Las Vegas
A mini-travelogue by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 2000 Evelyn C. Leeper

July 14, 2000: flying to Las Vegas, The Strip at night
July 15, 2000: Valley of Fire, Hoover Dam (Hard Hat Tour)
July 16, 2000: Orleans buffet, Red Rock Canyon, Paris, Bellagio Fountains
July 17, 2000: New York New York, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Tropicana, MGM Grand, Mirage buffet, the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace
July 18, 2000: Venetian, Treasure Island, Fremont Street, return to New Jersey

July 14, 2000: I wasn't going to do a trip log, but since even getting to Las Vegas was an adventure (albeit not the kind you'd choose), I figured I should capture some of it.

I'm not a gambler, so you won't hear anything (much) about the casinos per se. And for old experienced Las Vegas visitors, this log will probably seem incredibly superficial, or misguided, or possibly both.

We went to Las Vegas to celebrate my father-in-law's 80th birthday. All the children and grandchildren were there, as well as his sister and brother-in-law. (Given that one of the grandchildren lives in London, this was quite a feat.) We had arranged for rooms in the Paris for all of us Sunday and Monday nights, but Mark and I figured it made sense to fly out from New Jersey Friday night and get the full weekend. Since the Paris was full, we booked the first two nights at the Motel 6.

We had booked seats on the Friday night America West flight 2118, leaving Newark at 9:17PM and arriving in Las Vegas 11:47PM. This was later than I would have preferred, but the only reasonably priced choice for that evening (rather than early afternoon).

The first complication was that Mark's department scheduled its picnic for that day. Okay, so he'd get a ride with someone there and I'd drive down and pick him up towards the end.

When I called to confirm our flights Tuesday, everything was fine. I mentioned that we wanted to try to change our seat assignments, and the agent suggested we call Friday morning, as held seats would free up then.

I called Friday about 12:30PM and was told that our flight had been cancelled! Could we leave from JFK? Well, not really. So we settled for a non-direct flight, America West 2687, leaving Newark 6:02PM and arriving in Phoenix 8:52PM, and then America West 2749, leaving Phoenix 9:33PM and arriving in Las Vegas 10:34PM.

So I called the lodge where the picnic was and had Mark paged to tell him I was picking him up at 3:30PM instead of 6:30PM.

We arrived at Newark about 4:00PM, but by the time we drove to Lot G and all over it looking for a space, it was about 4:45PM when we arrived at the America West desk. Guess what? Flight 2687 to Phoenix was delayed two hours. This clearly meant we couldn't make our connection, but we had to spend an hour in line before we got to talk to an agent.

To make a long story short--and we spent close to forty-five minutes with the agent--we ended up on standby for Continental 1273, leaving at 9:20PM and arriving in Las Vegas at 11:59PM. (This took so long because the computers were over-loaded, poorly programmed, or both.)

Of course, America West is in Terminal A and Continental is in Terminal C, so we got on the monorail and rode to Terminal C. After clearing security, we headed towards the food court to use our dinner vouchers and as we passed the Continental monitors, I glanced to see what, if anything they said about our flight. Ours wasn't listed (it was only about 6:15PM, but Continental 1271 for Las Vegas leaving Newark at 6:45PM was, and it had that magical flashing "BOARDING" next to it! Well, since we were standby anyway, I suggested that we try to catch this flight (getting in at 9:15PM). That would help hedge our bets on getting on to some flight.

So we headed very briskly down to the gate. They were boarding standby, and after a slight pause, they took out voucher from America West and handed us boarding passes and we were off.

Well, no. We were on--the plane, that is--but because of more weather delays we didn't actually take off until 8:50PM.

We finally arrived in Las Vegas about 10:30PM. I think the flight we had been sent to was due in about 12:30AM.

We picked up the car, got thoroughly lost, and eventually found our hotel for the first two nights--the only Motel 6 in the country to sport a giant neon sign. Now that we're old, we even got an AARP discount (10%).

Even though it was midnight, we drove up The Strip so we could see it lit up at night. Amazing! Should I quibble by saying that the Eiffel Tower doesn't actually look like the Eiffel Tower at the top?

Since all we got on the plane was a burger (and I hadn't eaten lunch), we stopped for dinner at Kimchi BBQ at about 1:00AM. Las Vegas is the "city that never sleeps" (at least large parts of it).

After dinner, we went back to the motel (down Maryland Parkway, which runs parallel to and much faster than the Strip) and to sleep.

