Umbria — The Green Heart of Italy

Published on

Wandering the back roads through the interior of Italy, a lucky traveler will find Umbria, north of Rome and south of the more familiar Tuscany. Known as the Green Heart of Italy, this region offers a healthy dose of Italian charm, fabulous wineries, world class chocolate, and a calm retreat off the tourist path.

To get off the main road, book a short-term holiday lodging like  La Passionata, a 16th century convent in the very small – microscopic, even – village of Upper Bazzano, near Spoleto. Don’t look for it on Google maps; you may have to ask a local for directions to find the apartment.

At the convent, an iron gate leads up a dozen steps to the door of the old structure. Off of a utilitarian kitchen hewn out of the rock, the library and prayer room are framed with six huge arched windows. The view shows a patchwork of green that stretches out to the horizon. The main room features a huge stone fireplace and an elegant 16th century fresco, allegedly by Lo Spagna, who also has works in the Duomo in Spoleto and in the Vatican. A spectacular private garden, outfitted with four hammocks, greets visitors who have arrived in vacation heaven.


Spoleto Cathedral, Umbria

Nearby is a fascinating medieval hill town known for its world-famous music event, Festival dei Due Mondi. To get to the majestic La Rocca Albornoziana, built in the 14th century, visitors file into an escalator for the 15-minute ride up to the fortress. This was a prison until late in the 20th century, and it still has a stark prison vibe.

Looking for a meal? Walk up the narrow street from Piazza Garibaldi toward the upper part of the old city of Spoleto to find Cento, a combination restaurant, coffee shop, and wine bar. Cheeses and meats were the start of a memorable meal in the small restaurant, and the house wine was served with a huge array of fresh hot and cold assorted local specialties. The Norcia truffle pasta and wild boar pappardelle are both iconic dishes of the region and are done very well at 9 Cento.

Wine… and chocolate kisses

Wine is always a welcome requirement of any Italian trip, and Umbria offers several notable varietals, including the white Orvieto and the lesser-known red Sagrantino di Montefalco. Montefalco is another small walled city in Umbria and the hub of the wine-growing region. The Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG (or Montefalco Sagrantino) is the rising star of Italian red wines; try to find a bottle or two to take home and cellar.

Another spot for great wine is Torgiano, yet another small town with medieval walls and an impressive defensive tower located on a hill overlooking the Chiascio and Tiber rivers. This is where you’ll find the Museo del Vino Torgiano, founded by the Lungarotti family in 1974. Lungarotti is one the best-known producers in Umbria and have been largely responsible for putting and keeping Torgiano on the world map of top wine regions. Leading the tour of their winery was Chiara Lungarotti, daughter of the founder. The 30-minute tour of the property featured a combination of modern technology and centuries old techniques. Best of all, however, is the wine tasting, accompanied by Umbrian bread and Lungarotti extra virgin olive oil.

The only thing left to complete your Umbrian vacation is a guided tour of the PerugiChocolate House on the outskirts of the city of the same name. While the factory is now owned by food giant Nestlé, it still maintains its reputation for quality. Some 1500 of the famous silver-wrapped chocolate-and-hazelnut confections called Baci – Italian for “kisses” – are created each minute during production. Visitors can sample to their heart’s content at the end of the tour. Serious fanatics can enroll in chocolate school, a four-hour course that teaches the secrets of chocolate making.

Umbria is a bright gem of a travel destination, with unique places to stay, charming cities to tour, terrific food, and outstanding wine. A stay in Italy’s “Green Heart” leaves the visitor with the sweet taste of a chocolate kiss.

Little Italy – Sicily offers exciting vacation experiences

Published on

Abundant sunshine, great beaches, crystalline waters, fresh local food, and the largest active volcano in Europe – what more could you ask for in an Italian vacation? Sicily, a triangular island off the boot of Italy, is really a country unto itself; at least the Sicilians think of it that way. 

The village of Taormina, perched high above the sea on the eastern side of the island, has always been a must stop for tourists. From composer Johannes Brahms to comedian Woody Allen, all have enjoyed its restored mediaeval buildings and stunning ocean views. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the French and the Spanish all came to Taormina and left their mark. The Teatro Greco, a 3rd century Greco-Roman amphitheater, hosts a variety of events today, and from the seats, one can see Mount Etna rising in the distance, still smoking from a recent eruption.


