Gateway to Africa - Marilyn's Travels in Morocco

by Sally Gilhooley

Interior designer and world traveler Marilyn Rose delighted in her late spring trip to Morocco with “dear” friend Dawn Weill. The North African country bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea is home to 34 million people. From panoramic views of snow-covered peaks to the sand dunes of the Sahara, Morocco boasts a rich heritage of Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences.  Medieval cities and modern mosques display a diversity that has attracted a sophisticated, international community to its shores.

Captivated by its archaeology and colorful history, Marilyn and Dawn embarked on their amazing journey from Casablanca, the country’s largest city, chief port and the commercial hub of western Morocco whose French legacy is evident in the Moorish architecture and European Art Deco. 


In Casablanca, the two visited the extremely impressive Hassan II Mosque, largest mosque in Morocco and second largest in Africa. And, it is the only mosque in Morocco non-Muslims can visit. Built in five years with workers laboring day and night, it was completed in 1993 with ¾ of the enormous structure positioned on a promontory jutting out over the Atlantic.

An imposing minaret, the world’s tallest at 210 meters, is topped by a laser with light directed towards Mecca. Its balcony, where the muezzin calls Muslims to prayer five times each day, climbs 60 stories into the sky. The mosque accommodates 25,000 inside and an additional 80,000 in the courtyard.

The city boasts the traditional water sellers in colorful elaborate red costumes with wide-brimmed Berber hats. They ring bells and sport copper or brass cups and goatskins filled with water. Historically, they carried precious water to desert inhabitants.

The camel riding nomads on a trek would buy water from these colorful vendors. To Berbers, water is life for them and their animals although today the celebrated water sellers make most of their money posing with tourists. Before departing for Rabat, the pair enjoyed a visit to the celebrated Rick’s Café, a recreation of the bar in the movie classic, Casablanca. ”Here’s Looking at You, Kid.”


Rabat, Morocco’s capital granted World Heritage Status in 2012, is known for its Islamic and French colonial architecture. It is home to the ancient Kasbah of the Udayas, a Berber era royal fort overlooking the water surrounded by gardens. Marilyn and Dawn stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel and spa called Villa Diyafa, their favorite hotel and restaurant on their tour. In Rabat, they visited the royal palace, Dar al Makhzen, the king’s official residence where he entertains and meets with dignitaries.

Situated in nearby Volubilis, a partly excavated Berber and Roman city considered the ancient capital of Mauretania, they toured the Roman ruins dating from 140 A.D. Its early prosperity, principally from olive growing, led to the building of many fine town houses with world famous mosaic floors erected in the 2nd century.

Berbers were the first people of North Africa dating back 10,000 years and have occupied the area surrounding the ruins for centuries.  The name Berber comes from an ancient Egyptian term meaning outlander. Of the 25 million Berbers in North Africa, the majority are Sunni Muslim.

 Marilyn said their Berber guide was highly educated with a beautiful vocabulary and outstanding knowledge of the area. He came from a small village and told his travelers that many young Berbers are leaving their villages to become educated at the universities. Berber tour guides enjoy a high status among their people and must pass a rigorous international test to become official guides.


With their experienced driver Amin and Berber guide Moussine leading the way, Marilyn and Dawn took a side trip to Fez, a historic inland city of medieval palaces, mosques and world-renowned tanneries. The medina of Fez, a World Heritage Site, is one of the world’s largest urban pedestrian zones. The city is home to religious schools known as madrasas. In Fez, Marilyn and Dawn visited the famous Golden Doors of Palais Royale, a palace still used by the king of Morocco today. Marilyn tells us the huge golden doors are cleaned with lemon every day. Marilyn said she would pass on that job!

Here, the pair toured a souk, an ancient labyrinth market with 9,000 passageways selling art, meat and items of every kind. Prices are not displayed and bargaining is the norm. The experience can be stressful for those unused to purchasing goods by negotiation. Although the souk was interesting, there were areas displaying animal parts Marilyn and Dawn were not used to seeing. There was clothing very nicely displayed in other areas not near the food stalls but seeing all different types of meats and food out in the open was not Marilyn’s idea of Whole Foods Market!

After Fez, Marilyn and Dawn were on their way to glamorous Marrakesh, the Red City. The seven and a half hour trip over good roads wound through pastoral scenes with olive and cork trees, cacti, beautiful wild flowers and grazing farm animals.

Marilyn said, “When we got to beautiful flower-filled Marrakesh we stayed at the clean modern Sofitel hotel overflowing with gardens of roses.” She added, “When the French occupied Morocco they built wide flower-lined boulevards that are still there.”


Marilyn and Dawn visited another mosque where past kings were buried and a medina replete with snake charmers, monkeys, music, pizza with goat cheese and “a bit of craziness.” Marilyn said, “Then we relaxed at the hotel in the garden with strawberry margaritas!”


Exotic and mysterious, Marrakesh has attracted a burgeoning international community of the rich and famous. One example of the city’s attraction for the glitterati is the cobalt blue Cubist villa, designed by French architect Paul Sinoir in the 30’s, and named Jardin Majorelle after painter, Jacque Majorelle, the originator of the complex. Majorelle acquired the property in 1922 and, over a 40 year period, created the two and a half acre botanical and landscape garden. Magnificent specimen trees from all over the world were planted. Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent with his partner Pierre Berge bought the property in 1980 and restored it to its original splendor. Saint Laurent’s ashes are scattered in the garden. 


Today, the estate houses the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakesh, the Berber Museum displaying pottery, jewelry and religious artifacts some dating back 10,000 years and the Musee Yves Saint Laurent. Ancient jewelry and Berber dress are displayed in the museum.

In Berber culture, the dowry is given by the man to the woman as marriage is considered the most important contract. A bride’s jewelry becomes her property that she can sell to support her family if necessary. She may also use it purchase cattle or land. Berber jewelry has a symbolic and mythical meaning besides ornamentation; it represents the relevant status of the wearer. The higher the status, the more jewelry.  In fact, they wore so much jewelry Marilyn thought it would be hard for them to walk around the village!

In the same geographical area there are walled mansions of well-to-do expats from all over the globe. After a busy afternoon of touring and camel riding, the two enjoyed dinner at the legendary luxurious La Mamounia Hotel which they pronounced “magnificent and very opulent.”


Marilyn and Dawn rounded out their Moroccan odyssey with a tour of the high Atlas Mountains surrounded by magnificent views, fresh air and dotted with little Berber villages carved into the hillside. Sir Richard Branson’s award-winning hotel, Kasbah Tamadot, bought by Branson while he was on a ballooning expedition, enjoys a lofty setting in these spectacular mountains. Its 28 rooms and suites are each individually decorated and feature antiques from all over the world. There are also eight luxury tents for the person who really wants to get into the feeling of the high Atlas Mountain. The tents, said Marilyn, would be lovely places for hikers to experience the area.

After their enjoyable and exotic journey, Marilyn and Dawn were thrilled with all the natural beauty and amazing architecture they experienced and were now ready to take the incredible sights back home to our wonderful country, America.




Path of the Gods

Hiking the Amalfi Coast
by Michele Knapp

Il Sentiero degli Dei – the most famous footpath to trek in all of Scala, Italy – an incomparable stretch of coastline also known as the Amalfi Coast.

My husband, Dave, and I actually trained for this one. Three months of stair master, elliptical and treadmill on max incline in order to respectfully trek the path.

he NH Collection Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi is perched within the cliff at the edge of the Amalfi Coast.

We turned in early at the NH Collection Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi, originally a monastery built in the 13th century. The pristine white edifice, seemingly perched within the mountainside, sits about 300 feet from sea level overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. Our alarm was set for sunrise with backpacks packed for a hasty departure.

An unforgettable sunrise over Amalfi

Not entirely able to sleep, I tiptoed to the balcony and watched the sun rise from behind Mount
Soprano. Casting its fiery hues on the plate glass waters, the entire cliffside turned from pitch dark to glorious color. An inspiring sight; one etched in my mind for eternity and caught by my camera too!

Thirteenth century cloister at Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi.

Waking up Dave with a gentle kiss, I reached over to prevent the alarm from sounding. Ten minutes of prep and we were in the elevator headed down, down, down to meet our driver, Lorenzo, at the greeting desk. We introduce ourselves with greetings of a fine morning. “Bon giorno! Piacere!”

Thankfully, Lorenzo does speak good English and is able to give us some history lessons, side-hikes and good old fashioned stories of his personal experiences while we make our way up, up, up to the trailhead to a town named Lazzaro.