July 15, 2000: We woke up early (before 7:00AM) and decided to head out for the Valley of Fire before Hoover Dam. This is about an hour and a half northeast of Las Vegas. We stopped at the Moapa Reservation store and picked up a small breakfast, then drove through the park. We even decided to walk through Petroglyph Canyon since it was relatively cool (probably only in the 80s). However, while we saw some petroglyphs, we didn't see a lot of them and may not have gone to the end. (We went to the point where it looked like if the trail went on, it was up a rocky climb.)

Valley of Fire is so named because of the red color of the rocks (from iron oxide), but I thought the rock from the east end down to Lake Mead was more spectacular, with hills and desert and gorgeous Western scenery. Playing music from Western movies probably helped. (We had checked every car available and chose the one with the cassette player.)

We had reservations for the 11:30AM Hoover Dam "Hard Hat Tour." When we were in Las Vegas about ten years ago, we had taken the regular tour (which was the only one offered then). The Hard Hat Tour covered some of that (the gallery above the turbines), as well as taking us down to the floor of the turbine room (and indeed, to the floor below, where we could see the turbines spinning), along the water at the base of the dam, into one of the diversion tunnels, and into the dam itself and down a ventilation tunnel to look out the front of the dam. It finishes up coming up the gorgeous art deco elevator at the center of the span that used to be what the regular tour used before the Visitors Center was finished about five years ago.

We also saw a presentation on how the dam is part of the water management plan of the Southwest. (This was its primary purpose; the electricity was proposed later as a way to pay for the dam.) The Visitors Center had a old documentary about the building of the dam, not as good (in my opinion) as the "American Experience" that ran on PBS a couple of years ago.

We decided not to return to the Valley if Fire (about ninety minutes away), but instead to drive south a ways to Searchlight and then loop around back to Las Vegas. This actually took us into California, so we were in three states today: Nevada, Arizona, and California. Just as we got to Nipton, the railway barrier came down and a 74-car train came through. After about fifty cars had passed it stopped to let a 94-car train coming the other way pass it (there was a double track through the town, but single on either side). I figure there are probably only a couple of trains a day through here--what are the chances someone will arrive just as they are both passing through?

We had dinner at Viva Mercado's. Mark had a chile relleno and a tamale; I had mole chicken. It was good, but not as good as the mole chicken in some of the Mexican restaurants in New Brunswick. Or maybe it was just different.

I wanted to stop in Bell, Book, & Candle, which Fodor's described as a place where gamblers could get all sorts of good luck charms. It was closed, but we returned Sunday to discover it was more a magick (in the sense of witchcraft) shop than a gamblers' good luck shop.

We stopped at a couple of hotels at the north end of the Strip. These are the older hotels, such as the Stardust and Circus Circus. The former has nothing special about it--it has a casino, some shows, and a couple of restaurants, but no special decor. Circus Circus is the same, but also has a midway/arcade for children (and adults) which includes free circus acts such as acrobats or magicians. It's basically like the boardwalk at the shore back home.

Since this had been a very long day, we returned to the room about 9:00PM and conked out.

July 16, 2000: We started at 8:30AM with breakfast at the Orleans buffet. The Orleans is about a mile (or more) west of the Strip on Tropicana Boulevard, so one needs a car. It is also supposed to have the best breakfast buffet. However, because it was Sunday, they had a brunch buffet ($9.95 instead of $4.95, and with lots more lunch food). I had barbecued ribs, corn on the cob, and some shrimp (though the latter weren't as firm as I would have liked). Along with some fruit and dessert, this was a substantial meal. I have to say, however, that their coffee was not New Orleans coffee (with chicory), but just rather insipid American coffee.

We got gas (11.715 gallons to fill up after driving 302.9 miles). Gasoline here is about $1.70/gallon.

We headed northwest to Red Rock Canyon. We followed the Blue Diamond Highway and the sign that said "Red Rock." This took us through some beautiful mountain scenery, but nothing particular red. After about thirty miles, the sun came out from the overcast and instead of heading east back towards Las Vegas, we appeared to be headed west. When we saw a sign saying we were in Pahrump (now there's a name for you!), I checked the map, and sure enough, I had made a wrong turn. I should not have followed the sign that said "Red Rock," but rather continued on the Blue Diamond Highway. We back-tracked and rejoined the correct route. Since the road was absolutely straight for about twenty miles and the speed limit 75 miles per hour, this wasn't too bad.

Red Rock Canyon really has only one string of red rock rather than the huge quantities over a large area that Valley of Fire has. On the other hand, it is much closer to Las Vegas and, assuming one doesn't get lost, can be visited in a half-day. If you do visit it, do the Visitors Center first, because it describes what are on some of the trails (which the booklet they give you does not). However, they seem to have updated the exhibits without updating the audio tour of the Center.

