You've seen it in commercials what happens there stays there. You've seen it in the movies can you say "The Hangover"? You've seen it on some "reality" shows think a family willing to appear on multiple shows simultaneously (their primary claim to fame). But none of these prepare you for the reality that is Las Vegas. Maybe reality is the wrong word for Vegas. It is perhaps the most unreal place on the planet.
But a trip to what one of my colleagues called "Adult Disneyland" was a fine way to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary. And it was all Bill's idea! We had talked about going to New York always one of my favorite destinations, not so much Bill's and very expensive especially hotels on Memorial Day weekend. Then we contemplated Charleston, a place we've enjoyed before. We could drive, but hotels in the historic district where we wanted to be were jammed or approaching NYC prices.
So one day a few weeks before our big day, May 25, Bill got a sign from above. Okay, it was an email from Orbitz but it still worked to set off a light bulb in his head. We should go to Vegas. We had talked about a trip to Sin City, but had never made it. Bill's mom used to love Vegas. My sister-in-law, Lori, makes a yearly pilgrimage. Others have talked about it following conventions theyve attended. So I took the ball and ran with it.
It seems that Southwest Airlines has a nonstop flight from Norfolk a rarity in these days of air travel out of an airport that is definitely a spoke in the hub and spoke system. Not only were there relatively inexpensive (under $250) nonstop flights but package "Southwest Vegas Jackpot Deals" available. So for about $1,100 I booked two fares and three nights in a hotel on the "Strip."
I spent a lot of time on Google trying to determine which of the many hotels would be best. There's South Strip, Mid-Strip, North Strip. I immediately eliminated North Strip not much other stuff seemed to be available there. Price was a factor too. We rarely choose expensive hotels, because we tend not to spend much time there. So I picked a mid-price alternative - New York, New York - on the South Strip. It seemed somehow apropos, since our first possible destination was NYC. And it had an Irish pub that I thought might appeal to Bill.
A little more Internet seat time netted us "Jersey Boys" tickets before we went. I had read up on discount tickets available there day of show, but there wasn't much indication that Jersey Boys tickets were available that way. Front orchestra seats were $161 (more than I paid when I saw it alone in NYC) and lots of fees. Regular orchestra seats were $117 (and fees) so I found a $99 front orchestra price on bestofvegas.com, which even with fees beat the regular orchestra price, so I felt like I did a good job of trying to be more frugal. The best deal of all was something I found just for Bill. I printed up tickets online for free admission to the Auto Collection at the Imperial Palace an impressive looking display of vintage cars.
I do love my guidebooks, however. So despite all my internet research I picked up a small book that I could read cover to cover and take with without adding too much weight. I had just bought a new lightweight (5 lb.) suitcase, perhaps for London (although it looked a little small) so Vegas would be a good test drive for it!
The plan was set. We would leave for Las Vegas, Nevada, May 26 25 years and a day after our actual wedding, and return in the early morning of Memorial Day (May 30) giving me a day to try to relax away my jet lag before returning to work. The days before our trip I was getting severe vacationitis. We hadn't gone out of town together in a while and even Bill said he was looking forward to it. Thankfully I remembered you have to check in to Southwest online 24 hours before departure since it doesn't assign seats. I could have paid $10 for early check-in, but I didnt think it was necessary (then!). So I sat in front of my computer at work on my lunch break, waiting for 1:25 p.m. to roll around so I could get us a decent place in line for seats. I scored positions 6 and 8 in the "B" group not bad.
With the flight scheduled to leave in the early afternoon we could pack leisurely in the a.m. and head to the Norfolk airport. Parking in the garage was our first challenge. We went to level 3, where there were supposedly 18 available spaces, according to the signs. Bill left me with the bags near the elevators and drove around. No spaces. He came back to tell me then headed to another level and finally met me after taking the elevator down from the 5th level.