A spectacular view from the terrace at Al Saraceno Restaurant

A spectacular view from the terrace at Al Saraceno Restaurant

The Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay clings to the cliffs and was themed after the lost city of the same name, and the lobby and hallways certainly feel grotto-like. The rooms are large with all the extras – great bed, bath products, slippers, and robes. The bathroom was smallish, but the tub was deep enough for a long soak. The small patio off the room offers a terrific view of the waters below. Breakfast was served on an outside terrace right above the pool and the sea. The cantaloupe was perfectly ripe, and with fresh-squeezed orange juice and eggs made to order, the day started off right. Gazing at the bright blue waters of the Ionian Sea didn’t hurt, either. 

A charming local restaurant, Al Saraceno, is situated high above the bay and is known for its spectacular, panoramic view; diners can watch the lights come on below each evening. The owner, Alfio Puglia, is very attentive to his guests. Wood-fired pizza dough is served in place of bread. Fresh local fish came in a mixed grill and included king prawns, calamari, and scampi served with olive oil, garlic, lemon, parsley, and oregano. 

Great wine… and Mount Etna

Up a very winding road was Patria, one of the largest privately owned wineries in Sicily, with the local rich volcanic soil providing a unique terroir for wines. Tours take visitors to a volcanic cave with the layers of eruptions clearly displayed within.  

Once oriented, we sat around a huge table for a feast with the vineyard owner. It was easy to lose track of the courses (maybe seven). Fabulous wines were paired with each offering – Neri d’Avola, Etna Rosso, Cabernet, Etna Bianco, and their vintage 2001 Etna Rosso. Multiple varieties of antipasti, both hot and cold, were followed by wild mushroom risotto, seafood pasta, and finally grilled boar medallions. (Some Norwegian tourists, sitting at another table, burst into song halfway through our three-hour meal, which provided an unusual musical accompaniment to a wonderful Sicilian experience.) 

Valley of the Temples

Ruins of the Greek-Roman Taormina Theatre

Working off an enormous lunch at Patria, visitors can visit Mount Etna and walk around one of the many craters left from previous eruptions. The lava fields looked like the moon’s surface, with blasted and cratered lava rock stretching downhill for miles.  

On the other side of island, a day trip to Agrigento offers a window to the history of this special place. Lunch al fresco on the Terrace of the Gods at the five-star Villa Athena hotel included an incredible seafood pasta, followed by crab-stuffed white fish. Dessert was a pistachio semi-fredo, a cross between ice cream and a soufflé. Many glasses of a lovely, cold, white Alta Villa Grillo wine followed.  

The Villa, built as a magnificent private home at the end of the 18th century, became a hotel in 1972. The gardens of the villa surround a vivid blue swimming pool, which blends into the landscape of almond and olive trees. The patio overlooks the distant, but visible, Temple of Concordia – an incredible masterpiece of Doric art from the 5th century BC – rivals any Greek temple anywhere else in the world, even in Greece itself. The temple owes its preservation to being turned into a church in the 6th century, which saved the fundamental structure of the original temple.  

Just outside of Agrigento, a two-hour walking tour takes visitors through the Archaeological Park of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. Founded in 582 BC, Agrigento was one of the most important and most culturally advanced Greek cities in the Mediterranean. The archaeological park consists of seven temples (and various other remains) built between about 510 BC and 430 BC. These are: 

  • Temple of Hera 
  • Temple of Concordia 
  • Temple of Heracles 
  • Temple of Olympian Zeus 
  • Temple of Castor and Pollux 
  • Temple of Hephaestos  
  • Temple of Demeter  

Ancient Akragas, as Agrigento was known, attracted philosophers and poets who described it as “the most beautiful of mortal cities.” Today, it attracts visitors from all over the world, who stroll through the temple ruins, imaginingtheir past glory.  

No matter what your interests, Sicily today and Sicily of the past combine to make an amazing vacation location. 




Budapest — Hip, historic and reasonably priced

Published at

The Danube winds its way through this ancient city, the capital of Hungary—actually, two cities, Buda and Pest, facing each other across its riverbanks. For 1000 years, ancient people settled here, first the Celts and then the Romans. Being overrun by the Mongols, led to some 150 years of Ottoman rule and then becoming the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each people left their mark on this global city, where art and culture meet food, wine and relaxation in equal measure.

