Association as well as Bob Hope, who hosted the New Year’s Eve Gala. In 1987 Cowan ceded control of the hotel to a group of labor union pension funds that sold the hotel in 1997 to the United Association of Journeymen & Apprentices of the Plumming & Pipe Fitting Industry. In 1998 the original hotel was imploded with 500 pounds of dynamite in less than 25 seconds.
In March of 2000 the 155-acre Country Club at the Diplomat opened to the public with an 18-hole golf course, 10-clay tennis courts, pro shops and 60-luxury guestrooms. In September of 2000 the 30,000-square foot Spa at The Diplomat opened featuring 20 treatment rooms and complete fitness facilities. Both are a mile away by hotel shuttle. Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide was appointed management company for the renamed Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, along with The Diplomat Country Club & Spa.
In January 2002 the 39-story hotel opened with 998 rooms and was the tallest and most expensive building in Broward County. The lobby features a five-story, 60-foot atrium surrounded by waterfalls with the water motif continuing in an outdoor infinity-edged pool with waterfalls splashing into a 240-foot lagoon pool below. All rooms offer views of either the ocean or he Intracoastal Waterways. Another personal note– I have stayed at the new Diplomat in 2003, 2009 and 2011.
The 209,000-square-foot convention center is adjacent to the hotel and features four ballrooms as well as a full fitness center. Across the skywalk, over Ocean Drive A1A, is Diplomat Landing, a 60,000-square-foot area of restaurants with a 14 slip marina. I spent one entire day on The Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi, which stops there. I had dinner in both Rivals Waterfront Sports Grille and AiZiA Restaurant (Asian cuisine) while staying at the hotel in 2011. The same chef Mauricio Gutierrez is still there, but the restaurant was located in the main building when I ate there in the fall of 2009. It moved to Diplomat Landing in December of 2009, which gave it more room with both indoor and outdoor dining. At 11PM it becomes a nightclub. Believe it or not I had the same wait server, who said she remembered me because I reminded her of Ernest Hemingway. True story.
The Westin Diplomat is a short taxi ride from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood or Miami International Airports as well as the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal. There were 7 cruise ships in port while I was there. If you are a passenger on Holland American, Royal Caribbean or Celebrity and your return trip home is in the late afternoon or evening, the Hollywood folks have a great deal for you. For $35 or $40 (depending on which airport) they will send your luggage ahead to either Miami or Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood airports and then transport you to a private room on the beach where you can relax, eat, swim or shop before they return you to your chosen airport. Wednesdays through Sundays the Hollywood Trolley stops at the hotel entrance (one of a dozen stops), and for $1 you can take it throughout the city of Hollywood from 10AM to 10PM. I used it to have dinner at Sugar Reef Tropical Grill on the Hollywood Broadwalk. Opened in 1994 it was the first white tablecloth restaurant to open on the Broadwalk. They specialize in fresh fish. I used my table to view the 56th Annual Hollywood Beach Candy Cane Parade. This parade, along the 2 1/2 mile Broadwalk, facing the Atlantic, has a real local feeling with floats, marching bands, dancers and fire and police vehicles.

I mentioned spending a day traveling on both the Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi. There are 16 stops and it operates from 10AM until Midnight. $20 buys an all day pass, get on, and get off. Seniors pay $16 and it is $10 after 7PM. One of the stops led me to a three-hour tour on the Jungle Queen Riverboat. It goes up the historic New River past Millionaire’s Row, Port Everglades, the Intracoastal Waterway and Downtown Fort Lauderdale. We spent almost an hour at their tropical Isle viewing exotic birds and monkeys. There was even an alligator-wrestling exhibit. Another stop allowed me to visit the International Swimming Hall of Fame and famous Las Olas Boulevard. I also visited the Sunday Jazz Brunch, held the first Sunday of every month at Riverwalk in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The 40th anniversary Winterfest Boat Parade, the “world’s most watched boat parade” with over one million spectators watching from the 12-mile route took place a few days after I had to return home. It starts in downtown Fort Lauderdale’s New River and winds it way up the Intercoastal Waterway to Pompano Beach.

There were many things I did not have time to see. They included: the Museum of Discovery & Science in downtown Fort Lauderdale as well as Gulfstream Park with a casino, shopping, dining and of course racing in Hallandale Beach. Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Art and Stranaham House Museum are also located in Fort Lauderdale and the Arts Park at Young Circle in Hollywood.

Greater Fort Lauderdale includes 31 municipalities, and my hope is that they will invite me back to see all of them.

