Las Vegas – The Grand Canyon

It’s taken some time to commit my thoughts to WordPress on this particular day. I’ve read other blogs on the Canyon which give useful advice and many stunning pictures, But the great challenge of any Grand Canyon adventure is probably shared, it’s one of those experiences which is perhaps best unaccompanied by a camera or thought.

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Keeping it practical I can tell you a little about the various options. The SkyWalk, as it was explained to me is a lot of money for not very much, however it is a once in a lifetime experience… of this I would advise only the die-hard returners. Unlike the pamphlet pictures the arc doesn’t exactly overhang the dizzy heights of the Canyon’s depths, rather the beginnings of the slippery slope down. From what I understand it does overlook the part of the Canyon that Evil Kenevil used in a dare-devil stunt, but with the lack of bikage I could just be relaying the words of a gullable tourist 🙂

Many people choose to drive down by bike or more substantial vehicle, I imagine the huge expanse of open road is utterly exhilarating for bikers. For drivers of all types there is plenty of on-line guidance, even a browse through writers I follow should provide some inspiration. I’d recommend a blog I follow (not that I bike) – http://bikermonkeyblog.com/ for more information/tips.

Alternatively is the helicopter ride, a particularly easy and formidable method of being transported to and over the worldly wonder. I’d never have been forgiven for not arranging this particular trip, however with three to pay for I had to plan with some care. It is possible to book these trips online, although for those well organised  day trippers who like to have everything booked well in advance make sure it is exactly that as some sites take time to acknowledge booking. I had been recommended a firm called Maverick, however having had many conversations with different traders it transpires that there are the ‘Original’ Maverick and a – well, maverick Maverick. These are the ones who do cheap deals, minus the good reputation. Other intricacies in booking include negotiating a landing, if you want time inside the Canyon ensure your trip explicitly includes this as many stop only on the south rim. The south rim landing isn’t technically called a landing and is arranged as part of an agreement with the American Indians. Don’t get too excited by that, they are modern American Indians with a big shop and no views across the Canyon…

So negatives and obstacles aside I will tell you about the company we used. Having only been set up for a week we were able to get a reasonable deal with 5 Star Helicopter Trips and were assured (after some negotiating over weight) that these were some of the nicest helicopters in the air. This is no fabrication, the interiors of these airborne explorers comprise lovingly hand-sanded woodwork, laminate flooring and Kangaroo coverings on the seats. From the moment we were picked up with a warm welcome, donuts and water we were engaged in lively conversation and given the option of a tour-guide journey or one of silence. The memo that all laughs should be hearty hadn’t quite reached us as we excused our polite giggles with Englishness, however upon arrival at the heliport the hospitable beers facilitated our more amenable nature.  Awaiting our copter we had the comfort of leather seats and chill-out music… the later is not usually a preference of mine however the selection was somewhat mind-changing as I discovered ‘Icarus’ by Mythos. Wow. I love that tune, since this trip it has become my first thought when I wake up and eases me into the harsh reality of London life each morning.

Reverting to the point of the expedition we were shown a safety video and then met by our uber-American pilot, a sharp contrast from our Mancunian host and owner of the company! True to the word of the sales person, the helicopters were gorgeous and comfy. Passengers are arranged according to weight and hooked up to headphones and speakers where we were fed information about the sprawling landscape and the Hooverdam as we snaked overhead. The stories came in thick and fast as did the explanation of pilot training and ad-hoc snippets of local history. I say ‘ad-hoc’, in reality everything was meticulously choreographed to the sound-track as we swooped and hovered. As ever I made the mistake of trying to capture the detail on camera, the results are great however there really is no comparison to the actual experience.

Surprisingly, the trip was smooth to the point that I took off my ear protectors to land just so as I could get the experience of the thundering clatter of the propeller.We glided low through the Canyon before our stop at the native American landing point for a (very) quick spin around the shop where we were faced with the choice of a toilet break or to pick up souvenirs. Not quite the cafe stop that we had been advised, however between the Joshua Trees, Dream Catcher and chocolate goodies I was able to source I felt fairly satisfied at the short sharp stop. This may have been aided by the fact I am a thoroughly seasoned shopper 😐

Suspecting the return journey would be a sharp return to the heliport I was pleasantly surprised that there were plenty more stories awaiting, including the man who bough a serious amount of land to build a town and ran out of money. The evidence remains in the marked out plots of land still bursting with promise for no reward. Landing at the heliport held equal delight as it is home to a number of rather old, attractive small planes. These I am no expert in, I just find them shamelessly aesthetically pleasing.

On reflection, it seems that whilst we all traveled happily and in comfort, the extra two people that the copter could have held would have made for a very tight and cosey trip with questionable viewing ability for those in the rear middle seats. That said, this is probably a risk regardless of which company you choose to go with and if nothing else can be said, this firm work hard to accommodate their guests.

