Veggie Fest: Good Food, Healthy Living

Naperville, Illinois

August 9-10, 2014

Banana and Giraffe at Veggie Fest

Banana and Giraffe at Veggie Fest


The real reason we spent an afternoon at Veggie Fest was to be outdoors. Summer was nearly over. I imagined we were going to some kind of glorified farmer’s market, and that was fine. Maybe I could pick up some peaches and tomatoes. Pretty lame, but that’s how it was.

The first inkling that this was different was the complimentary shuttle van between the fest and the parking lot. How much space did a few produce stalls take up if you couldn’t walk there? As we approached the entrance (free admission), we spotted acres and acres of white-canopied tents along with a dozen or so costumed characters: clowns, a stalk of celery, a banana, a cluster of grapes, a giraffe. Reggae music played in the background.

Turns out, Veggie Fest is a two-day celebration of the vegetarian lifestyle. There are other such festivals around the country, but this one is among the largest and oldest. The host sponsor since 2005 has been the Science of Spirituality, a multi-faith, global organization dedicated to personal transformation through meditation.

I’m not a vegetarian, much less a vegan, but I do feel a tad guilty whenever I eat meat, chicken or fish. I was curious to learn more.

At Veggie Fest, more than 100 exhibitors and vendors generously shared their knowledge and samples. Their ranks included food companies, purveyors of beauty and skin care products, yoga instructors, holistic dentists, chiropractors, publishers, nonprofits like Mercy for Animals and the Christian Vegetarian Association–and even a vegan travel agent. Humanitarian drives collected blood and non-perishable vegetarian food items for those in need.

Freshly grilled veggie kabobs

Freshly grilled veggie kabobs

At the Nada-Chair booth, we took a seat and were bound with a harness-like contraption that looked kinky, but it wasn’t. It wraps across your lower back and around your knees in a way that supports the spine and forces proper posture. Who knew just sitting upright for ten minutes could be so therapeutic?

Lectures and cooking demonstrations were conducted all day. Some were in Spanish. The keynote speaker was meditation guru Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, who heads up the Science of Spirituality. Other sessions covered organic veggie gardening and helping children become healthy eaters. A chef from Whole Foods Market showed how to make vegan chocolate pudding. The recipe uses mashed avocado for a creamy consistency and dates for sweetness. The result was yummy and plenty chocolate-y.

On the menus in the for-purchase food court were kabobs, salads, sushi, falafel, samosas, pizza, hot dogs and smoothies–all veggie style, of course.

While all this eating was going on, we were entertained by a carnival of musicians, jugglers, face-painters, a magician and a costume parade.

The costume parade lends a carnival flavor at Veggie Fest

The costume parade lends a carnival flavor at Veggie Fest

All too soon, the day came to a close. We’ll definitely be back next year. On our way home, we stopped at the grocery store for peaches and tomatoes.


Charleston Tea Plantation

August 13, 2013

Fields of green at the Charleston Tea Plantation

Fields of green at the Charleston Tea Plantation


The Southern states are dotted with plantations open for touring, but only one is a working tea plantation: the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island in the heart of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

The 127-acre spread is home to the American Classic Tea brand. The plantation produces all-natural black and green teas from the Camellia sinensis plant, a relative of the raisin family. William Barclay Hall, a third-generation professional tea taster, bought the plantation in 1987 and developed the brand’s characteristic taste. He sold it in 2003 to the Bigelow Tea Company but continues to oversee its operation and product development.

The plantation hosts educational farm and factory tours every day it is open and special events throughout the year. Hop aboard a trolley for a narrated excursion through the meticulously manicured tea fields and to the greenhouse, where propagation takes place under a precisely controlled climate. Perhaps the “Green Giant” harvesting machine will be at work–it’s a one-of-a-kind contraption fashioned from the parts of used cotton and tobacco harvesters. Tea that is made from the first new leaves after the plants awaken from winter dormancy is called “First Flush.” Many fans of the early harvest claim the resultant tea is the ultimate in freshness. Once reserved for Royalty, the tea is now honored at the annual island-wide First Flush FesTEAval event that celebrates local culture, cuisine and hospitality.

