Sailing on the Bay

It was a glorious weekend in San Francisco. The weather was clear and sunny in the 70’s, with lisps of fog here and there but not thick enough to obscure the sun. It was a busy weekend: Fleet Day, the next round of America’s Cup Sailing Races, the first playoff games for the San Francisco Giants, a 49er football game, the annual Italian Heritage Parade (formerly known in its pre-politically correct days as the annual Columbus Day Parade), and a huge music festival in Golden Gate Park. Not to mention all the other activities which go along with San Francisco just being San Francisco.

After the Fleet Day Parade of Ships and its annual air show with the Blue Angels (the elite US Naval flying team), the stage was set for the next round of the America’s Cup Racing on the bay. San Francisco has turned out to be a perfect venue for the races which started this past August and will continue next summer. The race course runs between Crissy Field, near the foot of the Golden Gate, to Fort Mason. The finish line is equidistant between the two in the small harbor that is home to the Golden Gate and St. Francis Yacht Clubs. The extreme end of the small protective jetty that nearly encircles the docks serves as the finish line.

Because the course covers so much area of public access, there is plenty of room to view the racing along the waterfront but the only reserved seats are bleacher-style near the starting line. That means the far edge of the course remains obscure but there is live “play-by-play” commentary from onsite announcers and large television screens so those paying the premium for a seat don’t miss a bit of the action. The adjacent “village” is a nice complement to the seating area and offers food, vendors, port-a-potties and additional screens to watch the racing live with a glass of Napa Valley wine in the shade of cool tents.

The best place to view the races, however, is from the water. The entire north side of the race course is San Francisco Bay and vessels of all shapes and sizes were out in full force to watch the races, which generally last about 1½ to 2 hours. Many charter vessels, including the boats of Hornblower Yachts and the historic USS Potomac, bobbed in the bay while passengers observed the sleek 45-foot catamarans racing at twice the speed of the wind. Of course, because they are unique venues with captive audiences, costs for passage on these vessels can be high. A luncheon cruise on one of the Hornblower Yachts started at around $175 per person. I settled for a blanket on a rock along the jetty with my binoculars and a sandwich from an Italian deli.

The next round of racing will be from July until the championship races in mid-September on boats that will be nearly twice the length as the boats raced this year. Sports Leisure will be looking at several options to give our customers a taste of the racing, most likely from on the water on board a comfortable luncheon cruise. Keep your eye on future newsletters and for more information about the races visit

We All Remember Where We Were the Night He Walked on the Moon

It was President John Kennedy who set the stage for one of America’s most reluctant heroes. During his too brief time as our nation’s leader in the early 60’s, he challenged us to put a man on the moon. Before the decade was out, Neil Armstrong was that man.

I remember it as a quiet warm summer night. We had moved the television set out on the back porch, I don’t exactly remember why. But I remember it being a clear evening and the moon was visible, so perhaps we thought we could actually see him walking or follow along on television better if we could see where he was. If it was mom’s idea, it completed one heckuva science lesson.

Can’t you remember where you where that evening? Remember the pride you felt. I was about to enter high school in the fall, my little sister must have been 10 or 11, my brother a bit younger. Seemed like to took forever for the moon walk to occur. We had our barbecue and sat in our lawn chairs, waiting for the door for the lunar capsule to open and Neil Armstrong to step onto the surface of the moon. AP said, “Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the highway and checked into motels just to see the moonwalk.

It was the biggest thing to happen in my young life. I believe it will go down as one of the major human accomplishments of our country in my lifetime. It embodied two things we desperately need today. A leader who urged us to attain a goal seemingly beyond our reach, and a country full of citizens willing to publicly support that goal.

The whole process to getting to the moon was fraught with adventure (and even death). We knew it was dangerous. But it was cutting edge (before even the phrase was popular) and it made us proud to be Americans. The Cold War was in its final stages, and one of the reasons was our ability to beat the Russians to the moon, along with our determination to make it happen.

I was never a NASA scientist, or a space worker of any kind. But I will always be grateful to a modest Neil Armstrong, a true American hero who was suddenly thrust into history books forever. I visited his museum with a tour group a few years back, and his brother stopped by to talk to us. He explained that Neil didn’t really do public appearances, but shared some stories of their childhood in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Everyone handles fame in different ways. It strikes me that America’s early astronauts have proven, over time, to be excellent protectors of our history and our integrity, in no small part because of the way they have conducted themselves after they came into the public spotlight. That point shines through in the request the Armstrong family made to Americans:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Amen. God speed Neil Armstrong, American Hero.


Farewell to America’s Grandfather – Andy Griffith

Andy Griffith passed away Friday. To anyone under 30, that might have gone unnoticed. To those anyone older than that, well, could we see the hands of all the people reading this who feel a little like they grew up a bit under the influence of the characters of “Mayberry?”