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Las Vegas, Baby! Day 1 (evening)

Galavanting around the North Mall didn’t quite cut it for us, the highlight was travelling by the Duce bus ($7 per person all day) and venturing out past the new strip. Along the way are numerous building sites and a real taste for Old-skool Vegas where Casinos are staggered along the desert highway. A glimpse of the residential area hints at a life less glamourous and the 6 ft bill boards that loom down promise bail bond get-outs and immigration lawyer assistance are a far cry from the high polish of the main strip. Still, this is clearly another area where the money spins as monster trucks advertise Pawn Brokers like a desirable commodity. Interrupting my wild imagination, the Stratosphere Hotel interjects the spanse of desert, it’s tip out of sight from the bus-window view. As much as myself and Jon are keen to get up onto the roller-coster, my parent’s reluctance is a welcome excuse to give it a miss – this time.

The architecture is astonishing and random. This photo does no justice to this surrealist style structure, but it’s still worth sharing:

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I hope that can be seen clearly enough to get the gist…

The malls themselves are the most popular in Vegas and largely consist of Designer discount outlets. If you’re not so taken by designer wear it’s essentially just a large American shopping centre – of which there is no shortage on the main strip. Among the favourites I was directed to were the Fashion Mall (home to Macy’s) and the centre in Planet Hollywood. Which brings me to our next destination – housing two theatres, many show-hunters are very likely to end up here.

Checking out which theatre you are headed for is a good start as the distance between the two is the equivalent to walking across a small town during rush hour. We were in the ‘Sax’, located behind the pool (which was very large and much more geared towards their own residents than found at the Hard Rock Hotel). The American theatre culture is very different from British and again a military style operation took place. Having been advised to queue at 6 to ensure good seats we were ushered into the VIP bar where the expensive drinks were counteracted by the novelty of flashing glasses that we could keep. Easily pleased we made the mistake of drinking a full hours worth of beverages before the show. (There is no interval, although re-admittance is permitted).

The indicator that we would need to be seated was brought about by mass confusion of a fully packed bar charging about in all directions, no-one quite sure what should be happening. Finally assembled in a parade around the bar we were gently coaxed through – ‘get moving, we have 500 to get through for this show!’ before piling into our seats. We needn’t have worried, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

Sadly I can’t bring you pictures of the show, but it was wildly varied with fantastic tap-dancers, a full history of the casinos from the viewpoint of the staff who make the cogs turn in the city of vice. The best I can do is a snapshot of a display whilst in the herd being led up the stairs to the arena:

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Tribute acts to vocal stars of the ages were mixed with magic shows (Where did that parrot come from?) and some of the main dances that made Vegas what it is,from the Can-can to the Mambo and a whole host of others I have been left with a new love for ‘Mambo Italiano’. Of all the videos I can find on-line nothing comes close to the engrossingly abstract choreography of the stage.

What I did find, however was a brilliant YouTube clip of ‘Over the Rainbow’ where the song features:

Danielle – Over the Rainbow (Mambo Italiano)

And even better (although much worse for my health, this has lead to me falling over my feet in my bedroom trying to copy the steps:

They also teach Rhumba and Boogie…

So aside from my new obsession I was also satisfied with the appearance of fully feathered showgirls, the wedding stories (One man married 7 times in Vegas!) and the short movie where the history of the Vegas Craze of blowing up multi-million $$ buildings is brought into one mind-blowing five-minute show. The Aladdin was a pretty emotional one for me – I remember talking to a London Clubs manager when it was first being launched and feeling the excitement of it. Several years laters, immersed in my Gambling Economics degree the news came that the Aladdin wasn’t doing so well. To see it collapse like a match-stick toy that’s done its time on the big screen was car-crash TV, hell, I’m only 28, how has all this happened in my lifetime already?! Oh yeah, this is Vegas.

Stepping out into the hot night we were only across the street from the Bellagio (Featured in Oceans 11). I knew we had to catch some of the hotel shows but persuading the parents this was a good idea wasn’t so easy, particularly when ‘across the road’ transpired to be another 10 minute walk! Still,it was absolutely worth it as water came alive in a cheeky tittilating display of height and power to ‘Hey Big Spender’ – Yes, you can choreograph water! :

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I will also attempt to link in a video when I work out this thing a little better.