Amazingly, the Path of the Gods trek had been an old communication route, used for centuries by the locals enabling them to get to their arable lands, terraced orchards and vineyards as well as to get from Agerola to Positano and vice versa.

At the first scenic stop on the way up, we disembarked and walked to the edge. We paid close attention to Lorenzo as he described our landmarks pointing out the faint likeness of a footpath high above, the terrace farming and a mountain jag which is the “side-trek” to a convent more ancient than our hotel!

The height from here was dizzying. Lorenzo acknowledged so and apologetically asked if either of us suffered vertigo, as he would be happy to drive us back to the hotel.

Dave and I caught each other’s eye and simultaneously laughed assuredly that we would be okay.

As the final ascent was made, our guide shared a romantic story about he and his wife who also grew up in Positano. Lorenzo smiled, “My wife and I still hike these mountains; we love this!”

Looking at us in the rear view, he made sure he was engaged by our gaze and interest and said, “My wife was the school teacher in the town of Nocello. Every day she would walk from her home up the 1,700 steps to her classroom.”

“Oh my goodness, Lorenzo, your wife must have the most amazing legs,” I proclaimed unabashedly.

 “Yes, but of course she does!” he agreed. “When we were courting, I walked those steps, too, everyday meeting her after school to walk with her the way home,” shaking his head now at the

This was said so endearingly, there was no doubt that this was a true love which had endured all those steps. My romantic contemplation was then interrupted as Dave attested, “Well, Lorenzo, that means your legs must be something special too!” We all enjoyed a good laugh. He was wearing long pants, but I would bet my bottom dollar his legs were in great condition.

We drove on into a sleepy little village with a tiny traffic circle and a big old tree set in the middle. Edging off to the side, we began our goodbyes. As Lorenzo pointed out on the map where we were being dropped in relation to the trailhead, a small horse, with perforated metal baskets hanging on either side of him, was being walked on a long rope by an elderly man. Lorenzo simply suggested, “Just follow him; he is going the same way.”

So, we were on our way. That feeling of exploration had taken over, creating a nice flow of adrenaline and plastered smiles on our faces. Eventually we passed the man and horse with a friendly nod. Passing a couple of guided hikes, we now felt confident we were on the authentic Sentiero degli Dei.

View of Positano  – our destination is in sight.

The name of this path expresses all the wonders that you can possibly imagine. From both a botanical and geological point of view, it offers a spectacular vista of coastline and mountain landscapes from Positano to Capri.

The path as we walked it in late September was dry and hot, which was the reason for the early departure. Additionally, water is the vital component of one’s trek, a good camel pack is recommended along with some hydrating fruit and salted trail mix. Lightweight equipment, camera, etc., also important, I could have used a Sherpa halfway in just for my camera lenses. Choose wisely!

The first lift brought us approximately 500 meters above sea level. Here we found ourselves plunged in the Mediterranean Marquis among rocky ridges and Holm Oak woods.

Ascending higher, we lose the woods but gain terraced vineyards, olive and lemon groves. We even pass a couple of teeny tiny houses tucked up into the mountainside still utilized today despite their age and precarious positioning.

An hour or so in, Dave and I came upon the marker for il convento recommended by our driver. Peering over the edge on tippy-toe I reported, ”No sight of the convent; I wonder if it’s still there?”

Dave, with twinkle in eye replied, “We won’t know unless we follow the trail.”

With a superficial smile of agreement I shouted, “Let’s go! We can say our prayers on the way down; no need to hold off until we are in the chapel.”

This portion of the trail was “expert” and very challenging. In some spots, handholds and foot holds only, intimately hugging the face of the mountainside. It’s no wonder Mother Superior had chosen this location; there is no way to escape, especially in the long habits of the day.

The effort was worth the reward as we came around a hairpin bend. A beautiful ancient chapel, simple and steeped in good spiritual vibes as it has stood sentry over the sea and this mountain for hundreds of years.

Side-trek to il convento

We stopped inside the coolness of its semi-frescoed walls and quietly said our prayers of thanks and gratitude. Deep in contemplation, a dog strayed in to greet us, and behind him his master who somehow knew we were American and offered an espresso from his café just below the chapel.

“A café up here? How?” I exclaimed. Dave did not seem to care how or why. “Show us the way – I could use a good pop right now.”

The gentleman explained on the way that this was not so difficult to do. “Anything is possible” is the Italian refrain. He went on to inform us that the people he serves help contribute to keeping the chapel from falling into disrepair; a worthy reason to order a double.

The vista from here was heavenly; this truly was the Path of the Gods and I felt very close to mine all day.

The trek back up to the main trail was significantly faster, credit the added espresso jolt in comparison to our way down.

The temperature had increased significantly almost three hours in; the sun higher and bouncing off the white rocks and path. No breeze to speak of up here but some occasional shade from niches in large rocks or caves which we took advantage of to sip the precious H2O. A couple of oranges from the complimentary bowl of fruit in our hotel room were what the doctor ordered.

The cliffside village of Positano from our luncheon terrace.

Another hour in brought us the sighting of our destination ­– Positano in all its colorful glory perched over the sea – a beehive of activity hugged by the Monti Lattari mountains.

“A Peroni would be perfect right now,” Dave commented, hand over brow trying to ascertain just how to get down there. A short cut maybe?

Local lemons for fresh lemonade in Nocello.

The hike down to Nocello was fascinating as the flora began to change, homes popped up, lemon trees with lemons so big they appeared to be grapefruit, chickens, goats with bells and all sorts of signs of civilization which were very welcome by this point.

The small piazza di Nocella had a nice big shade tree with a fresh squeezed lemonade stand beneath it. Ah, yes! We shared only one of these and stayed steady on our commitment to the Peronis to quench our thirst.

Making a left out of the piazza toward the water, we discover the famed One Thousand Seven Hundred steps to Positano! At the first step stood a very old man from the hillside, wrinkled and tanned by many years of weather, sporting a big smile hawking for a kiss and a picture with him. How could I say no? Lots of fun even though neither of us knew what the other was saying.

Our steps down, better than taking them up, still came with some effort. We settled on the first hotel/restaurant with tables under some big lemon trees situated on a terrace looking over the sea.

Positano and Peronis post hike.

With hands held high wrapped around two cold Peronis, we toasted our incredible journey, the treasures gifted us, the breathtaking grandeur and the awe-inspiring and spiritual essence of the Path of the Gods.

“Would you do this again?” Dave asked. “Hell yeah!” wiping the foam from my top lip. So we shook on it, then unlaced our boots and settled into a leisurely lunch high up on the hill.


Slice of Heaven

Cortona Italy - home away from home
by Michele Knapp

Five in the morning, the sweet aroma of pastries and bread baking awakens me. The wind takes shape as it floats the sheers into our room and then takes them back again. Still slightly dulled by the jet lag, I’m drawn to the window by all senses. I discover our room is a fifth story perch; a stone’s throw from the 13th Century bell tower just past the ancient clay roof tiles.

The dim early morning revealed two tiny bats dancing, circling and then diving toward our open window, only to peel away just before attempting entry. Bravely I leaned out to face them, to be part of their dare; the tiny little shrieks assured me they were up to it.

Off in the distance the tops of the Tuscan Apennines were lit with bolts that lasted a couple of seconds, during these moments, one could see the thousand foot vertical clouds delivering their wrath to those beneath, far from our peaceful palace known as the Hotel San Michele inside the city walls of Cortona.

Rolling over Dave sleepily asks, “Honey, what are you doing hanging out the window?”

“Reuniting myself with this slice of heaven on earth! Dave, do you smell that deliciousness in the air?”

“Could that be breakfast baking”? Dave inquired. We both agreed it was worth checking out the dining room now, before other guests woke with the same idea.

It has been a little over 10 years now that I met Paolo, the owner of the hotel, when he sold me my villa. Time stands still here. Meeting him on the threshold that morning, we customarily hugged and kissed as though we were never apart. San Michele is our home away from our home in Italy.

As always I ask Dave, “Can we please stop to see Lilli and Isabella first at the Teatro Signorelli?” He nods and replies, as always, “On one condition; a cappuccino at the Sports Bar along the way.”

It’s really not a sports bar; it was called that a few years back but we cannot seem to break the habit. This is a family business, like all here on this mountaintop. The same happy faces we have known over the years greet us with the best cup ever.