Photography by Emma Krasov

I could never imagine that an empty room with a two-minute recording of a court proceeding would become a memory so powerful. Every time I think about it, my eyes tear up. A visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, dedicated to the victims, survivors, and rescuers of the Oklahoma City Bombing, starts in this reconstruction of a hearing room in the Journal-Record Building. It’s next to the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building destroyed by a bomb at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995.
On a regular workday morning, court was in session, the tape recorder was running, and 168 people in the building, including 19 children in the day-care center on the second floor, were living the last two minutes of their lives.
Timothy McVeigh, an army veteran and security guard who was angry with the government, set off a homemade explosive device in a rented truck parked in front of the building. The visitors to the Memorial hear the blast and the screams recorded on tape that day, and then the door opens to the museum display of the office walls and ceiling collapsed in the explosion, personal items recovered from the ruin, photographs of the victims, and media coverage from around the globe.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial, created on the site of the tragedy “to honor the victims, survivors, rescuers, and all who were changed forever on April 19, 1995,” includes the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial – rows of 168 lighted chairs, 19 of them of a smaller size, along the Reflecting Pool in the middle of the green lawn. Oklahoma City, spanning 621 square miles, is one of the most fascinating among large metropolitan areas in terms of history and geography. It was founded in a single day on April 22, 1889. In response to President Benjamin Harrison’s proclamation which opened Indian Territory to settlement, 10,000 people from near and far participated in the Land Run to claim their piece of unassigned land. The newly-born Oklahoma City was incorporated in 1890 and became one of the fastest-growing places in the country at the time. Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907. In 1928, oil was discovered within the city limits and even under the State Capitol, and the growth continued.
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum presents collections of Western art and archival materials dedicated to historical traditions and peoples and cultures of the area. The galleries include American Cowboy, Frontier West, American Rodeo, Native American, Fine Firearms, and many open with a monumental sculpture. One of the most prominent examples, End of the Trail, by James Earle Fraser, is located in the enormous atrium.
Downtown, among the beautiful Art Deco buildings, there is the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, built entirely with private funds and located in the Donald W. Reynolds Visual Arts Center. Its comprehensive collection, mostly of 19th and 20th century and contemporary art, includes the world’s largest 55-foot Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the Museum’s atrium.
The Myriad Botanical Gardens, started by oil and gas proprietor Dean A. McGee, opened in 1988 as a large downtown urban park featuring the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory, a 224-foot long glass hothouse of exotic plants from rainforest, tropical islands, and desert. In 1993, the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) further enriched the downtown area with a new baseball park, library, convention center and fairgrounds, and a canal running through the Bricktown entertainment district.
Staying at the majestic Renaissance Hotel, I walked to Bricktown and hailed a water taxi for a ride to the Centennial Land Run Monument, a sculpture-in-progress which will be one of the largest freestanding bronzes in the world upon completion. Its already installed pieces – life-size horses and riders – are impressive enough, but in 2015 the Land Run procession will extend to 365x36x16 feet.