I thought so. Personally, I remember being home from school with the sniffles, curled up on the couch in a blanket, my suffering made a bit easier by Andy and friends.

Andy Griffith had many successes in his acting career, including the country lawyer named Matlock. But none defined a man or an era like The Andy Griffith Show and the people of the imaginary town of Mayberry. Who couldn’t identify with Barney Fife, Opie, Gomer, Aunt Bea and the gang. When Jim Nabors left to create the highly successful Gomer Pyle, USMC, the program successfully replaced him with his “brother” Goober and never missed a beat. Don Knotts became famous as the bungling deputy who got nothing right, but was still loved at the end of the day. The show’s actors and actresses won awards, but interestingly Griffith was never among those honored. He never complained.

The characters of Mayberry were endearing and the topics the show tackled were pretty cutting edge for a situation comedy in the 60’s. Always done tastefully, with understanding and class.

Class. That would be word that best described Andy Griffith. He refused to embroil himself in politics or other controversial situations, preferring to be “America’s Grandfather.”.

Just listening to Ron Howard, who started his career as Oppie, and has gone on to become a superstar in the entertainment industry, reflect on his relationship with Andy, tells you all you need to know. “He shaped my career and he helped me grow up. I have never met a finer man,” said Howard. Andy helped a country grow up. The 60’s were a time of social upheaval. We lost political leaders, went to Viet Nam, landed on the moon, discovered pot and flower children and generally rearranged the deck chairs like never before. We needed a rock, even if it was a television character.

As we celebrate our great country’s birthday this week, I can’t help but be a bit sad. Resources like Andy Griffith are not easily replaced. Certainly someone new will step up to be the country’s most beloved and humble elder non-statesman. Alas, that man will have big shoes to fill.

Thanks to Andy, for sharing his craft, and really, his philosophy of life with us during his journey. It was a tremendous gift, and it impacted far more people than he will ever know. Or maybe he did know.

It marks, to me, the end of an era. Mayberry and it’s people will live on forever, through the magic of film. It was from a simpler time and place. Andy and his Mayberry was our reality check all those years ago. Still might be.

PS – Donnie Anderson of our staff shared a link to a vocal version of the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show. For all these years, I didn’t know the song HAD words. I really enjoyed listening to it. A little corny, which seems absolutely perfect for the moment. Listen to it by clicking here. Thanks Donnie for sharing.

One State Park a Week – That’s All We Ask!

Remember that advertising campaign from Blue Diamond Almonds? “One can a week, that’s all we ask.” The same could be said for California’s State Parks. If everyone visited a state park each week, the perilous situation our parks are facing would change dramatically. Of course, it’s certainly not realistic to expect busy Californians to visit a state park every week: Maybe once a month would be possible?

Over Memorial Day Weekend, I visited four state parks, none of which I had visited before: Boethe-Napa State Park near Calistoga, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Bale Gristmill State Park, and Jack London State Park. All were wonderful. I camped with my wife and two children (along with three other families) in Boethe-Napa. One of only two state parks with a swimming pool, the other being Hearst Castle, the park is in the process of being taken over by the county park system which is already working to make the park more marketable for year-round visitation. During our stay we observed members of the California Conservation Corps building “yurts” for more comfortable winter-time camping. We also paid a visit to the pool and looked through the small visitors center with its adjacent Native American garden.

From our home base at Boethe-Napa, we hiked a short trail to nearby to Bale Gristmill State Park, also now being managed by the county park system. On weekends, the gristmill is going full-tilt with tours. Pass from the rustic museum into the mill itself and enjoy a wonderfully informative talk by the onsite miller. One jerk of a chain to allow water to pass over the largest working water wheel west of the Mississippi River, and the belts, cranks, gears and millstones of the mill come alive. The not only does the mill still grind corn, wheat, and buckwheat, it supplies several area restaurants!

At nearby Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, we tramped along trails frequented by the famous author during his honeymoon. The Napa Valley was one of his favorite locations in the world. Of course, he wasn’t the only famous author to fall in love with the area. Next door in the valley of Sonoma County, Jack London built his dream house only to see it succumb to fire days before he moved in. He died before he had an opportunity to restore it. His widow lived the rest of her life at the first home on the site and then gifted the home and land to the state. Today the old home serves as a museum dedicated to her husband and a short trail leads down the mountain to the ruins of the home that was never occupied.

Look for Sports Leisure to offer daytrips to all these locations in the near future. Without our state parks, our history continues to be forgotten as well as our inspiration.

We Can’t Wait to Introduce you to Moloka’i

“Yeah, I see the van from my desk. You guys just turned right. We are here on the corner. See you in an hour. You have to go all the way to the airport to get your car and then get back.” That was Julie-Ann Bicoy, the Director of the Molokai Visitors Association. Mark and I met her this past spring in NYC at the NY Times Travel Show and after Mark interviewed her, I promptly recorded another interview over the top of it. So, two weeks ago I found myself out in the Pacific Ocean on the small island of Molokai, The Friendly Isle, to meet with Julie again.