The Four Seasons Gresham Palace

#1 Why Not the Best?
For a real splurge, book a room at the Fours Season Gresham Palace, on the banks of the Danube with the famous Chain Bridge within view. All of the thoughtfulness and ultra luxury of the chain combines with this magnificent Art Nouveau landmark building. Built in 1906, Gresham Palace was abandoned and ultimately restored in 1998 by the best local craftspeople the Fours Seasons could employ. A two million-piece mosaic tile floor, a grand, sweeping staircase, stained-glass floors, and a wrought iron elevator are just a few features of this stunning hotel. The spa ranks at the top of its class in a city of spas, and the Kollázs Brasserie & Bar off of the lobby provided an outstanding dining choice. We really liked breakfast, ordering Hungarian scrambled eggs – pepper, onion, and homemade sausage.

Tip: Reserve a room with river view; the lights of the city are worth it. For a splurge, get a River-View Park Suite which is a huge open concept room with a king bed, sitting area or two queens complete with a marble bathroom and a soaking tub!


#2 The all-day bus pass
We usually start any visit to a new city with a Hop On Hop Off Bus trip. We stayed on for the entire two-hour circuit with views of Heroes’ Square, noted for its iconic statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, the Hungarian Parliament Building and the towering dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica. Then the next day we rode the bus to the stops we wanted to see like the baths.


#3 Spa City
If you like spas like I do, this is a city for you. There are 118 thermal springs feeding 15 public baths, as well as spas like the one at the Four Seasons and several other hotels. We tried two public baths including the Széchenyi Thermal Bath located in the City Park. It is one of the largest spa complexes in Europe and is frequented by locals and tourists alike. Be careful of the Thai massage bookers, however. They grabbed us in the lobby and aren’t a part of the formal spa.

The Gellért Thermal Bath has a succession of pools, inside and outside. We enjoyed sitting on the outside deck with a beverage, watching people at the wave pool. My Swedish massage at the Gellert fully met my expectations, and I’d book a repeat. With so many more spas to try, I’ll definitely be back to work my way through the remaining dozen or so.


#4 Castle Hill and a traditional Hungarian meal
We were looking for a traditional meal and found Pest Buda Bistro in the heart of the castle district, the oldest section of the city. What else do you order but goulash at this cheerful restaurant with its red-checkered tablecloths? Pest Buda offers a Hungarian home-cuisine approach to their entrees. We sat outside and took in the medieval feel of the district centered around the old Royal Palace. After stuffing ourselves, we took a leisurely stroll including visiting the Matthias Church.


#5 Walking the Vaci utca to the Central Market Hall
A vital shopping and dining thoroughfare in the heart of the city winds its way to the Central Market Hall. The Market includes lots of shops to pop into for shopping of all kinds—upscale clothing, gadgets, or a cup of coffee (and, of course, paprika). The Central Market Hall is a bustling two-story building stuffed with stalls selling just about everything from foodstuffs to souvenirs to clothing. Food fills the first floor, with other goods upstairs. It was very crowded when we visited, but was still a great place to pick up souvenirs.


#6 St. Stephen’s Basilica
One of the must-see sites, St. Stephen’s is a Roman Catholic Basilica, named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038). Although we didn’t see it, his hand is supposedly resting in the reliquary.


#7 A lovely evening stroll to Rezkakas Bistro
In the evening, we wanted to take a brief walk, dine outside and sample traditional cuisine. The concierge directed us to this charming restaurant where all three goals were met. High concept goulash!

#8 A nighttime cruise on the Danube
Along with our two-day bus pass, came a nighttime cruise on the Danube. This was a remarkable way to see the lights of this romantic city on our last night in Budapest. The boat was a little crowded, but the views of this UNESCO World Heritage city were remarkable.


#9 Who knew Hungarian wine was terrific and inexpensive?
One of the reasons no one knows about Hungarian wine is that they drink almost all that they produce within their own country, which boasts nine wine producing regions. Hungarian wine production dates back to at least Roman times. Outside of Hungary, the best-known wines are the white dessert wine, Tokaji, and the red wine, Bull’s Blood of Eger (Egri Bikavér). Domestic wines include superb syrahs and cabernets. Plan a visit to The Tasting Table (Brody Sandor, Utca 9) to taste a great range of local wine and to snack on the bounty of a tasty local cheese and charcuterie board. Our favorite wine was a lovely Bulls Blood, Kovacs Nimrod, Rhapsody (2012).