Independence, Missouri is best known as the home of President Harry S. Truman and for his presidential library – but Independence has so much more to offer. I was pleasantly surprised at the expertise of exhibits at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library with its documentation of his Presidency, the man, and most curiously an interactive exhibit where the tourist is put in the seat of presidential policy making. It’s a thought provoking experience weighing a presidential decision between personal values, political expediency and perhaps the wishes of the majority of the American public. Very rarely do all of these coincide to create a presidential decision with which all can be happy. It gives one pause to reflect on today’s Presidential decisions.
His home is also a must see, but you should be aware that even after buying your ticket in advance, as only a few are let in at any one time, that only the first floor is available for viewing, and that on a limited basis. And while my National Park Ranger was more than amenable and informative, the standing tour was a little understated, perhaps like the man who once lived here.
A covered wagon ride through the town with wagon master Ralph Goldsmith and his mules, Harry and Ed, is a fun experience, as you hear tales of the James Boys, other outlaws and the way of the West, as you pass through downtown and over parts of the old and disappearing Santa Fe Trail. Several levels of trail rides are offered so you may want to check out the website, call for reservations, or meet up with him at the intersection of Truman and Main.
An unexpected curiosity was viewed at Leila’s Hair Museum, at 1333 S. Noland Road, where a plethora of hair memorabilia, art and historical preservation is on view. Leila started in 1956 collecting these artifacts, which range from as early as 1680 to present day celebrities. Also in her collection are religious reliquaries, where tradition says they relate back to biblical times. Upon closer viewing the hair pieces are not as objectionable as one might think, and the variety of applications, from rings, to pendants, to family genealogy, all have their place in this expansive museum. There are over 400 wreaths and over 2,000 pieces of jewelry containing or made of human hair dating before 1900. And it doesn’t hurt to have the founder, Leila Cohoon, an accomplished hair dresser herself, show you with pride her collection.
On a lighter side, the Puppetry Institute will immerse you back to childhood the moment you step in the door. Not only is this a repository for all types of puppets through the ages, but is also a great place to bond with your youngsters, as there are
puppet making opportunities as well as puppet and marionette shows. My time was all to brief here, as I recalled a simpler childhood time, a time when you made up your own stories and activities through your childhood imagination. When you leave here you will feel ~ almost ~ like a kid again. The Puppetry Institute is a real fountain of youth. Traveling back to 1881 you can visit the Vaile Mansion at 1500 Liberty and also the Bingham-Waggoner Estate at 313 W Pacific, which are two historic homes that give you an idea of Independence’s earlier opulent time. The Vaile is particularly proud of its several stone fireplaces and its authentic colorfully painted walls. The Vaile Victorian Society host several events including: the Strawberry Festival in June, a Christmas Open House and a Spring event called: Unveiling the Vaile. The Bingham-Waggoner Estate has its treasures as well, including: an intricate large music box, a rare Currier and Ives mantle clock and many European paintings.
A stop at Ophelia’s restaurant is a charming and welcome respite from the shopping and exploring you can do around the town square. My steak and Yellow Cake Martini is a delectable memory. Across from the Courthouse, fine food and beverages are their pride and our joy.

And if you really want a sign post to history, a stop at the National Frontier Trails Museum, at 318 W. Pacific, will inform you about Independence as the Queen City of the Trails. The Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails began in Independence. As you can tell there is a lot to do, learn and enjoy in Independence, Missouri.

Descending the steep, narrow plank, inch by inch, hand over hand along the long pole, I thought: “This better be one hell of a cave!” Exploring the other-worldly interior of Hang Trong Cave was to be one of many surreal experiences I was to have traveling along Ha Long Bay in northeast Vietnam. In the 1992 movie Indochine, credited with putting Ha Long Bay on the map, Catherine Deneuve describes it as “the most remote outpost of Indochina.” Today, the bay still retains that end-of-the-Earth, Lord-of-the-Rings-on-water quality.

The very few guesthouses at that time have now flourished into almost 300 accommodations of every comfort level and the few Chinese junks plying their trade have metamorphosized into more than 400 tourist boats. I visited as part of a Myths and Mountains Tour, which also included several days in Hanoi and Sapa in northwest Vietnam, an area home to several minority villages. But more on that later. The almost 600 square miles comprised of thousands of karst (limestone) islands, caves and inlets create a solitary natural environment that belies description and inspires awe. I kept thinking how many times can I use the word surreal in one travel article?
The basic boat we called home, replicating an old Chinese Junk, was…well basic but we dined well and huddled about the crew as they studied tidal charts to determine our daily itinerary. Inflatable canoes, powered by guides, were our vehicle of choice for purposes of exploration. Cave opening too small to navigate? No problem — just let some air out of the canoe. Very versatile.
Some caves were so dark we donned headlamps to maneuver through. Others so small, the entire trip was negotiated on our backs. But those that enthralled the most were comprised of tortured, grotesque shapes hanging from the ceiling and reflected in the water below. I felt stuck in a huge open mouth badly in need of dental work; I was Jonah inside the whale, the cave itself its gaping jaw, and the jagged stalactites above and below giant misshapen teeth. Some days we paddled into the caves. Others we trekked through them. One-hundred-forty steps up a sheer cliff brought us to Hang Sung Sot — the over-100-foot-high, multi-chambered Surprises Cave — which indeed it was full of.
Some chambers were back lit by sun-filled gaps in the limestone, others artificially lit for dramatic effect. I was told the name referred to the enormity of the cave — a mile and a half walk from end to end; for me it was the huge highlighted outcropping protruding at a suggestive 45-degree angle as you rounded one of the bends, clearly a pornographic symbol that elicits giggles — if not outright guffaws – from all who come across it.

I could envision a small civilization existing here in a former lifetime, and was not surprised to hear that many Vietnamese hid in the caves during the bombings of Hanoi during the Vietnam War — or, as they see it, the American War. What did surprise me was some historic insight we received from our Myths and Mountains guide, arguably the best in Vietnam, Le Van Cuong. When I asked why the people of Vietnam were so welcoming to Americans after we destroyed so much of their country, he patiently explained that on their historic timeline, the Americans were just a blip: “The main reason is that historically my country has been invaded by so many countries over centuries that the Americans were responsible for just a small part of their suffering. And it is just the very nature of Vietnamese people to forgive and forget.”

Very candid about the good and bad in his country and the pros and cons of the government, his perspective on the current political climate in Vietnam was also interesting. Although the government is Communist — what Cuong describes as “flexible communism” — the burgeoning economy reflects capitalism. “Perhaps you can smell democracy in the air but it’s going to be a while before it settles to the ground,” he observed.

But back to paddling through Ha Long Bay. Exiting the caves often brings you into a still lagoon, mirroring the multiple majesty of the soaring peaks. Jagged and ragged, alternately solid and porous, the gauzy spires seem lost in the horizon while alternately sinking below the surface of the water. Being of a certain age — and eyesight — I thought perhaps the surroundings appeared that way because of my cataracts — all filmy and out-of-focus. But it is more valid vista than vision — and therein lay their beauty.

Defying convention, one delighted paddler exclaimed as his canoe re-entered the world: “Oh my God, it’s Shangra-La.” Expanding on his initial reaction, Charles Guinn from Kansas City, Missouri, continued: “This is the most unique place I’ve ever seen in all my travels. I suspect there’s no other place like it in the world.”
Back aboard our floating home, we traveled past a complement of water-borne vehicles that challenged the imagination: multi-colored fishing boats sporting multi-faceted protrusions; floating houses on wooden platforms with shrimp, crab and fish farms caged underneath; bamboo basket boats, and rowboats and kayaks manned by kids playing hide-and-seek behind the small islands in the Bay. A young woman in a basket boat pulled up alongside ours selling chocolate, crackers, cookies, nuts, wine and cigarettes. Somehow all that junk food seemed appropriate considering the nature of our boat (Need I remind you we were on a Chinese Junk…?).
Relaxing on deck, we play the ancient game of what do you see in the strange formations in our midst. Or, more appropriately on Ha Long Bay …mist. “Hey, that looks like George Washington,” “Nah, a fisherman,” “No, I think it’s a goat’s head” until the boat moves on to the next imaginary challenge. Ruth Lerner of Venice, California, reflected on the surroundings: “Such quiet, endless beauty, so breath-taking with no two formations alike.” Her favorite part? “Floating in the kayak through pitch dark, absolutely quiet caves and emerging into lagoons as still as glass.”

Such are the wonders of Ha Long Bay, which were only a part of the memorable Myths and Mountains itinerary (or Mist and Mountains, as one of my companions deadpanned…) which also included Hanoi’s vibrant, colorful Old Quarter where streets are still named for the products they sell to the city’s modern sections on the verge of globalization to the mountains of Sapa where several minorities, practicing their own language, customs and clothing, still live in primitive villages as they have for centuries.
Vietnam — a country torn between then and now, what was juxtaposed with what will be, poised in economic boom and political transition. Go now before luxury high-rise hotels flood the landscape and Westernization erodes the culture. For more information, contact Myths and Mountains at 800/670-6984

You’ve heard of “BIG D.” Dallas, Texas, of course. Now there’s a new descriptive vowel on the travel scene. It’s “BIG O,” and it stands for OKLAHOMA CITY, the gem of the great state of Oklahoma. Wanna learn more about this fun and fabulous city?
Here’s a little exercise designed to introduce you to the many attractions and adventures that await you in a visit to the gem of the great state of Oklahoma. All you need to do, as you read through this article is find and underline or circle all the phonetic long “O’s – as in “OH” and OklahOma. You can easily score how well you did at the end of the piece. The idea, of course, is to explore just a few of the many wonderful things Oklahoma City has to offer.

Ready to start hunting? Let’s go. . . .
Note: We’ll start you off by underlining the first few O’s

First of all – and importantly: Visitors learn of the strength, and hope and serenity of this remarkable city — and its resilient people – all portrayed in the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. Here in this haunting place is chronicled a sobering reminder of the 168 victims, 19 of which were children, who lost their lives in the tragic April 19, 1995, bombing by Timothy McVeigh of the downtown Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.


