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Happy Cows and the Five Foodie Must-Do’s in Wisconsin’s Fox Cities

I’ve heard of wine snobs (and avoid their wine-swirling, “raspberry nose with hints of leather” proclamations whenever possible), but last week, while visiting Lamers Dairy, a family run milk-bottling operation in Appleton, Wisconsin, I became a milk snob.

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Turns out, there really IS a difference between the commercially-produced hormone-laden milk you might get at a big chain and Lamers’ milk which regularly wins international awards, prohibits the rBGH hormone and works only with farmers who raise “happy cows.”

The four brothers who run Lamers are fourth generation descendants of Jacob Lamers who inadvertently started the dairy in 1913 when he began sending milk deliveries with his kids on their way to school.

One of the captions on their website, “Our president wears a hairnet,” pretty much says it all. The four hairnet-wearing brothers are on a mission. They work only with small farmers, all of who farm within 25 miles of the bottling plant, all who have what is known in the biz as happy cows

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So I could pontificate about how their farmer’s cows are treated SO humanely they follow them around like the Pied Piper. Or about Lamers chocolate milk taking first place at the 2016 World Dairy Expo. But instead, I’ll just say that the glass I recently enjoyed at their country store tempts me to sue Nesquik for impersonation.

Here are five other must-do’s for any foodie who’s lucky enough to get to the Fox Cities:

1. Fall under the great Houdini’s spell. Even though illusionist Harry Houdini was born in Budapest, he proudly claimed Appleton, Wisconsin as his hometown. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was Appleton’s first rabbi and his famous son’s legacy is everywhere from a grade school (Houdini Elementary) to the Museum at the Castle with an impressive display of the internationally-renowned illusionist’s life along with his handcuffs, leg irons, and lock picks.

The magical dishes at Houdini’s Escape Gastropub, prepared in an open kitchen, are no illusion. I’d don a straitjacket any day for another taste of the tuna crunch with slaw, wasabi, pickled ginger and sesame soy glaze. Posters of the magician are scattered throughout the restaurant, a fire table anchors the dining patio and, perhaps best of all, the magician’s mirror in the women’s bathroom makes everyone look thinner.

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2. Design your own candy bar at Wilmar Chocolates. I chose goji berries, roasted coconut and sea salt for my custom candy bar, but there were dozens of other choices from cayenne, coffee and curry to pop rocks, potato chips and gummy bears. Wilmar has been making small batch chocolate since 1956 when Wilbur and Mary Jane Srnka began hand-stirring, hand-cutting, hand-wrapping and hand-packing the mouth-watering treats. Although Liz Garvey and her brother bought the Srnkas out in the 1980-‘s and added truffles and Wilmarvels (turtles done right), all the chocolates are still made the same way, still under an old-time awning.

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3. Score a table at Fox Valley Technical College’s culinary learning lab. Three nights a week, chefs from the Culinary and Hospitality program dish up a gourmet feast at their student-operated restaurant. Ione’s Dining Room, named after a former dishwasher (she still eats there) who helped fund the program, features theme nights (Mediterranean, California Dreamin’, to name two) and students take turns acting as head chef, host and wait staff.

I got one of 30 seats (it’s competitive and fills up as soon as phone lines open for reservations) for French Country Fare night which included Riesling shrimp with asparagus, garlic and cream, cooked tableside. Locals try to keep it a secret (it’s hard enough getting a seat without having to compete with visitors) so please keep it on the down low. Whatever you do, don’t tell them we sent you.

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4. Get a lesson in Old-Fashioneds from mixologist Sean Hathaway-Casey at Town Council Kitchen and Bar. With just 45 seats, counting the tables and a 12-seat bar that doubles as a chef’s table, this downtown Neenah restaurant is worth its star billing. But go for the craft cocktails. Let’s just say Sean Hathaway-Casey is the Bill Nye of mixology. Not only did he school us on old-fashioneds, providing five different styles including his preference, which happens to be on tap, but he explained the long history of the unofficial state drink. If it wasn’t for Wisconsin, Hathaway-Casey claims, both Korbel brandy and Angostura bitters would have folded during Prohibition. He’s enthusiastic, fun and the perfect compliment to Town Council’s outstanding charcuterie.