Visit the factory to learn about the history of tea and watch it being processed. You’ll end up at the Plantation Gift Shoppe. While sipping the free samples, you can browse the shelves for loose and pyramid teas in such flavors as Plantation Peach, Governor Gray and Rockville Raspberry as well as souvenirs and tea-preparation accessories. American Classic Tea also is sold in tea rooms, golf shops, gourmet food stores and online at

Taster’s Tip: If only genuine “sweet tea” satisfies your cravings, try the American Classic Tea recipe under the FAQs on the company website.

Tickets for trolley tours are $10 for ages 12 and up, and $5 for children under 12. Factory tours and tastings are complimentary.

The one-of-a-kind "Green Giant" tea harvesting machine.

The one-of-a-kind “Green Giant” tea harvesting machine.










Charleston Tea Plantation

6617 Maybank Highway

Wadmalaw Island, SC 29487



Clauss Bakery and Cafe

December 31, 2012

Clauss Bakery and Cafe in Rensselaer, Indiana

Clauss Bakery and Cafe in Rensselaer, Indiana

When traveling the interstate highways, dining choices are pretty much limited to fast-food franchises and truck stops. We prefer to off-ramp toward small towns in search of eateries that cater to local folk. That’s how we found Clauss Bakery & Cafe in Rensselaer, Indiana, about mid-way between Chicago and Indianapolis. It’s a route we drive a few times a year.

As you head into town on Washington Street, Clauss’ storefront is on the main square across from the courthouse. The interior is reminiscent of a farmhouse kitchen, with linoleum floors, laminated tabletops and the comforting aroma of fresh bread. The bakery cases near the front door are filled with sweet temptations, practically insuring you won’t resist taking home a treat or two.

The menu is comprised of light fare, mostly sandwiches, soups and pastries. Daily specials are handwritten on a whiteboard. At noon, there’s a salad bar, and on Thursdays, a baked potato bar. Bakery selections include bread, dinner rolls, cookies, cakes and pie. Soup and pulled pork are available in bulk. Everything is made daily for eating in or for carrying out. Prices are very reasonable–sandwiches are in the $5 range.

The bakery, a town mainstay for decades, was struggling back in December 2004 when Rex and Tammy Clauss decided to buy it. Rex had been working in the insurance industry and was burned out. They didn’t have any experience running a bakery, but no matter. They hired a former employee to teach them.

These days Rex does all the baking. He also makes a tangy vegetable beef soup on Fridays. He starts at midnight and works until dawn, when he goes home to get a little sleep. Then he returns to greet the day’s customers. Tammy keeps the books, and she also decorates wedding and graduation cakes.

The hours are hard, but the customers are wonderful, Tammy told us during a recent visit. Some even keep Rex company during his overnight shifts. Insomniacs are always welcomed with coffee and a chat.

My favorites: Egg salad on white bread followed by coconut cream pie. And another pie to go.

Hours: Weekdays 5 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday 5 a.m.-11 a.m.

Clauss Bakery and Cafe

110 W. Washington Street

Rensselaer, Indiana 47978


The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade

Back in the days of yore, a military tattoo was the drumbeat that signaled “lights out” to British soldiers reveling in local taverns. The nightly ritual has evolved into a modern-day spectacle of music and majesty, none more renowned than the Royal Military Tattoo. The invitational event since 1950 has unfolded for three summer weeks against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle in  Scotland’s Capital City. This year’s Tattoo runs from August 3-25.

The two-hour program showcases the talents of bands, drill teams, cyclists, equestrians, gunners, flag-twirlers and others from the British Commonwealth of Nations and worldwide. Bagpipers and percussionists are the mainstays, although in any given year they could be joined by the likes of Caribbean steel bands or Cossack dancers. The United States has been represented about 20 times. The collective cast of about 1,000 comes to entertain, but nearly all the performers are soldiers first–and combat-ready.

