Friday, November 6, 2015

Summer Road Trip: Days 15-16 - Las Vegas

June 6-7

21 years ago (in ’94) I made it to Sin City for the first time.  Short trip from LA.  For someone who 5 years prior lived under the dark, iron curtain, where electricity use (along with other bare necessities) was “portioned”, the extravagant display of colorful lights was mesmerizing.  Even after 5 years in the States, the first impression was one of astonishment.  Clearly different from any other place in the country.  In the world, for that matter! 

None of the “modern” casinos were there at that time.  The Stratosphere, Bellagio, Monte Carlo, Hard Rock, Mandalay Bay, New York, Paris, Venetian or Wynn were not up yet (and that’s just some of the big ones).  Treasure Island, Luxor and MGM Grand were brand new (all ’93).  Siegfried and Roy were the main attraction.  So was the Pirate show at Treasure Island.  Cirque du Soleil Mystère was just an unknown act at the Mirage (they actually opened in ’92 in Vegas with a little known show called Nouvelle Expérience).  The $9.99 buffets were all the rage, and celebrity chef-owned restaurants were non-existent.

I was back in 2000.  Boom had already started.  Stayed at Monte Carlo.  Anniversary trip [12 years later celebrated the same in the real Monte Carlo].  Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood) was just being finished.  From the previous list, Wynn was the only one still not on the map.  All the others popped up on the South side of the strip.  In the same time, a lot of the old casinos were being demolished, or plans were under way to do so.  Vegas was changing big time.  Big names, big shows, big casinos, and big spenders to make it all possible.

We made a couple more trips since then.  The boom hit full force, but seems like it’s slowing down a bit.  By now, Vegas is no longer a place to go gamble; it’s a true vacation destination.  And it’s no longer cheap.  Superstars have multi-million dollar resident shows (Celine Dion and Britney Spears make about $475K per show; J Lo just signed up for $350k; by contrast, in the mid-60’s the members of the Rat Pack were each paid about $2,000 per show [that’s about $15k in today’s dollars]).  Celebrity restaurants are now everywhere.  Cirque du Soleil has 8 shows.  Opulence is omnipresent.  No cost is spared.  People no longer bother with the old downtown casinos on Fremont Street, other than for a short drive-by for those hit by nostalgia [first-timers, I think it’s still a great idea to go check it out].

Old Vegas, Fremont Street

The place is amazing and continues to grow rapidly on that trajectory…  Linq, Delano, SLS, The Cromwell (2014) and Nobu (2013) are some of the recent additions.  In the “hot” area of the strip, Aria, Vdara (City Center) and Cosmopolitan are already 5-6 years old.  There’s not much more room to build there, unless the old ones get torn down (which was the case with SLS, built where Sahara used to be, or the Venetian where Sands was).  

And to think that this desert oasis only took life as a town in 1905, with gambling not legalized until 1931, and the first hotel on the strip (El Rancho Vegas) opened in 1941.  Even more notable, the first megaresorts (Rio and Excalibur) did not “show up” until 1990.  Which means the “modern era” is only 25 years old!  We are evolving so fast, aren’t we?

Most recent figures show that Vegas attracted almost 53 million visitors in 2014.  And gambling revenues have surpassed 11 billion, with total revenue from tourism (hotels, restaurants, shows, etc.) at almost $24 billion.  That explains a thing or two, doesn’t it?

I’m sure you’re thoroughly bored by now, but hopefully a bit more educated… I’ll just punch through some notes before leaving you to some pictures:
  • If you’re a gambler it pays to sign up with the rewards programs they offer.  Lots of freebies at the other end.  Start there.
  • You HAVE to catch a show or two.  Most are great.  But not cheap.  Sooo disappointed that One (Cirque du Soleil – Michael Jackson) was on a 3 week break while we were last there.  Some planner I am, huh?  Le Rêve, however, was simply amazing! (complete with autographs from the main character as we bumped into her in the parking lot!)
  • Don’t splurge on accommodations.  You won’t spend much time in the room anyway…
  • Foodie or not, do splurge on some of the aforementioned celebrity-chef restaurants.  The list is long, so you’re on your own there.  I loved Jaleo (José Andrés) this time around.  And brunch on the patio at Mon Ami Gabi, with a clear view of the Bellagio fountains.
  • Don’t be afraid to get off the strip.  Raku (Japanese grill tucked in a strip mall) was impressive and very authentic.  Well, the food was a 10+… service left a lot to be desired
  • The Stratosphere is definitely worth it (once) for a view from up high (and a couple thrill rides up there).  So is the Fremont Street Experience (also once)
  • For a much better “strip” view from the top, try the Eiffel Tower
  • Definitely visit the main mega-casinos on the strip.  They brought Venice (gondolas and all), Paris (with the half-scale Eiffel Tower [it was actually designed at full scale, but the airport was too close]), New York and even an Egypt pyramid (Luxor) within a few blocks.  But wear comfortable shoes; although they appears close, there IS a lot of walking to do…
  • And if you have an extra day to spare, venture out to the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam

A few pics from Le Rêve.  Click through to enlarge:

...and what's a trip to Vegas without a little "crazy"...

Good night! (whatever that means in the City of Lights)!  