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It took some time to cross the front of the hotel and as we passed the mid-way point another show was already on, dispelling our belief this is a once hourly show. Having indulged in a final peek we made good our leave determined to reach Treasure Island (Miss Congeniality) – I just wanted to see that boat go down! We good side-tracked at the Mirage where the acoustics of unsettled rainforest wildlife began to trill and puffs of smoke lifted into the sky. Heavy drum rolls shook the usually peaceful lake, lighting up the scenery with burning orange as glowing water sparked around billowing flames – utterly transfixing and worryingly addictive. I selfishly only got these images on Camera so as with the videos will attempt to get them to you in good time 🙂

We did catch the end of Treasure Island, a raucous party where with high danger in the air – clinging onto the edge of the bridge we got the last five minutes of dance and drama, with sailors sliding down the ship’s ropes and a display of fireworks to boot. From that moment on I remember very little, such was the exhaustion that gripped me. And they say London is chaotic!

Las Vegas, Baby! Day 1 (morning)

Breakfast in Vegas doesn’t start until gone 10am, until that point many people are still up chancing their luck on the tables or at the bar. Making a bee-line for Ceasers Palace could not fail to satisfy, the service is wonderful and the furnishings right down to the soft, crisp napkins leave customers wanting for nothing. Despite a mountain of Blueberry pancakes with enough syrup to drown them I couldn’t resist the cheeky odd potato from Jons plate. Only here do savoury and sweet feel like they were made to be together:

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A sneaky peak around Ceasers Palace was an eye-opener, despite the grander and scale from the outside of the hotels it is constantly a surprise to walk in and see more, more, more space in every direction – all packed with more artwork than a mind like mine could hope to contain without camera aid:

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Advancing to the Venitian took far longer than estimated, even with the use of street level travelators and outside escalators to assist with bridge-crossing. Most surprising was how beautiful Las Vegas is, it’s possible to get totally lost in the foyer of a hotel, each ‘out house’ or ‘hut’ is a world of it’s own. Many people advise only doing Vegas for a few days and I agree, it’s overwhelming and totally detached from reality but you could return repeatedly and always have things to explore. This is a snippet from the front of Ceasers Palace:

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And more:

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The strange thing about Vegas is that there are so many nooks and crannys of formidable scale that you just can’t capture on camera because of how closely everything is built together.

We had stuff to get organised and following an itinerary kindly typed up by my colleague we headed for the Fashion Mall to get tickets at the 1/2 price on-the-day tickets. We opted for ‘The Las Vegas Show’ which promised to tell the history of Vegas complete with variety acts. It fitted the bill and whilst one of our party queued myself and Jon arranged a Helicopter Trip over the Grand Canyon for the following day.

Shade isn’t something Vegas does so well, and the umbrellas passed out to queuers were welcomed as they melted in the early heat. Booking the copter was easy, we spoke to a few people and having had an on-line browse knew what our budget was and what we wanted from the trip. We didn’t get the landing or champagne brekkie, but for $309 per person we booked hotel transfers, a landing at the American-Indian tourist site and were promised shiny new helicopters with 5star, a new company that was already challenging Market Leader Maverick for luxury and value.

Learning from our lessons at the ticket store, a £25 queue jump pass will prevent hours of heat torture on future vacations – the following mission to Planet Hollywood to exchange these ticket for seats would have also happily waited until an hour before the show as the tickets remain random until entry to the theatre for general admission customers.

Piling into the Venitian for a taste of the beautiful life we happily found a bar and proceeded to take the edge off the organisation-tastic morning. This is one worth looking up for it’s own review, there is more to discuss than I can begin to squeeze in here. The frontage, I’m sure cannot be seen all in one go. With the opening to the river housing Gondalas that are paddled through the hotel, each customer a private audience to their own opera to the Masterful art across the ceilings, visitors like oursselves feel they haven’t the breath to gasp any more. Until, that is, the skies open way overhead INSIDE the Venitian.

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We didn’t go unprepared for what we would see, but little can prepare you for how you will feel entering the early twi-light zone of the Venitian. Just when you become accustomed to it, thunder claps and rain begin. Bewildering.

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Las Vegas – Arrival day

Pale bodied and starkly English we stared across the pool like rabbits in headlights. Beach balls flew overhead whilst girls in impossibly tiny bikinis and tanned men whose ages were impossible to tell or care about cooly dance to Paul Oakenfold’s set at Hard Rock Hotel. It’s a miracle we’re here, in fact I’d not be overly surprised to wake up scrunched into the deep recesses of my duvet with the rain hammering at my window.

Organising a surprise 50th to Las Vegas for a parent isn’t a terrible idea, but is far more likely, I’ve learned, to hold more surprises for the organiser. I have regrets, and I have learned a lot of lessons, but I’d not change it for the world. From sorting out said birthday girl’s partner’s Romanian Visa to negotiating the shiny new LV terminal and endless interrogations this holiday has, for sure, been the test of stamina and determination I perhaps could have gotten by quite nicely without… but WHAT a weekend!