We were greeted with kukui nut leis, a warm smile, and jeers about our navigational skills. As for the hour we lost finding the place, who cares? We were on island time!

And what an island! The place just oozes charm and REAL Hawaii. There are no flagship designer stores such as Prada, Gucci, or Luis Vuitton as in Waikiki. There are no sprawling mega resorts that you’d expect to find on Maui. There are real people, real life, and a real down home “hang loose” kind of feeling. The “downtown” has a real working man’s feel to it. It is only about three or four blocks long with a post office, a few local eateries (fried rice with bacon and Portugese Sausage anyone?), and a general store or two. Nothing fancy….but that is what makes this place so special.

So, you may ask, what is there to do? Answer? About anything you wish if you are creative. Molokai has an entirely different approach to tourism. Where on the other islands you are barraged with hawkers trying to sell you a luau with a discounted snorkeling package, here they simply ask…what do you WANT to do? When we were asked, we really had no answer.

Looking around Julie’s office I spied a sign about a lady that makes culinary sea salt. Julie just nodded and said that she would call Nancy and let her know we were coming. That’s it…that simple. So, off we went to see Nancy and visit her salt farm. She personally took us around and explained the process by which sea salt is harvested and allowed us to taste salt that “rolls the tongue”. It was just Mark and I, no set itinerary, no charge, just Nancy sharing with us her passion. Perfect.

Molokai is probably best known for Father Damien and the leper colony, Kaulapapa. This town still exists but to respect the privacy of those still living there, tourists are not permitted in without special invitation. However, a short drive takes you to a paved walking path where you can look out over the small settlement. Interpretative signs explain the history and story of Father Damien and his incredible work with a group of people that had simply been cast away by society because of their unfortunate illness. The place has a definite feeling; the sadness of the history, yet optimism. Today, the disease is now treatable and no longer requires patients to be quarantined. I don’t know if it is the sheer natural beauty seen from this vantage point, but all seemed right with the world as I stood there looking out over the town and over the ocean.

Our last mission was to find a place to stay on Molokai. It was easy enough to narrow down the hotel. There’s one. Yep, one. It’s called the Hotel Molokai, and a gentleman named Michael Drew runs the place. Michael’s story is very fitting of the vibe of Molokai. He worked for years in Southern California in the hotel industry. He got the opportunity to come and run this hotel in Molokai with the understanding it would only be for one year. One year has turned into five and he shows no signs of leaving. It’s obvious he loves the place and takes great pride in his hotel.

He has begun, individually and personally, to remodel each of the A-framed buildings that make up the hotel compound. Let me tell you a little more about the hotel. It has a rustic charm that is befitting of the island. The rooms are open air (no A/C). Who needs it when there is constant tradewind? Though on the small side, rooms are nicely appointed with new flat screen TVs. Again, who needs a TV when you can hang out at the seaside restaurant that is only steps away from your room while you take in the sunset over a mai tai? It would make for a memorable ending to any trip.

As I sit here under the fluorescent lights of the office I am looking at my new tan and missing the islands. Sports Leisure has been going to Hawaii for years and we pride ourselves on being able to offer new, different experiences that would interest those that have visited the islands before. Well, this trip will be unlike anything we have offered for quite a while. We will give you the option to add two days to visit Oahu and take in Doris Duke’s home, Shangri-La, plus visit the newly revamped Valor in the Pacific Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Then it’s off to luxurious Maui and trust me, there is a lot more to Maui than golf courses and day spas…but there will be time for that too if you should desire. We will explore the interior of the island and learn about the burgeoning agricultural business (How about a stop at a lily pad farm?), see a homegrown performance called U’lalena, depicting the history of the island through music and dance; and there has to be a stop for Ululani’s Hawaiian shave ice! Lastly, “camping” at the Hotel Molokai for one night rounds out the perfect Hawaiian vacation. Leave the tent at home and come along with us as we “rough it” in paradise! It’s Hawaii the way it used to be, and you can’t find it with any other tour company.

Watch for details in our catalog in August. The trip will take place next spring. Maui and Molokai. Who knew there was so much to discover?

You can checkout an episode of The Travel Guys which featured Moloka’i by clicking here!

Ernie Edwards was a Friend of Mine

“Hey Ernie, tell the folks about the time Colonel Sanders stopped by the Pig Hip.”

“Ah shucks Mark,” Ernie would drawl, “I’ve told that story so many times.”

“Come on, once more,” would be my reply (I’d played this game with Ernie a few times over 15 years).

“Well, OK. You see, one night back about 1960, as I was getting ready to close, a gentleman came through the door. He told me he could show me how to make the world’s finest fried chicken. I told him in return I’d offer him the finest barbecued pork sandwich he’d ever tasted,” Ernie would begin.