A ticket to the Tattoo was part of our 10-day package tour of Great Britain by Globus and the sole reason we chose that particular itinerary. On the night of our scheduled performance, we trudged up the narrow, cobbled incline of the Royal Mile en route to the Castle. The Esplanade, which is a stretch of asphalt leading to the drawbridge and the thousand-year history behind it, was flanked by spectator stands along three sides to create an outdoor stage roughly the size of a football field. Despite the slight drizzle, regiments of fiery torches wrapped the ancient fortress in a golden glow. No Tattoo performance has ever been cancelled, and this one wasn’t, either. We took our seats, our very tiny seats, and waited for darkness.

The first full act assembles the massed bagpipes (“pipes” for short) and drums from each participating country. After all, these are the players who started  the tattoo tradition, back in the 17th and 18th centuries when British soldiers were fighting in the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. “Doe den tap toe,” in the vernacular of the time, meant “turn off the taps.” Early drummers were joined by pipers, and then flautists, and things just took off from there. To date, more than 45 countries have taken part in the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Next up are the headliners, who give new meaning to the concept of “military theater.” They mix up pomp and circumstance with pop and circus acts, and with a playlist that includes anthems, marches, jazz, lullabies and Broadway hits. We saw the Representative Band of the Border Guard of the Republic of Poland play trombity beskidzkie, instruments that are similar to alpine horns. The Imps Motorcycle Display Team, a children’s daredevil exhibition group from London, zig-zagged up and down the arena at thrilling speeds, individually and in pyramids. There were bagpipers from South Africa, Jordan and Switzerland. Highland dancers kicked and twirled to folk songs while British Army gymnasts flipped and somersaulted to can-can music. The New Zealand Army played Swan Lake, the “Get Smart” theme song and the Haka war chant. The Citadel Regimental Band and Pipes blasted When the Saints Go Marching In. Of course, they did.

After the individual countries take their turns, the massed performers return to the Esplanade. They parade and counter-parade in unison, filling every inch and corner of pavement. Only the multi-hued fantasia of uniforms, tartans, headgear and regalia revealed the diversity behind their alignment.

“This is a class act,” said Noel Fields, a former career Air Force officer from Sierra Vista, Ariz. “I thoroughly enjoyed this, especially the Poles with their monster trumpets.”

The Tattoo is the most popular event on the Scottish cultural calendar, drawing more than 200,000 spectators annually from Great Britain and beyond. Tour guide Paul Barton, who works for Globus, has escorted many of them over the past 20 years.

“The reaction from people on seeing the Tattoo is always one of how moving and spectacular it is, not least the setting,” he said. “Many people book their tours with the performance in mind, but for those who are traveling unaware, it is a huge surprise. The massed pipes and drums make one’s spine tingle!”

Regardless of who the performers are or from where they hail, each night ends the same–with a somber, emotional tribute to active and fallen soldiers everywhere. The musicians play “Auld Lang Syne,” and the audience sings along, hand in hand, swaying in time. Fireworks explode above the Castle. The sky grows dark once more, and a lone piper, high up on the battery wall, plays the haunting lament, “Sleep Dearie Sleep.”

It’s time to turn out the lights. It’s time for peace.

Massed Pipes and Drums at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tatttoo

My St. Thomas, USVI

January 26, 2011

The Dive Shop at Secret Harbour, St. Thomas

The Dive Shop at Secret Harbour

Perhaps you know St. Thomas, USVI, for cruise ship layovers or for duty-free emporia, but this Eastern Caribbean island is my favorite vacation destination. St. Thomas is a tropical world of contrasts: Beach bars and refined dining. Dinghies and yachts. Tchotchkes and precious gems. Lurid history (slave traders and pirates) and luxury timeshares. One day is not enough to linger. Nor is a month. I must return. Soon.