Dave’s little spoon scrapes the last of the sweet foam, “A little early yet for Lilli and Isabella. What do you think about stopping in on Marco?”

“Let’s do it.”

Marco Molesini is the proprietor of the most fantastic wine shop in Tuscany. Since 1937, the Molesini family has been involved with wine and have run the market in the main Piazza Della ­Repubblica.

Dave strolls in with a high five,”Hellooo Marco! We are back!” More hugs and kisses abound.

Dave wanted to have some local table wines for our large Sunday dinners back home. Marco recommended the Il Castagno, Il Bosco and L’Usciolo Syrahs. For the cold New York winter nights, we went with Brunello di Montalcino’s from Verbena, La Serena and Le Chiuse, all 2012s.

I had to add, “Marco, can we please delay shipment until first press?” Pleading, “I want to include a case of Cortona olive oil.” Nectar of the Gods ­– the bright green kind!

With a wink and a back slap, we complete our order and are gifted a fine Brunello, a 2010 for our evening cocktail hour.

The clouds of the early morning never made it this far; we pulled down the polarized glasses as the sun bounced brightly off the coral and yellow hues of the Piazza Luca Signorelli. Aptly named for the resident Renaissance artist whose famous works can be appreciated at the Museo Diocesano, the Cattedrale Santa Maria and the Santuario Di Santa Margherita, all of which are inside the walls.

I turned to Dave smiling, “Finally, can we now go see Lilli and Isabella?” A kiss on the forehead assures we are on our way!

Lilli and Isabella are a dynamic mother/daughter tag team that operate the famous outdoor Caffé del Teatro Signorelli which overlooks the piazza and offers the warm Tuscan sun to bask in while dining on the most amazing, freshly prepared traditional dishes.

Lilli is the master chef while Isabella, her daughter, is a most charming and humble communicator of patrons wants from the kitchen. Here the menu reflects the seasons. As it is late September, there is no shortage of porcini mushrooms and truffles. Yummy!

Sneaking up on Isabella, a tap on the shoulder, she turns, her face alight, “Michele! Dave!” More hugs and kisses. “I knew you were coming – someone saw you passing earlier!”

 “Lilli is not here at the moment but she is coming so you must sit down and stay. She would be so upset if you didn’t!” Isabella was forgiving in her demand and smiled, showing us to a corner table.

We hydrated while gazing over the menu. Looking into the reflection of Dave’s sunglasses, I could see Lilli closing in on our table from behind. Jumping up, I turned to meet her open arms.

There was certainly a lot to catch up on, however Lilli was very intent on preparing us a lunch to remember. Apparently she had been out procuring some special ingredients for the afternoon feast.

Lilli’s only question, “Pollo o Vitello?” Dave and I simultaneously, “Vitello!”

First came the Caprese salad on a fresh bed of greens garnished with basil from a huge planter that sits outside the kitchen door on the terrace. I ask Dave, “Please pass the olive oil; I can’t get enough of this!”

After some moaning over our salad, we sipped the cool Tuscan white brought to our table and before we knew it, Isabella was back with two steaming plates of freshly made tagliatelle topped with sautéed veal smothered in a rich porcini mushroom and truffle sauce.

Beyond special; this was a most magnificent meal. After finishing everything on our plates – as one can never leave anything behind here – we bow out. Napkins waving like white flags of surrender, we declined dessert but insisted on the company of two dear friends over espresso.

Promising to return for dinner, a late, late dinner, we parted. Prepared with a great sigh, we turned to face the road leading up. We would hike to the top, passing the Monastero Di Santa Chiara, the Chiesa Di Santi Niccolo and the grand Santuario Di Santa Margherita finishing at the Fortezza Di Girifalco, formally the Fortress of the Medicis. The overlook has a magnificent view, the valley of Camucia, the Appenines and the unforgettable Lago Trasimeno, the largest lago in Toscana.

The time passed very quickly while visiting our slice of heaven on earth. Our next endeavor, a high-speed train to Napoli where we pick up connecting ferries to the Amalfi Coast. Stay tuned.

Grazie mille; ciao!


Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Photos and story by Michele Knapp

Volcanoes have always held a certain fascination. As a child it was red-hot spewing lava; today it’s the incredible concept that from utter destruction, new life and land are created (crater to Creator).

The oldest of the Hawaiian islands is Kaua’i, making it the most lush. The youngest, the Big Island, is jagged and almost harsh in comparison. This newborn is still forming; a remarkable notion to consider.

We flew for an hour over this beautiful chain, from Kaua’i to Hilo, and then took the 45 minute drive up to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea’s summit 4,096 feet, a little shy of the neighboring Mauna Loa at 13,679 feet.

Talk about giddy! We decided on this trip after learning of the lava delta collapse (36 acres into the ocean) on New Year’s Eve at Kilauea volcano. Since then, massive volumes of lava are rushing out of the steep, mile-high offshore slope into deep parts of the ocean.

We arrived at the Volcano House Hotel just in time for cocktails and sunset. Rebuilt several times, this modest hotel has perched on the edge Kilauea Caldera since the mid-1800s.

As luck would have it, we were able to jump in on a tour of the botanicals surrounding caldera and steam vents by Abe, a well-informed native who began our walk with a chant to the goddess of the volcano, Pele.

Abe’s chant had the little hairs on the back of my neck standing on end as we all thanked Pele under the incredible colors of the setting sun surrounded by the songs of birds; completely foreign yet magical, we found ourselves consumed by “mana” (spiritual energy).

Most notable was the change in the air. Immediately we felt a little heavy headed and noticed a distinct smell. It is known to the locals as “vog,” smog made of volcanic gases and smoke which can also sting your eyes and throat. These levels of vog are monitored by the rangers for safety and ranked hourly.

It was just getting dark when we opened the door to our creaky floored room, #9 with the antique bathroom; I loved it! Loved it more when we looked out onto the red glowing caldera of Kilauea. What an incredible site!

Dressed neatly for dinner, we sat at a table for two by the ceiling to floor windows of the dining hall. Champagne to celebrate our arrival and view, we had a fine meal and retired early to catch some rest before our big rim hike.

Sitting up in bed reading about Kilauea, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the red, orange hot glow of the volcano. Turning to Dave, I admitted feeling called by Pele. No kidding around, I was being beckoned. Jumping back into my jeans, tying up the hiking boots I explained I would only be gone a little while.

Of course he insisted on driving, so off we went into the night to the very end of Crater Rim Drive, which is the observation platform of Thomas A. Jaggar Museum.

Oh my goodness! I did not know what to focus on first, the bazillion stars hanging from the sky or the lava bubbling up into it.  The caldera was huge and Pele was home; the amount of activity was incredible and no vog! For the rest of my life this will be one of the most treasured memories unforgettably etched in my mind. Majesty and mana.

Early morning rise, a good breakfast and provisioned up, we took a fascinating rim hike. Heading southeast from the visitor center is the smaller but still impressive Kilauea Iki Crater, which, in 1959, was a roiling lava lake spewing lava 1,900 feet into the air. All along the rim on the northern side is evidence of flying molten rock spattered in between the serenity of the lush forest with its walking palms. The views from the rim are incredible; the height staggering. 

Walking down into the crater and across the lava lake I would liken to a moonwalk. The trail markers were made of piled up chunks of lava. Occasionally a small shrub, which had bright
appropriately red blooms, would appear along the way. Simply fascinating!

Hiking back up the tight switchbacks required all the water packed earlier in the day. I thanked God for the air quality, as the day before was high caution.

Not to be missed as you reach the last trail mark, across the road is a hike down into a tropical valley and through a lava tube. Almost unrecognizable, the cavern reveals itself amidst green hanging flora, palms and blooms. A small bridge allows entrance into this ancient portal. The tube is big – two stories high and wide and my imagination has me considering the hot stuff flowing through here at an incredible rate. Secretly, I am glad Pele is not chasing me!

Famished, Dave and I head back to the lodge for a quick lunch before taking the drive down to the coast to meet up with our guide, Gilbert, who will take us on a five mile hike over a live lava field which concludes at the ocean.

Non-stop chatter the duration of the ride, we discover the road abruptly ends and we are surrounded by a cooled flow. It is startling to see!

Remnants of what would have been a home sticking out of the blackness while the opposite side revealed a lovely yard with children playing, chickens darting and a rooster sounding off. A little further brings us to our meeting point where there is a local makeshift bar, a guide booth and restrooms. Formerly, this was a beautiful surfing beach and village – wild.

