Friday, November 30, 2007

Trip Report: Day 5 (California, Here We Come!)

Today we leave for our drive across to Anaheim so we’re up early to get a good breakfast at the diner downstairs. We all eat a bit more than normal as we don’t know what to expect from the desert road. Once we’re done we head upstairs to do the last few bits of packing before grouping together again downstairs to check out. We’ve filled in our fast check out forms during breakfast so we’re done quickly and we shift all our bags (we’re now at 10 for the group) outside to the pick up/drop off zone. The guys have to pick up the hire car from the Sahara and leave us to guard the bags. We need water for the trip so after a few minutes I head inside to buy each of us a massive bottle and a couple of souvenirs that catch my eye. A few minutes after I get back, the guys turn up in an enormous red Chrysler Town & Country. We quickly load the luggage, and ourselves, on board, take one last look at the Stratosphere and head for the desert.

As we’re stuck at traffic lights on the way out of Las Vegas we notice a young lady posing very provocatively on the sidewalk for a photographer. She’s attracting quite a bit of attention from the cars around us and soon enough Graham joins in, winding Linda up by egging the girl on! We’re on the highway in minutes and heading west. The signs bid us farewell and soon we’re out of the suburbs and heading into some stunning scenery.

The sense of scale is amazing; the horizon above is 10 miles away so it gets repetitive quickly, but that doesn’t stop it being pretty awe inspiring. Pretty soon we cross the state border into California but the scenery stays basically the same. After an hour or so, we pass through the town of Baker, famous for the World’s Largest Thermometer which I’m happy to get a shot of from the freeway as we race past.

Just past Baker is the internet famous Zzyzx Rd which keeps us entertained for a minute or so.

Halfway through the trip we stop at a rest stop which comprises a small parking area and a concrete toilet block – nothing else.

There we are greeted by a rather worrying sign.

Regardless, mum has asked for a photo of me in the desert so we locate a convenient sand dune and run up it for a few pictures.

The heat is scorching so we’re soon running back down again for the air conditioned comfort of the car and heading back to the open road.

A while later we’re starting to get hungry when we come across a reasonably large city called Barstow. There are exit signs listing restaurants so we pull off and head into the town centre on the hunt for Dennys. The main road through the city is actually the historic Route 66, as we are constantly reminded by signs. We find Dennys and get lunch, mozzarella sticks and fries for Scott & me, salad for Linda & meatloaf for Graham. The place is decorated for Halloween and is plainly a local’s diner in a small town; we feel very out of place and get a few odd looks down to our accents – bet they don’t get many Brits venturing in here. At one point a crazy old man comes in and starts talking to us, he’s obviously a regular as no one pays him any real attention despite the horns he’s attached to his forehead. We make a hasty exit, grabbing a few shots of Barstow and Route 66 on out way back to the highway.

We’re soon on the last leg of the journey and the scenery is very dramatic as the Satnav guides us into Anaheim.

At this point things go a little haywire as the zip code we were given for the hotel was wrong. I hastily reprogram for Disneyland but the location for that is also slightly off. Oddly there are no signs anywhere for the park which initially has us slightly panicked but we realise we must be nearby. Eventually, after turning around, we spot the single sign for Disneyland, an unassuming “Disneyland – next 3 exits”. We opt for the middle one and pull off to a T-junction which gives no indication of whether to go left or right. We take a chance on left and realise we’re heading into suburbs so we turn around in a supermarket car park. The first thing that tells us we’re close is when I notice we’re going past the Tower of Terror! I’ve looked up pictures of our hotel, the Park Vue Inn, so I can spot it and, within seconds I see it on the other side of the road – literally opposite the main entrance for Disneyland Resort! After a minute or two of tricky manoeuvring, Scott gets us into the car park and we all breathe a sigh of relief, we’ve made it to California!

We get checked in and have a rest for an hour or so, checking out the rooms. They are simple but have lovely hard wood double and bunk beds along with a decent en suite bathroom. They are also the only hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in where the guest folder contains instructions on what to do in case of earthquakes. After resting a while we meet up and walk across the road to Downtown Disney.