Let me show you my St. Thomas:

* Gallery St. Thomas. Fine art is one way that Arnie and I bring home our shared experiences. Not only have we bought several pieces from Gallery St. Thomas, but we’ve planned our itineraries around the monthly artist receptions. The gallery recently moved to Palm Passage, one of the downtown covered alleyways.

* Vendor’s Plaza. You won’t miss the mass of blue tented souvenir stalls on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront. I’ve bought beach cover-ups, t-shirts and shell jewelry. “These are knockoffs,” admitted a vendor when I asked about his handbags. “But they are very good knockoffs.”

* St. Thomas Synagogue. Built in 1833, the synagogue has Baccarat chandeliers and a white sand floor.

* Old Stone Farmhouse. A former stable for a sugar plantation, Old Stone Farmhouse today is a rustic but elegant AAA Four Diamond restaurant. On our most recent visit, we were presented with personalized menus with our names in calligraphy and a wax seal. Then we were led to the immaculate kitchen to choose our entree and meet the new Executive Chef Greg Engelhardt. The offerings that night included rack of lamb, duck breast, branzino and wahoo–or any combo we could dream of.

* Duffy’s Love Shack. Here’s the party bar, an open-air shed in the middle of a parking lot. Fruity libations are accessorized with toys and trinkets–and sometimes applause, depending on how dangerous the concoction. Arnie likes the Berry Berry, preferably in a parrot glass. We have a collection. (No applause for Berry Berrys.) Pub grub is tasty fare, and includes lobster and ribs, the Caribbean way. There are always specials and wacky promos going on. As the hour gets later, the music gets louder.

* Beaches. All St. Thomas beaches beckon with powdery sand and crystal blue water, but their personalities are distinct. Magens Bay is a mile-long, postcard-perfect horseshoe. Alas, few fish for snorkelers. At the smaller Coki Beach, fish are so plentiful you don’t need a mask. Hold out a dog biscuit and the sergeant majors swarm you for nibbles.

* Night Snorkeling. If you really want to see what’s happening in the water, do it in the dark. Homer’s Night Snorkel provides both guidance and gear. We’ve seen squirrel fish, crabs, lobsters, turtles, a big ugly puffer fish and lots more.

Lots of sunshine and plenty to eat for this rescued tiger

The narrow two-lane road turned from asphalt to gravel, miles off the freeway, and we wondered if we were in the right place. There were no streetlights or billboards, only thick forest, sweeping grasses and delicate wildflowers. Then, a tiny sign: EFRC Parking. On the shoulder, please.

We had arrived at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana, about an hour west of Indianapolis. It’s a sanctuary for more than 200 big cats, representing 9 species, and most had been horribly abused or abandoned. They come from all over the country, from bad circuses, bad zoos, tattoo parlors, meth labs and overwhelmed owners. Here they get a second chance to live out their days in peace.

Each cat has a story, and we hear many of them on the hour-long tour. Sinbad is an awkward-gaited black leopard whose earlier bone fractures healed improperly. Achia is a sleek, taupe-colored puma who purrs like a contented housecat. The Munchkins are a pride of 7 lions and tigers who were rescued from a dark basement where they were locked in small cages without food or water, apparently left to die. They weighed between 50 and 80 pounds, less than half of what they should have. They are thriving now, but remain small in stature.

We sped quietly past the tiger Montana. It was dinnertime, and he gets loud and aggressive when interrupted.

Upon their arrival, the felines are given medical care and placed in appropriately sized, natural enclosures. Some enjoy the company of others and some prefer to be alone. A few are too frail or traumatized to be displayed. They also are spayed or neutered, although male lions get vasectomies so they don’t lose their manes. Accidents, however, do happen. One majestic lion, King, was only 14 months old when he was taken from an owner who could no longer afford to feed him. He was also fully declawed. Believed to be too young to father, King was placed with Jasmine, a female lion. The result was a daughter, Lauren, and all three live together.