No issues from there we checked our bags and went upstairs to enjoy a vacation starting fast food lunch double burger for Bill, hot dog for me but a mocha coconut frapuccino, too, from Starbucks.
The flight was virtually on time (posted 5 minutes late). Bill found it strange that we lined up like cattle going to slaughter our numbered boarding passes in hand standing by numbered signs. It was a full flight. Oh boy. After the "A" group of 60 filled up the front of the 737-700 we found perfectly decent aisle and center seats over the wing. How come I always get the center I'm apparently too nice. The young woman in the window seat was quiet and slender, an excellent seatmate. The trip was without incident 5 hours, 20 minutes from ORF to LAS.
Trip tip: bring better snacks. We had a choice of honey roasted peanuts, "plane crackers," vanilla oreos and cheese nips. Bill had a Coke. I went for water.
Landing at McCarran International Airport (about 3:30 in the afternoon) was a little bit like entering the land of Oz. Within yards of the gates are rows of slot machines. Thankfully we were able to follow some folks to baggage claim since signs did not make it clear we had to take a tram to another terminal! My new lightweight bag survived its maiden voyage with flying colors and Bill had my assistance in spotting his (my borrowed black under-the-seater) that looked like everyone else's.
A few stops outside baggage claim were a number of shuttle bus options to the Strip. I had not booked ahead, in part they all seemed to have less than stellar reviews. We picked Bell Trans for no particular reason, paid our $12 per person for round trips and stood next to the "red desk" as the worker organized a number of buses/vans according to hotel destination. We got a van since apparently fewer people were going to the South Strip.
The Strip is amazingly close to the airport, but the ride to it shows an area that looks like a bombed out war zone of empty lots and shuttered old motels. According to news reports Las Vegas has suffered more than any other place in the U.S. because of the housing crisis and real estate downturn. The years of tearing down then expecting to rebuild have apparently left a number of empty lots near the Strip. I should have asked more about that because the lack of building could also have been part of an airport crash zone.
We were the last to be dropped off so we got a tour of the underground entrance to Mandalay Bay, the round about route to check in for the Monte Carlo and then onto the side entrance for New York New York. The entrances to the hotels were off the strip. I guess to help with traffic flow.
Traffic flow inside the hotel is no easy feat, either. To find registration you have to navigate through the casino. (See next paragraph about hotel/casino navigation.) No line at check-in that was one of the things written about New York New York. Help was competent, but not particularly welcoming, I could tell we got the treatment afforded an online deal we were given a room on the 4th floor of the New Yorker tower room 427. The room was adequate. It overlooked a roof and the back parking garage (with a little of the roller coaster thrown in). The air conditioning was excellent, but as Bill would remark when he took a shower the next day, maybe if we had a better room it would have come with an exhaust fan!
After dropping off our luggage we went on our first exploration trip of the Strip. First stop as with all hotels the casino. That is the rule of thumb in Las Vegas every road leads through the casino, whether youre looking for a restaurant, a restroom, a theatre, shopping, the monorail or anything else. Management is hoping you will stop and play a slot machine, blackjack, poker, roulette or whatever form of gaming floats your boat and allows you to enrich its coffers. Throughout the trip we played a few slot machines, mostly penny slots but frankly we could have used instruction even in that simplest form of gambling. They are way more sophisticated than our vintage version at home. You don't even pull a handle you just push buttons. We probably lost less than $10. We were up a few dollars on occasions but didn't think it was worth the hassle to cash out. We do have a few cash vouchers for less than 20 cents that we kept as souvenirs.
Once we finally found a door outside we headed north to where the majority of the Strip's attractions can be found. It was around 5 p.m., I think. That's another thing about Vegas there are no clocks anywhere and since I'm still nursing my right wrist/hand after its tennis mishap in March I have not taken back to wearing a watch. (The left wrist doesn't like a watch after its tennis break 11 years ago.) Or maybe I'm just trying to look younger since all the young generations rely on their cell phones for the time!
