November 2, 2011 (continued)
We still had quite a drive to get into Las Vegas and the road took us through a town called Pahrump which had lots of really sleazy, crappy looking hotels and casinos along the main road. We arrived in Vegas not along the strip but through some of the back roads which took us past a number of gentleman’s clubs as well as a sex museum which advertised that is had life sized models of porn film stars!
We were staying at Circus Circus and once we’d completed the maze to find the reception and check in we then had fun trying to find our room! Given the long day we’d had we decided to eat at one of the restaurants in our hotel and I had a decent prime rib and Elizabeth had an enchilada. The food was OK but I think we were both hoping we’d have better meals in Vegas!
November 3, 2011
This morning we got up and headed down to the small ticket booth just outside our hotel. We wanted to get tickets for a show and had heard that we could get cheap tickets for a show tonight by getting them from this place. We eventually decided to go and see the Cirque du Soleil show Ka at the MGM Grand and got the tickets for about 30% less than normal. We were given a voucher and were told we had to collect the tickets from the MGM before the show and we decided to get that done first. We bought tickets for the bus which meant we could go up and down the strip a bit quicker than walking and we were soon watching the casino hotels go by as we rode to the far end to the big green hotel with the famous lion outside and worked our way through the mass of tables and slot machines to find the ticket office. It wasn’t quite open when we arrived but we waited a few minutes and were soon able to get the tickets we wanted.
Thankfully we had decided to view three exhibits today and these were all up the same end of the strip as the MGM. We crossed over the bridge into NYNY and onto Excalibur before walking along the road to the Luxor. The hotel is in the style of an Egyptian pyramid and from afar it looks quite cool but up close it is fairly tatty and dirty. Inside was not much better with neither of the exhibits we were looking for being well signposted and everything seeming to be quite disorganized and aged, stale even. We eventually found the ticket office for the exhibits we wanted and we were able to purchase them easily. There were a group of hotels with special exhibits who were selling a combination ticket where you could see any three for $54. Considering the two we wanted to see at Luxor were over $54 for the pair this deal was great for us.
We started off with the Bodies exhibit. Elizabeth hadn’t really wanted to see this as she is quite squeamish but after convincing herself that it would not be bloody or gruesome and would have plenty of scientific explanation and reasoning she decided it would be OK. I could tell she was not comfortable as she looked at some of the real life specimens, specially preserved to show muscle tissue, ligaments, nerves, veins and a variety of organs. We went around at our own speed which happened to be quite similar. Whilst the exhibits were really interesting, many of the signs explaining them were very technical in their use of medical names and terms and sometimes it was difficult reading. The display was really interesting though as it showed in great detail how the body is constructed beneath the layer of skin and explained just how we are put together. The techniques used to preserve these bodies were pretty impressive and the detail was unbelievable.
After a brief break for lunch (McDonald’s, I’m afraid to admit!), we went to the second of the three exhibits, this one being about the Titanic. At the beginning we were both given a card with the name of a passenger which we could use at the end to find out if “we” survived or not. I had a first class passenger and Elizabeth had a third class one so I was fancying my chances but she wasn’t so sure she hadn’t suffered a wet, icy end. The exhibit was really good and the entire area was decorated as if you were actually on board the ship, too. One area was even designed to resemble the grand staircase that was at the centre of the first class section and when you walked through you could really imagine being on board. The story told the complete history of the Titanic, from the discussion surrounding its construction, through the design process all the way to the building, the launch and the tragic final journey. With the setting being so believable, the information and exhibits of items recovered from the ship were all the more interesting. The highlight of the exhibit was a large section of the hull known as the “big piece”. This had been recovered from the wreck site of the Titanic, deep beneath the Atlantic surface, and preserved. The piece of the hull showed where the portholes would have been, clearly showed the rivets in the metal and was quite chilling to see. The painstaking process to recover this piece was also amazing. The first attempt in 1996 failed as the wires broke as the piece was being raised and it crashed back to the ocean floor. I can’t imagine finding such a significant artifact and being on the verge of recovering it only to see it slip from your grasp at the last moment. However, undeterred, the piece was eventually raised in 1998 and went through an in depth and thorough cleaning and preservation process as the years of salty water had taken their toll. The big piece weighs over 15 tons and is over 26 feet long and it is truly impressive. At the end of the exhibit, Elizabeth and I discovered that we had both survived the journey – this was quite a surprise as over 50% of third class women died and two thirds of first class men died. Even more surprising was that Elizabeth’s “husband” also survived and the chance of a third class man surviving? Only 16% did. The exhibit was really well done and is apparently in Vegas for a good few years yet, including the big piece which won’t be moved regularly as it is very fragile still. Definitely go and see this if you get the chance to!
The third thing we wanted to go and see was next door to the Luxor, at Mandalay Bay. This was the Shark Reef Aquarium and though I’d been here before I remembered that it was very good. It was also one of the few other things offered that we both wanted to do so we decided to do it. Mandalay Bay is a really nice hotel and the aquarium is tucked away quite near the back so, like most casino hotels here, you have to walk through everything to get to it. The aquarium wasn’t too busy, thankfully, so it was nice to be able to wander around the exhibits without the annoyance of loads of brats screaming and running around. The highlights here were the golden crocodile, the Komodo dragon and, of course, the sharks. They have quite a few species of sharks on display here and although they don’t have many tanks, the ones they do have are really well presented and teeming with cool things to see.