It takes about 5 minutes to walk there, passing the entrances to both parks. That night is one of the Halloween events so there are hundreds of people swarming to the entrances, many in costume. We walk to the far end of Downtown where there is a bookshop and sandwich shop. Scott finds a book he wants and I spot one too. Next stop is the Pin Station where Disney takes plenty of our money. The Lego store has one of the giant Millennium Falcon kits made up so we check it out and debate ways of getting one back to England but then realise we’d have nowhere to put it anyway!

We check out a few more shops on our way to the big one, World of Disney. I have a discount coupon from the Birnbaum guide book so we decide to combine all our purchases for maximum discount. We also decide that, as we have an internal flight before we even make it to Orlando, we’ll only buy Disneyland specific items in this store. Despite this, even after the coupon is applied we still spend over $105. My favourite purchase is a mini Haunted Mansion snow globe with the Hitchhiking Ghosts in the globe part and small black bats instead of snow. Even better, it has a button on the base which makes it play the entire Grim Grinning Ghosts tune – fantastic!!!

By now we’re hungry for a snack. There’s nowhere catching our attention in Disney so we head back to the hotel area where there are some gift shops and take away joints. Scott goes to Quizno’s Sub and gets a foul looking chicken and cheese melt. Linda, Graham and I visit a nearby shop where they get pre-made sandwiches and I get frozen strawberry lemonade as I’m not really that hungry. We reconvene in Linda & Graham’s room to eat and discuss the plans for the next day. According to the DIS, this is a crowd intensive weekend so we’re getting up stupidly early to get our free breakfast and be at the gates near opening time. We finish eating, say our goodnights and head off to separate rooms. I’m about to jump in the shower when there are a series of loud explosions outside. We open the door and realise it is the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty castle going off. Half the hotel guests join us and soon there are dozens of people enjoying the show.

When it finishes, we get showered and get the lights out ready for a long day tomorrow.

Trip Report: Day 4 (Luxor, New York,New York, Paris, Wynn, Bellagio & More!)

Today is our last day in Las Vegas and we have lots to get around and see so it’s up reasonably early. We’re having another day separate from Linda & Graham but meet them for breakfast at the diner downstairs and agree to meet at the Bellagio for dinner at 7pm. Several of the casinos I want to visit are at the other end of the Strip so we all head to the monorail and ride it to the MGM Grand where we say goodbye to Scott’s parents. The lions aren’t in their enclosure yet so we head past and look around the casino which is a whopper, even by Vegas standards.

Next we head for the Luxor but take a leisurely stroll through Excalibur first. This one is themed to King Arthur, Robin Hood and other British middle ages type things done in a very Monty Python type way.

It’s not one of the best casinos in Vegas but cute in a silly, more kid-friendly type way. We catch the tram over to the Luxor and have a better look around.

There isn’t much to see other than the gaming floors, just a few shops, IMAX theatre and food court but we like the architecture anyway.

We head over to New York, New York next, by far one of the most elaborately themed casinos on the outside and has an enormously high and fast rollercoaster racing around its exterior.

Inside, the main gaming area is in the centre - designed to appear as if it is in central park. All around are shops and eateries. We go to one shop and both end up buying tops as it’s very reasonably priced. Once we’re spent up we go downstairs to the main floor and look around the eateries. One pizza place catches my eye and nose as it smells fantastic! We share a slice of sausage pizza which is the best pizza I’ve ever had. We sit to eat in a quiet corner, except for the coaster loading platform directly above us.

Once we’re done we head outside to walk along the Strip in the blazing heat (fools!). We take some pictures of the fountain outside the Monte Carlo and as we walk down the path toward the Bellagio hear voices calling our names.

