Las Vegas, NV 2016


I know my first question was, “who goes to Vegas in June?” My second question was, “who gets married in Las Vegas in June?” Well, evidently us and people that live in Las Vegas. In that order. It was about six months ago that we got the save the date card for Sara’s wedding in June in Las Vegas. Now, when El and I got married in Las Vegas more than seventeen years ago, we did it in February, but we weren’t picking the dates this time. The only say we did have was how long we were going to spend in town for the Saturday evening wedding. We could have done the long weekend thing, but decided to burn up some more vacation time and make it a weeklong vacation figuring that we’d probably know some other people coming to town for the festivities. Surely we were the first to book our dates and started planning this trip just like any other we take. Our first leg flight out of Albany took off at 10:30 a.m. and whisked us, albeit turbulently, to Baltimore. Our second leg from Baltimore to Las Vegas left on time and we miraculously get the last two seats together on the sold out flight. They are in the back row and in the vicinity of two lap kids, who, as of now are well behaved, but ask me again in five hours. 
I reflect a few minutes on the circumstances that lead up to me being on the plane right now. When I joined the Peace Corps there were 106 volunteers in my group and one of the things I did was to bring a video camera and while everyone was going through the registration process I was walking around the line getting people to introduce themselves on tape. I didn't get them all, but a few played along and gave me a little interview. No one knew anyone else and we were all just meeting for the first time. Two of the people on my tape turned out to be Amy Quick and Sara Cooper. Each answered a couple of questions and went back to being just another face in the crowd as I moved along. 24 hours later we would be in Ukraine and going through our orientation program. This is where we learned our cluster assignments. There was just a poster in the lobby that told us what language we would be learning during our training, the name of our language teacher, the town/city we would living in during training, and the names of our four other clustermates. Five of us from similar enough backgrounds that we could relate to one another, but diverse enough that we had much to learn from and about one another to make it work. These were the four volunteers who would become the equivalent of my Army brothers. Though, to be clear, not every cluster had as positive of a training experience that we did, and certainly we had our moments that tested our patience and nerves all, but looking back, there is not much I wouldn’t do for any of the four of them. Back to that first night in Ukraine I met the others formally for the first time. Patrick, Noelia, Amy, and Sara. We were together six days a week for language and business lessons and grew closer over the course of three months. Our classes were held in a small apartment and we set the chairs and sofa to all face the same direction, towards Maria. The sofa held three, with a chair on either end and for the most part we sat in the same spots every day. Amy in the left chair, me then Sara then Patrick on the sofa, and Noelia on the right chair allowing her to make her grand entrance ten minutes late every single day as she walked past the rest of us already seated and started. Sitting between Sara and Amy every day I would have to do my practice dialogues with either of them. We learned together, we spent time on the weekends together, and slowly over the three months we got to know each other pretty well. The five of us were and always will be: Chernigov2. There were a couple of other volunteers that we spent a lot of time with as well, who became like adopted clustermates. Over the course of my service, I would run into any one of them, usually in Kiev, and sometimes in other cities. It was rare, only two times after training that the five of us would be in the same place at the same time. After I was done with service and making my way back to the US, Patrick and I flew to Ireland to meet up with Sara and Noelia, but Amy was not part of that. Last year when El and I went to San Antonio to meet Noelia’s family, Sara was there, but Patrick and Amy could not make it. I have seen Patrick two other times in Washington, DC, but this will be the first time that all five of us will be together since March of 2013. So, this weekend will be a reunion 3+ years in the making. I should mention that some of the adopted clustermates will be there too and I am just as excited to see them this weekend, but there is a special place in my heart for those four that I hope continues for life…Chernigov2 for life. 
As for Vegas. What is there to do in Vegas besides gamble? Having been there a few times, I tried to research museums and other attractions that we could visit when we weren't spending time with the group. Besides the wedding, we have a walking tour booked, a dinner at Guy Savoy on Sunday and a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon on Monday. There are a few other things we are hoping to fit in, but obviously want to prioritize our time with friends. El has met several of the volunteers that will be coming, so that will make it more comfortable than for her to watch me hang with my friends. I think at this point she has more of their phone numbers in her phone than I have in mine!  

Wednesday June 8

We are scheduled to land at 3:30 p.m. local time, which will feel like 6:30 p.m. to us, so after the lousy sleep I got last night, we may be in store for an early evening. At this point we do have a hotel reservation, though we have no plan yet on how to get to the hotel from the airport. I expect either a shuttle to the strip or public bus that we will figure out once we get to the airport. We arrive on time and the temp outside is a toasty 108o. It is so warm, that once we arrive at the gate and wait to get off the plane, the flight crew instructs everyone to close the window shades and turn on the a/c vents to keep us comfortable while we wait for the people in front of us to get off…and they are ALL in front of us. We are both a little beat when we get off the plane. Head directly to baggage claim and find the ground transportation information desk. On the way we find a TSA Precheck office and stop in for information. We have been meaning to sign up for this program. The receptionist says they accept walk-ins for interviews and all we need to bring is our passports and fill out a form online. We leave with the information. There are no free shuttles to the strip (county law prohibits it), so we sign up for Bell Transport which is $8.00 each way or $14.50 if you buy the round trip now. We opt for the roundtrip. We walk out to the curb to check in with the bus service and they tell us, surprisingly, that they will be happy to drop us off at our Motel 6, even though it is not on the strip. We are good with that! We take the uneventful shuttle to the hotel and get checked in. It is just about 4:00 p.m. and the blazing sun is not exactly the welcome I was hoping for. I call mom to ask her to FedEx our passports to us so we will have them for our interview (that we plan to do on the day we leave). We decide to take a three hour nap to let the sun set before heading off for dinner. El finds a ramen place a short trip from the hotel. It is much further than we would want to walk, but the bus stop is just outside the hotel and costs $2 each. It couldn’t have worked out better! The drop off is just across the street from the restaurant, and besides a bum recommendation of a deep fried (and super salty) chicken appetizer, the ramen was actually quite decent and we agree it was worth the trip. After dinner we bus back to the strip and decide to go to New York, New York for a pub. It is still well into the 90’s at 10:00 p.m., but at least we don’t have the sun to contend with. We start at a bar called Pour 24. They have a respectable beer selection and the prices are…well, comparable to NYC prices. It gives us some time to review our plans for the morning. There are a couple of breakfast options that might work for us as we make our way up to Fremont Street for our 11:00 a.m. walking tour. A classic French breakfast and a horticulture garden at Bellagio top the list. We don’t need to be out too late tonight, but another round is not out of the question. As we leave NYNY we pass by the monorail that runs between Excalibur and Mandalay Bay. This reminds me that one of the things I wanted to see is the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. After a quick lookup, we see that it is only a little over a mile to the sign and decide to walk. It is still really warm out, at midnight, but way better than if the sun was blazing. There are no people walking in this area and relatively few cars on the road. However, as we approach the sign, we see at least ten other people had the same idea we did (except they drove here). The sign is located in the middle of Las Vegas Blvd. 


What else is there to do at midnight in Sin City?

One of our challenges with taking our own photo is the brightness of the sign behind us does not allow for us to be lit up and requires tinkering with the settings, however there are two people hanging around with some serious camera rigs. She is going around to the people all trying to take pictures and offering services. This looks like a racket to me (do they take the photo and then ask for money?) She comes over to us while El is working on the camera settings. At first we try to wave her off by saying we will get it eventually. While El works the settings, I ask what her angle is and she says they are professional photographers who volunteer their time to help people get the best out of their pictures at the landmark. Nothing more, nothing less. El is able to find the setting we want and hands the camera to the woman who takes the photo of us while lending a pro front lighting that limits the brightness of the sign. The two pics we get are really good quality and while we have seen the sign in pictures, I rarely see it at night and I think this is a very nice take on the iconic image. After we get the pictures at the sign we walk back to Tropicana Hotel for our nightcap. It is now 1:00 a.m. and the beer selection is acceptable. Our Motel 6 is next door, so this is the best of services without the room prices. We’ll take it. We get ready to call it a night.

