Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Las Vegas

So, we're back (clearly), and it was one hell of a trip. It was in many ways the perfect vacation for us and I'm so glad we went.

When we arrived, it was utter chaos. There was advertising everywhere, limo drivers looking for their pick ups, rows of baggage claims spitting out suitcases, tons of people. We were very fortunate in that our suitcases arrived quickly and the instant we walked out the door there was a hotel shuttle service and we were able to get a ticket and get on the next departing bus. This carried a downside, however, in that we stopped at a whole pile of hotels before we ever got to ours. So many, in fact, that we decided to spring for the extra $5 on the way back to the airport on Wednesday and got a cab so we could go directly to the airport without a bunch of intermediary stops. Still, the shuttle driver was very nice and gave a nice tour of the city and made recommendations on what to do and where to stay.

The Circus Circus lobby was little better. In fact, perhaps worse, since there was a HUGE line snaking through those tensabarriers and it was chock full of families with little kids running in and out and around, shrieking and carrying on. It took us 45 minutes to get to the desk, and then we literally had to get a map to find our room, the casino was so big. This was our first hint that walking was probably not going to happen.

After getting settled, we went to eat at a little fast food Mexican/Italian place which was quite good except the fire alarm went off in the middle of the meal, complete with flashing strobe lights! But, who cares? We liked the food and retired on full bellies. Circus Circus's hotel facilities were certainly adequate--they were nothing to scream about in terms of luxury, but were nicer than the Motel 6. Since we're not extravagant people, we were completely pleased with our room, which came with some nice travel guides to the area and extra pillows.

Saturday was our first full day in Las Vegas. We had read in the travel guides that there was a trolley that ran every 15 minutes, and having determined that the strip runs about 6.3 miles, we decided we'd take the trolley instead of trying to walk (Michael's been diagnosed with arthritis in his back). When we got there, a guy at the "Slots-O-Fun" told us the bus was cheaper and faster, so we bought all day passes for the bus and then decided to walk across the street to the Riviera for the buffet, which I had read about and thought sounded pretty good.

In fact, it was not that exciting. There was plenty of food, sure, but most of it looked like it had been sitting around for some time. So I was disappointed with our first buffet. Then we decided to walk out the back entrance and go over to the Hilton, which was "just across the street", to pick up our Barry Manilow tickets.

"Just across the street" took us about 20 minutes! Seriously, the casinos are massive. Even the old ones are huge. I couldn't get over it. We arrived and Michael was getting a bit sore, so we decided I would find the box office, which was right up front, and then we decided to play the slots. Since I'm cheap, we played the penny slots, and by some miracle, I won $50 on the Wheel of Fortune. So, we were conservative and cashed out. Then we went down to the Star Trek place, since Joe had given us the assignment to get a picture of the General making a face at the mannequins of the characters from Star Trek. Mission accomplished, and we decided to take the Monorail to Caesar's Palace, since I had gotten a couple of free passes on it for buying tours and whatnot on Vegas.com.

The monorail is GORGEOUS. It's clean, efficient, speedy, and accessible. We got off at the Flamingo and strolled through there on our way to Caesar's, and it was nice. They have a beautiful courtyard with flamingos, and I got to see some of them. Then we headed over to Caesar's to pick up our tickets for Celine Dion.

Let me tell you now, Caesar's is MASSIVE. It's even more massive than it looks from the outside. We were all over the place looking for the box office, with nothing more than a sign reading "Apian Way" or "Via Yadda Yadda" or whatever aiming us in the right direction. Fortunately we found it, but by then, we needed another quick break, so I put Michael in front of the Bark Day something penny slot machine and he promptly won $60. Man were we feeling good. So of course, we cashed out, and left before Lady Luck won her moolah back. :-)

It was getting late by then, so we decided to head back to Circus Circus to shower and change for the Barry Manilow concert and have some dinner. The concert was GREAT. He allows you to take pictures during the show and they give you free glowsticks when you arrive, so that was really neat. Barry sang a bunch of our old favorites and we were singing along, having a grand old time. And I was pleased to note that there were a lot of people our age or younger there--definitely all of us had grown up with Barry since the 70's. Fun, fun, fun. I got a program and collected some of the streamers they shoot out at the end of the show. Then we headed back to sleep, as we had an early morning on Sunday.

Sunday was our busiest day with a tour and a show. We headed off to the Hoover Dam at 7:45, again taking a shuttle that stopped at a bunch of casinos after ours. Still, it was a great way to see the strip and we loved taking the ride around and seeing some of the places we hadn't seen the day before. I was particularly taken with the New York New York (obviously) and the Excalibur.

We boarded the big bus at Bally's and then took the ride out to the Hoover Dam via Boulder City. The desert was absolutely gorgeous, breathtaking, and spectacular. And the Hoover Dam? WOW. That's all I can say. WOW. We took the tour inside and then we had about an hour to walk the dam itself. How much of a loser am I, but I had no idea that the halfway point of the dam marks the border between Nevada and Arizona, so of course, we had to walk over to Arizona, as I'd never been before. The lake created by the dam is gorgeous, the river is spectacular, just an amazing tour. Go there. You will not be sorry!