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5. Have a root beer at Stone Arch Brewpub. It goes without saying that this historic stone brewpub has an inventive menu of tantalizing beers. But even more noteworthy, as far as I’m concerned, is its line of brewed gourmet sodas. The amber-colored, all-natural root beer (move over A&W!) is perpetually on tap and such flavors as vanilla cream, green apple, cinnamon, ginger ale and wild cherry rotate throughout the year. No artificial sweeteners or corn syrup within miles. There’s live music on Tuesday’s, a mug club for true aficionados and a locally-sourced menu that would easily meet the approval of Portlandia’s finicky Peter and Nance, as well as the chicken, Colin.

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Filipino Boodle Fight–maybe the only “fight” worth having

I try to avoid any activity with the word “fight” in it. But when my Filipino hosts explained that a Boodle Fight involves food, friendship and fun, I decided to reconsider.boodle

Especially when I saw the long festive tables covered with dark green banana leaves and enough food to, as the saying goes, feed an army. Turns out, a Boodle Fight, a long-standing tradition throughout the 7500 island-country of the Philippines, originated at the Philippine Military Academy where indeed it did feed an army and its commanding officers eating together as a symbol of camaraderie, brotherhood and equality.

They call it a “fight” because everyone eats with their hands, no utensils allowed. Everybody grabs what they want as fast as they can. I was invited to participate in this unique ceremony in the small rural village of Victoria in the Filipino province of Tarlac. Not included on the typical tourist itinerary, Victoria happens to have the country’s first bamboo bicycle factory.

Calling it a factory is a bit misleading. It’s more like a small workshop where villagers hand-make the most ecofriendly bicycles on the planet. Bambikes, as they’re called, is a social enterprise started by Bryan Benitez McClelland, a Filipino American who is trying to make a difference in the lives of the Philippines’ rural poor. He never dreamed he’d end up in his mother’s home country while growing up in Connecticut or attending college at the University of Pennsylvania, but now he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Today, he divides his time between the factory in Victoria and Manila where Bambike rents and sells the sustainable bikes and offers two-hour history tours of Intramuros, the 16th century walled city of Spanish colonial Manila.

According to McClelland, bikes made out of bamboo are every bit as sturdy as steel frame bikes, as light as aluminum and surpass European standards for durability and crash worthiness. Barack Obama is just one of the proud owners of this unique bicycle that takes Bambuilders, as McClelland calls the employees he provides with fair wages and health insurance, about 50 hours to build.

After touring the “factory” and seeing the site for McClelland’s planned Ecopark,we gathered for the Boodle Fight with students from the school that Bambike supports.

It began with every one lining up around the pump to wash their hands, an important tradition before any Boodle Fight begins. As the students entertained us with dancing and singing, a blanket of steamed rice was spread on top of the banana leaves, followed by heaps of traditional Filipino dishes including lumpia (fried spring rolls), grilled eggplant, fish, crab, green mangoes, Kilawin (a vegetable and fish dish marinated in vinegar), chicken and all sorts of Adobo.

The signal is given and the delicious combat begins. As far as I’m concerned, a Filipino Boodle Fight is one fight—and maybe the only fight—worth having.

Just like Juliet, I’m head over heels in love

Like Juliet, I fell madly in love in Verona, Italy. My romance was not with a strapping young Romeo in tights, but with a local family and the fresh pasta they’ve been making since 1962.Giovani Rana with heart of pasta

Nearly 50 years ago, Giovanni Rana, patriarch of this big, Italian family that invited me to join them in Verona, began selling fresh stuffed tortellini to post-war housewives. Having tasted the freedom of a career, these liberated women were more than happy to snatch up the homemade products Giovanni peddled door-to-door from a basket attached to the bright red used Moto Guzzi bike he bought for a whopping $10.

As far as his customer’s families (and even disapproving mother-in-laws) could tell, Giovanni’s pasta was every bit as fresh and delicious as the pasta they’d previously spent long afternoons mixing, rolling and stuffing.

Before long, Giovanni couldn’t keep up with the demand. He had to hire helpers to join him on his long table covered in flour.

By the time Giovanni invited me to visit his Verona home and the factory he erected one building at a time around it (it literally surrounds his original homestead), his stuffed tortellini has been joined by 200 other products and spread to 38 countries. And that long floured table now has 2500 employees.

About the only thing that hasn’t changed is Giovanni’s commitment to making the world’s freshest and best pasta. He still shows up every day to sample and give his nod (along with full-time taste testers) to the fresh ingredients that go into his products. Even the chickens who lay the eggs for the pasta dough are provided with a special nutritious feed. Not just any old eggs will do.

And while many big companies have begged to buy Giovanni out over the years, he simply can’t trust his products and indeed his Rana family to a corporate entity.

“I don’t make pasta so I can rake in the most money I can. I do it because I want people to love the pasta that I love. To me, my customers are all family,” he explained through a translator.