Thursday June 9

We set our alarm for 7:45 with the understanding that we want to get up and out. We know that the sun is going to be a killer today, so we want to get out when it is still in the 90’s! We are out the door around 8:15 and walk up to the strip at MGM Grand where there is an RTC kiosk (RTC is the public transport system and the kiosks sell tickets that you cannot buy on the bus), though not every stop has the kiosks. We buy our three day bus pass for $20 each. This allows us to ride unlimited buses for three days. The Deuce is the local Las Vegas strip circulator that runs between Mandalay Bay and Fremont Street. We take the bus a few stops to Caesar's Palace in search of Payard which is the local branch of the NYC French patisserie & bistro. I get an almond croissant and we split an apple tatin crepe. The food is very tasty, but at $35 for one crepe, two croissants, and two very decent café au laits, it is a little steep. As we sit at the table eating our breakfast, we notice across the hallway is Rao's Restaurant. El reminds me that we have no dinner reservation this evening and wonders if we want to try to get in, knowing how notoriously difficult the NYC location is to get into. I think it is a marvelous idea and she pulls out her phone to see what the options are. After breakfast, we head to Fremont Street to meet walking tour at 11:00 a.m. The tour costs $35 each, but was the highest rated walking tour in the city. The tour starts at The Plaza Hotel and Casino. We arrive a few minutes early and decide to take a seat in the casino to check out our tour book to see if there are other things to do in this area after the tour is done. The thing that smacks me in the face as I enter the casino is the smell of stale smoke. The place just smells like old Vegas. It was a funny moment when El spotted a rare $.01 slot machine, so for kicks she decides to deposit a one dollar bill into the penny slot machine. Long gone are the days of one arm bandits and she presses the “bet one” button, it spins and of course is a loser, but as she goes to spin her second chance, the reality sinks in that even though this is a “penny” slot machine, it takes 50 credits per spin! That means that of the one dollar inserted, she has already spun 50 cents in one second. Meaning, also, that this is not a penny slot machine at all, but a 50 cent slot machine disguised as a penny slot machine. She spins a second time, wins a whopping $.02 and cashes out with a voucher that is surely worth less than the paper used to print it on. I jokingly encourage her to actually cash it in, but she opts to keep it as a memento of her Downtown Las Vegas experience. The tour guide shows and our six person tour starts on time. One of the features I liked was the individual headsets the guide handed out for us to have a private earpiece to listen to the guide as we walked. So, even if you get spread out or want to stop and take a photo, you can still keep up with the conversation. The guide did not stop speaking for two solid hours and the amount of information we got was really more than anyone would ever want or need about this area. I was hoping for a little quality over quantity, though it wasn’t bad and the guide was pretty knowledgeable about the area. The whole tour ran for two hours and covered just seven blocks of Fremont Street. We certainly found ourselves in an area of the city that we probably would not have seen otherwise. The tour ends at the container park, which is part of the revitalization program this part of the city is undergoing. It is a collection of decommissioned shipping containers that have been converted into retail spots. The idea is that businesses come to the local business district hoping to set up shop. However, if there are any doubts as to the viability of the idea, the business is allowed to set up in the container park and if it takes off, they are allowed to move into a more permanent location in the area. The park entrance has a giant metal praying mantis, that we understand puts on a show. 

A dumptruck that has been converted to a giant metal praying mantis

At night the propane antennae ignite, though we don't know what else it does. Moments later, an announcement is made in Japanese and we find out what else it does...

Some of our list of things to do here were in this neighborhood though sadly, some of the options have either closed down completely or don’t open for several more hours. We definitely saw some places that we weren’t expecting to see and would come back to one night if the timing works out. We get a text from some of the group who are arriving around now and it sounds like bachelor and bachelorette parties are in in the works for the evening. El was able to make dinner reservations for tonight at 5:00 p.m. and are “sadly” otherwise occupied. I am hoping that someone else either passes or they plan to do something afterwards that we can join in. It is now 2:00 p.m. and we decide to hit a brewpub on Fremont Street called Banger Brewing that has a happy hour that starts at 1:00 p.m. and one of the options is a habanero/jalapeño/serrano/chipotle/green pepper beer. El chooses that and I choose a more “normal” IPA. She likes hers, but I don’t care for my Black Eye PA. The brewpub has a pop-up restaurant residing just outside the front door. It is a two person operation and although they will serve their food inside the brewery, they are not affiliated with them. El orders a bowl of bacon popcorn that comes with sprinkles of (real) bacon bits and crumbles of bacon in caramelized brown sugar and maple syrup. It is mighty fine. Between now and 5:00 p.m. we need to get to the hotel to change into our “business casual" dress and make it back to the restaurant which is in Caesar's Palace. Oh, the best laid plans…after our beer and popcorn we decide to head to the other end of Fremont Street. On the way, out of left field, El asks me if I want to go to Binion’s to get our picture with the money? We learned on the walking tour that one of the tourist attractions at Binion’s Casino is a stack of one million dollars. It is arranged in a pyramid under glass and, for free, you can go and have your photo taken with the stack. They develop the photo and give it to you free of charge (the expectation is that you will find something to gamble on in the minimum half hour it takes to develop the photo. I tell El that I have no interest in getting my picture taken with the money, but if she wants to, she can. We go in and sure enough, there is an attendant and no line. She takes your picture. We didn’t know until after the photo was taken that it would take a half hour to develop.

 

Ah, this pic is better than the one they were going to give us for free.

We decide to press on to the Golden Gate Hotel, to go to Du-par's Diner where they are famous for their shrimp cocktail. $3.99 for a parfait glass full of cooked, cold shrimp topped with a dollop of cocktail sauce. To drink I get a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice with El’s Coke, the whole bill is $12.16 including tax. After the stop we head back to Binion’s to see if the photo is ready. Now, what El may not have realized was that at the same moment the attendant was taking her photo, I was also taking it…just in case she couldn’t make it back for the copy. We arrive and, of course, the photo is not ready. We have dinner reservations for 5:00 p.m. Time is still looking OK, though we are at 3:30 p.m. and we know we don’t have much time to spare. We wait for the photo, and wait, and wait, to the point that we decide we cannot wait any longer and leave, possibly not to return. We go to the Deuce bus stop and arrive just as the driver shuts the door and takes off. Luckily being the end of the line, there is another bus waiting. The problem is that he is on a scheduled break even though he pulls forward he does not open the doors and we are left just standing there waiting for his break to end so he can open the door and we can get going. There is a transit officer at the stop and someone asks him if the next bus might be an SDX (the express bus)? He tells us that the SDX stop is towards the other end of Fremont Street (in front of Binion’s where we just came from). We ponder our options, knowing the Deuce takes a long time to make its way the few miles down the strip. We expect to take the Deuce the first shared stop so we can get off and continue on the SDX. In the end, we decide to take our chances with walking over to Binion’s to get the SDX instead of waiting out the driver’s break. We get to the bus stop a few minutes later and there aren’t too many people waiting at the stop. We wait and wait as more people arrive, realizing that we probably got here soon after the last one pulled away. We are nervously checking our watches and it is now about 4:00 p.m. Still having to get to the hotel, change, and get back to the restaurant, I start considering all of our options ranging from cancelling the reservation to replacing any bus legs with taxi rides. As the time ticks away we are both mentally adjusting our plans for the next hour. The SDX eventually does come and even though it is an express stop bus, we still have to take it for a while and the traffic as we make our way down the strip around 4:20 p.m. is slowing things down to a pace that we cannot even plan for. At 4:45 p.m. we make the decision to show up to the restaurant dressed as is (tshirt and shorts) and if they turn us away for not meeting dress code, so be it, and we will go somewhere else. We go with this plan and I am trying to think what I can do to make myself more presentable. At 4:55 p.m. I duck into the casino bathroom to ditch the baseball cap I have been wearing all day that has resulted in sweaty, hat-head hair. I borrow a hairbrush from El to make myself presentable, though the shorts and sneakers are just about the only aspect I can’t do anything about. We step up to the hostess station for the moment of truth and announce we have arrived for our 5:00 p.m. reservation. As we wait for the hostess to do her thing, I observe a couple of other guests dressed in denim shorts and expect we won’t have an issue. We are seated without any questions and head into the room that is an exact replica of their East Harlem, NY location. Though there are few people when we are seated, by the time we leave there is quite a respectable amount in the restaurant that actually has many more tables located outside of the replica room. The waitstaff is pleasant enough and the food, while very good, may have a reputation that precedes it. As for my dinner, I start with an extra dirty martini that can be made better by anyone in my family. It is billed as a Bombay martini on the check, but it seems there was probably a ice water left from the glass-chilling process that snuck into this watered down version of a classic cocktail. My dinner starts with a very decent heirloom tomato and burrata mozzarella caprese salad. Small, but tasty. Next up is my entrée that is also very good as I get pasta Bolognese which is generally a meat sauce. I get this at home regularly and this dish, while very good, is virtually the same as El’s. Rao’s is known for their meatballs, and in retrospect I should have considered that a meatball on the side of a meat sauce dish would be a little overkill, but that is what I did. They were able to split the standard two meatball portion to one and deliver it on the side in a bowl made to handle the sauce covered, baseball sized sphere if meat. The ball is OK and I’m not sure what makes it the item they are famous for. Always a risky proposition, I order a glass of house pinot grigio- that turns out to be a $16 glass- which is a bit contrary to the concept, I thought, of having a “house” wine. Isn’t it supposed to be a cheaper glass? After dinner we are both too full to even consider one of the $14 cannoli but opt for a cup of coffee to aid in our digestion. At this point, the texts are coming in fast and furious between the friends as they are arriving and getting their plan together for the evening. El and I are still confident in our decision to pass on both strip show parties, but will keep up with the group as the evening progresses. As we exit Caesar's from our dinner we are discussing our options. As we head to the strip to catch the bus back to Fremont Street, we see the open box office for Absinthe. This is a show that I have been interested to check out based on the online reviews we have read. The tickets run $97 each and having asked around at several places, it does not seem that we will be able to get these tickets any cheaper- online or elsewhere. Being able to knock it off our to-do list right now seems like it will fit. This will give everyone else a chance to plan their evening and then we should be able to either meet up later or tomorrow. We both really like the show which is a very funny, irreverent, and the most un-PC thing we have seen in a while. Incredible acrobatics and witty dialogue we both give enthusiastic thumbs up. 