“He cooked the chicken, in some kind of special pot (which turned out to be a pressure cooker), I fixed him a sandwich and we ate. Mr. Sanders told me I could make a lot of money selling his chicken. Even offered to sell me a franchise. I told him I’d sell him a Pig Hip franchise and he could quit the chicken business. We laughed. After dinner, he moved on. Guess he became sorta famous. Maybe I should have considered one of those chicken franchises of his.”

It was one of Ernie’s best stories. For many, many years, Ernie Edwards ran a restaurant in a small town along the side of Route 66 in Broadwell, Illinois. Broadwell is just a few miles from Lincoln and Springfield (where an aspiring young lawyer would begin a path that would lead him to the White House).

Broadwell isn’t a town as much as it is a wide spot in the road. Because of the interstate wiping out part of old 66, you really have to make an effort to stop there. There isn’t much to see anymore.

The old Pig Hip burned down a few years back. An electrical fire in the restaurant Ernie had made into a museum turned the old, mostly wooden building into a tinderbox torch that was completely ablaze by the time the fire department could be summoned.

But here’s the interesting part. People kept coming. When the restaurant was open, Ernie served up barbecued pork sandwiches and other short order delights. But as the years piled up, the interstate diverted a lot of the traffic from the old road. Ernie retired and figured his career was over. His second career, as a storyteller of and on The Mother Road had just begun.

Then the guidebooks on the old road started getting written. The restaurant had closed and now it was not even there, and people kept stopping to see the now closed highway icon.

I met Ernie in 1995, when took my first trip on Route 66. I knew the first time I met him he would be a “staple” on tours of the old road. We’d stop, and Ernie would hold court in the back of his house. The people would gather around, listen to his stories and get a autographed Pig Hip placemat, buy a few of the souvenirs Ernie sold, and head down the road, having met a true piece of Americana.

Last year, a friend of Ernie’s called me. Seems Ernie was having a harder time getting around and it was time for him and his wife to consider relocating to an assisted care facility in Lincoln. He didn’t want to go. His friend Bobby said, “I’m just calling a few of Ernie’s friends to see if there’s anything we can do to cheer him up. He’s pretty down about having to go to the nursing home.”

I had an idea. Two days later, at our Spring Open House at the KVIE Studios, we invited people who knew Ernie and people who didn’t, to sign one of two giant 30×48” poster boards, one with the “Pig Hip” logo on it. Then, with an assist from FedEx, we delivered the cards to Ernie in Lincoln. That was last April.

Last week, my intercom beeped. “A guy named Bobby is on the phone. Says he’s a friend of Ernie’s, and you would know him.”

Took just a second for my brain to make the connection and I picked up the phone.

“Mark, this is Bobby from Illinois. I just wanted to call you to tell you Ernie Edwards passed away last night. He was 94 years old.”

Then Bobby continued, “I wanted you to know because of the cards. When Ernie got those cards last year, it really turned things around for him. He moved to the senior home, and he and his wife didn’t take a lot with them, because the house was only a few miles away. But he took those cards. They were part of a display in the town museum last fall about The Pig Hip and then they we returned to Ernie’s room at the home where he was staying.”

“Whenever anyone came to visit him over the past year, they would hear the story of your cards. Ernie would tell anyone who would listen that those cards were from his California friends who visited him on Route 66 at the Pig Hip. A big smile would come over his face. It really made a difference. I guess maybe he thought people didn’t really care much about an old restaurant man who told stories.”

I was speechless. A tear or two rolled down my cheek. I thanked Bobby profusely for his call and his comments. I asked him to send my best to Mrs. Edwards.

I’ve met a lot of people like Ernie along America’s old highways. Like Dawn at the Rock Café in Stroud, Oklahoma; or the folks hoping to restore the Wheat Growers Hotel in Kimball, Nebraska; or Angel the barber in Seligman, Arizona, a man who perhaps singlehandedly helped start the movement to preserve and restore Route 66, because he wouldn’t let his town die.

But there aren’t too many quite like Ernie. They broke the mold when they made him. We have lost a friend, those of us who travel Route 66. And next year, when the bus rolls into Broadwell, we’ll stop and I’ll tell the story of the man who sold the “Pig Hip” sandwiches (you only use the LEFT hip of the pig for sandwiches, because the pig scratches himself with the right one, and the meat on that side is tougher – or so Ernie said, with a straight face and then a laugh.)

God, I love to travel. Mostly I love getting off the interstate and taking the old roads, meeting people like Ernie, and hearing the stories, because it’s the stories that make people like Ernie live on within us.

Did I tell you the one about the fried chicken salesman who stopped one night at this little restaurant in Broadwell, Illinois…

So long Ernie. Your friends on “The Mother Road” will miss you.

We found this video, courtesy of Central Illinois Tourism. Enjoy!

The First Saturday of May – A Long, but Great Day!