Another not-to-be-missed museum and gallery of stunning sculptures, paintings and displays is the phenomenal National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Included are the Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Hall of Great Westerners, a Children’s Cowboy Corral, and so much more.There’s a larger-than-life, bronze statue of former president, Ronald Reagan, in cowboy garb. It’s said his daughter, Maureen, before her untimely death, used to gently hold the big, outstretched hand and gaze up for long periods of time into the weathered face.

You can see there are five long O’s in the above two paragraph.
Let’s see where we can find some more. . . .

Located in the heart of the state, Oklahoma City also boasts the remarkable Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum. Here kids and adults can explore the great state of Oklahoma through the lives some of its famous citizens – such as Will Rogers, country music star Reba McEntire, aviation innovator Wiley Post, BMX biker Mat Hoffman and others – some of whom helped shape our world. Hi-tech, interactive exhibits and video-driven displays bring much of Oklahoma’s history alive.

You should now have eleven more O’s. And you’re on your own now on, so keep tallying.
While in town, don’t miss the OKC MOA (Oklahoma City Museum of Art) that welcomes over 100,000 visitors a year. This stunning museum features a permanent collection of European and American art, as well as the Noble Theater showing foreign and classic films and a café offering tasty French-fusion cuisine.
If music is your forte, be sure to see the American Banjo Museum in the downtown area. Here are showcased the largest collection in the world of those great, old twanging instruments. In this national treasure are housed over 300 banjos, along with a replica of a 1960’s Shakey’s Pizza Parlor where live performances are held on Saturday afternoons.

Mmmm. Now we add in ten, and go on to find a few more.
Meanwhile, ghosts of the past time warp to the future in the Oklahoma History Center, an 18-acre, 215,000 square foot facility housing much of Oklahoma’s unique history. Meanwhile, don’t let this city’s relaxing, low-key atmosphere fool you. It’s loaded with some amazingly high energy – from the bright lights and music of Bricktown (once a warehouse district, now a newly-renovated area of superb restaurants and hotels, with its charming Riverwalk and fun Bricktown Canal boat rides — called water taxis). It’s fun sailing by the huge, bronze sculptures depicting the Oklahoma Land Run.
There’s also the National Stockyards in Stockyard City. Here are found many authentic Western shops and live craft making, as well as the world’s largest cattle market where 10,000 head of livestock are auctioned each week. Now that’s a lot of beef!


Stockyard City also features a summer Wines of the West Festival, a fall STOCKtoberfest, a Cowboy Christmas Parade and more.

And now we can finish up.
Oklahoma also boasts 18 colleges and universities. The big OSU, OU and OCCC are just three of them. Believe it or not, we’ve only touched on just some of all that Oklahoma City has to offer. There’s the Paseo Arts District, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Ballet, the Rodeo Opry, the huge Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, the Chesapeake and Devon Boathouses, offering rowing, kayaking and fitness programs, as well as every kind of professional and non-professional sports imaginable.


Oklahoma City is the largest city in the state with over a half million residents. It was basically settled in a day – and at the blast of a shotgun, no less. This phenomenon occurred April 22, 1889, when 10,000 homesteaders in their horse-drawn wagons dashed for their individual claim to acreage in the amazing, historic land run. It’s appropriate that the city is now the Horse Show Capital of the World with many year-round events.
Native American history, meanwhile, is critically important to mention and includes the Kiowa, Chickasaw and Osage tribes of the Plains, along with 36 other nations. Because of the many Indian dialects, more languages are spoken in Oklahoma than in all of Europe combined.
Oh, Wow! We add another 28.Total so far: 61. Almost done.


We could go on and on exploring all the many “Oh’s” (and Aah’s) that are part of this phenomenal city. Remembering the words of Rogers and Hammerstein’s timeless musical: “Yo, eye, yippee, oh, aye, kye a”, we know that “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma” – and your fair namesake, Oklahoma City, is doin’ great, as well. It’s fun to note that back in 1953, after the huge success of the musical on Broadway — and the subsequent movie smash — the state took the show’s title song as it’s state song.

So, how did you do finding all the O’s? Let’s add up the score.
If your number closely matches ours – given a few O’s that might be in question:

74-51 – You have a keen eye for words and letters, especially finding the phonetic long “O’s” of OKC.
50-13 – Not a bad score at all in this range.
1-12 – You need to brush up on your ability to spot the wonderful “O’s” relating to this great American city.

Enumerable movies and television shows have used Miami, Florida, as a back drop for their action filled dramas and edgy mysteries. Needless to say from the gritty to the glamorous, Miami still has it all. Yes, there is traffic and crazy drivers ~ locals and tourists alike ~ but with a non binding schedule it’s rather easy to manage a casual visit.