These two are spinning at incredible speed in about a five foot circle...on roller skates

Tough to make out, but this guy built this tower of seven freestanding chairs as he climbed the tower and had chairs tossed up.

The show is over before 10:00 p.m. and we continue on back to Fremont Street to try to hit a couple of the spots that were closed earlier. As we arrive the Fremont Street Experience video show is going on, but we have no interest in seeing this, so at El’s suggestion, we head to Binion’s to get the photo of her with the cash that caused us to run late earlier. Sadly, even though this is a free offer, it is disappointing that the photo is still not in the basket. The decision is made to abort and just go with what we have. Our next stop is the bar called Commonwealth on Fremont Street. I get turned away at the door as backpacks are not allowed. With nowhere to store it, we have to skip it. We press on to the container park which is in the process of closing for the night, but the praying mantis show is just getting started, so we get some pictures of the fireballs. 

FIRE!

FIRE! (the music on the video is playing live. I did NOT add the music.)

Across the street is El Cortez which is another old time casino that is still around and preferred by locals. Thought we would check it out, but it does not greet us any better than the Plaza earlier in the day. A sad looking room, with an awful funk testing my olfactory senses, and an ultra-depressed looking clientele. We need a place to sit and pull out our guidebooks and see what other things we can do in this area. We find a bar and get a couple of beers. During this time, the girls have finished their strip show and have moved on to a dance club in Luxor which is a lot closer to our hotel, so we figure even though it is a bachelorette party, their night, from the sounds of it, has probably peaked and people are starting to call it a night and make their way home (a few of Sara’s local friends are out with them too). I text back and forth with Noelia to see what their plan is and El and I agree to jump on the bus and head back to the south end of the strip. Knowing that it will take a while, we tell them to carry on and we will reach out when we are in the area and if we can stop by to say hello that would be great, if not, we will just meet up with them tomorrow. The bus takes even longer than expected, not to arrive, but to make its way down the strip. It takes us an hour and fifteen minutes to get to Luxor and once we do we ask for LAX. As we walk away from the security guy that just gave us directions, El whispers "he just gave you the once over". I know exactly what she means as I am carrying a backpack and dressed in shorts and a tshirt. As we round the corner towards LAX, a thumping beat fills the air. It is only about ten yards before we are standing at three velvet rope options. The middle one says "V.I.P." I march to the front and ask for Nico at table 22. The gatekeeper gives me the fortunately for you: Nico is here, unfortunately for you: we do not allow shorts inside, rap. Actually somewhat relieved, El texts Noelia that we are outside if she wants to come out and visit for a moment. Seconds later she is outside, leaving behind the V.I.P. tables to visit with us for a few minutes. Instead of a quick hello, she suggests we get a drink at a nearby bar, to make our proper reacquaintances. We can't help but joke that Noelia is wearing short-shorts, and that the dress code only applies to males. Also, we find out that there is a $35 cover- again, only for males, so had they let me in, I would have had to pay for the privilege to drink in their club. It doesn't take long, but before El and I are ready to let her get back to her group inside, more texts start making their rounds and before we know it the whole V.I.P. section group is coming out of the club to say hello. Poor Nico went from a table of fifteen to zero in the matter of ten minutes when I showed up. Coincidence? Of the rest in the group I knew a few and we spent the next half hour taking pictures and goofing on the really drunk people. Just before 2:00 a.m., texts start coming in that the bachelor party group is looking to meet up with the bachelorette party group. Knowing that we aren't 29 anymore and getting a look at the people in this group, not only can't I see myself going out with them to another stop, I can't even see them going out to another stop. El and I decide to call it a night and tell them to keep us posted on Friday with their plans. And, though I did hear the next day that the two groups did actually meet up for more partying in the wee hours, El and I were quite content to be asleep before their Ubers arrived to whisk them off to the next watering hole. We wished them well, but knowing our limits aided in our positive experience this trip.

Friday June 10

We start the day with breakfast at Coco's which is like a small, local Denny’s-like establishment. We don’t need to do a big breakfast today and Coco's is next door to our motel. Mostly locals eating here. It is a typical greasy spoon menu. I get a standard, eggs, bacon, home fries and a cup of coffee. Probably the cheapest full meal we will eat all week. Our first stop today is the Atomic Testing Museum which is on Flamingo, but a ways down from the strip. According to the GPS, it is a two bus route and the first leg should be a pick up near the hotel. We walk to Koval Ave. and wait for the bus. We wait a few minutes before El texts the number on the sign to see when the next bus will arrive. Unfortunately, when you get the text back, they are only providing you with the bus schedule (which is something, though there is no actual real time information). The arrival time comes and goes, though we think it is within the realm of possibility that we could have arrived just as the last bus left. That said, we wait for the next bus time. Once that time comes and goes I ask the one other man waiting at the stop if there is any reasonable expectation that there is a bus forthcoming. “No way” was his reply. “The last one never came and this one looks like it's about to stiff us too." El and I decide to start walking up to Flamingo Rd. to catch the second leg bus. We walk about 20 minutes and get within 100 feet of Flamingo Rd. only to turn around and see the Koval bus we had been waiting on. We head to the Flamingo bus stop, not regretting our decision to walk. We catch the Flamingo bus to Atomic Testing Museum which is not that far. El is able to get 50% admission tickets on Groupon. We spend one hour walking the museum. It goes through the history of atomic weapons and its connection to the Las Vegas environs. It was not far from here that Las Vegas residents and visitors had virtually a front row seat to nuclear weapon test firings. Most of the exhibits were informational, educational, news coverage surrounding the tests, or physical artifacts ranging from office furniture used at the site to replicas of weaponry. There was an interesting sensory film that tried to give the viewer a sense of what it was like seeing, hearing, and feeling the tests from the city’s distance. At the end of the ATM, there was a temporary exhibit on Area 51, but I have less than zero interest in learning (or listening to conspiracy theorists) pontificate about the existence of aliens- we are through the exhibit in minutes. Afterwards we head back to the strip and on to the Erotic Heritage Museum which is right beyond the Trump International Hotel on Fashion Show Drive. The Erotic Heritage Museum is weird. Not that I knew what to expect going into a 25,000 sq/ft. warehouse size collection of “erotic heritage”. El is able to Groupon more half price tickets and as we redeem them, the clerk advises us of three things: pick up the phone at the Chicken Ranch, feel free to try the stripper pole, and third, if we want to ride the sex bike, to please come back to the front desk for a safety lesson. We are sent on our way. The museum is part collection of art, part history exhibits and part sex video. 