On the way back we passed the Sci-Fi Empire. It was closed, but appeared to be mostly comics and media. We also passed the law firm of Aaron & Paternoster. Only in America!

We got to the Paris about 2:00PM. On the way to check in, we met Mark's parents, sister, brother-in-law, aunt, and uncle in the shops and restaurant area (more about this later). We checked in and Mark went back down to rejoin them while I (as the only registered driver, which was an oversight on my part) returned the rental car to the airport.

Nothing is easy. I wanted to fill the tank, so I pulled in to the one gas station on the way to the airport. It turned out to take only ATM cards and cash. However, my ATM card wasn't on any of the ATM networks it was on, and it only took exact change in cash--not very helpful when you want to fill the tank. So I pulled out and drove back towards the Strip to find a real gas station.

That accomplished, and the car returned, I got on the rental car shuttle. "Which airline?" "Well, none of them actually--just drop me where I can take the Strip shuttle back to the Paris."

When I got in line for the Strip shuttle, I was standing there with my plastic bag with sunglasses, water, and a book. The driver asked the man (with suitcases) in front of me, "Where to?" then turned to the woman (with suitcases) behind me and asked her. I had to stop him and point out that even though I had no luggage, I wasn't with someone who did.

Back at the hotel I found Mark and most of his family in the cafe area. We talked for a while, then went up to change for the birthday dinner in Mon Ami Gabi (one of the brasseries). The food was very good and, all things considered, not unreasonably priced (entrees running $20-$30).

The Paris has three parts: a hotel, a casino, and a shop and cafe area. The shop and restaurant area is what one finds in the newer hotels than the older ones (such as the Stardust) lack. In the Paris, these are laid out to look like little shops along a quaint Paris street, complete with painted storefronts, a cobbled floor surface, and a painted sky with lighting set to perpetual twilight. The sky reminds me of the movie The Truman Show (which takes place entirely within a dome which is painted to look like the sky). In fact, most of the newer hotel/casinos have this painted sky effect over their shops.

After dinner, we walked around the Bellagio and watched the fountains, which have a synchronized water, light, and musical show every fifteen minutes or so--mostly opera, but some more contemporary pieces as well.

July 17, 2000: The next morning we had breakfast at the Surf Buffet (?). Okay, but nothing great. We walked down to New York New York. This is a truly kitsch hotel whose facade is supposed to look like New York, complete with scale-model Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, and Statue of Liberty. (The effect is somewhat spoiled by the giant roller coaster than runs through and past them.) Inside, the shop area is supposed to look like Greenwich Village and Chinatown. It doesn't. For one thing, it's too clean.

From there we crossed to the Excalibur and took the tram to Mandalay Bay. Now I had heard that Mandalay Bay had a shark tank, so we walked the entire length of the hotel (maybe half a mile) only to discover that it was $12.95 each. This was a bit steep for us, since we hadn't even planned on seeing it, but since we had to pass through the Mandalay Bay on the way to the Luxor. . . . So we returned to the tram and went to the Luxor. (There is one tram that goes from the Excalibur to the Mandalay Bay. The return tram goes from the Mandalay Bay to the Luxor to the Excalibur.)

The Luxor has an Egyptian motif. The main building is shaped like an enormous pyramid, bigger (I believe) than that of Khufu (Cheops) at Giza. You enter between the Sphinx's front paws. There is also a huge statue of Rameses and an obelisk. Inside, there is more of the Egyptian theme, including paintings purporting to be of ancient Egypt, but with very modern sensibilities. There were two Egyptian-themed shops (or at least Middle Eastern). One had more expensive reproductions, but even many of the ones in the other shop were pricey. And the quality often left something to be desired. For example, there was a statue of Horus on a pedestal for $85, but one of them had the base cut uneven so that Horus looked more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

I will say that the Luxor had the best casino chips. Last time we were in Las Vegas we got a $1 chip at the Excalibur for our tchotchke. It was metal, rather shallowly stamped. The Luxor chip was more like a white ceramic (though undoubtedly of a more robust material) with gold and black hieroglyphics and decoration. (The chip we got later at Caesar's Palace was the metal kind. The Luxor cashier did ask if it was for a souvenir, so I suppose it's possible they have special souvenir ones, though that seems unlikely.

After this we started toward the MGM Grand but got side-tracked at the Tropicana. We tried their "free spin" and lost, but each got a coupon for a free deck of cards. We collected those and then decided to also use the free coupon for the "Casino Legends Hall of Fame." This was mostly chips, ashtrays, etc., from various casinos (past and present), with some more substantial items--some of Liberace's clothes, for example. At the end was a half-hour video about the Mob in Las Vegas, easily the most interesting part of the museum. There was also a video about all the fires and explosions of Las Vegas, the latter being when they demolished various old casinos.