One thing about Vegas/the desert is the light is gorgeous the low humidity means bluer skies and great photography. I took full advantage with my new Sony Nex-5 camera that Bill had given me for Christmas. I have a weakness for taking pictures of buildings, sun flares and reflections. My Vegas photos reflect that.
There were lots of people walking on the Strip it was crowded and would grow even more crowded as the Memorial Day weekend progressed. At every corner there were hustlers, men and women, handing out girlie literature or whatever you call a pamphlet that touts scantily-clad women entertainment. I didn't take any of the hand-outs so I'm not sure exactly what they contained but I was kind of miffed they kept trying to give the ads to Bill even though he was clearly with me. Obviously I have become chopped liver not that I was ever pate!
And if it's not someone handing you an ad it's a street entertainer hoping to make a buck or two. It could be an Elvis impersonator (I saw at least two), a person impersonating a statue, a person in costume promoting a show or a card hustler. But perhaps the most useful street merchants in Vegas are those who sell chilled bottle water for a dollar that's a pretty good deal and it pays to stay hydrated.
Another thing you notice about the Strip is that there are lots of people carrying alcoholic drinks in public, no matter what the time of day or night. They sell these big fruity drinks in all sorts of unusually shaped containers. The strangest one I probably saw was a young woman in a short skirt carrying what appeared to be a small guitar with a spout. Another world, another culture.
And the third thing you notice about the Strip is that you can't get there from here. Apparently in order to facilitate traffic you can't cross streets at every corner or sometimes at all. The wizards of Vegas transportation have built pedestrian walkways over many parts of the Strip so you have to go up and down, up and down, maybe through a structure or two (we played a slot machine walking through "The Cosmopolitan") to get where you're going. So a simple short trip can take much longer and be considerably more complicated than you might expect!
We made it to Mid-Strip (where I will stay if I ever go to the Vegas Strip again) and stopped to see the Bellagio fountains in the daylight. It is the best free show in the area and happens frequently. By the time we walked there (stopping along the way for me to take photos Bill and I almost kept losing each other in the crowds when I would stop!) it was time to turn around and go back to get some dinner. We had decided to do an easy dinner and had checked out Nine Fine Irishmen at the hotel before we left on our walk so we opted to do pub grub. Bill chose beer. I had wine. He had lamb stew and "chips" I had 4 little steak pies (more like empanadas). For dessert we split an Irish coffee and a drunk apple whiskey cake with ice cream, which for $11 should have been better. We've never had a $75 check at a pub before, even in London. That's the Vegas strip. After a smoke outside for Bill, another walk around the casino and "New York" (check out the photo of the faux showgirl, especially her shoes) we went to our room. It was probably before 9 p.m., but after all it was three hours later our time.
We were up early (for Vegas) on Friday, May 27. After Starbucks coffee and orange cranberry muffin in the lobby of our hotel! we set out on the day's adventure. I had investigated the monorail, which would take us to the North Strip. We had to cross Las Vegas Blvd. (an overhead pedestrian walkway) to get through the MGM Grand to the monorail. The MGM grand is huge! While there we checked out the buffet, since our hotel package came with a daily complimentary buffet (up to $20 a person) at any of the "M" properties, including the MGM Grand, Mirage, Aria and others. They gave us a card at check in (but frankly could have explained it a little better to us newbies). We scoped it out and thought it would be a good option on a day we hadnt just eaten a muffin. We checked out the pool (and took some lovely pix of palm trees and guys drinking beer at before 9 in the morning), then eventually found the Monorail. Signage is quite deceptive in the Casinos we discovered.
The monorail has about a half dozen stops. It goes behind the hotels/convention on the east side so there isn't much of a view. We took it to the end of the line the Sahara, which we discovered had just closed. Less than two weeks before. Sorry, Bill, no "Cyber Speedway" for you. We didn't see much of the North Strip it looked like there wasn't much to see vacant lots and construction. We walked around that part of town never quite making it to the strip because it's quite a hike from the Monorail station and then hopped back on the Monorail at the Hilton to head towards the Auto Collections at the Imperial Palace.