You'd think there would be way better stuff to take photos of in the Erotic Heritage Museum.

I can't say I was interested enough in many of the stops to slow me down as we moved through the space. I did make a point to pick up the phone at the Chicken Ranch which was an exhibit on the history of legal brothels in Nevada. The exhibit included the actual phone used at the Chicken Ranch. When you pick it up, you just hear more about the process of negotiating for services at the ranch. As we pass by, El jumps on the stripper poll, but quickly realizes her strengths are not in the muscles needed to perform. I didn’t need to watch most of the videos, though some of the news clips of Larry Flynt were interesting. Ancient artwork of penis sculptures and female nudes isn't really something I needed more than a quick pass of. Some of the historical information regarding censorship and pornography were interesting, but some of them require a lot of reading, so after a few minutes you move on. The evolution of the peep show and some of the artwork depicting the trauma of sex juxtaposed with wallpaper where guests can write either their experiences or how the art affected them were the most interesting things in the collection. Not a bad museum, but I am not sure I need to recommend it to others- unless they are into that sort of thing. We are told to meet the group for dinner at an Irish Pub called Rí Rá in the Mandalay Bay Casino at 4:00 p.m. It is just about 3:00 p.m. when we leave the EHM. We walk back to the strip and get the Deuce towards Mandalay Bay. Unfortunately, the bus is as slow as ever with the traffic situation and it takes us upwards of an hour to get down to Excalibur. There is a free tram that runs between Excalibur and Mandalay Bay, so we exit the bus and tram it down to the end of the line. The ride is free and the train comes every couple of minutes. Thinking for sure we will be late, we get to Rí Rá around 4:45 p.m. and none of our group is here. We make some calls and some are thinking about getting heading down to the bar, but it does not sound like we know of anyone who is actually going to arrive soon. Texting with the group, we realize that not only is no one here yet, they won't be here for, possibly hours, though I think a couple are making their way down. Oh, how quickly plans change. On the bus, El and I agreed we don’t need an Irish dinner and choose to try one of the other restaurants in the casino instead of being stuck waiting for people that will probably show, though we don't know when. El picks the Rx Boiler Room as the place she wants to eat dinner though it does not open until 5:00 p.m. We choose to stay at Rí Rá for a beer and wait for others. 

Hanging with this guy is one of the reasons I know we made the right decision not to leave.

If no one shows before the beer is done, we go to eat and come back later. If people arrive during the beer, we see if they are eating here or if they already ate or what. One of the most frustrating things for me (and I am not the only one) is the lack of a point person for plans. I have mostly been able to get information from Patrick and Noelia. El and I plan accordingly. Then we hear others are gathering at Sara and TJ’s house for festivities. So now we don't know who is coming down, who is not planning to come out, or if the whole plan (what there is of it) will get scrapped in place of something else. During the beer, Patrick and Jen arrive and we all head to the back bar to see what they know about a plan. We understand that there is a movement afoot to have a BBQ and pool party at Sara’s house. However, there are people that we cannot get ahold of to change plans so the agreement is that we will have to wait here at least until they show up. But the reality of asking people to come out to meet us just to turn around and go out to another place does not appeal to me. I do not know what solid plans had been discussed by any in the group. So it may be unfair of me to assume that there was ever a coherent “plan” with people trying to change it rather than a loose collection of ideas that were never formal. All I know is that we have potential minimum of 14 people in the group and that size group needs serious planning. Just getting that many people to agree on a place can be impossible, so one person needs to take charge. They choose the place and time and start sending out info to get this ball rolling. Sadly, there is usually some point where a breakdown occurs either because someone cannot meet with the plan or because someone down the line gets a better idea and tries to retroactively change the plan- or in this case, just splinters off to do their own thing. I was excited at the prospect to get the 14+ out to the pub. But all of the sudden reports come in letting us know that the splinter has occurred and the pool party is a go and a decision has to be made on our end to leave and join or remain here. We don’t yet have a table, but Patrick and Jen order dinner unbeknownst to the rest of us. Their food arrives and El and I splinter ourselves to go down to Rx Boiler Room for dinner hoping that more info would be available as to who was coming and what would be the path for the rest of the evening. The Rx Boiler Room is going with a farm-to-table dining thing. I didn’t get that sense from the menu, but semi-creative American cuisine would be my label. We start with a dish of fresh made guacamole served with oversized potato chips that seem to be a dumb chip choice. I think housemade corn chips would have been better, but we are served these 2” by 5” chips that were a little greasy and required you to break them apart before dipping. Tasty guac, but impractical chips. For my entrée I get pan grilled chicken served with broccoli rabe, some unknown couscous-like grain, and spicy tomato sauce on the chicken. I also order a side of roasted Brussels sprouts. The whole dinner is tasty enough, but I think the mission of the restaurant is lost on me. We skip any coffee or dessert and get back to the pub. Back at Rí Rá, El and I make the decision to stay here for the night. Dave and Sveta have arrived, and we hear Amy is coming with her sister. Our hotel is right around the corner from here, so the idea of leaving for parts unknown does not appeal much to me and after our dinner, a BBQ even less so. Reports are coming in that group members are drinking themselves to the point that them coming out is not happening and I think we made the right call. Noelia cabs to Rí Rá to try to convince us to come to the house, but by this time we are pretty happy with our comfortable conversation. She stays for a while and then leaves to head back to the house. Our evening is enjoyed by all and we wish that the rest of the group would have come to meet us, though the idea of several drunks would certainly have spoiled this party and I would not have had such a positive night. We are home by midnight and not drunk ourselves. But we are sleeping immediately. Beat from our day.

Saturday June 11

Wake up and head up to Wynn Casino to meet Noelia and Dave for brunch buffet which is regarded as one of the most popular and decent buffets on the strip. It costs $35 each and is quite busy at 11:00 a.m. The line is about a half hour long. Once in, we all go our own way loading up on the things that appeal to us depending on what you are in the mood for. It is OK, not great, but we do feel that we got our money’s worth. Some of the food was hit or miss. The eggs Benedict, not my favorite, but the apple crepes were very good. After brunch El and I head to Bellagio to see the conservatory. The horticulture exhibit is described as one of the best in the world and “will give a reason to never have to see another again.” Well, I don’t know who said that but I would like to slap them. We walk through Bellagio looking for the exhibit and, at this point are not sure if it is an outdoor garden or more like a greenhouse. We walk through and keep our eyes open. We do spot some room that has several people inside, but plastic fish hanging from the ceiling and cement sculptures of scuba divers and other undersea scene pieces keep us moving along. Eventually getting past most of the shops in the hallway, we spot an employee and ask to be pointed to the conservatory, to which she tells us that we just passed it! “That room with the fish?” I ask. “Yes”. 

Bellagio's famous dancing water show. It certainly gets more spectacular, of course I didn't get a picture of that!

The Dale Chihuly glass sculpture over Bellagio's reception area.