The center was founded in 1991 with 3 cats and 15 acres. It has since expanded to more than 100 acres and is one of the largest such sanctuaries in the country.

A few travel tips: The center has been created for the comfort of the cats, not necessarily for people. Visitors are warmly welcomed, but amenities are few. The paths are unpaved, and the single restroom is portable. Bring your own water bottle. Also, in the spring and fall you’ll see more because the animals are less hidden by heavy foliage. The cost of admission is $10.

Next time we’ll stay longer. The center has one guest cottage that sleeps two adults (but no children) for $150 a night. We’ll be able to see cats from the front yard, and in the morning the keepers will take us on a private tour to some of the restricted areas. Let’s get going, pussycats!

Exotic Feline Rescue Center:

Eagle Watch at Starved Rock

January 24, 2010

A bald eagle winters at Starved Rock

Once again the bald eagles are wintering at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois. They perch high on the treetops of Plum Island, next to the dam that keeps the river from freezing and where the fish are easy pickings. This year the eagle numbers are low. That’s because the gizzard chad crashed. Supposedly, it’s a natural and cyclical occurrence, but one that sent the iconic birds elsewhere in search of their preferred cuisine.

Last year 102 eagles were sighted at Starved Rock. We were lucky to spot a handful. “Next year, you never know–it all depends on how the fish bounce back,” said Ranger Bob Petruney of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center.

If you’ve never seen one, bald eagles are not bald. Early European explorers named them using an Old English word, “balde,” which means white–a reference to their heads and tails. A few more eagle facts:

* Bald eagles are all-brown until they are 4 or 5 years old; then they get the white plumage.

* Illinois has the largest winter population of bald eagles outside Alaska.

* Bald eagles weigh about the same as a cat, but they stand 3 feet tall and have wingspans up to 8 feet.

We took off on foot in search of eagles and other snowy wonders. The park is known for sandstone bluffs, 18 canyons and 13 miles of hilly trails. The first day we hiked up and down and up to the top of Wildcat Canyon, where ice climbers were scaling a frozen waterfall. Then we meandered down to the Illinois River and up to Lovers Leap. That’s where we saw 5 eagles–2 pairs of adults and a juvenile.

The next morning we joined a hiking club made up of guests at the historic Starved Rock Lodge, where we stayed, and local residents. It was founded by activities director Edna Daugherty, and the group meets every Thursday, year-round. This day’s destination was St. Louis Canyon and the frozen waterfall there. Arnie and I thought we were hike-worthy, but soon found ourselves sliding along the steep paths. Edna handed me her walking stick. Ron loaned Arnie his walking stick and YakTrax, which are like tire chains for your feet. They worked out well, and the landscape was magnificently stark and still.

I wore cute waterproof boots by White Mountain. They are shiny black on the foot part and quilted on the top part. I was going to show you a picture, but decided you’d rather see an eagle. So here’s a picture of my souvenir from the gift shop.

Wavy albatrosses on Espanola Island

* Even if your ship is classified a luxury vessel, it will be much smaller than it appears in the brochure. You can book a cabin away from the engine room, but it then will be next to the anchor. Either one cures narcolepsy.

* Mornings and afternoons you will visit the various islands. You get there by panga, or dinghy, from your ship. Some landings are wet and some are dry. Dry is a relative term. You will stay dry as long as you don’t fall in the water when exiting the dinghy.

* Some hikes are pretty rugged. You will traverse lava fields and jagged boulders. Genovesa is an easy hike–after you climb the side of a 30-foot cliff to get to the trail.

* You can’t touch the sea lions or penguins or any other creature. They, however, get to touch you all they want. It’s a really neat feeling when a penguin swims between your legs.

* Forget about souvenirs. The islands are largely uninhabited, so there is nothing to buy. If your itinerary includes Puerto Ayora, a small resort town on Santa Cruz, spend your time at the tortoise nursery rather than t-shirt shops. Give your grandchildren $10 bills instead.