My free tickets were readily accepted on the fifth floor of the parking garage where the collection is located. Lots of vehicular eye candy. I learned Bill is not a big Rolls Royce fan. I loved all the hood ornaments. After about an hour of drooling we headed on our way again. This time we went through Harrah's a huge casino with some cheesy entertainment at 11 in the morning. It still amazes me how many people can gamble at any hour of the day or night.
By this time since it was after 11 (2 our time) we thought we would try one of our complimentary buffets so it was across Las Vegas Blvd. to the Mirage. We gave them our room number at New York New York and found we got to pay $3.22 in taxes for the pleasure of eating their mediocre buffet. But that was still cheap and the food was filling. There were lots of options, but how it worked was still a little bewildering. I'm still not a big buffet fan. I like the illusion that my food is recently prepared.
I wanted to check out the Venetian, since I had been told about the river and gondolas that run through it, so after a couple of photo panoramas we crossed back over the Strip. That's a pretty amazing job of faux painting the ceiling in the Venetian that looks just like the sky. I stopped by photographer Peter Lik's store in honor of my co-worker LaRaunce Fleming who alerted me to its existence. He does go to incredible lengths to get some fabulous shots.
After our walk through the Venetian and jostling through the crowds on the sidewalk we made out way back to the monorail stop at Harrah's. It was good to sit down. Back to the MGM Grand where we stopped at the lion habitat for a few minutes before making our way back across the pedestrian walkway to New York New York. By now we're getting into the swing of Vegas and we decide to stop in "The Sporting House" and have a drink, watch a little tennis and nosh on $4 Happy hour nachos. Since we have to be at Jersey Boys before 6 to pick up our tickets we wont be having dinner.
A little rest for Bill, shower for me and we're back on the Monorail. We bought a day pass. I'm worried I won't make it in time to pick up the tickets by 6 as instructed so I leave Bill at the Harrah's/Imperial Palace Monorail stop and hurry to the Palazzo. I walk a little faster than he does, since my knees haven't been as abused (yet). The Palazzo is quite lovely and unlike every other casino we've seen it isn't as dark as pitch but you do have to walk through it to find the theatre! The seats to the Jersey Boys are quite good, Row F, seats 10 and 11. I'm in a day dress and Bill is in a polo shirt and sport coat and yet somehow we almost feel overdressed versus some of the rest of the audience. When the overture starts our proximity to the speakers is somewhat deafening, but it gets better once the singers begin. The show is good almost as good as the Broadway version, which I saw by myself in 2010. Bill says it's not his favorite but makes his top 10. I like the staging and use of big screens and I love Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Takes me back.
By the time the show is over we're rested up again, so we decide to walk back. We will miss the pirate show at Treasure Island the timing is off but we head towards the Bellagio so we can see the fountain show at night. It was worth it. My new camera has this great nighttime twilight feature and I get some beautiful photos of the Strip at night. We actually stay up past 11 p.m. (2 a.m. our time pretty phenomenal).
Saturday we plan to split up in the a.m. so I can find the antique mall in the Arts District. That means I will explore yet another form of Vegas transportation the bus system. After our usual Starbucks in the hotel (this time the second floor Starbucks) we head across the walkway to the MGM Grand for the buffet. (another $3.22 in addition to complimentary price) It's now considered brunch so there are more brunch kinds of food. Bill chooses his usual meat/egg filled selection and I opt for breakfasty carbs. Buffets are still lost on me.