Tip: Buy a wine that isn’t exported and bring home at least two bottles per person.


#10 Paprika
Finally, who knew there were so many types of paprika? Mild and sweet, to fiery spicy were just a few of the choices. Most importantly, we learned that we should throw out the paprika we had at home since it is a spice that does not keep its flavor once open to the air. As a spice, it is almost synonymous with Hungarian cuisine especially paprikash and goulash.

Mother Daughter Spa Adventure

It really doesn’t matter where you go if you really like the company of the people who are with you. I’ve learned that through years of solo travel for work to many lovely places that were just not quite as much fun without my family or friends.

Traveling with my daughter was an especially wonderful treat especially as she is now off on adventures of her own. It doesn’t really matter where we go – I wanted to spend some special time together.r

Our best, recent trip was an over-the-top pampering weekend at the exquisite Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, California.

We shopped very diligently for the best spa deals in Southern California for our weekend rendezvous and the Langham came up with an excellent package for a suite of spa services over two days. We picked a package that started with our toes went all the way to the top of our head including a pedicure, massage and hair treatment.

I have to admit that we may have been influenced by the shade of pink the entire Langham chain uses as their unique brand color, or the miles of emerald lawns or the beautiful swimming pool at the Pasadena property. I had not tried the Chuan Spa before even though I fancy myself as a bit of a spa snob. In Chinese, Chuan means flowing water and is a key part of the spa’s philosophy towards wellness.

Upon entering the spa, we were immediately welcomed by staff that went out of their way to make sure we had all the services we wanted at the times we wanted. Fitting some sun time at the pool was another key ingredient of the weekend. We were ushered into the changing facilities through the Moon Gate. The spa offered a unique way to think about the pampering experience – as part of a journey to regaining balance and harmony built on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine.

For our massages, I dived wholeheartedly into the hot and cold stone massage that delivered on it promise to deliver both an invigorating and healing experience. My daughter chose the more traditional Swedish massage. We spent some time in the Dream Room, aptly named for a quick snooze between treatments or a sip of their five elements teas. Following our rest and a dip in the Jacuzzi tub, we enjoyed side-by-side signature pedicures. I love a full massage but having someone focus on the pressure points of your feet was the most luxurious feeling. Fully relaxed and almost unable to move, we decided to go to the pool for lunch and some sun.

Dining outside in California was something I always look forward to enjoying when I visit. The Terrace restaurant offered a pool-side table. I enjoyed fish tacos while my daughter enjoyed her burger with a brioche bun and aged cheddar. Obviously we weren’t eating a spa menu or healthful and low calorie items.

The next day my daughter tried out the fitness center while I slept in. We returned gladly to the spa for our final treat, scalp and hair treatments. This was something I don’t remember ever having before. Remember how great the foot massage was? A scalp massage may be even better. I mean who gets their head rubbed?

Even though we shopped for a special, this weekend wasn’t something any budget can afford every year, making it an even more special treat. We regretfully concluded our spa weekend, fully refreshed and connected to each other.

A river runs through it: The Detroit Riverfront

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Many of the world’s great cities sit on the banks of important rivers. Detroit has just such a river, taking its name from the French, Rivière Détroit, or River of the Straight. The Detroit River flows 24 nautical miles, a natural border between the United States and Canada. It’s been designated a Heritage River in both countries.

Today, this historically important riverfront, on one of the busiest waterways in the world, is also one of the clearest symbols of the city’s resurgence. While there are nearly 14 miles of frontage, the action today is centered on a 5 ½ mile strip that includes the iconic Renaissance Center — seven interconnected, round glass skyscrapers that include the General Motors world headquarters.

The RenCen is also home to a nice Marriott Hotel, where we decided to anchor our two-day stay. Ask for a room on one of the higher floors with a river view, for a spectacular view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Seriously, this was one of the best views from any hotel I’ve ever visited.

The RenCen offers IMG_4353a food court and several restaurants, including Andiamo, part of an upscale chain, serving very tasty northern Italian food with great views and outdoor seating. I stuck to a Mama’s Chopped Salad, with all of the usual ingredients, plus kale. The lobster ravioli was extremely rich, but oh so tasty.

Trying to exit the RenCen was more challenging that it should have been. I have to admit, I always get lost trying to go from the hotel to the other towers. On a hot summer day, it seemed a good idea to get out on the Riverwalk early. It’s a wonderful wide walkway, great for strolling or running if you are so inclined, and one of the prettiest walks anywhere in the city. The splash pad was filled with kids and their parents enjoying some summertime fun.