In Italy where food is practically a religion, Giovanni, thanks to clever TV ads, is a bona fide celebrity, second in name recognition, he jokes, only to the pope.

And this year, Giovanni is inviting 150 Americans and their guests to Verona to dine with him and his family. I was among the lucky second group to take Giovanni up on his offer of an all-expense paid trip to the cobblestoned streets of this medieval city.

Not only did I meet his entire family and dine at his family’s estate (the one they bought on Lake Garda after the company became the number one fresh pasta brand throughout Europe), but I visited Juliet’s famous balcony, the 12th century frescoes of Basilica Saint Zeno, Verona’s patron saint, and the 16th century Antica Bottega del Vino that has one of Italy’s largest wine cellars with, among may other rare wines, a cognac from 1840.

The final gala, hosted by Giovanni, his son Gian Luca, his wife Antonella and his grandkids, Giovanni and Maria Sole, was held at Villa San Viglio, a16th Century estate that, over the years, has also hosted Winston Churchill and Princess Di. I got the chance to play food stylist, to dance to a 12-piece orchestra oozing Frank Sinatra tunes and, best of all, to sample dozens of Giovanni’s pasta recipes, all created right in front of me.

Romeo and Juliet’s Verona romance didn’t end well, but the love affair I began with Giovanni Rana and his warm and welcoming family is destined to last forever.

Five reasons to beat the Pope to Egypt

Pope Francis is heading to Egypt the end of April to visit President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar.

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taz horse pyramidHere are five reasons every savvy globe-trotter should try to get there first.

1. Egypt is a bargain right now. Last November, Egyptian Central Bank devalued its currency by 48 percent. So everything’s cheap, cheap, cheap. I visited four weeks later and couldn’t believe the prices: gorgeous scarves for $3, an hour-long horse and buggy ride in Luxor for $4, luxury hotels for $50.

2. You get Ramses IV and King Tut to yourself. Thanks to events I need not recount here, tourism to Egypt has been down the last few years. The lines to enter the Great Pyramid of Giza and Luxor’s Valley of the Kings are non-existent. My daughter and I enjoyed the guilty pleasure of standing alone in Ramses tomb, being able to ogle the hieroglyphics and gilded sarcophagus with no pressure to move along for the next ogler. It’s truly a magical time to be in a truly magical country. Yes, some of my news-addicted friends worried for our safety, but I felt completely at ease, never threatened in any way. The news media does all of us a great disservice in its nonstop reporting of anomalous events. To give some perspective, what tourist would now avoid Charleston because of one fanatic racist? Again, look up the definition of anomaly.

3. Ancient antiquities are still being found. Less than two weeks ago, a nearly 3000-year-old statue was found under mud in a Cairo slum. The 26-foot (that’s nearly three stories tall) yet-to-be-identified statue made international headlines, but according to Khaled al-Anani, Egypt’s antiquities minister, only 30 percent of Egypt’s glories have yet been unearthed. That means 70 percent of who knows what is still buried under the sand. A couple years ago, for example, in Saqqara, two dozen mummies turned up in a 36-foot shaft. The point is, the excavation is just beginning. It’s like being in Silicon Valley in the 90’s.

tomb24. Locals are warm and welcoming. Perish any notion you might have about Middle-Easterners not liking tourists. It’s a myth, kinda like the Easter Bunny. Upon arrival in Cairo, it took a grand total of 15 minutes for me to realize this stereotype is misguided and downright insulting. Hospitality is an art in the Muslim world, a cherished virtue that encourages practitioners to view every person who comes across their path as sent by Allah himself. After spending a couple weeks with Sarwat Hegazy, a long-time guide and co-creator of Egypt Unveiled, any crusty idea I might have had about being unwelcome were quickly dashed against the seven-story granite sides of the infamous Sphinx.

Sarwat’s partner, Jane Bolinowsky, an Australian flute player who bought a second home within sand-blowing distance of the Giza Pyramid, knows all kinds of fascinating folks. Each of their tours are custom-designed, but expect to meet belly dancers, costume makers, perfume purveyors and Egypt’s best koshari chefs.

5. You get a priceless chance to uplift the world. Pope Francis, of course, is going to Cairo to cement the “spirit of tolerance and dialog,” to continue thawing Catholic-Muslim relationships that began when he lovingly embraced the Imam during last May’s visit to the Vatican. Seems to me, there’s very little more important that any of us could do than to hug our foreign brothers and realize we are all the same.