Show me ten people with a “bucket list,” and I’ll bet you two-to-one that seeing “the two most exciting minutes in sports” is high on the list for at least eight of them. Even for those who don’t consider themselves sports fans, this writer among them, there’s just something about the Kentucky Derby that makes people want to see and experience it first hand. What is it? The hats? The mint juleps? The thoroughbreds who run like the wind? The wagering? The chance to feel like a king (or queen) for a day at an event frequented by actual royalty, movie stars, professional athletes and other society elites? I suppose it’s all these things and more. Who knows . . . maybe it’s that some really like horse racing!

I’ve just returned from my 7th Derby, and my 6th with a group. It was as always a wonderful day, one filled with memories of wins and almost-wins. In the end, I finished $50 up, the best I’ve ever done! I had won three and lost three in the six races prior to the Derby, and was $177 down. In the Derby (the 11th of 13 races on the first Saturday in May,) I bet on Bodemeister to Show. In horse racing, horses don’t come in first, second and third. Rather, they Win, Place and Show. By betting on a horse to Show, I get a payout if he’s one of the first three horses to cross the finish line. It’s a conservative way to play, but it works for me. My horse came in second, and I came home with $50 of Churchill Downs’ money. They say over $100 million was bet that day, all in cash. And ours is a country supposedly in financial crisis. Amazing.

I’ll assume everyone has seen this race on television. Truthfully, for most, this is the best way to enjoy it, right there in the comfort of your home. It’s a long, potentially hot day. The actual temperature this year was in the mid-80s, but in the South they factor in the humidity to get the Heat Index which topped out at 104. Our seats were hard bleachers without backs in the direct sun (or pouring rain or sleet as has been the case in past years). Drinks were overpriced and watered-down. Food was expensive and mediocre. The crowd was overwhelming—this year a record 165,000, all of whom tried to leave at precisely the same moment.

But . . .

It’s also the greatest race in the world. It is where Triple Crown winners are born. It’s where you sing “My Old Kentucky Home” and cry . . . the words just do that to you. It’s where you wear a hat that cost you more than your first car and don’t care. It’s where you drink mint juleps and love them, even through you don’t particularly like bourbon. It’s where you bet and cheer and loose, then bet, cheer and win, loving the one as much as the other, and not remembering or caring which was which at the end of the day.

The Kentucky Derby is not for the faint of heart, but it’s the experience of a lifetime. Is it on your “bucket list”? Our 2013 dates are May 2-8. Call or write me with any questions, or to place your name on the Priority Notification List! We will begin to take reservations late this summer.

Charity Begins at Home

A few months back, a Travel Club member got in touch and suggested a daytrip that would tour Sacramento’s Shriners Hospital for Children. Normally our staff spends its time trying to find places outside of Sacramento in which to travel. But Joe Hassna, the Travel Club member who contacted me, painted a wonderful picture of the important work the hospital and its staff performs on behalf of children who need the unique healthcare they provide. The hospital volunteers also provide private tours for groups on demand.

I contacted the hospital and made arrangements. Lunch would be important too so it made perfect sense to visit the Casa Garden Restaurant, owned and operated by the Sacramento Children’s Home. It was a perfect compliment to our daytrip. Soon we had a name for the tour: You Have a Date for Lunch for the Children. The tour quickly sold out and I volunteered to serve as Tour Director.

We were greeted with open arms by the staff at the hospital which gathered us into a small auditorium off the main lobby to show us a brief five minute film about the mission of Shriners Hospitals and specifically the hospital in Sacramento. Officially known as Shriners Hospital for Children of Northern California, the facility moved across the street from the UC Davis Medical Center about 15 years ago from San Francisco. Our Shriners Hospital is the only one in the system of twenty-two hospitals that serves all four medical missions of Shriners: burns, orthopedics, cleft lip & palates, and spinal cord injuries. Additionally, it serves as a research hospital and manufactures its own prosthetics on site, saving both time and money. Rooms for families of children staying at the hospital are also provided free of charge on site.

What’s amazing about the hospital is that it serves children of all needs, regardless of income or insurance. In other words, a middle-class family with health insurance would still get care free of charge at Shriners. What’s even more amazing is the fact that the hospital is never full; Mostly because people are simply “wired” to bring their children to regular hospitals to have their families taken care of in those facilities. As a result, the 80 beds at Shriners Hospital Northern California are typically only half full at any time. That said, the hospital does serve around 75 to 100 children on an outpatient basis every day, mostly providing follow-up care to children who have experienced multiple day stays in the hospital.

Started in 1867 as a home for orphans, The Sacramento Childrens Home has greatly expanded its mission to include crisis nurseries, a counseling center, residential and age-transitioning programs, and educational programs concentrating in after-school and youth literacy. One of the fundraising activities that supports the organization is its own on-site restaurant, The Casa Garden Restaurant. Open since 1973 as a restaurant and meeting center, it is staffed mostly by volunteers who don’t accept wages and donate their tips back to the organization. In fact, the volunteer servers at the restaurant have donated over $3 million in tips since the facility opened its doors.