We turn back and go into the room which does seem to have a lot of flowers, but they don’t seem to be arranged in any sort of artistic manner, and unless they are some rare species of flower- I truly have no idea what the attraction is here. A cement turtle with a bunch of flowers on the shell is not something that interests me. We don’t spend more than a few minutes as part of the herd. The Bellagio also has the world’s largest chocolate fountain and El gets a couple of pics as we pass by. Then we find the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, but naively did not expect there to be an entrance fee. I don’t care enough to pay $16 each to see art. After Bellagio we head back to the hotel to change into our evening duds. As usual in this town, we are underestimating our time. The wedding starts at 6:00 p.m. and even though it is about 5:00 p.m., I already feel it starting to weigh that we could be running to make the nuptials. As we get up to the strip to take the SDX bus up to the SLS hotel (where the wedding is), walking past the MGM I make the decision to take the monorail that starts at MGM and ends at SLS. It is not included in our bus pass and we will have to pay the $5 each for the one way ride. The monorail is a good choice as there is no traffic to contend with. Once on the monorail, my comfort level goes up and I am able to ride happy. While on the train, I take a phone call from a 702 (Las Vegas) area code. It is pretty much the only local number that might be calling...”hello, Mr. Morrell this is Restaurant Guy Savoy calling to confirm your reservation tomorrow at 5:30." I affirm and she continues, "are there any birthdays or special occasions in your party for the evening?" Again, I affirm. "Sure, my wife and I are celebrating our anniversary". "Very well, we'll see you then", she concludes as El gives me the one raised eyebrow and sly smile look. On the way, we text to meet the group at the beer garden in SLS. Most of the group is there watching a soccer game and once we speak with them we realize that the wedding is not until 6:30 p.m., not 6:00 p.m. This is better and we each get a beer. After some table discussion of the splitting of the check, we are all on our way to the Sayers Club for the wedding ceremony. There is an open bar while family and friends file in. The ceremony will be small and once started only last about 15 minutes. It may be the second quickest wedding I have ever attended. After the ceremony we are instructed to take the elevator…not the escalator, but the elevator only to the Lux Pool for a private reception. We are able to get a cabana and there is a Mexican food spread available. Again, open bar, and knowing who I know in this group, I expect that is going to be one hefty proposition. That said, we get settled enjoying the food and drinks and conversations amongst our group. Eventually, Sara and T.J. arrive and get introduced and let their family members have some words with the audience. Then the DJ takes over and the entire night becomes one big pool party. Some handle the evening better than others and I am proud to say I was not a casualty. I enjoyed the food and drink and catching up with some very good people from my past. I find there are two kinds of people at this event…when everyone has at least a buzz going and the call/chant comes on yelling for shots…some step forward and later wish they hadn’t, while others look for the waitress to order a soft drink instead. There were a lot of bad decisions being made, but as with our experience at Rí Rá, I am happy with the ones I make for myself. El and I are able to last until midnight when the hotel starts to wind things down. Lights going off, cash bar starts, pool toys being reeled in. There are not kicking us out, but they are clearly letting us know that our time is through. We say our goodbyes and head out, leaving the designated caregivers to their duties. Again, both beat, we are sleeping in short order. 

Sunday June 12

We wake around 9:00 a.m. and casually get ready for our day. The one plan we have for today is dinner reservations at 5:30 p.m.. After talking out our plan, we take the SDX up to Fremont Street stopping first at Du-par’s who boast to have won “best pancakes in the U.S.” awards. Of course we have no idea who awarded them that, but they were recommended as very good pancakes. This is the same place we got the shrimp cocktail the other day. So as not to spoil our dinner, we each get a short stack of pancakes and split a side of bacon. The pancakes arrive shortly and they are pre-buttered and served with real maple syrup…and they are really great pancakes. After breakfast we head to the Main Street Station Casino that we understand is unique in that the guy who built/developed the casino installed many items from his personal antique collection, making a walkthrough just a little different than what you ordinarily see in other places. Walking in we are struck by the antique chandeliers that each have stories of origin and light up the room with a little more pizzazz than other rooms we have seen in this city. The concierge desk in the lobby will hand you a map of the casino highlighting the pieces of interest. These range from stained glass windows and sculptures to an actual piece of the Berlin Wall standing behind a row of urinals in the men’s room. The hotel does not offer wi-fi so we see the sights and move on back to Banger Brewing where we know there is wi-fi and beer. Also, I have to find a bank ATM- figuring the ATMs in the casinos will probably charge a large fee for their services. El is able to go online and register us for the TSA Precheck while I hit the bank. We finish up our beer and head down to Caesar’s for dinner. Our reservation is at 5:30 p.m., but we could stand to be a few minutes early. We take the SDX back to Bellagio and start walking to Caesar’s. While we walk by, the periodical dancing water show starts its performance and we watch that spectacle that lasts exactly as long as Mancini’s Pink Panther Theme. Once at Caesar's, we find a seat at a bar and will change into our dinner clothes in a bathroom once we cool down a little. There are many more people in the bathroom, a line even, but, hey, it’s not my silly rules that dictate that I can’t go spend a fortune on dinner if I am not wearing the appropriate clothing. So, after carrying my shoes, shirt, and pants around in my backpack all day, I make my way to the changing room/bathroom. It takes me a few minutes but I manage in the cramped stall. I emerge to a line of men who probably needed that stall more desperately than me. It is now 4:30 p.m. and since we are not gambling, I am paying for every drink, which is more than I’d like, but I do have the option of losing $25 at the video poker game and getting comped drinks or spending $24 on drinks and not losing anything at poker. I guess it is all in how you look at it. El does the same changing act in the bathroom and now we are ready for dinner. We spend some time looking through Facebook posts of the wedding…and seeing which of our friends do not know how to edit their posts to include only the good photos. Whatever. I will untag myself as I look closer at the photos. We look into seeing a show tonight after the dinner, but not knowing how long our dinner will run, I am reluctant to commit to the ticket at this hour. I think Blue Man Group would be fun and the show is at 9:30 p.m., hoping we can make it work. 
A couple of the wedding guests are flying out Monday, so there is a possibility we will be able to do something with them tonight, though after seeing the shape of everyone last night, I expect I am not going out drinking with them tonight. We will plan to do our own thing with the flexibility to pass on the show, should something better be offered. 

At 5:30 p.m. we head up to the restaurant. We are the first guests of the evening, which I actually like, and, in a place that prides itself on the most attentive service, you get attention from every person in the organization. Once other tables start to arrive they are splitting their time between all of us and while the service remains impeccable, they’re just a flurry of activity, but when they are all working on your table for lack of other tables to attend to, it seems like there is just one thing after another, and they remind us of the dinners we love so much, but enjoy so rarely- for obvious monetary reasons. Before we can even open our menus, the sommelier wheels the champagne cart tableside to offer us a glass from the selection. The thing is that the first time we ate at Guy Savoy, the way the cart was presented, El and I both expected the glass to be complimentary. Which is all well and good until you get the bill to find that each glass is a whopping 50 Euros! Yep, we mistakenly spent 100 Euros on two glasses of champagne. Having been burned, we politely decline the offerings this evening. Unfortunately, all of the tasting menus are offered only to the whole table so even though we are only two, getting us to agree to a tasting menu is not as easy as it should be. Tonight they are offering four different tasting menus and a selection of a la carte dishes. We start off with a cocktail and I get a gimlet which is made perfectly. As we review our menus, they start with the amuse-bouches- the single bites of things that sometimes are better than any single thing you have eaten in the last month. Sometimes these are served simply and sometimes their presentation is like something you’ve never seen before. The first bite we are served are two mini toast points skewered tableside with sea salt seasoned fois gras that is already best thing I have put In my mouth this week. We are off to a great start. A plate of juniper/rosemary bread is dropped off and we are introduced to the table’s butter selection (two varieties from the south of France). This is meant to hold us over until the bread cart arrives. Staff come by to ask if they can answer questions about the menu. We don’t have many questions but narrowing the list is a challenge. The next bite dropped off is a Parmesan waffle with a drop of olive paste and before we can even pop that in our mouth, a mini burger arrives- a little smaller than the size of a quarter. It is made with Parmesan buns and the filling is a caramelized onion burger. The effort, inventiveness, and thought that goes into designing and executing these bites is just incredible. By now the bread cart has been wheeled over and shows up full of the baked bounty. We are introduced to each item and encouraged to choose as many as we like. I choose a slice of caramelized onion loaf, a bacon and seasalt bun, and a Parmesan/egg bread. 

Mini-burgers.

This evenings butter and salt & pepper selections.