Egypt’s Siwa Oasis casts an enchanting spell

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley

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I love anything that smashes to bits a crusty, no-longer useful notion. The presumptions we make about other cultures, other countries are top of the crusty notion list. Which is why I so loved my recent trip to Egypt.

I will be writing a series of articles about this magical country and why I believe everyone should add it to (maybe move it to the top of?) their bucket list.

Even those lucky and ballsy enough to visit Egypt often miss one of the most unique destinations.

Pyramids? Check.

Cairo? Check.

Luxor, Valley of the Kings? Check. Check.

But unless you’re Alexander the Great, it’s doubtful you’ve made it Egypt’s Siwa Oasis. The chief reason being that it’s hard to get to. You have to really want to go. In fact, when the 55,000-man Persian Army tried to visit in 550 BC, they were swallowed by the immense desert, never to be seen again.

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Now at least, there’s a road. Even still, from Cairo, it’s a good six-hour drive and that’s if you didn’t have to stop every couple hours to produce your passport.

Even I, intrepid traveler that I am, started wondering after the fifth stop by armed guards: Why was it again I wanted to visit this remote outpost?

But within 15 minutes of arriving in this fertile Berber enclave on the edge of the Eastern Sahara’s Great Sand Sea, every concern, every bumpy mile evaporated into great gratitude.

oracle-distanceAccording to legend, Alexander the Great made it to Siwa in 332 BC by talking with snakes and following crows across the desert. He traversed the 150,000 square mile ocean of sand to consult with the Oracle of Amon, the great Sun God who is honored with a 3000-year old temple that stands yet today. Unlike Mr. Great, who was told by the ancient Oracle that he was the Divine Big Cheese and the rightful head of the gods and Egyptian pharaohs, I was told I should keep writing books.

I can’t complain. Standing on the edge of the limestone temple that sits like a floating white island above green palms, I was struck wordless as I looked out over the palm tops of date and olive trees and the Montana-sized white sand ocean that separates Egypt from Libya.

sarwat-oracle Even though it’s now possible to safari out into the Great Sand Sea, finding words to describe the experience is virtually impossible and, for my money, the genesis of the phrase, “You really have to be there.” The dictionary has yet to add words that can adequately describe the pure hugeness, the expanse, the colors, the sounds, the thrill of roller-coastering up and down the dunes as fast as your jeep will drive. Even photos, with their 1000-word value, can’t convey the experience, the immersion of silence found in this ocean of soft white sand.

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After finally managing to close our gaping mouths and rise from our knees where we knelt in awe, we spent our day in the Great Sand Sea lounging in hot springs (there are hundreds, many with medicinal properties) sand boarding down 70-foot dunes and sipping lemongrass tea as the sun spread its magnificent setting colors across the landscape.

Even though Siwa is located on the old date caravan route (sort of a no-brainer when you have 300,000 date palms), it wasn’t much explored by the west until World War II, when clandestine German and British desert patrols including Count Laszlo Almasy (you might know him as the English Patient) came to spy.

Because it’s so remote, Siwa is quite distinct from other parts of Egypt and has retained a mostly Berber culture for some 13 centuries. Girls tend to marry by age 14, so the winding dirt streets with more donkey carts than cars are mostly filled with young children, veiled women and hospitable men selling local produce, finely-embroidered woven crafts, Berber jewelry and salt lamps and candle holders.

siwa-marketSlouching mud and salt brick buildings provide storefronts (we were even able to buy a pair of fake Armani sunglasses), quaint restaurants and charming hotels and B&B’s.

After visiting the Temple of the Oracle, we headed out to Cleopatra’s Bath, Siwa’s most famous spring that, despite the rumor, never actually hosted the famous Egyptian Queen. The springside Tanta Waa (it basically means OMG in the local Siwian language) juice bar is owned by a delightful English-speaking Egyptian who attended the same prep school as Omar Sharif. He was playing Wanda Jackson hits and I sat there drinking a mango smoothie listening to her rockabilly version of Kansas City, I thought to myself, it certainly is a very small world.

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I’ll be forever grateful to Jane Bolinowsky and Sarwat Hegazy at Egypt Unveiled for introducing me to this amazing place.

To find out more, check out their website: www.egyptunveiled.com.

Barcelona with the A list

I might as well warn you. You’re going to want to live in Barcelona.

6h0p0216Unlike the crack dealer who fails to mention how much you’re going to eventually need him, I prefer to start with the truth. One vacation to this gorgeous Catalan city is usually all it takes to make you desire it….again and again.

