Flying with the Falcon

A Holiday with Honor for Las Vegas

Five years ago, my husband, Michael, and I went to Las Vegas to get married. We didn’t go to Vegas because we wanted a cheesy Elvis wedding in a taffeta-enshrouded chapel. The real reason we went to Vegas was because it would be easy to get married simply, without the fuss of a family affair, and then we could have some fun around our secondary interest: going to the Grand Canyon. That visit to the Grand Canyon still gives me happy chills when I think about the stunning majesty of the massive gorges carved into the glorious sedimentary rock. In any case, we returned to the scene of the crime for our anniversary, not necessarily because we wanted to see Vegas again, but because from the Carson Valley where we’re currently parked it was easier than going elsewhere. That, and there is always a show to see in Vegas.

The drive took us through the mountainous desert of Nevada, which often reminds me of movie scenes of Mars. So little plant life exists in some places of the desert, particularly this time of year. Trees remain leafless until spring, as do many of the bushes, thus the desert appears cold and unforgiving. Though I know animals and plants are out there, it’s a landscape I find foreign after so many years of living in the Northeast with deciduous trees and grass, and then in winter the snow usually blankets the brown countryside to make it brighter, even if it’s cold.

Seven hours of desert landscape and few towns between Carson Valley and Las Vegas felt drawn and dull, but we cheerfully arrived at our Airbnb in North Las Vegas by dinner time. Our lovely hostess directed us to our room, which was pleasantly bright, tastefully decorated, and sparkling clean. With the attached bathroom, our space felt like a little retreat. For our first night in the city we felt exhausted from our early departure and long drive, so we treated ourselves to a pizza dinner at a chain called Rocco’s NY Pizza. Being from New York State, we dearly miss good pizza, so we gave it a try. Michael enjoyed it, but I thought it was too salty. I don’t agree with the pizza being New York style, but it wasn’t bad. I have yet to find good pizza on this coast.

In the morning we chose to dawdle a bit, since our plan was to spend the rest of the day on the Strip before going to a concert at Mandalay Bay. Yes, THAT Mandalay Bay—the casino where the October shooting took place at the concert. Though Michael mentioned something about the fact that if any types of violence were to occur that night, it would be on the Strip, I told him I didn’t care. I refuse to live my life in fear of what others might do. If I thought that way, I might never leave the house. We grabbed a quick bite and headed to the casino to park and purchase our tickets to avoid some of the online fees, and then spent the day wandering.

Some of the swankier casinos like Bellagio and Wynn still had their holiday decorations up, and the delight of seeing the glitter, lights, and displays is certainly worth the trip if you decide to go around this time of year. We also wandered through several of the bigger casinos on the Strip, enjoying the fun interiors of NY, NY; Paris; The Venetian; and Encore. Paris and NY, NY (this one really hits the mark of all things Big Apple) are two of my favorites just for the fun of seeing the faux cityscapes indoors, and I love the whimsy of the Wynn with all the color and fun details to find as you walk through the corridors and rooms. The atmosphere is that of a year-round carnival, quite purposefully. We stopped briefly at the food court in the Venetian for some Middle Eastern fare (which was fairly good, and easy on the budget), and even though I watched wistfully at people floating down the canal inside the casino in a gondola, I stayed away from paying the exorbitant price for a short ride in a badly-steered boat. Honestly, it didn’t look terribly romantic to have a teenaged white boy bored out of his mind take us on a canal ride for all of five minutes. I suggest avoiding such tourist traps on the Strip, and instead just enjoy the scenery for free.