On our way back, we stopped at Ethel M Chocolates and the Cactus Botanical Gardens which is behind it. It was a giant tourist trap--a subsidiary of some sort of the Mars Company, they charge $32 for a small box of truffles, and the factory was not in operation while we were there. The garden was small, although many of the cacti were in bloom and I got a couple of good shots on the new camera. Still, if anyone tries to convince you that your trip to Vegas won't be complete without a stop at Ethel M's, laugh in their face and save your money! The General and I bought some left over Easter candy, which admittedly was damned good, but we wouldn't have missed out on anything had that part of the tour been skipped.

As soon as we got back, we took a brief nap, and then freshened up and headed to Caesar's Palace to see Celine! Unlike Barry, Celine has restrictions about what can go into her theater, so I had to check in my backpack. We were spared the indignity of the metal detectors, courtesy of the General's white cane, and we got to be seated before anyone else was! The show was spectacular. It was choreographed by one of the Cirque du Soleil guys and it was very ethereal and visually stunning. And Celine was magnificent. I about cried through the whole thing and the General even shed a few tears. When we left the theater, one of the ushers noticed the white cane ("don't leave home without it!") and went and got the backpack for us out of the coat check. Before most people left the theater, we were in a cab heading back to the hotel! It was AWESOME!

Monday was another day of sightseeing in Las Vegas itself, and we got new bus passes and headed down the strip. I wanted to take a gondola ride at the Venetian, but unfortunately the day was extremely windy and they were docked. So we went inside the Venetian and saw the gondolas on the grand canal indoors. It was one incredible shopping experience. You feel like you're outside, you can't even believe you're indoors when you're at the canal. It became my favorite place the minute we walked in. I've had a dream of going to Italy ever since seeing "While You Were Sleeping" and this really cemented it.

We also checked out Treasure Island while we were there and the gigantic Siegfried and Roy gold statue with a big lion head. Some woman tried to put her head in the lion's mouth while we were standing there and almost got her head stuck, which was hilarious.

Then we got back on the bus and went down to the Bellagio to see the fountain show, but sadly, that was also off due to the wind!! Fortunately we had seen the fountains when we were at Caesar's picking up the tickets for Celine early on in our trip, but I would have liked to have seen them for longer. We went inside the Bellagio, however, and it trumped the Venetian. I told the General we're going to work towards a goal of actually staying in one of those 3 hotels, because the Venetian, Bellagio, and Caesar's are all too beautiful for words.

We wanted to have a relaxing afternoon so we went back to Circus Circus and did some reading and I wrote out my postcards to send to our parents and assorted relatives. And then it was time to head to the Rio to see Penn and Teller. I had wrongly assumed that the box office for Penn and Teller would be open like the box offices for the other shows, and had also wrongly assumed that there were no assigned seats, that it was first come, first served. So I got there at about 5pm. And the box office didn't open until 7pm. Oops. But I looked around the Rio a little bit and then happily found a Starbucks and had a chai and a fruit tart and finished my book. It was nice to have a quiet corner to curl up and relax after the "go go go" of the previous few days and if we go again to Las Vegas, I will certainly do the same.

So, Penn and Teller were AMAZING as well. They put on a great show and did some amazing illusions, including the one for which they were famous on "The West Wing" in which they burn the American flag inside the Bill of Rights in an instant. After that trick, the two of them took off down the aisles and as we exited the theater, they were standing in the lobby to sign autographs and take pictures. So that was a lot of fun... And then I headed back to the hotel, since we had another early morning for our last big day in Las Vegas!

Tuesday was our big rafting and Hummer trip. The raft trip was first and we went on down to the Hacienda casino near Boulder City (gambling is illegal IN Boulder City, but it was near there). They gave us some cool little lunch coolers and took us by van to the base of the Hoover Dam where we got onto a large pontoon raft and motored through the Black Canyon, which our tour guide Jerry called "The Grand Canyon's bastard stepbrother". heh The scenery was gorgeous. We went down an 11 mile stretch and saw plenty of wildlife including bighorn sheep, falcons, coromorants, lizards, fish, ducks, etc. We stopped halfway at a little beach in Arizona to eat lunch, so I can officially say I was in Arizona since I ate a meal there! A few more miles down the Colorado River, Jerry pulled the raft over and told us it would be a good place to go wading since it was starting to get kind of warm in the Canyon in the sun. So I got out and stuck my feet in the water and man was it COLD!!! Jerry then laughingly told us the water was 54 degrees at the moment. It was sure refreshing, though... I took a little walk along the shoreline and found some fool's gold, which I brought back with me, and which I thought was pretty neat. Then we arrived at Willow Beach and boarded a van. Most people were on a large tour bus, but since we had to go back to the Hacienda to get the Hummer tour, we were in a van. Then the tour bus started leaking and it appeared the radiator on it was shot. Fortunately it made it back to the Hacienda, where we were quite late for the Hummer tour, and I think the tour guide was a bit nervous about it. But we found him and it turned out that Michael and I were the only 2 on the "Rebel Adventure Tour" and so we hopped into the hummer and were off.