Linda & Graham are behind us, they’ve just been to the Monte Carlo themselves. We were all heading towards Paris and so walk down together, stopping to watch the construction happening near the Bellagio. In Paris we head to a patisserie and treat ourselves to some of the amazing desserts but only Graham manages to finish his. They may only be tiny but they are just so rich it’s unbelievable.

After splitting up again, Scott & I head to the Miracle Mile shops, part of the Planet Hollywood casino. Inside we find a Thomas Kinkade shop. My mum has specifically asked me to bring her back something of his so I find a nice tote bag and buy it for her. A few doors down is a shop called Hilo Hatties which I know means something in the dark recesses of my brain. We go inside and I spot why it means something. Last year Linda asked us to look for a branch in Orlando as it sells a specific moisturiser she loves, but none of the malls we visited had one so we came home empty handed. Neither of us can remember which bottle it was so we make a mental note to tell her when we meet up.

The last casino I want to visit is Wynn as we rushed through it on the first night. We catch the monorail to the convention centre and wait there for the free Wynn shuttle which takes us to the casino. It takes a good half hour or more, it would have been fast to walk. The Wynn is an amazing place, very stylish but less intense and in-your-face than the Venetian or Caesars.

It too is filled with beautiful d├ęcor and expensive shops, we also note that the high roller rooms are entertaining more guests here than in some of the others. My favourite shop was Chocolat which has two amazing sculptures on show.

After doing lots of exploring we head out of the front entrance as we have decided to walk back to the Bellagio rather than using the transportation. We walk down past the construction site for the Palazzo, the new wing being constructed on the Venetian which will make it the largest resort in the world. The Bellagio’s lake is still and calm when we reach it with little sign of the fountains which will erupt later. We are staying nearby so we can see them perform.

We enter through Caesars Place and do a bit of shopping at a stall in the Forum Shops, Scott gets a watch and I get a wrap and handbag. We then follow the walkway to the Bellagio and spot all the glass leaves hanging in the shopping areas. In the lobby we spot Linda & Graham who don’t fancy a big meal after all so they are heading back to our hotel. I tell Linda about the Hilo Hatties store across the street and she decides to head their en route (which gets me a sarcastic “thanks for that” from Graham.) We say goodbye and have a look around the lobby, admiring the amazing Italian glass ceiling and beautiful autumnal display behind the check in desks.

We’re not quite hungry yet so we go and have a look around the Botanical Garden in the Bellagio. It has a stunning autumn display on including hundred of apples, pumpkins and brightly coloured flowers.

As we are looking around, we see two just married couples come in to have their photos done, what a beautiful place for those pics. Just near the gardens is the World’s Largest Chocolate Fountain which has drawn a small crowd.

It really is enormous and makes us both feel hungry so we leave the Bellagio and head back to the Forum shops at Caesars to find somewhere to eat dinner. We settle for Planet Hollywood where we order breadsticks and two New York Strip steaks which are all very good. This is the third branch of Planet Hollywood I’ve visited – the others being in Orlando and New York.

After we have finished eating we walk back through the Bellagio to watch the fountains. They are just finishing performing a show to “Con te Partiro” when we get outside which is a shame as it’s one of my favourite songs and it won’t be played twice in a row. By the time we have walked around to the front, we just have time to snap some pics before the next show begins. This time the music is “Singin’ in The Rain”, slightly ironic perhaps in the middle of the desert.

After the show we make our way back to the monorail, taking pictures along the route. We walk the short distance from the Sahara to the Stratosphere, taking one last look at it all lit up before heading inside. We find Linda & Graham at their favourite 1c poker machine and join them. I up the ante and put in $5, playing 5c hands instead of the basic 1c as it gives a bigger return. The most I win on a single hand is about $2.15 which is still pretty good! The waitress comes around and gets us all some free drinks which would have cost way more than my wager for the night. At one point Scott & I move off for a while to try out the computerised versions of roulette (because the machines are now all linked to a computer system you can move money around between them very easily using receipts.) We’re both bored quickly and try out some slots which are also dull so we’re back at the poker within 20mins. Eventually we get bored and cash out with me getting3 of my original 5 dollar wager back. After grabbing a quick snack from the McDonalds upstairs we all head to our rooms to finish up packing ready for the drive to California tomorrow