Sports Leisure will be donating all the proceeds of our daytrip to both Shriners Northern California and Sacramento Chidlrens Home. As April 15 approaches, I hope you will take time to consider making tax-deductible donations to both these worthy charities. The websites are and And even more importantly, please help to spread the word about their important missions.

Forever Gentle on my Mind…


My occupation sometimes gives me opportunities I’m grateful for. Not all of us are bright enough to see (or hear) opportunity knocking. I had to learn that lesson the hard way. For years, you see, I’d wanted to see the late John Denver in person. Twice Sports Leisure Vacations took groups to see him in northern California. I didn’t go, thinking there would always be next time.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved the music of Peter, Paul and Mary. We took groups to see them numerous times over the years. I always had an excuse of why I couldn’t make it. Next time, I said.
Of course, the next times ran out for both John Denver and Mary Travers. I will never see them perform live in person. I told myself that would never happen again. So when I heard that Glen Campbell was making a farewell tour after announcing he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, it was quite obvious there would be no second chance to see him. In checking his concert schedule, I discovered he had already completed most of his west coast stops. Only one concert date remained, in Phoenix, a city I needed to visit to inspect the hotel for our upcoming Spring Training trip. So I rescheduled my trip, paid an extra $150 bucks for a last minute ticket, plus $65 for the ticket to the show, and off I went to Phoenix.
It was worth every penny. How was the concert? I knew you would ask that. I waited a few days to write you, because I wanted to think about how to describe my feelings last Friday in Phoenix at Comerica Theater.
The concert wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t perfect. There weren’t mushy family videos and flashy lights. There was one simple costume change. It was a wonderful night that I will always remember. Glen was on stage for an hour and fifteen minutes. He sang all his favorite tunes the people came to hear, along with a couple from his new and final album. A short, two-song encore concluded the evening.
What made the evening so perfect was the fact that no one expected it to be perfect. We all paid to see and hear an entertainer who wasn’t 100% and we knew it. Could this be the first time a person with Alzheimer’s has been so public while suffering from the disease?
I’m reminded of a book I read recently called, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” by Malcolm Gladwell. As I sat in the theater, I thought to myself, “This is the tipping point.” Glen Campbell, by being an incredible public figure while sick, is putting a name and a face on Alzheimer’s like no one has done before. Indeed, I believe he is “the tipping point.” This is the time when all of us who don’t know how to act or react when around those who have the illness, who don’t know what to say to the caregivers, this is when we get more comfortable with all that jazz. It’s a time when the actions of one person can make all the difference.
This has happened before. I remember back in the early 90’s, when AIDS had first been discovered and people were scared to death of the disease. Then, the circumstances surrounding a 12-year old boy named Ryan White became public. Ryan wasn’t gay like many of the others diagnosed with the disease at the time. He was just a little boy who has the misfortune of getting a tainted blood transfusion. But from that day forward, the face of the disease changed. Public acceptance and understanding increased ten-fold.
We may be seeing that same thing happen again. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Wouldn’t it be amazing if a man with such incredible musical and guitar-playing abilities was able to use those talents to create such a “tipping point?”
The irony is that Glen Campbell often doesn’t remember, even just after the show’s conclusion, what has taken place on the stage. The nature of the disease is that it impacts short term memory the hardest. He sings his songs and thanks the audience. He has three of his adult children in the band on stage with him, watching dad’s every move on stage, in the event he loses his place and can’t quickly recover. There are large monitors with the words and directions on them. Despite the monitors, from my seat in the 8th row, at times you could see the confusion on his face.
He lost his place within the lyrics a few times, ever so briefly. He even joked about it once. The one thing he didn’t miss were the guitar licks. The man can play. They say muscle memory is very powerful. I certainly saw a sample of that.
The Rhinestone Cowboy was in all his glory. The tears flowed often in that brief 75 minutes he was on stage. Not his, the audiences’. I was celebrating a piece of my childhood, back to the days of “The Glen Campbell Good Times Hour” on CBS television in the late 60’s, closing my eyes and listening to the music. I doubt that it mattered to many in the theater that the evening wasn’t slick and perfect. In fact, I’m certain it didn’t. There was a lot of love and human understanding in that theater in Phoenix. It was a most unique evening.
It seems a bit ironic that Glen Campbell’s most memorable pop tune is “Gentle on my Mind.” It seems ironic because his mind is slowly drifting away, while he hears the cheers of the crowd, and plays the music he loves with his children beside him. Whether he knows it from moment to moment or not, it’s an incredible way to make your last lap, and the way he’s making it may be felt by many people for years to come. I think it’s called a legacy. Glen Campbell should be proud.
By the time he got to Phoenix, his fans were indeed waiting. The Wichita Lineman is still on the line. We should all be so lucky.