For those who have never been to Las Vegas, it’s an interesting city for anyone to enjoy, even if you don’t gamble (Michael and I have yet to do so there, other than maybe a quick game of slots when we got married). If you’re smart about where you spend your time, you can have a lot of fun around all the food and entertainment. So many musicians make a point of stopping at Vegas on tours, lots of entertainers now just live in Vegas and offer ongoing shows, and you can find almost any kind of show you can imagine. More than anything, this was what made up our minds to spend our anniversary there. Michael secured tickets for Penn and Teller on New Year’s Day—our actual anniversary—so we chose to make the trip. Anyway, if you spend your time on the Strip taking in the incredible scenery inside all the big casinos, that alone could take you days. No matter where you go, there are plenty of restaurants, bathrooms, and places to stop and sit for a rest. You can shop if you like on the Miracle Mile, wander into art galleries, and even see some fun entertainment for free in front of Treasure Island, where they have actors come out every hour or so on the pirate ship, or you can enjoy the impressive fountain in front of the Bellagio. You may even get lucky and come across a band playing in one of the small cabarets or restaurants within the casinos, and if you buy a drink you can sit down and enjoy the show.

If you get more purposeful about planning your trip, you can find schedules of shows playing in Vegas, and then you can look up specific casinos to view their websites for more details on what else might be happening around the same time. If you choose to take in Fremont Street, the best time to go is after 3pm, when the street performers begin to come out in earnest. For a donation of any size, you can see a rainbow of entertainers busking on the streets, often changing from hour to hour. It can be fun to watch the street performers, but if you do, please donate to them. These folks are now required to pay for the space they use on the sidewalk, due to new regulations from the city, and many buskers live on the tips they earn. Beware people who want to take your photo for you—those folks will tell you that if you pay them a small fee they will take your photo, and not all of them will give back your camera or phone. Take selfies instead, and save your money for the buskers, the servers, bellhops, and any other folks who do you a service.

After exhausting ourselves with hours of walking on the Strip (do note that if you go there, expect to do LOTS of walking, as the Strip is miles long), we finally meandered back to Mandalay Bay at about the time the local police had the Strip blocked off for the New Year’s celebrations, right around 6pm. If you go to the Strip for New Year, it’s actually a delightful fireworks display—the best I’ve ever seen anywhere. The casinos all coordinate their fireworks to go off to music, and all the shows at every casino are planned out to be the same. It’s incredible to see the amount of planning it must require. I think this year people came out into the streets with more compassion and kindness than in years past, as the massacre was so fresh in their minds, and people could be heard all along the roadway calling out to the police as they walked, happily encouraging them, thanking them, and being incredibly respectful. It was lovely to see such solidarity and thoughtfulness of the citizens to the members of the force. Even though we walked shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers, no one shoved or jostled—everyone stayed calm and waited their turn patiently to get through.

It took us almost an hour and a half to finally arrive at Mandalay for our concert at the House of Blues, and as we walked through the entry to the interior, we noticed that the entire outdoor garden had a hushed quiet. Inside the casino it became more lively again, but it did not escape our notice that it seemed less busy than it should for a big holiday celebration. We found ourselves regretting having spent the day on our feet as soon as we entered the event space, as we purchased general admission tickets, and that meant no seats for us. I believe this is true for general admission in most event centers now, and I should have thought of it beforehand, but live and learn. Despite my aching legs and feet, I enjoyed the Pennywise show, and a couple of bands who opened for them were fairly good, too. If you like punk music, Strung Out (a California band, I think) was my favorite. They had a good gritty sound and a lot of energy. Since we were at the concert during the countdown, we missed the fireworks, which disappointed me a little. The line-up for times wasn’t available even early in the afternoon when we purchased tickets, so we had no idea what time the bands would finish playing. Still, we had fun at the show, and then we dragged ourselves back to the truck so we could go crash for the night.

On New Year’s Day we got a late start, so we decided to try a buffet at a casino up the street from our Airbnb. With a player’s card (which is free), we were able to get a buffet for only $10.99 each, saving $6 per person. This seemed like a bargain, but the food was underwhelming. The Aliante Casino is a locally-owned place, and the interior is quite modern and new, but I would avoid this buffet if you go there. In fact, I remember even five years ago when Michael and I were on our honeymoon, we were underwhelmed by the buffet at the Luxor, where we stayed for some of our trip, and another place which is now closed. Be choosy about the buffets you visit. It seems like a fabulous spread, but then when you go to select from the options, too many of these places seem to have a wide array of frozen foods they fancied up with garnishes or powdered sugar after heating them in an oven. If you want a really good buffet, read Yelp reviews online before partaking, because even the big casinos on the Strip can have terrible food. Another bit of dining advice: be careful about eating at celebrity restaurants. They are VERY pricey, and the food may not be worth the price tag. We ate at Emeril’s after our ceremony five years ago, and the food was nothing more than I could have cooked in my own kitchen—in fact, Michael cooks a better steak than the one he ordered, and that meal ran us over $200. Ouch. Again, check Yelp reviews before spending your money.