The Hummer ride was a helluva hoot. I felt mildly ecologically irresponsible (which my father attempted to poo poo by pointing out that "the Indians and buffalo never worried about tromping around on the sand, kid."), but it was a beautiful, beautiful tour. We went to Rainbow Gardens, an area with a large fault line that pushed up different layers of rock, which are all different colors, creating a "rainbow". Some of the rock was 60+ billion years old. We also got to see Lava Butte, a now extinct volcano.

The tour guide was, in my opinion, just waiting for someone like me and the General to come along so he could ham it up in that Hummer, because our 2 hour tour stretched nearly 4 hours. We were flying out of our seats, screaming across the desert. It was so much freakin' fun. At one point, the guide wanted to go through a narrow area and put the Hummer up the side of a steep incline. Michael and I were sharing a seat in the back, and he was a good four feet higher in the air than I was. It was an absolute blast. The guide was a New Yorker like me, so that made it even more fun. He gave us some great ideas for our next trip to Las Vegas, since we were leaving in the morning.

When the tour was over and we got back to Circus Circus, it was evening and we had to eat, pack, and get ready to leave early for the airport. Again, the cab ride was the right choice for us in the morning, since we zipped straight out to the airport, got dropped right at the curb in front of United, and were in and through security in under 30 minutes, which was a miracle.

We learned a lot out there. Number one, you can walk many places, but you can't walk the entire strip. But you don't need a car. In fact, I think a car would have been a real pain in the butt. The bus was efficient and cheap at $5 for a 24 hour period--not just the day you bought it, but you have a full 24 hours to use your pass.

Additionally, everyone out there expects a tip. They basically work for tips. It's kind of like being on a cruise. So bring cash for tips. We tipped the guys who got us the taxis, we tipped buffet servers, tour guides, bus drivers, you name it, they wanted tips.

For us, the Strip was nice for a few hours, but the shows and tours of the outlying areas really did it for us. We didn't regret a single penny spent on a tour or a show. Not only did we get to see our destinations, but we got to learn a lot about the areas around Las Vegas and see how gorgeous the landscape there was.

You really can do Las Vegas pretty cheap. We didn't eat anywhere too fancy, we didn't gamble a lot of money away, so it was a good, cheap vacation for us. I can see where people get carried away out there, but we didn't and we even managed to bring back souvenirs for a few people and didn't break the bank on those either.

We saved things to do for "next time" and are already thinking about a return trip. Isn't that half the fun?

I'm so glad we went, I'm so sorry it's over. We absolutely loved every minute of our time there and I was glad we had some downtime to relax as well as all the time we spent on the go. Go to Vegas!!! You'll be glad you did!

7 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Mike W said...

I have to get ready so I just skimmed your post but my God these casinos are HUGE! I'll post more when I get back. I fly out of here Thursday morning.

$5 Blackjack for the win! :)

Talmadge G. said...

Well, that might be a stopping point when Sera and I get to make our big "out West" trip one of these fine days.

I'm with you on parking the car whenever possible at big touristy destinations like that.

So glad you two had a great time.

-TG

Seraphim9 said...

Oh, it sounded like so much fun!! I think that will definitely be something I would like to do one day.

Oh, and as far as being in Arizona - it's always been Tal's and my rule that as long as you cross over the border, you've visited (or "dinged" in our efforts to visit every county in the state of Georgia, Alabama, SC, etc. and possibly every contiguous state!) that area. Whether you fully go in there or not. You can still say you were in Arizona! We won't hold it against you!! LOL!!

-SG

Talmadge G. said...

If your feet or tires touched the ground of the state, county, etc., then you've officially "visited" -- at least as I see it.

However, airspace does not count. If you fly over a state, you can't log it.

Others have different rules (one I'm aware of doesn't log a county as visited until/unless they're at the county seat), but my criteria seem to be in line with most other 'geeks.' :-)

Seraphim didn't explain the story behind "ding'ed" .... that comes from the effect one or both of us make when we cross into a county we've never visited. "DING!"

Speaking of which, we're just two counties away from having visited all 159 of Georgia's counties (and 6 away from all of South Carolina's)!!

-Tal

Lauren said...

What a great recap! Sounds like you guys did Vegas the "right" way. I wish I had been able to do some of the fun things you did, but I was working when I was there!

I wish you had mentioned your plans to go to the Riviera buffet, though. That's where I stayed, and I ate at the buffet once, and it upset my stomach all day!

Lesley said...

Mike got back today and I heard all about his trip as well. I'm so glad to hear you had such an awesome trip. Mike and I are talking about taking a trip out there ourselves someday now.

We'll be calling you sometime this weekend to discuss the MB trip!

nettiemac said...

Man!!! You made me want to hop a flight to Vegas!