With its endless list of hip bars, inspiring food, whimsical architecture and people who know how to carpe the heck out of every diem, Barcelona gets under your skin, provokes a commitment, makes you consider a permanent address.

So here’s what I suggest. Stay in a place that feels like home. A place that oozes everything that’s cool about Barcelona.

37011_el-palauet-living-barcelona_Stay at El Palauet, a five-star boutique hotel right on Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona’s leafy answer to Rodeo Drive.

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Nothing wrong with the W or the Mandarin Oriental or the Intercontinental. Except for one thing. They’re hotels.

El Palauet is where you’d stay if you’re Madonna or Neil Patrick Harris or Lin-Manuel Miranda. Here’s why:

1. It has a fascinating history. Designed in 1906 by the famed architect, Pere Falqués, El Palauet (it means “little palace” in Catalan) is a stunning example of Barcelona’s Art Nouveau architecture. Original stained glass, molded ceilings, carved wooden doors, decorative ironwork and dramatic staircases have all been painstakingly preserved. And each of the boutique hotel’s six suites feature high ceilings, ornate balconies and sleek contemporary furnishings by Charles and Ray Eames, Ero Saarinen, Philippe Starck, Antonio Citterio and other designers you can also find in the permanent collection of MoMa New York.

2. Did I say suites? They’re really more like apartments. Each of El Palauet’s six offerings rings in at a whopping 1600-square feet and has a fully-stocked kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

3. George Jetson would feel right at home. You’ll be grateful that each suite also comes with a personal assistant, because well, the technology is so space age that, unless you’re Steve Jobs, you might need help. There are mirrors that turn into TV’s, bathroom lighting that adjusts to suit your mood and iPads that control everything from the lamps to the air-conditioning to the in-house music system.

4. You don’t need a cab. La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s Unesco World Heritage Site and the one must-see on every tourist itinerary, is a short fifteen-minute walk. Other Gaudi masterpieces, La Pedrera and Casa Batllo, are also in the neighborhood. And if Gaudi’s name doesn’t excite you, add these neighbors to your Christmas card list: Hermes, Jimmy Choo, Prada, Louis Vuitton.

5. You can be famous without anyone noticing. From the rooftop terrace where you can soak in a hot tub, lounge on chic white leather sofas or sauna the day away, you can look out over your newly-appointed city without anyone noticing. And if you really want anonymity, you can come and go through a discreet back door entrance.

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6. Your wish is your personal assistant’s command. Christian, our personal assistant, had a little black book with gourmet chefs from around the city were just waiting to come to our suite to prepare meals. He also had a line on babysitters, hair dressers, masseurs, personal shopping assistants. As I said, if you can dream it, El Palauet can make it happen.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Beach Bums

by Stephen Covey (NOT!)

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama is more than a geographic destination. It’s a state of mind, a Zen-like approach to life that lowers blood pressure, strengthens family bonds, promotes peace of mind and elevates joy.

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But to fully enter beach consciousness takes practice. Lucky for you, I’m providing this handy dandy cheat sheet for thoroughly chilling on Gulf Shore’s 32 inspiring miles of white sand beach. Follow these seven steps and in no time, you’ll be living in the moment, following your bliss and moving items like “make a sand castle” to the top of your to-do list:

1. Gather your Blackberry, your Kindle, your Macbook, your I-Pod. Okay, now pack them neatly into the nearest carry-on. Deposit said bag in the farthest reaches of your closet. Take a couple deep breaths and back out slowly. Do not, under any circumstances, look back. Grab another duffle, toss in a bathing suit, a pair of flip flops, a couple t-shirts and voila! not only have you mastered the Gulf Shores dress code, but you’re packed for at least a week.

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2. Down a beer at the Flora-Bama Lounge. This 50-year-old hole-in-the wall that straddles the Alabama, Florida state line (you’ll recognize it by the two phone booths outside, one in either state) is step number two enroute to Margaritaville. Jimmy Buffet, in fact, immortalized this wildly popular roadhouse in his song, Ragtop Day. Be prepared for a lesson in diversity as this rustic bar with the unmatched tables and chairs attracts everyone from ponytailed surfer dudes to elegant Southern Belles, often dancing together on top of the tables. Hit it right and you can even compete in the Annual Interstate Mullet Toss, a yearly event where participants fling a mullet (the fish, not the hairdo) from a 10-foot circle in Florida into the Yellowhammer State. This internationally-famous event attracts Mullet Olympians (including former NFL quarterback Kenny Stabler) attempting to outdo the current 189’8” record. Other popular, not-for-the-gutless Flora-Bama events are January’s Polar Bear Plunge, the Mullet Man Triathlon and the Superbowl Chili Cook-off. www.florabama.com