Gilbert is happy to see us, never stops smiling and enjoys his job more than anyone I’ve ever met. We are joined by a couple of very nice Air Force boys on leave, who are just as happy. Gilbert gives us his speech with caution and a very stern “walk in my footsteps only!”

‘Ohi’a Lehua; the lava-loving bush that grows out of the crags in Lava Lake. Hawaiian mythology says that picking the flowers can cause it to rain. Read the love story here.

Turning to Dave, “Is it me, or is it getting hot?” Glad for our walking sticks we are off! Keeping pace with Gilbert’s steps, i.e. lava boulder jumping, is a challenge and could lead to a melted boots contest. Even the Air Force guys are exhibiting some huffing and puffing.

What’s great about Gilbert is his ability to convey his culture, history and personal family experiences, going back generations while we hike along. We even shared the Pele dreams, really…he finds himself beckoned daily and has some chunks of skin missing out of his calves as evidence of Pele’s chase. He is haunted, but says his wife blames only himself for his own manifestations. He also tells me she is not Hawaiian, suggesting she could not possibly understand.

There are moments along this hike where the lava is actually coming up and out, pushing up plates of cooler black to reveal bright orangey red as it takes new shapes, flows, coils and pools. Absolutely incredible, we are able to get within feet and sometimes too-close inches.

Do you see what I see? The Goddess Pele herself on the chase.

“Herb” Kawainui Kane’s rendition of Pele

As we were marveling, a new flow forming mesmerized me. I dove behind the lens and started clicking away. I thought I saw something that was highly unusual, yet I couldn’t put my finger on it, only that I felt connected. There was uniqueness in the shapes and tones through the lens that I hadn’t seen while walking along. Lava closing in, I had to turn and make my way to cooler territory.

It was sunset as we approached the ocean. The crowds grew, many folks kept to trail on bikes and others hiked to the viewing point. This is approximately a half mile from the immense flow as it rockets out of the side of a sheer cliff and plummets into the ocean causing not only thunderous shock waves, but towering plumes of smoke and debris as the extreme heat of molten lava collides with the cool ocean water.

What a show Mother Nature gave us that night! As the stars began to take over the sky, we chose the dirt trail back rather than lava. Head lamps on and adjusted downward, we made our way back listening to the tales of Gilbert, gods and goddesses, changing times, sea life and the concern for the children as the old Hawaiian fishing grounds disappear. We all agreed, there must be change – drastic change as well as respect for our mother Earth and the resources she gracefully shares.

Back at the Volcano Lodge bar, Dave and I hovered over our cold beer and my camera. As we made our way through the pictures, we both stopped and stared at each other. I had a chill up my spine, the only chill of the day. In that moment I spoke of earlier clicking away I caught Pele in my lens! It was she and we have no doubt in our minds whose image it was. More mana!

Mahalo Pele; thank you for sharing with us your grandeur and magnificence! Many thanks to Abe, Gilbert and all the incredible Hawaiian’s – their hospitality and love of life have been transformational for Dave and me. A gift.


The Ultimate in Outdoor Living

The Kalalau Trail, Kaua’i, Hawai’i

by Michele Knapp

Happy birds in paradise - Dave and Michele Knapp

Moon and sunrise over Bali Ha’i. (caption for main pic)


The airport hotel is only tolerable when your destination is paradise. Early flight before your body knows its awake, five hours to LA plus one for layover then another five to Lihu‘e Airport on the southeastern side of Kaua‘i.

Each Hawai’i sunset is a unique and memorable experience.

Insiders tip – choose a seat on the left or seats with an A; the view traveling over the Polynesian chain is dramatically breathtaking!

Kaua‘i is the furthest island west and the oldest, offering incomparable beauty, lushness and serenity. I was immediately smitten. It is also the wettest spot on earth; the center of the island, called Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, meaning “rippling waters,” sees an average of 432 inches of rainfall; around the rest of the island, only a fraction of this.

Luggage accounted for at the hibiscus scented open-air baggage claim, we make our way across the street in the evening light. The full moon rising silhouettes the magnificent volcanic cliffs. We jump into a white four-door Jeep Wrangler and point north toward Princeville. Wind in my hair, moonlight casting a blue glow on our joyful faces we “ooh” and “ah” our way along the 40 miles of coastline. The abundance of stars, the absolute white of cotton clouds struck by moonlight and blown by the trades are spectacular.

The St. Regis of Princeville sits high on the tip of a peninsula that forms the infamous Hanalei Bay, meaning “wreath shaped.” Upon arrival we are greeted by concierges bearing purple orchid leis then swept off by our personal butler, Joseph, to our room on the 8th floor and now on the waning end of energy after travels.

Our room is so welcoming and true to the culture in its choice of furnishing. I am naturally drawn to a ceiling to floor wall of shutters. Joseph quickly steps in front of me and with a latch click and a roll, I am brought to tears. Gasping and motioning for Dave, I behold the bright moon shining over the cliffs of Bali Ha‘i bouncing its light into Hanalei Bay.

For those of you who may recall the original 1957 film “South Pacific,” this is the slice of beach where Mitzi Gaynor ‘washed that man right out of her hair.’ Unlike Mitzi, very happy with mine, I choose to keep my man in my hair!

Famous Hanalei Bay surfer with tow.

Famous Hanalei Bay surfer with tow.

It is tradition each morning for the butler to bring coffee and your choice of newspaper. These folks are authentic, gracious, proud and spiritual. This is a vibe you pick up the moment you place yourself within the aura of Kaua‘i. It wraps all around you and suddenly your senses – including your sixth – are rocking.

Over coffee at sunrise while entertained by pre-dawn surfers and SUPs, we decide today is the day we will take on Hanakapi‘ai Falls (“bay sprinkling food”), a 6-8 hour hike along the Kalalau Trail which hugs the Na Pali Coast. We have actually been training for this one as it is beyond rugged. It’s rock hopping, stream crossing, tree hanging and cliff hugging at major heights. Not for the faint of heart.

Dave ordered more to eat and had a couple of sandwiches, ­peelable fruit and protein bars sent up for his pack while I tightly braided hair, laced up boots and poured over the map. The scent of sunscreen in the air and watching Dave check out his walking stick in the hallway as the door closed behind us was cause for a giggle and a smile which stayed with me most of the day.

Dave in awe of Na Pali Coast.

Dave in awe of Na Pali Coast.

The ride is a quick one, around the crescent to the end of the road (literally, you can go no further). Dodging roosters and chickens, we arrived early enough at the Kalalau Trail head to get rock star parking. This also marks the fabulous lagoon known as Ke‘e Beach that offers great swimming and snorkeling when calm ­– which was most definitively not this day. Crashing waves and white spray marked the spot.

We should have taken a picture at the trailhead sign before the hike – not after. There had been torrential rain for the first time in a while a day before we arrived, so the trail was very slippery and the streams and waterways where still swift and voluminous. The mud here is quite reddish; like Ash Wednesday for a Catholic, it tells the tale of your whereabouts.

Warning sign at mouth of Hanakapi’ai Falls as it meets the sea.

The first two miles allow for spectacular views at various elevations of Bali Ha’i and the Na Pali coastline. It is here where the falls dead-end into the ocean. And it is here where many have lost lives indicated by the weathered plank hammered to a tree with 83+ hash marks counting victims. Unnerving for me was the recent cross with the name of a woman just a few weeks before our arrival draped in leis. The current and unforeseen wave sets, particularly in winter months, are brutal.

OK, its lunchtime before the big vertical climb up to the falls. Dave frantically digs around in his pack only to discover in his effort to arrange and rearrange, the sandwiches never made it.

Let’s not cry in paradise. We rationed what we had based on weight and height of the consumer ­– which was not in my favor. But hey, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like turkey with cranberry mayo, lettuce and tomato on whole wheat ruin my hike…yum.

One of five river crossings; this was the easy one!


Ancient bamboo forest on trail.


In my humble opinion, this was the best part of the trail. There were five major stream crossings. Boulder jumping, balancing between each one as the water whipped making for slippery landings. The angle is 45 degrees to give some perspective; altogether, about 5000 feet of climbing. We passed ancient bamboo forests and massive Banyans (had to touch one of the big boys and feel the energy of hundreds of years under its bark).