We had a bread guy (who also doubled as the cheese guy)

By now El and I have decided to each get a soup and a main course, and also to split a bowl of black truffle risotto. The next thing we get is a ceramic dish that is made of two opposite facing shotglass sized cups. The up facing cup has a sprinkling of toasted quinoa in the bottom and is filled at the table with a chilled cauliflower soup. The demitasse spoon ensures you can’t eat it all in one sip, and can enjoy a few samples before it is all gone. Once your soup cup is empty, you remove the ceramic dish to reveal a crab croquette bite- about the size of a marble, and exquisite. Finally, our first course is served. The one that is Guy Savoy’s signature dish. The one that made him famous and the reason we have come back to his restaurant twice. It is a cream of artichoke soup with shaved black truffles and Parmesan-Reggiano cheese. On the side it is served with a layered mushroom brioche with black truffle butter. You eat the soup and then you clean the bowl with the brioche- leaving nothing behind. Pretty much as good as we remember it. The next item is delivered in a bowl with a glass dome over it. Under the glass bell is a six inch octopus tentacle sitting on a platform (inside the bowl) that has several holes in it. There are alternating dollops of tomato/garbanzo bean puree and cucumber paste. Before retreating from the table the servers pour something (water?) into the bowl. The best way to explain this is that maybe there were a few flakes of dry ice placed under the platform and when the water is poured into the bowl it starts the fog stream flowing up through the holes in the ceramic platform giving the appearance that the tentacle is floating in a bubbling cauldron. The steam fills the glass which is removed as the servers exit allowing the steam to dissipate. The octopus is cooked perfectly and a bite of it paired with the tomato/garbanzo puree is just fantastic. 

Toasted quinoa with chilled cauliflower soup...but wait, there's more.

Surprise, a crab croquette underneath.

Oh yeah. That's the good stuff. A $75 bowl of soup.

Probably the single most creative presentation of food I have ever witnessed...and it was sent to us compliments of the chef.

Once the fog lifts...

Next out is our split of the black truffle risotto with mascarpone cheese. Each of our portions are about the size of a half of an English muffin and it does not last very long. Always just enough to leave you wanting more. I have opted to stick with water for the duration of the dinner, though El gets a glass of wine. For my main dish, I get “Veal Three Ways” which are chop, sweetbreads, and cheek. The plate arrives with just the three variations on it. A server leans in and spoons out some vegetables between each of the meats, ending with the addition of radish tartin in the center. Next, a single serving saucepan is presented with a puff pastry dome. The server removes the dome and sets it in the center of the plate, covering the radishes. Then he uses a spoon to drizzle the morel mushroom au jus over the veal portions. We are offered more breads, but decline knowing that we are both getting very full. El enjoys a surf and turf dish of wagyu beef and butter-poached lobster which, she assures me, is fantastic in every way. We work through our meals, taking in every bite. My chop is cooked perfectly, the cheeks are very fatty and flavorful- though if there was any minor complaint on my part was that the saltiness of the au jus reduction mixed with the saltiness of the braised cheeks was a little too much salt. Though the sauce mixed well with the chop and sweetbreads. The sweetbreads were cooked al dente with a light sear on the outside. Each meat was about six bites and the vegetables were served bite sized. 

Tableside black truffle shaving.

And that's not even a tablespoon! You only get a few bites with a half-portion.

Chops to the left, sweetbreads to the right, cheeks in the back.

By the end, we both should have known better than to order a dessert. Luckily, they offered half servings of the dessert selections. I choose “Coconut Six Ways”, a glass of Armagnac, and a cup of coffee. Of course, additional complimentary bites keep arriving. Next up is a shotglass of aloe vera jelly layered with a grapefruit compote, topped with a lemon bergamot foam. The server suggests digging with the spoon to the bottom to get all three flavors each time instead of trying to eat one layer at a time. The Armagnac and coffee arrive followed by the dessert, both plates presented with a single, lit, blue and white striped candle. Mine is served in a stemless wineglass and is six layers of differing shades of white. The layers were shaved (just thin sliced coconut meat), crumble (like a coconut Grapenuts), gelee (like Jell-o), granita (like a sorbet), cream (a coconut pudding), and foam (coconut flavored bubbles that melt in your mouth). Again, I am instructed to try to get each layer in each bite. As the servers retreat, the maître d' wishes us a happy anniversary. As I get ready to attack my first bite, out of wine to toast with, El stealthily extends her arm towards me, coffee cup in hand. Knowing where she is going, I pick up my coffee cup as she softly says "happy 171/3 year anniversary" as the cups meet with a light ting. Hey, I didn't tell the restaurant how long we had been married. I love coconut- pretty much all ways. And this is no exception. The one thing that is really interesting is the lack of sweetness throughout the dessert. Usually you eat puddings or ice creams that can be sweet- really sweet. This is dessert is designed to feature the flavor of the coconut only by highlighting the six different textures. Really an incredibly clever and unique twist on a flavor I consider among my favorites. 

Very citrusy. This was our palate cleanser.

"Coconut Six Ways"

El's chocolate dessert. Complete with anniversary candle.

Selections from the sweet bites cart.

By now we are both, extremely full bordering on uncomfortable and just as we are resting, digesting and finishing up the last sips of our drinks, of course, they wheel out another cart of desserts. Just like the bread cart, there are about 15 choices of bite sized tarts, cakes, and ices. You can choose as many as you like. I take a coffee muffin and a cheesecake bite. As I eat the coffee muffin, the reality is setting in that I am now beyond full and am not sure that I should ingest anything more. No coffee, no water, and certainly no cheesecake. El does sneak my cheesecake bite and we motion to get our check (about $825 before tip). We finish up and upon our exit, we are each handed a box with a corn muffin compliments of the restaurant. In retrospect, most people will never eat a meal like this in their lives, but when I come to Vegas and fail to gamble a single dime, I know that I choose to spend my money on this sure thing, rather than at the tables. After dinner, feeling overstuffed, we opt for the bus back to Excalibur rather than the walk that we thought we might be able to do. We hobble back to the room and have already dismissed the idea of doing anything else this evening. 

Monday June 13

Wake without an alarm. Our only planned event today is the Grand Canyon helicopter tour which will pick us up at 4:45 p.m. at the hotel. 

Here is our agenda for the day.

While considering our options for the day, El checks email to see that there is a fraud alert on our main credit card. Visa is telling us that the card has been suspended and we need to contact them immediately. El makes the call to find that our card number has been stolen and we need to cancel the card and get new ones mailed. Luckily, this happened on our last day and we have a couple other cards we can use. Just a sincere inconvenience. Once done, we discussed that we don’t need to go up to Fremont Street again today and don’t have a need to hit any of the strip casinos either. We want to be lazy today. We do need to call the airport shuttle bus to confirm our pick up time for tomorrow. One of the things that we are trying to do is sign up for the TSA Precheck program. The only issue for us is that at home, the closest interview location is in St. Lawrence, NY which would require taking a day off of work to get to. Keeping our TSA Precheck interview in mind when scheduling the shuttle, we expect to be at the airport really early. After catching up on my journal and talking out some options, we decide to go find a restaurant that we just saw on Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives, called Crepe Expectations. El is able to pull up maps and bus routes on the phone and we figure it will take us about an hour each way. Add in the eating time and we will still have plenty of time to make it back before the pickup. We take the same bus we took our first night to the ramen place. Down Tropicana to Eastern then we change buses and head west for 20 stops to the middle of the suburbs. Strip mall heaven. With the waiting for buses included, it did take us about an hour to get to the restaurant. I order a Rosarita crepe and a coffee. The crepe is filled with chorizo, scrambled egg, guacamole, and Monterrey jack cheese. The operation is pretty impressive. We talk to the cashier about the DDD episode and see that they have a plaque commemorating the show taping. Turns out, the episode was taped last year and what we saw last week was a rerun. She tells us that unfortunately they did not know there would be a rerun last week and the shop was closed for vacation. She wonders how many people came when they were closed. The couple in front of us was here for the exact same reason (they saw that episode), so, like him or not, Guy does bring some people into these places featured on his show. After lunch, we head back to the hotel. Again, waiting for buses is a big part of the trip (turns out we are nine miles away from the hotel). One of the things we learned when we got on the bus was that the 24 bus pass that costs $8 when purchased on the strip, only costs $5 if you buy it on the residential bus. This means that if you need to buy a couple of day passes, walk one block off the strip, buy the pass on the city bus, take it one stop, get off, cross the street and either take the next bus back to the strip, or just walk back and you will save $3 per pass. We are back to the hotel around 2:00 p.m. and El decides she wants to go hang by the pool for a little while. Not to swim, just to sit poolside. I work on the journal of the dinner from last night then grab a few moments of sleep waiting for the pickup.  We hope that maybe we can get back in time to see Blue Man Group at Luxor. We will see how it goes. The bus arrives basically on time. We are the last pickup and the bus heads directly to the helicopter terminal at the airport. I am shocked by how many people are waiting to do the same trip we are. Upon arrival at the terminal we are weighed with all of our gear and square up on charges then handed a group number card and told to have a seat. When doing the research for this trip, I had narrowed the helicopter tours to the Grand Canyon down to three different companies. Similar offerings, similar reviews. When I asked a Las Vegas native about the options, she told me that Maverick is known as a great company for this kind of tour. Since the tours do have a minimum passenger count to make it go, I was afraid of the possibility of booking this tour on our last day here, for fear that we would be notified too late to rebook should the two of us not meet the minimum. An email inquiry earlier in the week, assured us that the minimum had been met and we had no reason to worry. When we arrived at the terminal and checked in I had no idea that there were nine helicopters worth of people- about 50! Fifty people all heading on the Wind Dancer package with sunset add-on. At 5:30 p.m. each pilot came out like Mouseketeers or beauty pageant contestants, introducing themselves to the crowd. “Hi everybody, my name is Steve and I am looking for group number six. Grrrrroooop six, step over here.” Followed immediately by “hello everybody, I am Jared, I am really happy to be here and I will be group three’s pilot today, so group threeeeeee, meet me over here.” And so on until all passengers had been matched with a pilot. Once in our vehicle groups, Jared leads us through a quick introduction and then to the copter. We start by getting our assigned life jackets. Since we were going to be flying over a few lakes and rivers on our trip, it was a requirement. It wasn’t more than a large fanny pack. Jared gave us the quick tutorial and then we all had to walk to the front of the copter as the staff photographer came by to take a daylight pic of each couple with the pilot and the copter…for sale at a later time I expect. Jared finishes up the safety spiel and asks who wants to sit in the front. Me and one other guy raise hands. Jared tells me that he will take the front there and then I can have my choice on the way back (this just made my day). Minutes later we are in the air soaring 150 mph towards Arizona. Jared gives us some info as we fly out of Vegas and over the desert towards Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. Most of the info here has to do with the drought and how full Lake Mead used to be, of course from this vantage point you can see water marks that indicate where the level had reached before. It is much lower today. 

Flying over the Hoover Dam.

Flying into the Grand Canyon.

Once you get beyond the city, the whole of the landscape turns to rugged, unforgiving terrain. Incredibly few dwellings, let alone communities on the 45 minute flight to the canyon. El had never been on a helicopter before and my experience was so long ago, that this was a new experience for both and at some point, Jared comes over the headset asking if anyone is going to be sick. “This is right around the time that if it is going to happen…” Luckily, everyone is hard of stomach and we all give a thumbs up. With the exception of the views, the trip is mostly uneventful, quiet and comfortable. So far, so good. We take a few pictures and before we know it, Jared is asking if anyone has ever heard of the Skywalk (a glass-bottomed walkway overlooking the Canyon). We all say yes and he points out that we are now flying close enough to see it from below. It is small from where we can see, though we can’t get any closer and we won't be able to see it on the return. Before we know it we are getting set to land. It is by no means a landing pad, just a place that is flatter than steep and big enough for nine copters to set down at the same time. We exit the copter and ditch the life vest belt. Jared lays out the dos and don’ts for the time here. Do walk around. Don’t fall off the cliff. That kind of stuff. There are picnic tables set up here and the pilots set up our champagne and snacks while we explore. There is not really that much in terms of places to explore (the landing spot isn’t that big). Mostly just photo ops of the canyon and each other. We get 35 minutes on the landing. The sun is in the process of setting and changing the colors/shadows in the canyon walls by the second. 

Taking photos of yourself seemed like the thing to do.

Looking around the canyon.

More canyon views

On the landing area, with the Colorado River below.

The shadow on the left. Then...

The shadow on the right as the sun sets.

We take some pics, we take some of ourselves and others and make it to the table for our drink and “gourmet” picnic box that has trail mix, cheese and grapes, fig newtons and a croissant. We chit chat with the pilot and some of the others from our group who are just starting their vacation and looking for dining options. Before you know it, it is time to take off. We are reminded to grab the life vest again and now, because I raised my hand to sit in the front, I get the chance to choose whether I want the first or second leg of the trip. Every copter has to stop for fuel half way back, so I get to choose if I want the front on the way to the fuel stop or the last part that will take us over the evening Vegas strip just before landing. I choose the strip. It is kind of funny to see nine copters drop into an unmanned fuel station, literally, in the center of nowhere, fill their tanks and take off in less than ten minutes. And like the famous scene in Apocalypse Now, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is running through my head. Our front row seat is everything I expected. We get the moment that the sun sets behind the mountains and the Vegas strip lighting up. I try to take as many pics as I can hoping for one to come out good. We land back at the airport around 8:15 p.m. and upon arrival are offered our photos that were taken before we left. At $22 I don’t think I need it. We head out to the shuttle buses to figure out how to get dropped off at Luxor. The Blue Man Group show starts at 9:30 p.m. and we still need buy tickets. It really doesn’t take long for the bus to fill enough to go and we are on the road around 8:30 p.m. After a couple stops, Luxor is still one of the closest hotels to the airport and we are dropped around 8:45 p.m. We have our tickets at 9:00 p.m. and need to drop our backpack at the bell desk since they are not allowed in the theater. 

Just an ad on the side of Luxor.

After the bag and bathroom stops, we head up to the show. Even though we have assigned seats, the usher changes our seat numbers to get the audience to be more centered than fanned out in the back. Next, another usher comes through with fluorescent cray paper and passes it down to each of the people in the seats. We are told to rip a portion off and “put it on”. Make a hat, a head band, or any other way you want to wear it and be part of the show. We do it and at 9:30 p.m. the lights go down and the show starts. I saw Blue Man Group at the Astor Place Theater in NYC in 1992. I remember some of it, but not most of it. As we watch the show, I recognize some of the portions, while others are completely new. The time goes pretty quickly and the 1½ hour show is done at 11:00 p.m. We agree that we are both hungry and want to try the place across the hallway called Rice- a sushi and ramen place, unfortunately, they have just closed as have many of the eateries in this casino. The host does offer some suggestions but they are mostly fast food places and not the sit down kind of place we are looking for. There is one diner/pub option called Public House which is still open so we go there. I order a beer and a sandwich. But the waitress tells me they are out of the beer I want and out of the sandwich I want too. I reorder and get a beer and burger. The burger comes with tomato, lettuce, and a slather of caramelized onions. It is not a bad meal and at 11:45 p.m. she returns to tell us it is last call as they are closing at midnight. We finish, pay, and get going. We are beat and ready to call it a night. Our pick up on the airport shuttle is 9:30 a.m., but El has one errand she wants to do before we leave and will get up a little early for it. 

Tuesday June 14

El is up and out at 6:00 a.m. as she takes a run up to Caesar's Palace to grab some brioche from the Guy Savoy brioche shop at the casino. They open at 7:00 a.m. and though it is not exactly close, the lack of people on the street makes it easier to navigate than it will be later. I wake around 8:00 a.m. and am really not feeling well. I had no issues sleeping, but something in that dinner didn't agree with me and is letting me know now. The caramelized onions on the burger were the likely culprit. I get a little jittery at the prospect of taking a cross-country flight, so I take some Pepto to try to get things under control. We finish up our packing and are checked out and curbside at 9:30 a.m. It has been a very fun and productive vacation for us and we leave with very few items still on our must do list. Our flight today is not until 2:00 p.m., but in addition to us wanting to give ourselves plenty of time to get through the check-in and security process, we also have our TSA Precheck interview this morning. We will be walk-ins while appointments will take priority ahead of us. We have our bags checked in in no time and are off to the interview. Last time we were in this office there were about ten people waiting in the chairs with one agent checking people in and performing the interviews. This time, there is only one person ahead of us. And with two agents doing interviews we are both interviewed and processed in a matter of 20 minutes. Now we have 3½ hours until our flight. We grab some breakfast in the terminal and make our way to the gate to sit and wait. The monitor says on time, but by the time we get to the gate, the status has changed to delayed. We ask the gate attendant what the issue is and are told it is a mechanical issue with the plane that has not taken off from California just yet. As the time passes so extends the delay and we get to the point that we will not leave Las Vegas until 5:00 p.m. Of course we will then miss our connection to Albany. An announcement comes that instead of rebooking us, we are going to hold out hope as they are working to get another plane for us be able to leave closer to on time. The problem is that Baltimore is a hub airport for Southwest and this means that most passengers are going through Baltimore and have connections later in the day. But as the time passes, more and more people are missing their connection. They are still "looking for a new plane". Eventually, the expected announcement comes that there will be no other plane and they will be calling passengers up by destination to discuss options and rebooking. Since alphabetically Albany is close to the front, we get called immediately. We are offered two options: stay in Las Vegas one more night and rebook for the first plane out tomorrow. They have a room for us. Option #2: Fly to Baltimore tonight, however, they have no hotel in Baltimore for us and tell us we will sleep in the terminal, and get booked on the first available tomorrow. I did throw out a couple of suggestions, like flying us to another hub tonight that might have an Albany flight tonight or early tomorrow. I thought Chicago or Dallas would have been good for that. Agent assures me that every flight to Albany will go through Baltimore. Also, the $400 Southwest travel vouchers also make a bad situation just a hair more palatable. What would you have done? I sent an email to the boss telling him I needed another day off and would report to work on Thursday. VEGAS! We’re back, baby! We get our rebook and listen to everyone else's sob story on the fifty reasons all of these options are unacceptable and they can’t arrive in Albany later than planned. We were scheduled to arrive in Albany at 1:00 a.m. tonight, and he has a doctor’s appt. at 8:00 a.m. that cannot be rescheduled? Now, I'm no genius, but that seems like it could have been a bit of sloppy planning on that one. She (complainer) and husband (with appt.) settle to fly direct into Hartford and rent a car to make the trip, but then she starts in with the complaint that she doesn't know how to drive between the two cities. I was thankful that we were waved on to another agent to deal with us. One disappointing thing to me is that we will have no access to our checked luggage, which makes the travel light, but I have already changed out of my sneakers into my flying slippers. Now, unless I want to find a shoe store, I am stuck in these sandals all night. We grab the free shuttle from the airport to the hotel and since we have no luggage to put on the bus, we can just jump out and head direct to registration, lest we wind up behind the rest of the people from the bus. El registers, while I head to the bell desk to ask about shuttles to the strip and airport in the morning. There is an $8.50 round trip shuttle that runs every hour to and from the strip until 1:00 a.m. This will suit us fine. It is now about 4:30 p.m. and the next shuttle is 5:05 p.m. We look into a couple of options and decide to hit a show and dinner. Two of the shows I wouldn’t have minded seeing are dark tonight, so we settle on Zumanity in NYNY. We want to hit the 7:00 p.m. show and then get some dinner afterwards. The shuttle takes us to Excalibur and we walk across the street to NYNY. In my sandals with socks I assure you I am blending in with at least 50% of the crowds of people in his city. We are able to bob and weave through the masses of people to get ourselves to the box office. As we enter the casino, a flyer passer gives us (and everyone) a coupon for discounted coupons for tickets for tonight's show. We buy our tickets for the 7:00 p.m. show. Doors are at 6:30 p.m. and it is now 6:00 p.m. El needs to find a mailbox, and I want to get a toothbrush and toothpaste to replace our checked items. Once that is done, we grab a special at Sirricio's pizza. One slice and a Rolling Rock for $7.77. When we get up to the front, they are out of Rolling Rock and substitute Sam Adams. Good enough. The pizza is OK, but certainly nowhere near NYC standards. We are finished by 6:30 p.m. and head to the theater. Our balcony seats give us quite a good view of the stage. There is a comedic preshow that does offer some good laughs at the expense of some of the audience members. The show is 18+ and some of the comedy is adult oriented. The show starts at 7:00 p.m. and I am not sure if it is where we are sitting or what, but the music is loud and clear, while the vocals are low and drowned out. The first number in the show turns out to be one about the rules, so she is singing about how photography is prohibited and to silence your cell phones, and for the people in the balcony to remain seated at all times while aerial stunts are being performed. Once the show gets underway it is apparent that this is more of a sensual ballet with acrobatics than a play with a storyline. There were some fun skits and some of the physical routines were quite impressive. My favorite was the water performance. Think of it as a Jacuzzi sized, clear aquarium that rises from underneath the stage like a giant wine glass with two semi-naked Asian contortionists performing an incredibly erotic program showing off their flexibility and balancing on the rim of the glass and then swim sensually in the oversized fishbowl where their hair billows like exotic fish. The performance lasts only a few minutes, but was quite impressive. The show is billed as the “sensual side of Cirque du Soleil” so I didn’t expect it to get graphic, just a little risqué. There were some clever emcees who were able to pull some very funny reactions from audience members. The show ran 1½ hours and we agreed that while good, Absinthe was the hands down winner for us this week. That show was really funny, quite graphic, and also included some similarly incredible feats of acrobatics. After the show, we head to Tom’s Urban, also in NYNY, which is a restaurant that serves small plates inspired by street food from around the world. We start with a very decent “wok charred spicy edamame” that is served in a garlic and hot pepper sauce. Not too spicy, very decent. For my entree I get the “Big Ass Egg Roll” which is a spicy chicken and rice mixture rolled in a wonton skin and deep fried. It is served with a sweet and sour sauce that I am not much of a fan of. A little too sweet and not enough sour for me. The eggroll is more like a deep fried burrito instead of a Chinese eggroll. The filling is good and I leave most of the fried wonton shell. Too full for dessert and mindful of the time we order an apple pop tart dessert to go and try to catch our 10:20 p.m. bus back to the hotel (if we miss it, it will be 11:20 p.m. for the next one). Everything works as planned and we catch the bus at the meeting place. We are back at the hotel by 11:00 p.m. and we are in bed shortly thereafter. We have to be at the shuttle stop for 7:00 a.m.

In conclusion

What can I say that I haven't already said in previous journals? I have a great time traveling with El no matter where we go and what comes up. There were about ten of us that had to be rebooked yesterday and six of us chose the option that kept us in Vegas for an additional night. When boarding the plane we were recognized by two of them. At first we just smiled, but the woman asked El if she had a good night last night. El said “yes, we went to dinner and a show. It was a nice evening.” The woman asked if we had seen the show that was running in our hotel? “No, we went to the strip for Cirque du Soleil and had a great night out!” El said as she stepped towards the rear of the plane. The woman then looked at me and said she was just too tired to do anything last night. Of course this reminded us of our layover in Frankfurt, Germany one time (2007) when we learned that there are two types of layover people- those who are inconvenienced and are just trying to get through the situation as best they can. And the other kind that take the opportunity to make the best of a bad situation. No one wants to be inconvenienced, but it is part of travelling sometimes and if you can do something fun with the time you have, it can turn to a memorable episode that you can look back on fondly (remember that restaurant we ate at during that layover vs. remember that time we got stuck in Cleveland). Even sharing a plate of crab cakes in Baltimore was a fun lunch for us. Weddings are funny things to me as they can sometimes be boring affairs, but this wedding had a great collection of friends for us to socialize with that made it one of the better ones we have been to in a while. But, besides the wedding, the rest of the vacation was pretty great too. Of course, I had reservations and some doubt regarding who and why someone would go to Las Vegas in June, and now I know the answer…definitely us.


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