Monday, April 06, 2015

Las Vegas, hold the Gambling

Julie and I aren't gamblers and we aren't very good drivers.  After about 5 hours, we start clawing our way through the sheet metal of the car to free ourselves.  That means the 429 mile drive to Vegas hadn't been much of an attraction for us.  This year, with Julie enjoying golf and a ski season we would all like to forget, Vegas moved up the list.  The challenge is that we don't like crowds and we don't enjoy casinos.

Julie used one of our favorite apps, TripAdvisor, to hunt for hotels to stay at and she found a great one.  The Vdara seems to be fairly unique in Vegas.  All the accommodations are decent sized suites with living rooms and kitchens.  It has no casino!  I didn't know they were allowed to build hotels without casinos.  This means less crowds, less smoke, less noise, ....  It is one block off the strip, next door to the Bellagio and across the street from Paris and Planet Hollywood.
This is us pulling up to the hotel after our long drive.  No wait, my Honda Pilot is red.
Another odd thing about the Vdara is that it has almost no restaurants. There is a little cafe, a small bar and a partial Starbucks.  That's it for a 50+ story building.  It seems the whole design principal was to have people go to either the Bellagio (a connected 5 minute walk) or the Aria, a one minute walk. They are all part of the MGM pool of hotels.

Did you know that the Vegas Strip isn't in Las Vegas?  It is actually in unincorporated Clark County.  As you can guess, the tax implications are pretty significant. The strip is home to 15 of the 25 biggest hotels in the world.  It is interesting to glance through this list and see how amazing the Vegas accommodations are.
This is the Vegas version of a chocolate fountain.  It was accompanied by a certification from the Guiness Book of World Records stating that it was the largest in the world.  However, given that you couldn't stick your head under it or at least get a good handful, I wasn't that impressed.
Right outside our hotel was a giant sculpture made of canoes.  It was hard to get a good shot of, but it was certainly unusual. 
I got this shot on the last morning with the sun coming up behind the distant building.
We aren't ones to sit by a pool all day, so it was time to get out and do things.  Our first expedition was to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Just 15 or 20 minutes away from the concrete, glass and steel of the strip, sits a gorgeous park with miles of hiking trails. This is a panorama from the top of one trail, looking back towards downtown.
We were pleasantly surprised at how many people visiting Las Vegas managed to come out for some hiking.  We were guessing that on a weekday, we might be by ourselves.  Instead, all the trailhead lots were overflowing.
Along one of the hikes, we came across a perfect display shelf for hundreds of little rock cairns. Julie grabbed some stones and added one more.

On another day we drove about 45 miles to the Valley of Fire State Park.  This one was fairly scenic, but not as interesting as Red Rock, and certainly a lot further away.  We agreed this was a one time visit.
Even though we spent a good deal of time hiking in the desert, we didn't see that many different types of cacti.  However we found a few that were blooming.
There were quite a few of these and they were all wide open.  Very pretty!  It is such an interesting creation in nature to have such and angry, painful plant adorned with such colorful flowers.
We did a hike to the Wave in Valley of Fire.  While the rock formation seems to have the same origins, it wasn't nearly as attractive as The Wave in Coyote Buttes.
You could see signs of lizards all over the place.  They left interesting little trails in the soft sand.
They ranged from little 3-4 inchers, to more like 18.
This one was fast and over a foot long.
In addition to our hiking, we went out for two rounds of golf.  Las Vegas has the advantage of noticeably warmer weather so the grass is already green and lush. We played our first round at Rhodes Ranch, an easier course in beautiful condition.
It is great having Julie both able and interested in playing golf.  On these trips where we drive, it is easy to toss the clubs in the car.
Our second round was at the Revere Concord course.  This was a harder course with some very serious elevation changes.  Sometimes it felt like you were hitting of the edge of a cliff.  The day was cooler and the wind was pretty strong.  All those things combined for a much harder round.

I don't have photos from our evening activities, but we did see two shows. In Vegas, there are at least 6 or 7 different Cirque Du Soleil shows going.  We went to the Beatles Love show at the Mirage.  The costumes and dancing were awesome but it wasn't quite as athletic as other shows I have seen.  Good, but not my favorite.  We also went to see Jersey Boys at Paris.  This is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  It was excellent and I highly recommend it to everyone!

As for gambling, we spent about 15 minutes sitting at a pair of slot machines.  After losing $10 each, we decided we would rather go spend our gambling money on drinks.

On the way home from Jersey Boys, we stopped and watched the Bellagio Fountian show.  I recorded it with my iPhone and uploaded it to Youtube.  Youtube decided the soundtrack the Bellagio used was copyrighted and deleted the music from my video.  That kind of sucks, but you can watch and hum any non-copyrighted music of your choosing. This has to be one of the most beautiful fountains in the world.

One last photo.  Having spent decades in NC enjoying the beautiful flower gardens planted along the highways, the drive through both Arizona and Nevada was depressing and borderline hideous.  I understand they are in a desert, but damn that's unsightly: miles and miles of dirt, rocks, and litter.

I mostly do my blog entries to share with other people.  However, I find it helpful to add some trip notes so that when we go back to visit a place again, our knowledge has been captured.  So, while everything below is just notes for me, anyone planning to venture there might find some useful tidbits.

Vdara hotel
  • Booking through Expedia got us the same rates, but also a $75 food voucher
  • We were in room 14048.  It is a corner room with 270 degree views.  Would be splendid, but you need to be higher up to see over all the surrounding buildings.  The elevators were superb, so being on a top floor is fine.
  • While there was a full kitchen, by default they don't provide any dishes, silverware, glasses, pots, etc. If you call housekeeping, they bring you what you want, but next time we should request when making the reservation.
  • If you can get a room that can see the Bellagio fountains, that would be excellent.  Not many rooms can.
  • The gym was fairly decent. 
  • The little cafe on the first floor was ok, but breakfast was expensive, heavy and slow.  Bring breakfast food with you for most mornings.
  • Rhodes Ranch was very nice.  About 20 miles away. The fees included either breakfast or lunch. Would be very happy playing it again.
  • Revere Concord was tough.  Not sure I would play that one again.  It was a 15 minute drive. The other Revere course is even harder.
  • Places get busy.  Always have a reservation.
  • Cafe at the Bellagio was ok, but just bulk food.  Don't go back.
  • Mon Ami Gabi at Paris was always crowded and highly rated, but it seemed only OK to us. 
  • Cafe at Vdara, the breakfast tacos were excellent
  • Javier's at Aria had excellent Mexican and fantastic spicy margaritas.  It wasn't cheap, but this was definitely our favorite.
  • Julian Seranno Tapas at Aria was a nice tapas restaurant.  We had to get there early to catch our show, so we caught the end of happy hour.  Great deals on some excellent food.
  • Aria Cafe had delicious breakfast crepes, good sandwiches to take on a hike, and yummy gelato.

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