After that we were done with our sights for the day and decided to take a stroll back along the strip, maybe have a nap before heading out for dinner and our show. We got really sidetracked as we walked along the strip, stopping in lots of shops and things and before we knew it, we were both feeling tired and nowhere near the hotel. We decided to jump on the bus which was both a good and a bad idea. On the plus side, we got to rest our feet. On the negative side, the traffic had built up and the ride back was a crawl. When we got back we barely had half an hour to change and laze around before we were heading back out again. We were soon back on the bus and heading for the Monte Carlo – amongst all the glitz and glamour and tackiness and pricy food we didn’t want, I’d found a bar within the Monte Carlo which brewed its own beer and as far as I was concerned, that was a winner! The bar was really busy but we got a table fairly quickly and were able to get our order in. We weren’t in a huge rush but we would rather get our food earlier and not miss the start of the show! We tried one of the local beers each with me going for the appropriately named Sin City Amber and Elizabeth trying the Sin City Weiss. Fed up of having regular burgers, I went for a spicy chicken burger and Elizabeth had Italian sausage flat bread, which is a fancy name for a pizza really!
The beer and food was really good and we were done in plenty of time so we strolled across to the MGM and headed towards the theater. We had a few minutes so we looked around the shop selling over-priced Cirque wares and resisted the urge to buy anything. We took our seats for the show and the set was amazing, with lots of platforms all around the theater at different levels. The set looked very sci-fi and before long some of the performers were parading around the audience. Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for me as the show, Ka, told the story of a couple of twins who were separated and kidnapped by baddies and fought their way to freedom. The “baddie” scenes were OK but the scenes with just the “children” were quite woeful and the usual array of Cirque skills was not on display and the acrobatic element seemed to be really lacking which was a shame. We both left a little disappointed but on the plus side – the bus turned up quickly and the traffic wasn’t too heavy going back to our hotel!
November 4, 2011
After the disappointment of last night we were determined to make up for that and my highlight of the day was going to be lunch, without a doubt! We were out a bit earlier than that though and after making final use of our 24-hour bus tickets and taking a long walk away from the strip, we were soon at the Atomic Testing Museum. As we had driven into Vegas we had noticed a lot of land which seemed to be waste and the odd sign designating areas as being for military use. It turns out that the US government and military used this sight for nuclear testing as it was so remote and away from large concentrations of population. The museum went into a lot of detail about the number and types of bombs tested here but the scientific part went straight over my head; I’m just not interested enough to try and understand most of it. However, it was really interesting relating the testing, and the timing of certain tests, to events in history. The site was not commissioned until after WWII but it was as a result of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the US decided it needed to explore further the effects of these weapons. Of course, knowing the Russians were developing nuclear arms was a great excuse to give the public for testing weapons right at home, on their doorsteps. In the aftermath of one big war the public were convinced that nuclear testing was required to keep the Russians at arm’s length and as a result, many locals bought into the test site and it even gained a weird popularity as a tourist event. The museum showed pictures of tourists lining up to watch the tests and view the “mushroom clouds” and they even had a short video clip for you to sit through and “experience” what the viewers might have felt. In fact, your experience was more similar to the nearby military personnel who got front row seats. Our experience didn’t require a lead-covered outhouse! The museum was pretty interesting and some of the posters advertising the tests were quite funny, including a pin-up, Miss Atomic Bomb!
After the museum, which took longer than we’d imagined as it was really detailed and had lots of exhibits, we were really hungry having not had any breakfast. This was a good thing though as we were heading for Vegas buffet heaven! Vegas is known for its large and enticing buffet lunches and dinners and we’d decided to give one of them a go. Given it was going to be our only one we decided to try the one at the Bellagio, considered one of the best. It wasn’t cheap but by the end of the food extravaganza we both thought we’d got our money’s worth and we’d eaten our weight in food. In fact, I think Elizabeth ate her weight in desserts. It was difficult to know what to try and as tempted as I was to try it all, I decided to start with a sensible salad, then a slider burger, then some Kobe prime beef (this was amazing and worth the price alone!) with yummy vegetables and then I tried some of the pasta and Indian biryani and then I exploded. No, of course not; there was still dessert! I went for the sugar free options of the cheesecake and something else as well as an amazing peach cobbler with ice cream! I was so stuffed and this wasn’t helped by our waiter topping my drink up every couple of minutes which meant I drank about 3 pints of soda, too!