We really should have known from the moment we were surrounded by armed officers in Gatwick airport whilst happily munching on what we then thought was a big ole brekkie. The first we were aware of what was going on we were already surrounded, relaxing a little when the spaniel sniffer dog got a tour round the venue… I’m not sure my heart’s returned to normal bpm since.

I’d tell you all about Virgin Atlantic Airways, but as there’s little choice in who you travel with there’s not a great deal of point. I will advise that the food is tasty but portions are small, so don’t get on with a grumbly belly. Also the plane out is pretty gorgeous, spacey and comfy but do expect a bog standard 1990’s boeing return, complete with tough red cladding and ominous stains. Apparently we were all shorter then, too. Unfortunately for me I passed up the Virgin punch on the way out (vodka optional) and found later it’s a one-way special. I imagine they assume no-one returning from Vegas could possibly be worthy of Virgin Punch.

Customs are concertedly prickly, I felt pretty damn guilty when I was done with but not entirely sure why… at this point I’d insert a big happy picture of 20 odd showgirls that is there to greet you on arrival however due to camera restrictions the artist, a showgirl herself, is fortuned only to a tight audience of visitors.

With the four of us successfully through the gates obstacle two was to find our transfer. Bell Trans, we later discovered, are everywhere… except when you want them. Due to confusion and mis-direction I will spell the directions out (you never know, a potential visitor may stumble across my ramblings). Off the plane to the meet/greet area, turn left and walk all the way down to the transfer desk. Engage if necessary. Next door on the right – cross the road (at this point be mindful the traffic is all backwards to what we are accustomed) and the stand is on the left. This should shave around 40 minutes off of our trip to the bus stand! There is Wi-Fi at the airport which may assist (i.e. ‘ask a friend’ etc).

And so to the Hard Rock. Pulling up at the main entrance a military operation runs 24/7 to ensure each transfer bus, taxi and limo is where it should be. Pedestrians to fight their own battle! This is all good and well as the valet foyer pounds with classic rock, modern rock and the odd surprise track, each one will make you feel invincible and capable of taking on rogue monster trucks. There’s no shortage of those!

The gaming pit is all consuming, the lights, the sounds, the ring-ting-ting-tinnnggs! They all start here… even the corridors are lined with frequently used cymbol-lights. The Saxophone chandeliers are a little harder to use 😐 I was a little confuddled at the room description ‘Mountain View Room’ as pulling back the ceiling high heavy curtains revealed a wall. And what appeared to be little light blocks – facing into the room. My concerns were confirmed during the night as having forgotten to draw the curtains in jet-lagged exhaustions various colours pumped into the room – every corner really is a party. Checking out the second room had me in fits of laughter – Dizzy Rascal’s “Holiday” video was in full swing right outside the door. I can’t recall if the pool was ever quiet, but watching it was quite transfixing. And no – the Hard Rock ethos doesn’t translate to the dance-happy American crowds that flock in from across the US to live it up over the summer months. ‘Summer months’, by the way, doesn’t mean the flash glimpses of golden light which are rudely washed out at regular intervals that British weather would have us believe. Quite the contrary, the Las Vegas news showed temperatures of 44 for the duration of our visit to be succeeded by a week of ‘Hotter, Hotter and Hotter’. That’s how they do weather.

Day one didn’t quite go down as planned as guests were shuffled around the pool side due to filming for a boxing match, however the love for American food portions (I say portions because the restaurant was Mexican) began right here. Pink Taco in the complex turfed out whopping big plates of a delicious Mexican combination with complimentary Nachos which raised all our spirits instantly. Despite being some distance from the strip the need for grander reaches the HRH (Hard Rock Hotel … not sure Her Royal Highness would really appreciate the location) with two substantial guitars poised up high on the hotel and fronting Cafe. Every spare wall space is home to a bit of music history:

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More of this to come.

Padding around the front of the venue is discouraged but breaking away from the complex unveils a convenience store that had me pawing over the unfamiliar packaging and reaching for the biggest bags of ‘Lays’ crisps in unusual flavours. Opting for lime chilli crisps and pink lemonade iced-tea I proceeded to play the full-on tourist and stand around the streets photographing everything in sight, thankfully avoiding (on this occasion) the Bavarian Beer hall.

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Pleased with my purchases and eager to get out on the town to explore the strip I bounded up to my room to get Jon who had indulged in a nap and made a last minute decision to invest in some organising instead. After about an hour trying to figure out what to do about the helicopter booking (which, online, requires a 48 hour turn over and each passanger’s estimated weight) I found I could barely move for exhaustion. Despite arriving at 2pm on the same day of departure, we lost a day in transit which means I was on auto-pilot after 17 hour day. I’m not sure I can take responsibility for this:

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