That does it for a whirlwind road trip that started 16 days ago here in Vegas.  2,500 miles (that’s just over 4,000 km for fans of the metric system).  By car, bus, boat, trolley, on foot, and even on a ferry.  From 282 ft (86 m) under the sea level – Badwater Basin in the Death Valley –  to 9,943 ft (3,031m) on the Tioga Pass en route to Yosemite.  Desert to mountains, to the Pacific coast, to the [not so sunny] southern California beaches, to [almost] Mexico, and back.  7 hotels.  3 house rentals.  10 times packing and unpacking.   Intense, to say the least, but all in all, an amazing road trip, with not a dull moment along the way and tons of amazing memories!  Oh, and did I mention 11 other people in tow?

In case you missed the thread, I've included the links below.  Hope you enjoy.  I know we did!

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Summer Road Trip: Day 14 - Grand Canyon West and Hoover Dam

June 5

No trip to Vegas should be complete without a visit to this natural wonder (considered one of the 7 in the world).  I won’t bother with descriptions.  Pictures even can’t capture this astonishing landscape in all its splendor.  The sheer enormity of it is unphotographable.  There are a few options to get there from Vegas:
  1. A helicopter tour (fastest but most expensive); based on stories I heard it’s definitely bucket-list material
  2. Drive to the South Rim (it’s a good 4 ½ hours or so, and you can rent a car or sign up for a bus tour).  This is the cheapest option, as the South Rim access is through a National Park and the fee is $30 per car (regardless of number of people) or $15 per person (if with a tour bus).  I’m yet to do that, but figured one day I’ll make it to Sedona, then Flagstaff, and from there it’s only 1 ½ hours… Plans for later on…
  3. Drive to Grand Canyon West (only 2 ½ hours) where the area is owned by the Hualapai tribe (they made it abundantly clear that we were no longer on US territory) and since 2007 have opened it to the general public.  General admission starts around $40 per person, with shuttle stops to 2 different viepoints, and an additional $25 if you want access to the Skywalk (a glass-bottomed-horseshoe-shaped cantilever “bridge” that hangs just above the canyon)
Either of the last 2 options offers the opportunity to stop at the Hoover Dam, since it’s on the way.  A few years ago we drove just over it on Hwy 93.  Now, given security risks after 9/11, they built a bypass across a 1,900 feet long bridge (longest single-span concrete arch bridge in the western hemisphere) and trucks are no longer allowed down the old Hwy.  Small cars are still permitted (and can cross over to park on the Arizona side) but there is no through-traffic.

Built during the Great Depression (1931-36) it was the largest concrete structure of its time.  200 meters thick at the bottom, 14 meters at the top, it impounds Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US.  It puts out (on average) about 4.2 trillion kilowatt-hours, enough to power big chunks of Southern California, Nevada and Arizona.  Talk about a mega-engineering feat.  Geeks would have a blast here!

In 1936 it was the world’s largest, with 1,345 MW output.  In 1942 it was eclipsed by the Grand Coulee Dam (Columbia River, Washington State) with 6,809 MW (it’s still the biggest in the US).  By comparison, the biggest in the world (Three Gorges Dam in China) puts out 22,500 MW!! 
So in the grand scheme of things, Hoover Dam is small.  But HUGE in terms of history and what it has done for the economic development of the area and neighboring states.

And humor me for another minute.  Of the 10 biggest in the US, the Grand Coulee is the only Hydro, there is one coal (Scherer) one gas (West County Energy Center) and the rest are Nuclear (Palo Verde, at the top with an output of 32,846 MW).  Conversely, of the top 10 in the world, only 2 are Nuclear (one in Japan, one in Canada).  The rest are all Hydro, with the Three Gorges being the biggest.

Thanks for indulging me.  There’s always Google and Wikipedia if you need more…

Off to Grand Canyon West, then.

On our first trip there (I think it was 2007, right after it opened) the road wasn’t even paved all the way.  The last 20 miles or so were quite an off-road adventure; bumpy, dusty, and very uneven.  By now, seems like they made enough money to invest in the infrastructure.  All paved, and overall facilities (from a couple run-down shacks a few years ago) that now include lodging and air-conditioned buildings.

But none of that matters when you stand at the edge of the Canyon (strangely, there are no railing or any of the typical safety precautions) and gape in awe at what nature was able to create over millions and millions of years…

There are two main viepoints at Grand Canyon West:  Guano Point (my favorite of the two) and Eagle Point, given the shape of the ridge formation (near the Skywalk) that looks like an eagle with the wings spread out. 

The Skywalk “bridge” I mentioned earlier hangs 800 ft. (240 m) directly above the canyon floor.  It seems like an interesting experience, to walk across the glass-bottom surface and look straight down.  But frankly, you can have the same view from the rim.  For about $25 less.  And although there are plans to extend the whole area (hotels, restaurants, golf course, casino, and a cable car to the bottom) some of the tribe, along with environmental groups strongly reject the idea, considering it a defacement of a natural treasure.

For now, it does offer the shortest route from Vegas to the Grand Canyon and a definite recommendation for a side trip.  Oh, and one thing to consider: this is Arizona, and they don’t observe Daylight Savings.  Take that into account as you plan the trip, or you’ll find yourself cheated out of an extra hour…

That said, let's head back to Vegas and lose some money... ;-)

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Links to the rest of the itinerary: