Saturday, April 21, 2012

What Happens in Vegas...gets told on my blog

Las Vegas has a reputation for being "sin city", a place where people go to do things they might not otherwise do at home. There certainly is the opportunity for excess, but in our case we go there to enjoy the luxury of a five star hotel at a bargain price, eat at restaurants and see top-notch entertainment the quality of which are usually not available to us at home. You can stay cheaply in a lesser quality hotel, but if you check the websites of the top rated properties and get on their email list, it is equally affordable for a higher-end experience. I got an email offer from the five star property in City Center, Aria, for only $79 a night. (As most hotels nowadays they do charge a daily $25 "resort fee" in addition to the room rate.) Nevertheless, that is what I paid to stay at the airport the night before our flight in a LaQuinta. That is like comparing the Taj Mahal to a tent.

It's not an accident that you have to walk through the casino to get to the guest elevators. We don't gamble as a rule, but just for fun we occasionally will sit at a penny or quarter slot machine for a short while.
On the way to the room we did just that. I dropped $1 into a penny machine and pushed a few buttons. I didn't actually know what I was doing, but all of a sudden the light on the top of the machine started flashing and before I knew it I had won $78. Suffice to say, I wasn't taking any chances and cashed out. That was the last time I played until the last day, when almost the exact thing happened at another machine where I won $40 in the span of a few minutes. The key is to take the winnings and not fall into the trap of using it to try to win more. It was a nice little treat, but not an addiction I care to flirt with.

I loved the health club at Aria. The service is impeccable. Upon check-in you are given a chilled bottle of water and a towel. The beautiful sitting room complete with fireplace and couches has a refrigerator with more water and urns with fruited water. The swimming pools are beautiful, although too shallow to do any serious swimming (my only complaint). Poolside drink service is plentiful and prompt and there are plenty of lounge chairs to go around. All the most renowned chefs have restaurants in Vegas. These can, of course, be pricey. We did try one: Nob Hill, a Michael Mina restaurant at the MGM Grand. A great choice! The decor was subdued and masculine. It reminded me of a place businessmen would take their clients. Our appetisers were quail and fois gras and we shared the signature lobster potpie, which was brought to the table in a large pot and served to our plates by the waiter. Other favorites were Todd English P.U.B., which was in Crystals right next to our hotel. I still can't stop thinking about the fabulous lobster on toasted buttered rolls. (Hmmm, seems like a recurring theme, now that I think of it.) 

My favorite restaurant by far was Julian Serrano, inside Aria, a tapas restaurant which offers small plates, all of which are tempting. The ahi tuna tempura, served on seaweed salad would be my choice every time.

Two meals revolved around the fountains at Bellagio: a must see when in the city. The computerized fountain show has no equal in the world except in Dubai. Every 15 minutes the fountains dance to a different musical piece. The water is choreographed to match the music and is thrilling to watch. During the high points in the music, the water rockets hundreds of feet into the air with a loud explosion. We were blessed to get a ringside seat at the patio at the restaurant Olives in the Bellagio Hotel. Another day we ate dinner at Mon Ami Gabi, across the street from the Bellagio and in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower for a different view of them.

I can't stay in the neon lights of the city too long without getting into nature. We took day trips to Lake Havasu, Arizona, where we visited a friend and saw "Fiddler on the Roof" at Grace Arts Live, and another day to Red Rock Canyon, just an hour outside of Vegas. It is a beautiful place to hike and enjoy God's beautiful creation and quite a contrast from the glitz and man-made excess of the strip.

Now that we are home, I have gotten my fill of Vegas for awhile.  But I know from past experience in time I'll be ready to go again.  Perhaps someday when Eric Kunze is starring in Phantom of the Opera...

More photos on my Picasa photo album here

Kicking it in the Keys

There is nothing like getting on a plane in the middle of winter and arriving a few hours later in a warm and sunny clime.  Our first trip to the Keys was years ago, the first vacation Georg and I took alone after our sons were grown.  I will never forget driving across miles of bridges in a convertible, Latin music blaring on the radio, with nothing but blue sky above and blue water below us.  I've wanted to return ever since.

The Keys vibe is unique.  The lifestyle is laid-back and casual.  No need to bring fancy clothing.  Flipflops and shorts are the dress code.  It is similar to Hawaii in that way, another location to which I could return again and again.  I'll leave the high heels, short skirts, fancy jewelry and glitzy hotels to the younger crowd. 

My favorite key is Islamorada.  The location is central to either Miami, which is where we fly into, or Key West, the farthest and southernmost spot in the continental U.S.  Our accomodations were perfect at the Pines and Palms Resort.  We had our own cottage with a kitchen with a little front lawn and patio table.  The entire property was pristine.  In fact, I've never stayed anywhere that was better maintained.

The food in the Keys quite naturally revolves around seafood and there are no dearth of wonderful places to sample it. The Hungry Tarpon was one of my favorites. From the highway, you could almost miss it. The flea market surrounding it and unassuming exterior might dissuade you from entering, but once you are seated at a shady table overlooking the harbor and the bridges you feel as though you might never want to leave. The food is startlingly good for such a rustic place. My lobster frittata was superb. We were entertained by pelicans and seabirds as all sorts of watercraft drifted by. 

Another steller meal was at the Island Grill, home of the ahi tuna nacho, served on a bed of seawood. We celebrated Valentine's Day watching the spectacular sunset with other couples at the Islamorada Fish Company. The food was not as memorable here, but the setting was very romantic.

Key West is a must-do for a day trip. Because it is very touristy and crowded I would not want to overnight there. We love to people watch and sitting at a beachside table, sipping a mojito at the Southernmost Beach Cafe at the foot of Duval Street provided ample entertainment for hours. We didn't stay for sunset this trip, but I have fond memories of Mallory Square, which is filled with street performers from cat acts to jugglers and contortionists. The crowd cheers when the sun disappears below the horizon. One of the most beautiful sunset photos I have ever taken (and I have taken many in my lifetime) was at this spot.

Refreshed and renewed, our last day was spent poolside at our resort, soaking in as many rays as we could before returning to the cold and snow back home.


More photos on my Picasa Photo Album here