Just a block from the hotel, we discovered the custom-made Cullen Family Carousel, which features carved animals all native to the Detroit River —except for a sea serpent and a mermaid. Farther on, we connected to the 31-acre Milliken State Park, which offers picnic areas and shoreline fishing. We settled for a few selfies with the 63-foot-tall lighthouse.

In the historic Globe Building, we discovered the Outdoor Adventure Center. The mission of the center is to bring Michigan’s outdoors to the heart of Detroit, courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. What a great place for kids (and adults acting like kids) to learn about fishing, hunting, hiking and nature in a tactile and accessible way. We crawled into a bear den (minus the bear, thank goodness) and had a quick slide through a massive burr oak. The entrance prices are very reasonable for families, and scholarships are offered to school groups to help with transportation costs.

There is something to do on the Riverfront for every age group and taste. Every Sunday, animal lovers are invited to join the Pack Walk for a guided walk at 10:30 a.m. Moonlight Yoga, Riverfront Tai Chai and a fun run occur almost every weekend. And on every other summer Thursday, you can enjoy Riverfront Relaxin’ Music and Movie Night from 6 to 10 p.m. The last Music and Movie Night is scheduled for Aug. 25 and features “A Hard Day’s Night” with a Beatles Tribute band, The Backbeats.

Detroit’s Riverfront is a meeting place for all, giving both residents and visitors a place to enjoy the lovely river on a lazy day or on a day packed with lots to do and see — your choice.

Detroit: one neighborhood at a time

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

As I’ve gotten to know Detroit, I’ve come to understand that just when you find some wonderful part of the city, you cross the next street and find another treasure. Detroit covers approximately 143 square miles, about 100 more than the city of Battle Creek. With 92 different neighborhoods in Detroit, I’m going to have to accelerate my exploration of the city if I want to visit all of them.

I’ve spent time downtown and midtown where most tourists focus. I want to take you further to the southwest, however, and show you more of the “real” Detroit. According to, Southwest Detroit offers 130 different restaurants, 30 bakeries and 25 markets. Two absolutely great communities in the neighborhood are Mexicantown and Corktown — different, but both built on the bedrock of different waves of immigrants.

With a rapidly growing Latino population, this part of Detroit is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. Immigrants from Mexico began settling here in the 1920s, and by the 1980s the area had received the moniker Mexicantown. The major thoroughfares are Bagley and Vernor streets, and you know you’ve arrived when the buildings start featuring vibrant colors and hand-painted murals dot their sides.

As a California native, I set a very high bar for authentic Mexican food, and I wasn’t disappointed by a fabulous meal at Armando on Vernor Highway. They have a huge menu with all the favorites and then some. I ordered three tacos — chicken, steak and tilapia. Each had its own perfect flavor and featured fresh corn tortillas and two salsas with varying degrees of heat. The salsa was worth bringing a quart home.

I don’t think you can go wrong anywhere in Mexicantown for excellent Mexican food, but that’s not all you can find. When I need a plantain fix for example, I also love El Comal, which boasts exceptional Central American cuisine featuring Guatemalan and Salvadoran recipes.

If you are counting calories, do not visit La Gloria Bakery. It’s a self-service experience, and I was soon armed with a tray and tongs. My choices included fresh pastries, cookies, breads, empanadas and churros, to name just a few. I really wanted to take home a Tres Leches cake, a lovely squishy dessert sensation, but I resisted.

Since 1991, the purple Matrix Theatre has been an iconic part of the neighborhood arts and culture scene. And don’t miss another much older community hub, St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church. The Gothic revival style church was built in 1886 and has some of the oldest stained glass in the city.

For a different feel in Southwest, try Corktown, one of the oldest parts of the city. Like Mexicantown, Corktown takes its name from the original residents, Irish immigrants from the County Cork who came to work in the emerging industries in the 1830s. Today, it’s a bustling neighborhood filled with places to hang out and enjoy the summer. In 1978, Corktown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its brightly colored Victorian townhomes and original Irish businesses.

While it’s not very Irish, Le Petit Zinc is a charming, small Corktown creperie that offers both sweet and savory crepes. This time of year, sit outside on the patio, sip an espresso and enjoy a casual brunch.