After wobbling out of the buffet, we had a walk around the Bellagio and saw the amazing Chihuly glass in the reception as well as the lovely conservatory. We were also just in time for the first fountain show of the day and as we headed outside we noticed that it had rained a bit while we’d been inside stuffing ourselves! As the fountain show got going, the wind and rain really picked up and we weren’t sure if we were getting wet from the rain itself or the wind blowing the fountains onto us! Still, we stuck it out and watched the entire show before returning to the hotel and deciding what to do. We wanted to get back to our hotel but given the crappy weather we decided the best thing to do was to head through as many of the hotels as we could to avoid going outside! After walking through the Bellagio shopping area we crossed the road and headed straight inside Caesar’s Palace and onto the linked Mirage. By that point the rain had ceased so we took to the streets and bypassed Treasure Island and a new shopping mall before passing a massive building site and returning to Circus Circus!
Just prior to us leaving Zurich I’d managed to spill iced tea all over my fairly new laptop and the sticky keys and blurry screen were beginning to annoy us. We decided to head to Best Buy and see what they had, preferring the cheaper US prices now to what we might find in Switzerland in January. I’d also persuaded Elizabeth that I needed a new camera and we were soon leaving Best Buy with a shiny new Dell laptop and a brand new Nikon. I think the guy at the checkout thought we must have been mental. He asked us where we heading to this evening and we said we were going to the Drive-In Cinema. He obviously had trouble comprehending the fact we’d just spent a lot of money of electronic goods and were now going to the cheapest cinema in town!
But that is what we did. Vegas has one of the few original Drive-Ins left in the US and given there were some decent films that we wanted to see we decided to give one of their double features a go. It was empty when we arrived, about 45 minutes too bloody early, but it soon filled up as people made themselves at home. We cracked open some of the beer we had in the car and settled in for the first film, In Time. The concept of the film was actually quite good and I thought it was a very watchable film. Watching a movie through your windscreen is a bit weird and getting the sound through the radio took some getting used to as well! The next film was Contagion with the wooden acting of Matt Damon. Despite his presence, this was another good film. The only downside was that it was freezing in the car – we hadn’t wanted to leave the engine and air con running the entire time but near the end of this film we were desperate for some heat!
November 5, 2011
Today was our last day in Las Vegas but we didn’t spend much time in the city. In fact, we headed out in the morning and drove to Lake Mead. The scenery as you near the area does not change quite as dramatically as you’d imagine as much of the city has spread towards the lake and it is only as you reach the edges of the national park area that the greenery becomes more apparent. As we approached the park today we noticed there was an event going on and we saw loads of cyclists. We assumed it was part of a triathlon but for us it just meant an even more leisurely pace driving around the edge of the lake. The main reason for heading to the lake was to see the reason the lake is here in the first place – the Hoover Dam. When I had visited Vegas before I had taken a flight over the lake and the dam so I thought it would be good to see them from a lower level. We stopped in the town of Boulder City to visit the national park visitor centre and here we learnt of a new(ish) bridge which diverted traffic from crossing the Hoover Dam but which had a walkway for pedestrians to view it. We decided we’d try this bridge first before driving over the dam but given it was about midday we thought lunch was a better option first!
Of course, there happened to be a micro-brewery in town and I never turn down a chance to try more beer! The Boulder Dam Brewing Company made quite a selection of beers and Elizabeth tried the Hell’s Hole Hefeweizen and I tried the High Scaler IPA. The names of the beers we have come across on the road are as funny and interesting as the beers are drinkable. Well, not quite, but almost! These two were really good and after some unhealthy snacks to accompany we were on our way to the bridge!
The parking lot at the bridge was pretty busy and given that Americans seem to be incapable of reversing or parking it was quite a bit of fun and infuriation waiting for the right moment to nick a spot. We soon found one after some idiot took forever to reverse out and we were soon heading up the ramp and stairs to the bridge. The official name of the bridge is the Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (catchy) and was only opened in October 2010. It bypasses the Hoover Dam to limit the traffic going across it and is just 500m from the dam which means it provides some great views. We walked all the way out across the bridge as far as we could and we were disappointed that the path ended before we could walk into Arizona! Honestly, the views were a bit of a letdown as I kept comparing everything to the aerial view I’d experienced previously and that completely outshone this. Still, we thought we should at least drive across the dam as we were here and we stopped briefly (now in Arizona!) for a couple of pictures before heading back towards the city.
Back at the hotel we crashed for a while before heading out to the downtown area to experience the Fremont Street Experience. This turned out to be another bit of a letdown as it was basically a pedestrianized area that had tried to regenerate itself but had merely attracted more bums and losers to hang around outside the smelly, seedy hotels and casinos that lines either side of the road. It also seemed to be an excuse for people to dress in shabby outfits pretending to be someone famous and charge for a picture. Even the girls in bikinis dancing in the stages and bars looked like they’d just fallen out of the skankiest strip bar imaginable! We were planning on having dinner around here but we decided better of it. We did walk around some of the side streets to see some of the vintage neon signs that were around, including the famous Vegas cowboy amongst others. We couldn’t decide what we wanted for dinner and as our hotel was a bit remote from the rest of the strip we couldn’t really be bothered heading out and nothing at our hotel sounded appealing. As we drove back though we passed a Marie Callendar’s and we were able to stop for a bite to eat there before heading back. We had a long drive tomorrow so I didn’t want to be out too late although I’m rarely asleep as early as I’d like on these days!