We did finally get to the MGM Grand. We didn't see all of it, but we did see a portrait of Elvis made of jelly beans. (I can tell how excited you are.) We also talked for about five minutes with Roger Baum, grandson of L. Frank Baum. (This was in the Emerald City Shop.) He has written two more "Oz" books, and was complaining about how everyone tries to politicize the series. I think he thought we were real "Oz" fans because we knew about Ruth Plumley Thompson and the silent "Oz" films.

After this we returned to the hotel and rested for about an hour before joining the rest of the family for dinner at the Mirage buffet. This is $14.95 for dinner, and certainly worth the money. It includes crab legs, shrimp, smoked fish, prime rib and a huge variety of hot and cold dishes and desserts.

Afterwards we walked through the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace. This is supposed to resemble an ancient Roman market, and succeeds even less in that than New York New York or the Paris does in their resemblances. It does have nice statuary and fountains, though. (We returned the next day to see the show at the Atlantis Fountain--I will describe it later.) I observed that because this was Las Vegas, they didn't feel a pressing need to apply fig leaves to the statuary.

July 18, 2000: Because of the time constraints (some folks had early flights to catch), we had breakfast at the boulangerie in the Paris. Then came saying good-bye to everyone, checking out, confirming our flight time, and stashing our luggage with the bell captain.

We walked up to the Venetian, the biggest hotel in the world. (Last night the Discovery Channel just happened to be running a documentary on it, which we stayed up until midnight to watch.) The ceilings are covered with Italianate paintings, though the white dots which are probably part of the sprinkler system somewhat mar the effect.

The shops here are in an area with the same "Truman Show" sky as everywhere else. The deli attempts to provide an air of authenticity by having Manischewitz matzoh ball mix and matzoh meal, but still seems very artificial.

In spite of this being the Venetian, and there being a lot of shops, there was no "Merchant of Venice."

After this we walked through Treasure Island, which had a much more subdued theme decor--at least inside. Outside, there is an entire lagoon with pirate battles every ninety minutes.

We decided we should at least see the downtown area--sort of the "classic Las Vegas." This involved taking a bus, as it was a long way from the active part of the Strip. The casinos here are older and not part of fancy hotel or resort complexes. They're also on a tighter budget--the "free" gift one offered turned out to require $5 worth of play to get it. This is not a lot, but it's not free either.

On the other hand, they do feature cheaper food, including 99-cent shrimp cocktails and cheap root beer floats. And the souvenirs here are cheaper, so we picked up our souvenirs here also--a small package of polished stones as gifts for Mark's group, and a couple of postcards. We are not big souvenir buyers.

We then took the bus back to Treasure Island, arriving in time for the 4PM pirate battle. In this a pirate crew on their ship in the lagoon shouts pirate-type things at each other (like "Avast, matey!"). Then a British man-of-war sails around the corner of the hotel and shouts British man-of-war-type things (like "Surrender, you bounders!"). Eventually, the man-of-war fires on the pirate ship. Well, not actually, since the crowd is on a walkway between the two and all the British guns would hit would be anachronistic spectators. Instead, the guns make explosion sounds and spew smoke, while pre-rigged charges on the pirate ship explode. The pirate ship returns fire, and [SPOILER] eventually sinks the man-of-war. (Actually, watching the man-of-war rise from the water after the show was over, straightening her broken masts and repairing her breeched sides, was probably more interesting than watching her sink.)

After this we went back to Caesar's Palace and saw the animated statues at the fountain. This is a show every hour, but they do cheat a little--the statues that are there the rest of the time descend and other, animatronic, statues take their place. It's pretty impressive even if it is in large part an ad for their 3-D ride.

There was a sign up that there would be a behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium after the show, but that got canceled (Luck of Leeper!) because of construction in the corridor leading to that area.

Since we were near a phone, I called the airline again to confirm our flight time. No problem.

So we hung around the shops a while and then ate dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. By now it was getting close to time to leave for our flight, so we picked up our luggage and went to the airport.

Guess what? Our flight was cancelled!

This time there was only one flight change involved, as they put us on a Continental flight leaving a little later, but arriving about the same time. (Well, all the red-eye flights arrive about the same time.) We managed to make it home with no further confusion.

Summary: Las Vegas is strange and not a place I would visit regularly (even if getting there and back weren't such agony). Hoover Dam and the Nevada scenery are wonderful, though, and if you're in the area it's worth a day or two. Do not fly America West if you can avoid it. No, let me re-phrase that, since I'm not sure it's actually possible to fly America West: Don't make your reservations on America West.


Evelyn C. Leeper (