Another spot not to be missed is Mudgie’s Deli.

Southwest Detroit — one neighborhood down…only 91 more to go!

Fun’s a Walk Away in Bay City

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

When we can park our car on Friday night and never turn it on again until we leave again on Sunday night — that’s a great weekend. Bay City, a town of 35,000 near the mouth of the Saginaw River and the entrance to Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron, certainly fits the bill for just that sort of indulgent trip. In classic Michigan fashion, you can find Bay City right between your thumb and first finger.

The first people — Chippewa, Hopewell, Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi — once thrived along the banks of the Saginaw River. Recent archaeological digs have uncovered artifacts from the earliest permanent settlement, which dates back to 3000 B.C. The first Northern Europeans settled in 1831, when Leon Tromble built a log cabin on the east bank of the Saginaw River. The town was established in 1837 and was incorporated as a city in 1865.

When we rolled in on Friday night, we went immediately to the River Walk and set up our chairs for Friday at the Falls. These free concerts attract people of all ages, as witnessed by the children dancing in the very front and the older folks sitting sedately along the edges of the lawn. It was a great way to unwind after our drive and gave us time to ponder where we wanted to have dinner.

We had already checked into the DoubleTree, part of the Hilton chain. We normally look for smaller bed and breakfasts or inns, but location was everything in this case, and the new hotel was near downtown and on the water. Our room had a water view and was very comfortable, in a taupe kind of way.

The historic downtown boasts of 120 specialty shops and 23 restaurants; I took them at their word and didn’t spend time counting.

We had dinner in mind and decided to try the American Kitchen, primarily due to its charming outside area with lovely flower boxes. It offered burgers and bourbon, a winning combination for hungry travelers. We started with some green bean fries, hoping that would count as a vegetable. We passed on the peanut butter burger, however.

My husband continued his focus on bacon with the Kentucky Derby Burger, topped with bourbon-glazed onions, bacon, hickory barbecue sauce and sharp cheddar cheese. The California Turkey burger called to me, and it came with a tasty dollop of guacamole. After dinner, we strolled around the downtown, noticing that several places offered outside dining, a plus on a warm summer night. The Old City Hall Restaurant proved a cozy spot for a nightcap.

The next morning we went to Maggie’s Omelette House for brunch. Maggie’s is on a side street in a nondescript building, and offers any kind of omelet you can imagine. How about egg white and kale with lots of cheddar cheese? The service was good, the coffee plentiful and it lived up to its reputation.

Of course what would summer in Michigan be without a little rain, so we scrapped the boat trip and walked across the street to the Delta College Planetarium and Learning Center. The $8.75 million facility houses a state-of-the-art Planetarium Digital 360 theater. The magnificent lobby has a floor that displays the major star constellations.

Bay City: wonderful riverfront, great restaurants and nice hotels, all within walking distance. If you need any more reason to visit, Bay City will host the Tall Ship Celebration, Michigan’s largest gathering of tall ships, starting Thursday.

Nothing Plain About Plainwell

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Every Michigan town has something to offer, especially in the summertime. Plainwell, 20 minutes north of Kalamazoo, is a charming little town of 3,800 with lots of choices for a weekend visit.

Start planning your visit by checking out two websites, Craigslist or VRBO, to book a cottage on Pine Lake, which is actually four lakes connected by small navigable channels. With 11 miles of shoreline, it is one of many terrific lakes that make Michigan such a great summer escape.

Our friends booked the nine-bedroom Ivy Lodge for a big weekend celebration. The wooden frame house had a lovely sand beach, two docks and a wide, second-story porch for outside dining. For a special event, the large property allowed the whole family plus friends to stay for a lake weekend. If you need less space, there are many other rentals available.

While you can cook in your lakefront cottage, I don’t know why you would, because there are several restaurants nearby. The Old Mill Brew Pub and Grill on Bridge Street was once the site of the largest buckwheat mill in the United States, and now it houses a charming restaurant. They make their own craft beer, and you can enjoy the suds inside or on the outside patio. We chose the Crazy Beaver Cream Ale and the Island City IPA for our beverages.

My husband had The Big Pig: Pulled pork, grilled ham and crispy bacon topped with grilled andouille sausage — all on a kaiser roll. I settled for the more sedate olive burger — a patty topped with a mix of green olives and mayo — along with an order of onion rings for the table. I really wanted to sample the Old Mill “Jim Dandy” Rootbeer Float, but I couldn’t find any room.