All filled up and ready to roll (after a quick souvenir shopping stop to pick up a couple of magnets and a lapel pin). I head to the bus stop put my money in to buy a ticket and within second the bus rolls up. I take the Strip/Downtown single story bus (not the doubledecker Strip bus) so I don't have to stop at every hotel. I head up to the "Arts District" (not much of one actually), get off just past Charleston Blvd. and head to Charleston Antique Mall at 307. I thought I might find a bus because I wasn't sure how far a walk it would be in the morning sunshine but ended up hoofing it instead. For a place that has a reputation for its glitz there wasn't much glitzy costume jewelry at the antique mall. I suspect eBay strikes again. But if I had a hankering for mid-century modern furniture and lived close by I would have been in hog heaven. I liberated a few pins, a bracelet and a couple of pair of vintage gloves (too inexpensive to pass up) and headed back to the bus stop.
I got back to the room about 1:30. No Bill and few people on our floor. Apparently according to all the open room doors, our floor (or at least our wing) was under renovation. Most rooms were vacant or had workers inside. I went downstairs to see if I could find Bill figuring he was in the Casino and I spotted him right away! Our exciting lunch was a Nathan's hot dog we split between us, since I had made reservations for 6:30 at Wolfgang Puck's Bar and Grille across the street at the MGM Grand.
I left Bill to head across the street to go to M&M World to pick up a few gifts. When I get back we head out to CVS and Walgreen's to find Bill a magazine for the plane Las Vegas wants you to concentrate on gambling (and imbibing/eating) Walgreen's had no magazines/books whatsoever that we could find and CVS's selection was meager. That and the fact that the hotel had crappy a TV channel selection led us to that conclusion. I did manage to schedule it so I was in the room to check in to Southwest at a few seconds after our 24 hour ahead time. I got slightly better positions in line for Group B.
Dinner at Wolfgang Puck's on the casino floor of the MGM Grand started with a lovely glass of Albarino for me (that went down way too easily) and beer for Bill. Wolfgang had excellent bread tasted like cheese semolina. I opted for the prosciutto pizza. Bill went for meat loaf. Lots of fine people watching (particularly for Bill) as young women in bikinis and skin-tight attire paraded through the Casino (perhaps from the pool, perhaps on display). I ordered a second glass of wine (rarely a good idea for me), ate less than half my pizza and asked for it to go. When it was delivered, the bag (with box of pizza inside) was put on the table in the way of Bill's view of the eye candy Bill picked it up and moved it. He hooked his water glass and my wine glass in the process and I got a shower. That meant I had to order an Irish coffee to go with our rich chocolate cake. Needless to say I was little loopy. As I recall we hung around the Casino a little and headed to the room early. I do remember I was amazed at the foreign tourists who were taking photos of the faux New York streets inside the hotel, like they were the real thing. Of course, I do have my fair share of the exterior faux New York skyline images, including the scaled down version of the Statue of Liberty.
Last morning in Vegas was a Starbucks/Krispy Kreme breakfast. We packed up, took our suitcases down to the lobby and sat in the betting/TV viewing area to watch the Indy 500 (and French Open). After we checked out America restaurant in the hotel was lunch. Then we went to stand outside to catch our shuttle to the airport. We were leaving at 5:10 but told we would be picked at 2:30 (amazing since the hotel is about 15 minutes or less from airport). As we were waiting it actually rained for a spell and was cold! (in the 60s). I looked at all the sweet young things in their brief clothing and thought to myself- where's your jacket? I was cold in my sweater set!
Boarding was copacetic, even though at one point the displays said our plane would be delayed by 30 minutes. We arrived back in Norfolk to an empty airport at about 1 a.m. We got our luggage (I swear Norfolk has the slowest baggage service of any airport) found the car drove home and got stopped by Hampton police for going too fast on the Settler's Landing bridge. The good news is we didnt get a ticket guess he couldn't believe two middle-aged sober people were still up at 2 Sunday night/Monday morning of Memorial Day.
Glad we went and can now mark Las Vegas off our bucket list. Now it's on to the next trip London with Morgan for her 40th birthday where the weather will be cooler and the crowds presumably more civilized.