Reflections on Southeast Asia

Today’s post includes quite a few photos, which you can find at the bottom of the post.  Enjoy!

Today is February 9, 2012 and Sports Leisure’s 3rd Asia tour has come to an end.  As I am tackling a mountain of laundry, I have been reading over my journal from our Southeast Asia adventure and decided to write a blog so that everyone can share in our amazing experience from the comfort of your armchair.  Five different countries in 19 days, trans-Pacific flights on Singapore Airlines, and 14 days in the comfort and luxury of Holland America’s ms Zaandam…it really was the trip of a lifetime.  I’ll be heading back to Asia soon.  Perhaps after reading this you’ll consider joining our next adventure.

We began with a direct flight from SFO to Hong Kong on Singapore Airlines. These folks have their act together!  Though we flew coach, I was treated better than any first class domestic flight with other airlines.  Instead of two choices for entrées (the obligatory beef or chicken) we had menus that included a European/ Continental style offering along with an Asian and Indian selection.  Before we touched down in Hong Kong I had the dim sum for breakfast and was thoroughly impressed.  The in-flight service was impeccable and the range of television shows and movies offered through the personal entertainment systems at each seat made the time pass much quicker.  I’ve tasted the champagne of airline service and it will be hard to go back to wine now.  

What a time to be in Hong Kong!  It happened to be the eve of Chinese New Years and this is the year of the Dragon.  The Dragon is considered to be the most powerful of all the animal signs in the in Eastern zodiac so this year was a special celebration.  There was electricity in the air.

As a tour director, one of the best parts of the job is being able to share in a traveler’s excitement.  Mary Vrablick turned to me as we were walking around Victoria’s Peak and exclaimed with her eyes sparkling,”I can’t believe I am actually in China!”.  I remember that same feeling the first time I stepped off the plane in Beijing during my year of study abroad.  It’s one thing to see images on TV, but to be physically standing there is exhilarating.

After a tour of the city and boarding the ship I decided to take a walk along the Kowloon waterfront which is situated directly across the water from Hong Kong (it is all the HK metro area…much the way the East River separates Brooklyn from Manhattan).   The buildings were all decked out in flashing neon lights.  Have you ever seen a lighted dragon slink down a skyscraper?  I have and it is a pretty awesome sight as you can see by the picture.

After a relaxing day at sea, our first port-of-call was Halong Bay (the Bay of the Descended Dragon).  This place is pure magic.  If you’ve ever seen postcards of those magnificent, sheer limestone rock formations jutting straight up from the sea…that’s where we were.   Some of us even walked through the Thien Cung Caves which runs through the center of one of these mountains.  Loraine Messecar who is 86 years old took my arm and step-by-step (all 300+ of them) made it through…and now I must brag…we weren’t even the last ones to the boat!  Go Loraine!

 Next stop, Sanya, Hainan Island in China.  This is China’s Hawaii.   I spent a good bit of time here while I lived in Beijing from 2007-2008.  I didn’t even recognize the place.  We docked on a brand new man-made island that had a series of new condo towers still under construction.  In true Chinese fashion, the towers were not complete or ready for occupation but the lights displays had been installed and were fantastic.  Neons shimmered up the sides and gave us quite a show directly next to our ship.   Several of our folks checked out a Chinese minority village on their shore excursions while others went to Macau known as China’s version of Las Vegas.  It’s really more like Vegas on steroids as Steve Wynn and other Western big time gaming enterprises have built properties there that dwarf those in Las Vegas.

Central and Southern Vietnam were our next two stops.  First we visited Nha Trang a small coastal resort town.  The weather was still cool enough to need long-sleeved shirts and the town hadn’t really opened for the tourist season yet which was fine by me.   I was able to walk through the center of the small town and really get a sense for how these folks lived.  While still rustic, it was obvious that there had been an influx of money there as new ocean front homes were being built or were recently completed.  Vietnam is experiencing quite an economic boon and along with China is one of the major Asian economic dragons driving the region’s growth.

As we entered into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon as it is known to us) our guide explained that in ten years the skyline would resemble Singapore’s because of the many construction projects already on the docket.  Elizabeth Fleming and I went on a culinary themed excursion and visited markets where chefs answered questions about the different ingredients and collected everything we needed for the meal we would make. Yes, we cooked our own meal. It was so much fun.  We had freshly made shrimp and crab spring rolls, tomato and egg soup, and a white fish with a caramel sauce cooked in traditional clay pots.   I ate every bite….and helped with Elizabeth’s too.  Thank goodness there is a very nice, well-equipped fitness center on the ship.   With all the good food in the dining room and the buffet I can only hope that I didn’t do too much damage to the waistline…wishful thinking at its best!