Another dining choice was the Four Roses Café, for a local farm-to-table menu. The café is owned and operated by Plainwell locals, Tom and Jan Rose. Be sure you come hungry. We sampled the filet mignon with two sauces (a red wine mushroom and Béarnaise) and the Great Lakes Whitefish Grenoble, our own best local fish with a diced tomato, lemon and caper treatment.

Push yourself to sample their pies. We ordered the Black Bottom Pie and the Amaretto Coconut Cream Pie and had no regrets except for our bulging stomachs.

Of course, Plainwell is the self-proclaimed ice cream capital of the state. They do offer two terrific family-owned ice cream parlors, the Plainwell Ice Cream Co. and Dean’s Ice Cream.

Plainwell Ice Cream makes 65 flavors, and you can buy its products around Michigan. Be prepared to wait, because the secret is out about how good their ice cream is.  The business has been in the Gaylord family since 1978, and family members still work at the store. Blueberry Marble was my favorite flavor, followed closely by French Silk — a summer dream in a cone.

Dean’s Ice Cream is another long-standing community icon, opening its doors in 1945. With three locations in the area, you can order any of their 34 flavors. My husband couldn’t pass up a hot fudge sundae. Dean’s is also a tasty lunch stop for a burger or a bacon and grilled cheese, with fries, of course.

Returning to the deck at the rental cottage, we watched the sunset and enjoyed a cool breeze off of the water. Nothing beats a Michigan summer, and there is nothing plain about Plainwell, either.

Louisiana’s River Road Plantations

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

While I’ve visited New Orleans, I’ve always wanted to see the plantation houses on Louisiana’s River Road, a 70-mile stretch on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The banks are dotted with these monumental homes, built by wealthy sugar planters in the decades before the Civil War. What is also critically important to understand is that their economic success was dependent on the forced labor and lifeblood of enslaved people.

We chose three destinations for our tour — Oak Alley Plantation, the Whitney Plantation and Houmas House. With their outstanding architecture, lovely antiques and stunning settings, the River Road mansions clearly convey the privileged white life of the antebellum period, but we had a much deeper, richer and authentic visit as we also learned about the horror — and resilience — of African-Americans who also lived on the land during the same time.

Our first stop was Oak Alley Plantation, where the story of the “Big House” was told separately from the story of the reconstructed slave quarters just 100 yards from the front door. Oak Alley is known for the quarter-mile row of facing 300-year-old oaks leading up to the plantation house.

A different perspective greeted us down the road. A visit to the Whitney Plantation, opened in 2014, was a remarkable way to be immersed in events that are still difficult to discuss 150 years after the Civil War. Whitney provided a visceral experience, told through the real narratives of enslaved children and in the footsteps of the enslaved people who lived on this plantation.

In a white clapboard church, we met 40 life-sized statues of slave children created by Woodrow Nash. Around my neck, the lanyard had a portrayal of former slave Ann Hawthorne, a little girl in a hat and pinafore, whose story was recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1930.

“I was bo’n in slavery, and I was a right sizable gal when freedom came,” she tells me. Nearby rows of granite slab walls — The Wall of Honor — captured the names of 356 people enslaved on the plantation through the years. Seven slave cabins stand on the site, two of them original and the others acquired from another plantation. Our guide walked us slowly around the property and told stories of hardship, privation, death and hope.

Standing in the master’s Creole French-style house, our guide patted the head of another statue and told her story. Anna was raped by the brother of the owner. Her son by that encounter was given the owner’s name and eventually freed. His great-granddaughter became a well-known local activist and married the first black mayor of New Orleans; their son also became mayor.

The guide looked at our group and said, “If this child could turn his life into such a gift of service, what excuse do you have not to make a difference?”

To anchor our weekend, we chose the striking Greek Revival mansion, Houmas House, with its two-storied colonnade, lushly landscaped gardens, newly built guest cottages and several excellent restaurants on site.

At Latil’s Landing, we had a wonderful five-course prix fixe meal that provided a stark contrast to the stories we had heard earlier in the day. Later, we sat on the wraparound porch in the gathering twilight and discussed what we had learned.

It was easier now to see the ghosts of all who lived and died to support the “Sugar Palace” and the other grand houses on River Road, including the thousands of enslaved men, women and children whose voices we are only now beginning to hear.