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Trip Report: Day 3 (Paris, Caesar's Palace, Fremont St & The Venetian)

Today we decide to have yet another lie in. We’ve planned to split off from Linda & Graham as they’re rushing about too much for us. By the time we get up it’s a bit late for breakfast so we decide to get brunch instead. I’d spotted a Denny’s near our hotel so we head down there. I get a starter of mozzarella sticks and a side of fries which stills ends up being more than I can eat, Scott gets a chicken sandwich and fries. It’s quite harrowing seeing the obviously struggling wait staff so close to these billion dollar casinos and we end up tipping more than normal as a result.

We walk to the Sahara and catch the monorail to Paris where we spend some time looking around the shops and patisseries which are full of stunning desserts which are works of art in themselves.

We head outside to have a look around the Arc de Triomphe (1 third scale) and the Eiffel Tower (half scale) before walking down the Strip to the Flamingo.

This casino has an outdoor flamingo habitat and also has areas with parrots, peacocks and other exotic birds.

Next up is Caesar’s Palace, one of the largest casinos in Las Vegas.

We spend a bit of time on the slots and I put another whole dollar in, but get it back after having a few good runs of luck. We sit at the bar and get some drinks before walking into the Forum shops for a few hours. This is an entire full sized mall containing all kinds of shops from Gucci to F.A.O Schwarz and many restaurants too.

We stop by an ice cream stall and end up buying a large tub which costs us $16, and that wasn’t even the biggest – oops!

We also manage to watch one of the audio animatronic fountains perform its show, slightly ruined by the neon Cheesecake Factory sign behind it. We used a different exit onto the Strip and came across one of Caesars most unique features, curving escalators! We spent time watching them whilst sitting down for a short break.

Outside was a beautiful fountain which we grabbed some pictures of before trekking back to the monorail.

We had agreed to meet up with Linda & Graham for dinner before going out but when we got back to the room they had left a message saying they’d overeaten at lunch and weren’t up for food now. We called them and arranged to meet up after we’d eaten at the buffet downstairs so we headed back down for dinner.

After eating we met up and got a taxi to Fremont St, a street entirely roofed by one enormous video screen.

During our visit there’s a turkey eating contest going on that’s drawn an enormous crowd and is being broadcast on the local radio. It sounds disgusting over the tannoy as people race to eat entire turkeys in a couple of minutes. We do our best to ignore that area and walk down the street checking out the casinos and other attractions. At one end of the street are two casinos that none of us have ever been in, the Plaza and Main St Station (hang on, I thought I was in Las Vegas, not the Magic Kingdom?!?!) so we check those out before heading back to Fremont St.

We get an exceptional view from the other side of the road and get some pics before crossing back over.

We’ve just missed a show so we head to a small casino for a drink. These casinos are more of the old style from Elvis’s time and as such are much smaller and gambling driven as opposed to the big Strip resorts which include theme parks, shops and hotels as well as the machines. We step back outside to see the show. Every half hour the video screens overhead show a short but spectacular film, the one we caught was about flight and had planes soaring along the street and the space shuttle taking off. The casinos all turn their lights off during the show so it’s very impressive.

Once the show was over we split up as I wanted to nip to the Walgreen’s nearby as the desert heat and dryness was cracking lips terribly by now. On our way back we saw the end of a second light show, this one seemed to be about music judging by the guitars.

Once we met back up with Linda & Graham we decided we’d seen what we wanted to at Fremont St. It was still early so we got a taxi to the Venetian.

We looked around the shops again and watched the gondolas sailing past.

I grabbed a bite to eat in the food court and followed it with some raspberry sorbet from St Mark’s Square.

We go outside and watch the outdoor gondoliers and all the activity on the Strip before heading back to the taxis and heading back to the Stratosphere.