Worth every step, the 300 foot torrent of water free falls into a pristine pool. This is all that could be heard. The force of the water stirred a gentle wind around the insides of the green canyon walls; it felt as if the wind was coming up from beneath your feet and it made my hair swirl upwards toward the blue sky. There were other pilgrims there who had made the trip. In deep appreciation, they sat scattered around as if gathered in a spiritual amphitheater of sorts, speechless and grateful for the moment.

Hanakapi’ai Falls at 5000 feet.

Re-energized, Dave and I managed back down and finally to the trailhead where we had started hours ago. Yes, we took a picture here but will not include it. This hike was just the beginning of a magnificent experience and I would encourage you, the reader, to explore this part of our beautiful country.

Dave and I have pledged a trip back and even poked around at some real estate; the outdoor living type. The island of Kaua‘i is genuinely paradise. Aloha and mahalo!


Dynamic Dallas

The commercial, cultural and culinary hub of Texas

Story and photographs by Debbie Tuma

Pool and gardens at the Dallas Fairmont Hotel

Dallas is a cosmopolitan city with a Western flavor, known for its oil, its Dallas Cowboys football team, its famous TV show of the same name and its history with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But as a well-known mid-western destination, it is more than that. As the headquarters of American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, Dallas is a major convention and business hub, a mecca for a myriad of restaurants, a shopping paradise and a cutting edge center for the arts.   

Beekeeper gathering honey at the Dallas Fairmont gardens

Many people may not realize that this spread-out city of over 1.5 million has numerous sections and neighborhoods, including the biggest arts district in the country – 17 blocks on 61 acres. On a recent 3 1/2 hour trip from La Guardia on American Airlines, I decided to check into the Fairmont Dallas Hotel, since it is located in close proximity to the arts district. This 545-room hotel is steeped in art itself, having original sculptures and paintings throughout by resident artists who stay there to create works in a studio provided to them. The huge lobby, many convention rooms and the famous Venetian room, are all artistically decorated with a flair of elegance. The third floor has an enormous swimming pool, surrounded by beautiful gardens and flowers where they grow their own herbs and vegetables for their dining rooms. The Dallas Fairmont even makes and sells its own honey, gathered each day by local beekeepers.

Nasher Sculpture Garden


Just a short walk from the hotel are top restaurants and museums. Within the arts district, there is the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center and Garden and the Crow Asian Center. Adjacent to them is the beautiful, tree-lined public Klyde Warren Park with a huge, glass-enclosed restaurant named Savor Gastropub. Owner John Coleman said he created this new restaurant to bring the community together under one roof and taste the eclectic food prepared by himself and Chef Matt Hanks, which was fresh and innovative.

Southern hospitality, industrial and modern atmosphere and eclectic cuisine at Filament Restaurant.

Familiar Texas dishes re-interpreted with a contemporary twist at Stampede 66.

Dallas has a thriving culinary scene with a variety of restaurants from the Western-themed Stampede 66 created by famous chef Stephan Pyle to the new, warehouse-themed Filament, a former machine shop with graffiti on the brick walls, created by chef/owner Matt McAllister in the artsy section of Deep Ellum. Stampede 66 is casual, Southern hospitality with steer horns and horse art. Executive Chef Mike Matis cooked up some tasty short ribs, Southern fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and their classic Heaven and Hell cake. At Filament, which means “an idea,” we tried some delicious, eclectic cuisine of Texas Gulf barbecued shrimp, oysters, great steaks and berry cobbler. Deep Ellum has a hip, young and thriving music and nightlife scene.

Impressive cowboy boot selection at Wild Bill's

A new concept called Trinity Groves is taking off in Dallas – a complex of numerous pop-up restaurants of all kinds that rotate chefs every six months. It is an incubator project to “grow new restaurants,” created three years ago by Phil Romano of Fudruckers and Macaroni Grill. Included are Asian-Fusion (Chino-Chinatown), Mediterranean (Souk), Spanish (Casa Rubia), seafood (Amberjax), and even Cake Bar with 40 flavors of cake!

For great Texas souvenirs, what better place than Wild Bill's Western Store for real cowboy hats, boots and accessories? The Rolling Stones, Jon Bon Jovi, Patrick Duffy and Larry Hagman have all shopped there. Ask for owner John Dewbre, whose grandfather, Bill Dewbre, started it 60 years ago. He will tell you great stories!

View of Dealey Plaza, where JFK was shot, from the Sixth Floor Museum.

You will find no end of great attractions in Dallas, which you can see with the CityPass – a booklet of passes to such things as the famous Geo-Deck at Reunion Tower, a 561-foot tower with an observation deck to view the city. Also visit the George Bush Memorial Library, the Dallas Aquarium, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and the famous Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza to view the site where JFK was shot in 1963. There are two floors of photos and footage of that fateful day's events.

For more information, visit the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau at


Life's a Breeze - One&Only Ocean Club, Paradise Island, Bahamas

by Michele Knapp

They call it a familymoon. For me and Dave, this is all nuovo. Of our seven children, one opted backyard wedding and number two has chosen familymoon in lieu of wedding. Ali and Derik are Air Force, married two years ago in England where they were stationed for four years. Now re-assigned stateside, the family finally had the opportunity to celebrate with them.

The accommodations are all arranged around a burgeoning, lush and
colorful courtyard with cross-shaped fountain.

It was late afternoon when our party of six and a half – Dave, myself, our daughter Ali, her husband Derik, our other daughter Danielle, her husband Jesse, and their Leo – burst through the sliding airport doors and into the balmy Bahamian air. 

Whisked away on narrow streets past brightly painted buildings, beaches, markets and over a long expanse of bridge named for Sydney Poitier, we landed at the One and Only Ocean Club. Passing through the marble-columned entry, staff members fell over themselves taking our bags, opening doors and handing us cool drinks. We were greeted by our personal concierge, Clever, who was brilliant!

There is no check in counter; instead, a beautiful Bahamian-styled reception library with a mahogany bar. The walls dripping with fantastic artwork, one is torn between the art and view. A wall of French doors open to the expansive green lawns speckled by palm trees and adorned with hammocks to the infinity pool dotted by pure white umbrellas complementing the clouds formed by the infinite breeze. The recompense is the turquoise and azure of the Caribbean ocean.

I believe it was Dave who mentioned the word “Champagne” and in short order, we had glasses raised toasting to many years of happiness and health for the honeymooners. Ali selected lemonade as she had just announced to the family the arrival of a new baby due to join us for Christmas! 

Angel toured the amenities with us before showing us to our rooms which are modern in design mixed with old-world Bahamian wood textures, ten foot mahogany doors, cool marble floors and white soaking tub with gleaming fixtures.

Lest I forget, each room comes complete with your own butler. Jason was fabulous on our first day. Alison arrived the following and was delightful! Clothes pressed, reservations made, shopping of any kind done on your behalf. Champagne and strawberries brought to the room each afternoon were a real treat! We even observed a larger family with their butler in tow managing little ones from pool to ocean.

Leo, our first grandchild and not quite a year yet, had four, possibly six teeth cutting.

I should mention here there are indeed babysitting services; Leo approved highly with two thumbs up! Mom and dad came home to their sleeping baby who reportedly was a very good boy, even with his incisors tearing through his gums – poor Leo.

Our last planned family vacation included 16; if your party is of this size, there are four bedroom, ocean front villas. Dave and I, two curious cats, toured one these with Alison. The villas grace the shore line, behind beautiful wooden gates secluded by their own private gardens. The floor plan is wide open to the ocean with four massive suites flanking the center living area. This villa comes with a “private staff” inclusive of a chef. This is a perfect arrangement for the next possible familymoon. Two of these villas could cover our clan. That’s right, two of our sons, Mickey and Jerry, are engaged to be married the summer of 2017!

While riding back from the villa we had our first glimpse of the “Versailles” gardens with yet another secluded pool (couples only) centered amongst the lush tropical flora. Ascending up the ancient stone of the gardens lay the cloisters; a beautiful Moorish style stone relic of the past.  

A 12th century Augustinian cloister crowns the Versailles-inspired gardens below with views of Nassau Harbor and the sea beyond.

We then discovered smaller villas designed for couples massage and decided to treat ourselves. Behind walled gardens and heavily carved wooden doors, the petite villas feature Balinese-inspired furnishings, teak massage tables, a waterfall shower, a jetted bath in the open garden and a daybed too! Savory herbal teas and fresh fruit are presented in the Balinese Tea Ceremony, a beautiful ritual performed as a reminder of our spirituality. This was by far the best spa treatment we’ve ever had; I highly recommend this unique experience!