 

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3. Do a little jig. To further cement your new laidback attitude, head next to Lulu’s. Owned by Jimmy Buffett’s baby sister, Lucy Anne, this indoor/outdoor restaurant with the motto “Where life is good and lunch lasts forever” not only has a concert stage (daily live concerts provide the soundtrack for your jig), but it has a volleyball pit, a summer average of 4000 potential new friends and a diverse menu featuring everything from nine types of margaritas to fish baskets and, not unexpectedly, a Cheeseburger in Paradise.

Lucy, who calls herself the Crazy Sista, grew up near here with her famous big brother Jimmy. After ten years of what she calls “plastic California,” she moved back home to open a burger joint on Weeks Bay, the very spot where her daddy took her fishing. Five years later, she loaded the whole restaurant onto a barge and sailed it to a bigger spot at Homeport Marina. Green leaning-types can further relax knowing they’re sitting in chairs made from recycled milk jugs, that their margaritas blenders are powered by a wind turbine and that Lulu’s menu brims with local produce. www.lulubuffett.com

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4. Challenge your BFF to a game of ping pong. Choose between indoor/outdoor ping pong tables at The Hangout (yep, that’s its official name), a crazy fun beachside restaurant with sand mountains, cruise ship-like games and a 15-foot-tall wishing wall. Guests are invited to jot down wishes on pastel slips of paper, roll them into scrolls and slide them into the slots on the wall. It looks a lot like an oversized Lite Brite, the toy of choice for most first-graders. www.thehangoutal.com

 

5. Build a sandcastle. Throw down a lounge chair or a blanket or make a sand snow angel and relax into the loving arms of this legendary sand that’s white as a newborn’s bottom and soft as the baby powder that’s applied there. With 32 miles of beaches to choose from, there’s plenty of sand for everyone. Parking is free at most beaches (practically unheard of in Florida and California) and the beaches range from Gulf State Park’s two-mile, mostly deserted beach of sand dunes and wild seat oats to The Hangout’s non-stop, volleyball-playing party beach. Or choose the beach at Bon Secour National Wildlife Preserve where 80-something Chan West has been known to give barefoot tours along the preserve’s two-mile path through palmettos, live oaks and Spanish moss.

 

6. Say hello to Flipper. It’s not enough to gaze lovingly over the ocean’s wide horizon. You have to actually get ON the water, not a difficult task since Orange Beach Marina alone has a fleet of more than 100 charter boats. Highly recommended (although not located at Orange Beach Marina) is an ecocruise with Cetacean Cruises’ Captain Bill Mitchell. A former waterski champion, Captain Bill is not only extremely knowledgeable about dolphins (he knows the 30 or so members of the resident pod by name), but he’s a great advocate for marine protection. After the oil spill, he worked with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor local dolphins and other marine life. His fleet includes a 40-foot glass bottom pontoon boat and a 52-foot catamaran. After spending an hour communing and photographing the dolphins (Captain Bill knew just where to point the cameras), he’ll take you into a deserted swamp where you’ll see osprey, Great Blue Herons, Great White Egrets and alligator flag, so named because its presence indicates the presence of alligators. www.cetaceancruises.com

 

7. Sleep in luxury. Toss the Ambien in the nearest bin. With more than 15,000 condos, beach houses and hotel rooms, you’ll sleep like you did in first grade before money, before responsibility, before members of the opposite sex moved in our your mental turf. More than half of all accommodations are actually on the waterfront with big balconies and porches for watching sunsets, another prerequisite for any self-respecting beach bum. www.gulfshores.com

Meet the locals at Fiji’s Namale Resort

Let’s suppose for a minute that your family isn’t dysfunctional. That there is no underlying tension, that everyone delights in your presence and that the minute you walk in the door, every one of your kin lights up in a neon-bright smile.

Well, I’m here to tell you that if you go to Fiji and book one of 19 bures at Namale Resort and Spa, you’ll get that family, an always-happy, functional clan that puts Beaver Cleaver’s loved ones to shame.

Sure, this 525-acre resort on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu has five stars, made the cover of Architectural Digest and throws in all the over-the-top amenities you’ve come to expect of such showcase resorts. But the reason it stands out — I mean really stands out — is because of its open, loving, big-hearted staff.