Driving down south from the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood airport in the rental car was effortless as I took the I-95 freeway south until it ended in a residential boulevard affair. It was then simple to ease on down the road, turn left and find the Sonesta Bayfront Coconut Grove hotel, my home base for this visit. The Sonesta is an upscale and comfy hotel, complete with mandatory valet parking, a friendly and helpful reception desk, a high security elevator, an upper story pool with accompanying bar and food service, and of course a room with a view of ocean, sun, palm trees and boats.


Since a car is a must for Florida touring, my fears, at staying away from the action in Coconut Grove would find me too isolated, were not realized. There is a fine little shopping area, 2 blocks from the hotel – with art galleries, sundry shops and eateries.
One night I brought Pizza back to the room and enjoyed a quiet sunset from my lux room, as I got caught up on a favorite TV show.

In the following days I took in the iconic, Vizcaya estate and gardens, just down the road from the Sonesta Bayfront Coconut Grove hotel. Vizcaya was the winter residence of American industrialist James Deering from Christmas 1916 until his death in 1925. Vizcaya was one of the many memories I recall from my 1980 Miami visit. The house has changed with some improvements, since that time, and is about to undergo a few more. But the proximity to the ocean, surrounded by a green hammock growth, offers a romantic and old world garden stroll. As is often the case at Vizcaya, a bride was having a photographic session in the garden during my visit.


After a quick snack at the gourmet sandwich shop in the basement of the house, it was over to Miami proper, and the Bayside Marketplace. Wanting to at least see from a distance the famed backyard estates of the rich and famous, I boarded the Island Queen tour boat for a seaside view. It took us by several estates including, Rosie O’Donnell, Ricky Martin, Elton John, and the former home of Elizabeth Taylor complete with a bronze sculpture given her by Michael Jackson. The tour boat gave a good feeling for the logistics and geography of Miami.


The Bayside Marketplace is filled with eateries, some upscale some casual. On my wanderings I came across a just opened establishment called “Off the Hookah”, below the Hard Rock, which offered mid-eastern styled food. It has a reputation of being a very wild adult evening crowd, but the afternoon was calm and sophisticated. My watermelon martini out on the deck was accompanied by a filet mignon, which was my most satisfying meal on this Miami visit. The view of ships and harbor activity added to the enjoyment. Interesting how an unexpected dining treat can enhance this most touristy of travel adventures.


But it was off to Miami Beach proper, as I wanted to revisit the famed Fontainebleau hotel. I had forgotten how far up on Collins Avenue it was, but with patience while passing other high rise hotels, I found the drive-in valet parking with ease, and since I was pretending I was playing with the rich and famous, I enjoyed imagining my own movie script and didn’t mind the $20 parking fee. What I did mind was the black suited security guards poolside. I felt like an intruder and not a welcomed Florida guest. But I was able to skirt them to do a brief stroll along the ocean board walk to be disappointed with the interior and landscaping at neighboring Eden Roc hotel. Ah well, a screen writer did not create my visit there. I did splurge for a Cosmopolitan in the famous Fontainebleau Bleau Lobby Bar and was not disappointed. The cocktail looked so good at a table of other lobby guests that I asked them how it was, and we struck up a conversation – or a bit of one. They were travelers from South America, with only one speaking fluid English. Come to find out she was from my home state of Oklahoma. Imagine ~ small world.

Back in the car I cruised down crowded Ocean Drive and into the Art Deco Hotel district. The bars and streets were crushed with a plethora of people, and I don’t know how any of them got there, unless they walked from parking miles way. The slow traffic did allow me to glance up at the iconic architecture, some lit with neon, as the sun was setting and the evening night life began to blossom.

Parking in lower Miami Beach is a problem, not only finding a lot, but once there deciphering in near darkness the code to pay for the time you expected to stay. This ticketing procedure could be improved as I was not the only one standing around
trying to punch the correct buttons to secure the parking ticket to place in your car.

The farewell evening meal at the Panorama Restaurant at the Sonesta Bayfront Coconut Grove Hotel was over the top. Executive Chef Christopher Cramer explained that he was blending the Peruvian-inspired cuisine with traditional American tastes. The flavors of Peru came through, and the bounty of American portions was overwhelming, as I also ate in the spectacular view of Biscayne Bay. Even in this brief visit to Miami, I felt the glamour, experienced the visual stimulation, and sampled the lux lifestyle, which has made it a perpetual playground.

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