The pristine white sand beach against turquoise waters entices you to walk as far as your legs are willing to take you.

Clean, clear and tepid, the waters here are delightful. Not a stone nor thread of seaweed. The sand, resembling baby powder, made for many trips in and many a stroll as far as your legs were willing to carry you.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner is served at Dune which overlooks the ocean. For poolside folks, there is all-day service to your chaise from the New Ocean Grill. It should be of no surprise that you are also cared for ocean-side by beach attendants. Spoiled may be the appropriate word.

Perched above the shoreline, the New Ocean Pool offers breathtaking sea views

No matter the destination, we always enjoy the experience of the local fare. We recommend Frankie Gone Bananas, the local fish fry at the Harbor or The Poop Deck located just over the bridge for great Bahamian tastes.

For those of you who enjoy a bit of casino action, the Nobu Japanese restaurant is part of the Atlantis Resort of Paradise Island. Opening to a boat basin on one side and the casino entrance on the other, our meal was a 10; the roulette not so much!

Day four it’s official, Leo has popped six teeth. However all the hands that helped and the love of family all around lessened his pain. The ability to reunite, sharing childhoods past, relishing present moments and planning for new arrivals and unions of marriage all warming to the soul. Our familymoon was truly a renewal of love of family. This moon is waning and Dave and I are basking in its light!

Valentine's Day with the Endymion Krewe Parade

by Michele Knapp

How does one make the conscience decision to attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans on Valentine’s Day? 

It was the holiday season; the time of year when our family rolls in from all directions. There we all were in a favorite restaurant – Dave and I seated across from his brother Dave (story for another time) and his wife Jordan from New Orleans. 

Each year they have invited us to attend the two-week extravaganza and each time Dave and I have politely declined. Blame it on high holiday spirits, the jovial air and endless laughter as we listened to Dave and Jordan weave the tale of Mardi Gras past. Both spoke like proud parents about their “Krewes,” faces alight with lilted voices proclaiming how incredible the event this year will be. 

As members of the Krewe of Endymion and the Krewe of Muses, Dave and Jordan, respectively, ride the floats and participate in the building, decorating and parties that surround events leading up to Fat Tuesday that begin in January and run right up to the morning of Ash Wednesday. 

The history and energy that surrounds this event intrigues me to the point of losing my self control and accepting the invitation with great enthusiasm while feeling my Dave’s contemplative gaze upon me.

The entire city is consumed by parading and revelries all wrapped in the colors of Mardi Gras - purple representing justice, green is faith and gold of power. In every part of town, there are socials being held by gracious hosts where crawfish, Kind Cake and beer abound! The art of eating crawfish was taught to me by the prettiest little girl I've ever laid eyes on. In her Louisiana drawl, she seriously inquired, "Why don't they just call 'em sickish? 'Cause that's how you eat 'em!" I concur between finger licking; yummy good!

A visit to New Orleans would not be complete without a ride on the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar. This is a wonderful way to get around the Garden District and a complete throw back to days of old.

Famous for its 19th century homes and gardens, this area was originally part of the Livaudais Plantation. The stroll through this neighborhood with the scent of flowers and fresh creole has Dave’s hunger peaked and my dogs on fire.

We agreed that Mahoney’s Po-Boy would be just fine for this Irish girl. Mind you the sun is not yet over the yardarm and all they pour is beer. Our waitress was nice enough to share a tea bag with me out of her pocket book. 

Dave feasted on authentic shrimp Po-Boy and I ventured to try the “Gumbo of the Day.” After one spoon and a very deliberate swallow, I was pushing my tea aside and downing a respectable portion of Dave’s cold brew! Hot, hot and hot. Another sip and a piece of the Po Boy roll, I braved up and had a couple of more spoons before Dave took over the daunting task sending back the bowl shiny empty. 

Jordon‘s Dave was able to get permission for my Dave to ride with his Endymion Krewe in the main event parade ending in the Superdome with the spectacular Endymion Extravaganza. 

Afternoon would turn to eve where we waved to both Daves atop their float, separating hundreds of beaded necklaces, as they prepared for their roll down the traditional mid-city route. 

So there we were, Jordan and I on Valentines Day eve. We bicycled our way to a party on the main drag, all set up with viewing ladders, fine food and spirited beverages. 

We toasted to the Krewe of Endymion, Mardis Gras, the incredible and beautiful experience we were able to share together, to family, good friends and of course to love!

Odyssey in Iceland

Story and photography by Ken Muellers

It all began with a bucket list. A friend of mine called one day and proceeded to tell me that visiting Iceland was on the top of his bucket list. Unfortunately for him, his wife had about as much desire to go to Iceland as I have to go to the dentist. Hence the offer – would I like to go to Iceland? Now to many, this would seem like an odd choice and prompt questions like “where the heck is Iceland?” or “isn’t it cold there?” But I simply replied with, “Awesome! When do we go?”

Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon where the largest glacier in Europe meets the sea

Although Iceland was not on my bucket list, seeing the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights, was. Iceland happens to be one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights so the die was cast.

With the trip planned for months ahead, I had plenty of time to plan an itinerary packed with sights and to research our destination. By the time our Icelandair flight touched down at Keflavik International Airport, I felt like I knew enough about Iceland to be an Icelandic tour guide (as long as they didn’t have to speak Icelandic!). 

My research had told me the weather in Iceland was milder than you would suspect for a country that kissed the Arctic Circle. This was due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream flowing around this island nation. In the late summer the temperatures typically hovered in the low 50s. Although the five hour flight was smooth, when the plane came to a stop by the terminal we realized the plane was still moving from the wind! Carrying our bags to our rental all wheel drive car, we fought through the monsoon with the thought “what the hell did we get ourselves into?” Fortunately, the weather only improved from then on.

Arriving at the Hotel Centrum in Reykjavik that would serve as our base of operations for the five nights and six days in Iceland, we were happy to find the staff was fluent in English. In the days ahead we would see that although the natives are proud of their Icelandic language, almost everyone we met readily switched to English as soon as we said “hello.”

The Golden Falls, part of the “Golden Circle” tourist loop

After a night’s rest, our first day’s agenda included what is referred to as the “Golden Circle” which consisted of a loop visiting Thingvellir National Park (home of oldest parliament in Europe), Geysir (the geyser that all others are named for) and Gullfoss, 
or “Golden falls.” This popular tourist route is easily driven from Reykjavik in the day leaving you time to enjoy dinner back in the capital city. 

Route 1- The Ring Road that circumnavigates Iceland

The next day we set out along the Ring Road, Route 1, which circumnavigates Iceland. We headed along the south of the island exploring countless waterfalls on our drive to the Jokulsarlon lagoon, where glacial icebergs float out to sea only to be scattered on the black sand beach making for surreal images.


The following day our trip north of Reykjavik was highlighted by a hike to Gymur waterfall. After the trail took us though a cave, over a raging stream and along some harrowing cliffs, we were rewarded with a view of the falls that looked like something from a fantasy movie.

Glymur waterfall accessible only by hike, Iceland’s second ­highest falls

Each evening we explored the sights and sounds of Reykjavik which is inhabited by almost half of Iceland’s 300,000 or so residents. The small city’s center has a bustling nightlife with restaurants and bars reminiscent of a college town with reveling going well into the morning hours.

Harpa Concert hall on the Reykjavik waterfront

In the 1200 miles we put on our rented all wheel drive, we saw countless waterfalls, half a dozen rainbows and landscapes that ranged from volcanic wastelands to lush farm country dotted with sheep and Icelandic horses. There were miles of moss covered rocks that were surely the inspiration for the rock trolls from ‘Frozen’ and probably the reason more than half of Iceland’s population believes in fairies or elves. The scenery in Iceland has such an otherworldly appearance it has been the backdrop for several recent sci-fi movies such as “Prometheus” and “Interstellar.”     

Miles of moss covered lava fields

About the only thing that we did not see, despite my nightly searching, was the northern lights. I guess that may be my invitation to return to Iceland.






Modena Italia

Maserati – Alfa Romeo – Fiat

By Michele Knapp


    We left off our Italian adventure last issue traveling from the majestic Alps of Lago Di Como to Modena in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, which lies smack between Parma (of cheese and prosciutto fame) and Bologna (with its distinctively characteristic ragu). 

    Known mostly for its liquid gold – the highest quality aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena – this lovely cobblestoned city was also home to beloved tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the automobile company founder Enzo Ferrari! 