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Every single person from the driver who picks you up at the airport to the woman who writes bula (it means “hello,” “to life” and “let’s celebrate) in pink ginger petals on your pillow makes a point of introducing him or herself, learning your name (and even remembering it, a favor I wasn’t able to return) and looking you straight in the eye.

And you feel confident that when you leave the table at the barefoot restaurant where you just had the most amazing dinner of your life that Bale, Toops and Villi (okay, I remember a few names) are NOT rolling their eyes and snickering behind your back about the way you pronounce kokoda, a delicious Fijian speciality made with mahi-mahi, limes, green chiles and, of course, coconut cream. Think what you will, but it’s not an act. It’s the Fijian way.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the amenities of this remote resort on the Koro Sea. Of Namale’s 525 acres, 200 are protected rainforest. Each of the bures (Fijian cottages) is locally handcrafted (the only power tool being a drill to anchor fittings into the lava outcroppings) with native hardwoods, floor-to-ceiling windows, thatched roof and infinity pool.

Tony Robbins, the self-help guru who turned the former coconut plantation into the five-star haven, aptly describes it as “killer plush.” It has everything from its own private waterfall to one of the best fitness centers in the South Pacific. It even has a gorgeous hardwood basketball court, a digital golf driving range and a two-lane, 10-pin bowling alley where you can bowl sans shoes.

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From the hydro-aromatherapy room of the 10,000-square-foot spa (you can’t miss it. Just look for the smiling giant Buddha out front), you can dreamily gaze out over the Koro Sea, and if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of spinner dolphins, batfish and the resort’s signature blowhole. As Robbins likes to say, “At Namale, the real you can’t help but show up.”

Here’s to hoping this is the real me. When my daughter and I arrived from the nearby tiny one-strip airport (no air traffic control, just locals shooing cows off the runway), we found our carved names (one of Namale’s many special touches) hanging from the door of the 2500-square-foot Dream House. Suffice it to say, it was bigger and far better appointed than my digs at home with outdoor showers, two pools, its own kitchen and maid quarters, a couple hot tubs and a giant projector that pulls down in front of the 200-foot windows on which we were able to watch The Bachelorette episode that was filmed there.

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That was fun, of course, to say, “Oh look, Ashley (Hebert, from Season 7) is sitting next to the same pillow I am. Wow! Doesn’t she look cute being interviewed out on our deck overlooking the ocean,” but again, the best part was meeting our gracious, content Fijian hosts.

On Sunday, we were invited to attend a church service (couldn’t understand a word, but those familiar Methodist hymns sounded even better in Fijian) in the nearby village of Vivili and the following day, we drove out to Baqata, another village in the rainforested mountains, where the chief, in an elaborate ceremony that involved pounding sun-dried kava root into a powder and straining it through what looked like an old sock, ceremoniously presented us with the milky, tongue-numbing drink in the half-shell of a coconut.

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Perhaps, Billie, our Indian airport driver, summed it up best. I asked him if he ever sat in on any of Tony’s seminars. After all, the motivational speaker/author teaches such classes as “Business Mastery” and “Life and Wealth Mastery” right on Namale grounds.

“Well,” he said, looking me in the eye, “I have listened to him speak a time or two, but really for us, where else would we ever want to go? What else would we ever want to master?”

Pirates not allowed at new Port of Mobile café

If you know any pirates, you might want to keep this article on the down low.

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The Galley Café inside the recently-launched GulfQuest Maritime Museum is the world’s only restaurant with a ship tracking system at every table.

Which means that any of your peg-legged, eye-patch wearing friends could use said computerized screens to track their next target. Not only does the Galley Café show all the tankers, passenger ships, cargo vessels, tugs, barges, pleasure craft and other ships in the Gulf of Mexico, but it reports their speed, destination and GPS coordinates. About the only thing it fails to mention is whether or not any of the captains look like Johnny Depp.

What’s even more surprising about this little lunch-time café on the Port of Mobile is that the food, unlike so many museum cafes, is actually good. Really good.

Locals, who have already “been there, done that” at the museum that opened last September, go just to eat. And not because it’s the only restaurant on Mobile’s downtown waterfront. Helmed by Marshall Barstow, owner of the wildly popular Mama’s On Dauphin Street, The Galley Café dishes up hearty helpings of gumbo, pan-seared crab cakes topped with remoulade, bacon and fried green tomato sandwiches, shrimp and grits and all stripes of blackened seafood.

Besides being an excellent place to “put some South in yo’ Mouth,” as a popular slogan goes, but it also provides fun for mariners of all ages. The ship tracking screens are one of 90 interactive exhibits at this stunning $62 million museum that, from downtown, looks like a life-size container ship. It’s even called the SS McLean, after Mobile native Malcom McLean who revolutionized the shipping industry with “containerization.”