Cambodia offered a real eye-opening experience.  Many of our folks went on a shore excursion that took them to a pagoda, a small fishing village, and to the town market. Though Cambodia is still among the poorest countries in Southeast Asia several of the folks reported that this was their favorite stop.  There was a genuine quality to the way things were presented to us.  They knew their lot in life yet were happy, proud, and optimistic.  China has begun to invest in the creation of roads and America has begun to invest in schools.  They know they have a long road ahead of them, but generation by generation their situation will improve.  It was nice to see….nice to be reminded of our good fortune in America.  Regardless of our current economic situation, trust me; it could be a lot worse.   I look forward to visiting the country again to see its continued progress.  

Our next stop, Thailand, is a country that I know well having spent six weeks backpacking the entire country in 2004.   Thailand is an anomaly in this region.  It is the only country that was never invaded and colonized by European colonial powers.   The royal family is very much revered by the people and enjoys a 1,400 year history.

The story goes that when the French approached from the East and the British approached from the west the king told them that he could live without both his left and right arms and legs.   The colonial powers divided up the lands to the east and west yet left what is now known as Thailand, originally known as Siam, untouched.  This is the reason they avoided colonization and why there is such a vibrant culture here.  Because there was never a religion imposed upon the people the practice of Buddhism is very strong here.

Outside most businesses and at the corners of most city blocks there are spirit houses that look like doll houses on a pedestal.  Inside there are small figurines in them that embody different Gods which provide health, happiness, wealth, and protection.  Offerings of incense, flowers, fruits, meats, even soda and beer are left and people can be seen stopping the pace of their hectic day to bow their heads and say a prayer.  Regardless of your religious beliefs there is a definite feeling or emotion that lingers around these places.

We stayed here for two full days of touring.  The shore excursions ranged from spending a day touring the bustling mega-city of Bangkok, to visiting the country side, to feeding tigers or riding elephants.  Yes, you read that correctly and here are the pictures to prove it!  That’s Sarah Smith on a elephant. Hey Judi, watch those fingers!  That tiger cub is cute but looks hungry!

One last stop in Thailand at the island of Koh Samui slowed the pace down a bit.  This town is a very popular tourist spot for Europeans and Russians escaping the cold winters. I did not join an organized excursion but took a tender to shore and walked all over the little town.  It’s very accessible and there are many nice restaurants and shops.

I love Thai food and had fresh squeezed mandarin orange juice and pad thai (a very popular fried rice noodle dish with fresh seafood).  I took it to-go and enjoyed it by the water as I watched the fisherman coming back with their catch.  If ever there was a place to simple escape to and forget it all, this is it!

As I woke up on the last day of the cruise and looked out my window I realized we had already docked in Singapore.  I had never visited Singapore before but just the sight of it made me impatient to get ashore.  The joke is that Singapore is a “fine” city.  This has a double meaning.  It is a fine city in the sense that it is absolutely beautiful, clean, compact and easily accessible.  The other meaning is that anything you do wrong here, you will be fined for.  Singapore has very strict laws.  There is a $50 fine for chewing gum, not flushing a public toilet, or smoking in public.  This may seem severe, but it has the civilizing effect of keeping things clean and beautiful.  The citizens take a lot of pride in their city, as they should.  It is truly a world class city on par with NYC, London, or Paris.  I fell in love with the place and will definitely, without a doubt return.

After a very simple disembarkation and customs process we met our local guide, Faridah.  I had arranged for us to have a two day extension and we stayed at the beautiful Mandarin Marina Hotel.  It was located one block from the water front and connected to a shopping mall so last minute gifts or a McDonald’s hamburger was within easy reach.

The first evening I took some of our group around the block to an outdoor night food court called Glutton’s Bay…and it was gluttonous!  There were all kinds of local foods available such as fried noodles, satays (chicken, beef, or lamb grilled on skewers), and rotisserie chicken wings.  I must admit that I enjoyed two dinners that night.  I ate once when I went to scout out the place before taking the group and then ate again with the group.  After waddling back to the hotel, I fell into the most comfortable hotel bed I have ever slept in…and this time it wasn’t rocking with the rhythm of the ocean.

In two short days we saw temples (both Chinese and Hindu), the National Orchid Garden where over 60,000 plants were on display, and visited a museum that explained the history of the Singapore river.  We followed in the footsteps of Sir Stamford Raffles who claimed it for the British in 1819, and took a bumboat ride to see the amazing architecture from a different view before having a delicious pan-Asian meal featuring dishes from all the countries we had just visited.

That brings us the end of our trip which coincidentally was the final day of the Chinese New Year.  As I sit here now, I can’t believe that less than 48 hours ago I was halfway around the world…immersed in a completely different culture.   We are very fortunate to have the ability and means to travel and learn about the world we live in.  I’d like to thank the folks that came along with me for letting me share in their adventure.  I will begin planning Sports Leisure’s next Asian vacation.  Any ideas?  Feel free to send them to me at, give me a call at the office or chat with me in person when I see you on a day trip or extended tour.  So until then, safe travels!