    The sun was still hot when we arrived via high-speed train at 3:30 pm, only 113 miles from Milan. Cabbing it to Hotel Cervetta 5, Dave and I disposed of our bags and joined our crew (Gary, Lynn, Bill and Connie from NY). We were heading to the Maserati Museo, only 15 minutes from the hotel, and the collection of Umberto Panini. Then to the Parmigiano Reggiano Organic Diary Farm “Bio Hombre,” interestingly, also of Umberto Panini who had a passion for fast cars and good cheese! 

    Turning to Dave I inquired, “If Enzo Ferrari called Modena his home, how did Maserati find itself here - the competition on the corner?”

    In 1914 Alfieri Maserati, founded Maserati in Bologna, originally a car repair workshop in 1914. In 1926 the Maserati brothers; Alfieri, Ettore, Bindo and Ernesto took over Diatto, a small racing car manufacturing company from Turin and opened shop in Modena. In the same year they built their first car, the “Tipo 26.”

    In May 1993, FIAT bought Maserati from the De Tomaso Group through the acquisition of 100% of the shares of Maserati, while the “Historic Collection” remained in the possession of Officine Alfieri Maserati. 

    In 1996 De Tomaso requested that the cars and engines of the “Historic Collection” be returned. Maserati accepted the request, but on De Tomaso's instructions, 19 cars were to be sent to England to be sold at auction in London.

    On the news of the sale, Umberto Panini immediately took action to prevent the historic Maserati cars from being lost. The 19 vintage Maserati cars, part of a collection of 40, along with 60 motorcycles and 20 some-odd tractors, are now housed in the Museo owned by the Panini family to be seen and enjoyed by enthusiasts worldwide. 

    So, how does one finance such an acquisition? Certainly not by working in a factory. Umberto had graduated from welder and mechanic for Maserati motorcycles to entrepreneur. He and his brother made their fortune manufacturing decals and stickers. The decals were reproductions of all the logos and symbols, inclusive of the famous “Trident” globally recognized as Maserati.

    A bit of trivia for our readers, one of the brothers was an artist and as such, was inspired by the “Fountain of Neptune” located in the Piazza Maggiore, Bologna. Neptune and his trident are a symbol of strength and vigor and thought to be the perfect representation for Maserati sports cars.

    After a jaw dropping, exhilarating waltz around every model of Maserati (my absolute favorite – a 1967 Ghibli Coupe Tipo AM115, named for the hot wind of the Sirocco desert, sporting cool blue paint), we strolled 50 yards across a dusty dirt road, passing Italian Frisian cows grazing in fields of alfalfa speckled by large rolls of hay to the organic dairy farm known as “Hombre” (the name given to Umberto Panini by his fellow villagers after spending 10 years in Venezuela).

    The Panini family produces the finest Parmigianino Reggiano cheese of this region. Only 12 wheels a day, each is made from of 500 liters of milk. That’s a lot of moo! 

    Stepping out of the hot sun and into the cool of the air-conditioned and humidified warehouse, we found ourselves surrounded ceiling to floor by giant rounds of Hombre Parmigianino Reggiano. This will be their home for 24 to 36 months and every two weeks the chesses are to be cleaned by a robotic fiddler and then checked by humans.

    Post the 2-3 year process, each wheel is stamped with the highly regarded ICEA seal, its date of birth and its going-off-to-another-land date. We can barely make out the soft hum of the robot fiddler playing the sad song of “Arrivederci!” 

    In the tasting room, one can sample the fastidious care taken in the flavor of these cheeses. The unique, characteristic taste is remarkable, especially when paired with a regional wine. We also make a modest purchase for my travel bag, which will be saved for our hike on the “Roman Road” of Cortona Tuscany, our last stomp before heading home.

    Over stimulated with salty palates, we all load back into the taxi pointed back in the direction of the hotel to cleanup and dress for a stroll in the Piazza Grande followed by a fantastic dinner in the same Piazza Grande, home to the Duomo di Modena. 

    A 15 minute walk from the hotel, The Caffé Concerto, a favorite among the younger locals, was elbowroom only. We dined alfresco while the girls found entertainment in the passing of a great thunderstorm. The boys on the other hand found more entertainment in watching the beautiful high-heeled Italian women graciously hop cobblestones in the ­Piazza, while balancing umbrellas. 

    The following morning, the air was still thick with weather as we made our way to the Maserati Plant Tour. ­­Only 35 cars are hand assembled Monday thru Friday. Twelve wheels of cheese and Maserati’s with four wheels each! So hard to keep track. And how is everything only 15 minutes away?

    Our travel buddy, Gary Brown, is a Fiat-Alfa Romeo dealer in Patchogue New York and our “in” to the “insider” tour of the landmark Maserati plant, housed by the original redbrick buildings of 1937. 

    In pouring down rain we met Gary’s compatriot Paul, (actually an ex-patriot from Michigan) vigorously shaking hands all around. Not the least bit disturbed by the weather, we are edgy with excitement of what lies within. 

    Paul has worked with the Maserati and Alfa Romeo under Fiat Group for many years. An interesting family tree, Paul would go on to explain, in 2005 Maserati was split off from Ferrari and partnered with Alfa Romeo under Fiat. Two years later Maserati would make its first profit in 17 years under Fiat ownership.

    Graciously, Paul ushered us into the lobby decorated with gorgeous driving machines. Awestruck, jaws agape, eyes flashing between each other and the brilliant, suggestively stimulating macchina, we were introduced to our charming and informative guide Alissandro. 

    Equipped with headsets and microphones, we were escorted into the pristine and completely modernized assembly plant. Huddled around our guide we were enlightened to learn not one Maserati is the same as another. Mass production does not apply here, in fact the word “custom” an understatement. 

    Voice raised in our ears to out do the Italian pop music piped in, Alissandro would go on to explain at Station 1 of 24, “The soul or the body of the car is married to the base, or foundation. This is more a living thing, more than an innate object of transportation.” This is where the Ferrari engine or foundation is married to the Maserati body. (I am sure both founders and rivals are rolling somewhere in the universe, hopefully with laughter!).

    I would encourage you, our reader to go to the Maserati website and virtually build your own! There are over 100,000 options available. Coincidentally, we were able to pick out a United States bound vehicle on the assembly track instantly by the cup holder option! 

    The plant being located in Centro, there is a limited amount of space. Therefore, Maserati production is “just in time.” All parts are contained in individual carts and travel with each car on the four-line, timed assembly track. Attached to the cart is the punch list that will be scrutinized at the 24 manned (and sometimes wo-manned) stations along the track, 28 minutes each stop and equipped only with powered hand tools. No robots here!

    Even the body is examined by hand for imperfections. I would equate this to a masseuse in search of a kink; the job entails the application of special oil that is then caressed into the body by two people in search of an anomaly. 

    There are no time constraints here and should there be a flaw, it, of course, would be made perfect by hand!

    In a different building, each new delivery is subject to the extremes of dynamic testing for five days! Enclosed in its own glass room (likened to the nursery of a maternity ward) the Maserati is revved and rolling at a speed of 250km per hour. Engine, steering, brakes, computer systems, door seals, cold, wet and extreme heat and I can go on…all of which are strictly observed by quality control teams.

    After the exhausting assessment, each car is treated to an additional massage by the finishing department. An external company is even enrolled for the final deliberation over the perfection of each and every Gran Turismo and Gran Cabrio.

    We were also able to preview production of the new Alfa Romeo 4C which is being undertaken here and that isn’t just by happy coincidence. 

    The Maserati factory in Modena was chosen to produce the 4C primarily because of the labor intensive, high-tech and highly skilled construction required and Maserati has the workforce on hand to handle that. 

    Only 12 of these beauties are rolled out each day, while there we only saw Rosso Red, however Gary managed to have Madreperla White with red leather trimmed bucket seats delivered to New York!

    Tucked neatly under their receiving blankets, these babies are introduced to their new owners with paparazzo on staff to capture the moment along with a bottle of the finest bubbly to celebrate the new arrival!

    Maserati is truly a spirited car, one that has captures the karma of all the hands that bring it to life. From the hands that build to your hands on the steering wheel, Maserati is the ultra-luxurious performance auto with timeless Italian style and effortless signature sounding power. 

    Grazie un milione to all those who participated in this fantastic journey!

Lago di Como - Bellissimo!