While learning the history, culture and commerce of the Gulf of Mexico, visitors can do everything from remotely navigate tug boats to tie a bow line knot to open valves in a cramped Confederate submarine.

The Galley, with indoor and outdoor seating and plenty of grog (but thankfully no scurvy bilge rats), is open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday.

Leave the pirates at home. Aargh!

Your no-nonsense guide to stalking the Northern Lights

It’s that time of year for spotting the big disco ball in the sky. Yes, I’m talking about the aurora borealis, the northern lights, the ultimate light show presented by–ta-da–Mother Nature herself.

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Here’s what you need to know if 2016 is your year for finally witnessing this cosmic, life-changing event:

1. Your odds go way up the closer you get to the Arctic Circle. The neon greens, the pinks, the reds, the blues, the violets that streak across the night sky are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in our atmosphere with supercharged particles from the sun. These head-on encounters happen 24/7 in a weird-shaped oval at the Earth’s magnetic poles, so the closer you are, the better “the seats.”

2. The show can only be seen by the naked eye when it’s dark and cloudless. This means winter is the time to look. As in now. Right now. When there’s no light pollution. They don’t call the northern climes the Land of the Midnight Sun because it sounds poetic. In the summer, it’s light. Nearly all day. But this time of year, when the air is crisp and the sun barely makes an appearance, Mother Nature starts auditioning for a Pink Floyd light show. Anytime the sun’s magnetic fields get distorted and twisted and sunspots and their solar flares start exploding, the pyrotechnics appear to dance and violently sashay across the sky. The good news is we’re only a couple years out from a solar maximus, so go now.

3. Pictures and videos don’t begin to cut it. Sure, you can watch Hotel Ranga’s webcam for a live stream of Iceland’s southern skies. The vibrant celestial ballet might even prompt an inadvertent sucking in of your breath. But until you’ve seen the real deal, it’s like “dating” a picture of Megan Fox.

4. Your options diminish if you want to be comfortable. As you can imagine, there is lots of frozen tundra with a ringside seat to this celestial spectacle. Hotel rooms and people? Not so much. In fact, the reason, you hear so little about aurora borealis’ counterpart, the aurora australis, is because it’s mainly visible in Antarctica.

Options for the northern lights are better. The Yukon, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries all offer packages and hotels and research stations. In Sweden’s Lapland, for example, there’s an ice hotel with suites and rooms carved by 100 artists and in Finland, you can watch the dancing display from a glass-topped igloo. But riddle me this? How long do you want to face bitter cold temps in an igloo? You can only showshoe, ice fish and ride reindeer for so long. In Alaska, on the other hand, you can gaze at the Northern Lights from the warm, mineral-rich waters of Chena Hot Springs, but if those lights don’t show up (and believe me, the aurora is a diva), you’re going to risk looking like a raisin.

5. Best option bar none is Hurtigruten. This Norwegian freight line that runs the length of Norway’s jagged coast offers 11-day cruises from Bergen in the south of the country to Kirkenes just nine miles shy of the Russian border. Not only do you end up 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, but 11 full days of looking ups your odds of spotting the celestial display by well, 11. Hurtigruten will even give you a second cruise (for free) if, for some strange, unexpected reason, you go away empty-handed.

Hurtigruten has been around since 1893 when the government contracted it to improve communication in a country’s that’s more than 1000 miles long and only a few feet across. Okay, I’m exaggerating about the width. But not about the wonders Hurtigruten has wrought upon Norway as it drops off mail, delivers freight and, more recently, delights intrepid cruise passengers (it’s not the QE2, not does it try to be) with 11-day round-trip journeys up and down its stunningly beautiful coast.

6. You get the guarantee without freezing off your tush. Hurtigruten doesn’t have all the foo-foo stuff of other cruise lines–the casinos, the musical cabarets, the photographers trying to capture your every movement. But it has warm, snug rooms and food that will knock your muck lucks off. There are daily buffets with piles of fresh and smoked fish, pates, cheese, green salad, yogurt and three-course evening meals. The captain will even alert you when the lights are doing their thing.  

7. It always pay to check with NASA. Since solar weather affects spacecraft in orbit and can knock out power grids, NASA keeps tabs on the sun’s aurora-causing activities. They’re one of several agencies that issue alerts if they’re expecting an impressive show. The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration updates their forecast every 30 minutes.