The morning and afternoon with the children - priceless; however, not to shabby spending a Mother's Day eve aboard a jet headed to Milano, Italy! Cosmopolitan centro and spring board to Lake Como, Modena, Tuscany and Rome! Molto bene!

High speed train travel in first class luxury to our destinations, with a little help from a regional train when absolutely necessary, was the way to go. We are to meet our travel partners the following evening where the imposing Italian and Swiss Alps touch reflecting into the waters known as Lago di Como.

Lake Como of Lombardy is the third largest glacial lake in Italy and one of the deepest in Europe - the bottom is 660 feet below sea level. Shaped like a "Y" with Colico on the northern branch where the river Adda feeds the lake down to the towns of Como and Lecco, which occupy the ends of the southwestern and southeastern branches. The small town of Bellagio is situated at the intersection - the view from our balcony at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
Photo: Grand Hotel Tremezzo by night.

After an effortless touch down in Milan and luggage collecting, we made our way to Milano Centrale for just 5 euros each. It was magnifico - a transportation paradise with architecture that amazes.

We flopped into our reserved seats; brown bag with rustico panini and waters, we ate like there was no tomorrow. We arrive in Como 38 minutes later, attributable to the 300 kmh (186 mph!) we were traveling on the Italian bullet.

A taxicab with an open boot beckoned our bags, a slam of the door and we were in. Dave proclaims "Grand Hotel Tremezzo." The driver repeats and shifts into gear.

Inquiring how long it will take to reach, our driver informs an hour. And 85 euros. Shocked, Dave and I ask simultaneously "Is there another way?"

"Si, by boat," says the driver.

Allora, the driver brought us to the ferry launch at the bottom of the hill - a five minute, 10 euro ride and tipped us off to the good gelato across the street while we wait for the 14:20 to Tremezzo.

Once on board, the memory of planes, buses, trains, automobiles and now ferry had faded. This was jaw-dropping beauty; floating by magnificent ancient palazzos and then the first view of the snow capped Alps had water popping from my eyes in an uncontrollable way! Our last leg complete, our actual legs would take us the next 500 meters to the hotel.

Opulence! Over 100 years of gracious service, this five-star gem is timeless, boasting terraced gardens, infinity pools, clay courts, more gardens and fountains. Situated directly on the lake with humbling views, there are terraces for aperitifs, for late night dinners, a terrace for breakfast and for early morning coffee. 
Photo: Bell tower with Swiss Alps as backdrop.

The street interrupts but once across, a beach with a full restaurant and bar compete with floating pool (in the lake!). Tied up poolside, the Ruy, captained by Diego, is a 30-something foot antique Italian mahogany lake runabout that we will come back to later in the story.

The entrance reminds one of a cool grotto - a heavily vined semi-circle of stone. A bronze and glass elevator waits as if the valet had spotted us coming down the lane. "Buena Sera! Welcome to the Grand Hotel Tremezzo!" As we step into the cool air, the attendant inquires as to our name and picks up the elevator phone to inform the desk of our arrival.

Doors open atop the first set of terraces, the late afternoon reflections astounding! Turning toward the interior we are welcomed by soaring ceilings, frescoes, grand chandeliers, overstuffed and oversized brightly colored Chesterfield sofas. The aroma of the fiore di rosa is a sensory override. The perfection at every turn mirrors the pride of this elegant, stately hotel. Everyone is smiling. How could you not?

While Dave is busy texting our crew that the last eagles have landed, our personal hostess checks us in and we are escorted to our room.

Now weighted down by the enormous key with tassel, Dave and I look at each other, turn to the balcony and step out into the afternoon sun. Absolutely breathtaking. I almost feel as if someone is going to roll up the green screen and all of this beauty will disappear and reveal some back lot. But no! This is God's wonderment for all to delight in!

Meeting Lynn, Gary, Connie and Bill on the aperitif terrace for cocktails likened another sort of mirage. Here we all were, toasting to the beauty of Como, good friends and the adventure awaiting! Cheers!

Famished, we saddled up and started out on the first of many adventures. Along the lakeside then up a significantly steep stone hill through a quiet residential district, which became unquiet upon our arrival. Slightly confused on left or right, we finally arrived at Contina Folie Di J & D, a tiny room with wine barrels for tables. Alarmed by the size of our posse, the host quickly ushered us up more flights through stone walled paths with very little headroom. Poor Dave.

The passage opened to a beautiful balcony with long farmhouse tables and a grapevine arbor hung overhead. Here we were introduced to a fine 2010 Barolo of Fontanafredda - delectable - accompanied by two large olive wood cutting boards overflowing with meats and cheeses. 
Photo: Palazzo di Fiore

The glasses were then replaced and prepared for a fine Brunello di Montalcino of Piancornello also the same year. This was amazing! The candlelight would take center stage bouncing into our empty glasses. It was time to find our way back down the hillside to the comfort of cool linens and fluffy pillows for a much needed, travel-weary sleep.

Gary had made us all promise we would be up and out for a lake hike by 9:00 am. It had felt as if we had only slept for an hour, but after strong coffee on the balcony and some fruit and pastry, we all gathered donned in the appropriate walking shoes and sunscreen.

Small bronze dials placed within the sidewalk, cobblestone and streets marked our six-mile trek. We followed the edge of Lago di Como, the morning mist still burning off the surface, only to be quietly sliced by the occasional classic lake ferry, the main source of transportation for working folks and tourists alike.

The photo opportunities were endless lending to a slow moving hike. The trail took us off the lake and up into the mountainside cresting at a 15th century church. Here, a very talkative, self-proclaimed missionary and expert on the history of Como imbibed his knowledge upon us. 
Right: Dave at market day.

The downhill pleasantly placed us directly in the middle of market day for the locals. The lakeside was abuzz, from butchers and farmers, to fedoras and parakeets! Weaving our way through, senses peaked, we completely lost track of time. It was hunger that reminded us, but not before we walked on to the magnificent Villa del Balbianello, featured in the James Bond film Casino Royale. Incredible that someone could have actually lived in such an enchanted place as this!
Left: Villa del Balbianello where scenes from Casino Royale were filmed.

Wearily we opted for the ferry trip back to the hotel were we would have a delightful lunch at the beach cafe accompanied by some well deserved Perroni's followed by a riposo.

In the evening we dined at the hotel's L'Escale Fondues & Wine Bar. Choosing to feast in the candle lit cantina, carved into rock with wine casks for tables and over 400 fine labels selected from every region in Italy adorning the bare brick walls. The simple pleasure of an informal meal of meat and fish fondues accompanied by a grilling center table was fun for all. Not to mention the 2012 Bricco de Uccell'one Barbera d'Asti that made it all taste so very, very good!

The next morning Dave and I made the lago trek solo after having consumed too many fondue calories the previous eve. However, we reunited at the ferry landing and boarded the boat to Bellagio for lunch with the requisite silk scarfs and Dave's infamous fedora - elegante.

Lynn's cocktail of choice won the award, a martini glass to the brim with lemon sorbet afloat by vodka wearing a silver streamer. Bill, looking out across the lake would sincerely ask for the umpteenth time, "I wonder if that's George Clooney's house?" Laughing, we assure him we would find it!
Right: Lynn with her award winning cocktail.

Pizzeria Balognett, atop another vista after a calorie-burning walk would suit all this evening. We sat on the patio of Franco and Carmelo under another grapevine arbor overlooking the herb and tomato garden.

The posted warning of children only welcome between 1pm and 4pm was a bit unusual as dogs sitting quietly with their masters were welcome anytime. A round of cold Birra Moretti, salads and three different varieties of brick oven pizza were an absolute delight!

Reserved for the finale, the following afternoon was spent on Ruy, the aforementioned mahogany lake boat. Gary had a little surprise for all as the parade of waiters approached with platters of fruit, cheese, meats, fresh breads, pastries and a large chilled basket of Prosecco. Oh my! 
Left: RUY, Grand Hotel Tremezzo's mahogany water limo.

This three-hour tour should not be missed; palaces line the shores decked in flowers, roses and crazy Italian trees. We cruised by Villa Carlotta, Villa Melzi d'Eril, and even George Clooney's humble palace, Villa Oleandra. Bill would need not ask "Where?" any more.

The next segment of our journey will carry us to Modena with a tour of Maserati and Ferrari then on to Milan for a visit to Expo and Leonardo Da Vinci's collections of 1452-1519 gathered from the four corners of the world. 
Right: George Clooney's 22-room Villa Oleandra.