Honestly, if you want really good food, do what Anthony Bourdain, Rachel Ray, and so many other travel icons do: go where the locals go. They live in the city, and they know what’s good. If you stay at a B&B, use the resource of your host and ask advice about where to eat. They are your best bet. After our meal, we drove back toward the Strip to visit the Community Healing Garden, a memorial dedicated to the victims of the October shooting. I was floored by the touching displays of compassion, love, and generosity in memory of all those who died. Trees have been planted along a walkway, and many of the trees have been decorated with ornaments, pictures, and signs from people expressing their love and prayers. Beneath the trees in the garden, brightly painted rocks with notes, sayings, or single words like “peace” were arranged lovingly in groups spread throughout the garden. Lights twinkled in many of the trees, and in the center of the whole park stood a heart-shaped garden with a single tree planted in the center, and behind that stood the Remembrance Wall.

Tears streamed freely down my face as I walked along the wall, looking at the pictures of each person who passed from this world. Every individual who lost his or her life that day could be found on the wall, their families and friends having placed mementos nearby, left flowers, or written notes. The most heart-wrenching for me was a particular photo of a woman whose husband and children wrote, “I love you Wifey,” and “I love you, Mommy” around the border of her photo. A picture of her with her family hung near it, too, and I just wanted to sob for their loss. Another note beneath a man’s photo said simply, “Sorry we couldn’t do more to save you. We did all we could.” God, it hit me hard to see that, too. Imagining the story behind those words just broke my heart. Such a tragic experience. And yet, the community has come out to support them, love them, honor them, and remember them. It is beautiful. If you visit Vegas, I recommend going to the garden, which is in the Arts District off the Strip. Google can tell you how to find it.

After the emotional visit to the healing garden, we went back to our Airbnb to get dressed for the main event of our visit to Las Vegas: Penn and Teller. I had wanted to see them for years, as I have been an admirer for a long, long time. Even though most shows these days allow for casual attire, I chose to dress up a little for our anniversary. For those who care to see Penn and Teller, they are a long-running show in Vegas, and have been for many years. Tickets are less expensive than those for the Cirque du Soleil shows, and cheaper than some of the musicians, too. If you go, arrive early to hear the jazz duo before the show, which starts at 8pm for the 9pm show. You want to see it, trust me. Even if you don’t care about jazz, just go. It’s worth it. I won’t spoil the fun for you by telling you why. 🙂

The show itself is full of humor in the midst of the magic stunts, and the two magicians often change up the material in their act, so if you go see them again on another visit you will see a whole new show. I think the most fun part of the show for me was the fact that they involved the entire audience in a magic trick, and they are incredibly engaging entertainers. Penn has a charismatic personality with a touch of rebellious attitude, and throughout the show he enlightened the audience with interesting facts about things that matter to him and Teller. I loved that they use their platform to teach people to be aware of our freedoms and to understand our rights while remaining lighthearted and fun. This is a show to see, for sure. If you enjoy magic, it won’t blow your doors off in terms of tricks, but you will leave happily amused and at least a little impressed that they can tell you what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it, and then they still amaze you with the trick. After the show, both magicians waited in the lobby to meet anyone who cared to have a photo with them or get their signature. Michael and I got our cards from the audience trick signed, and got photos, too. Both men were quiet, polite, and gracious, which impressed me immensely.

After the show at the Rio Casino, we managed to find the American Grill open for another hour, so we ate a late dinner there. Though it was a little more expensive than I thought it should have been, the food was good enough, and the service was great. The place we really wanted to try had already closed for the night, which was unfortunate. A misread on the hours of operation foiled our dinner plans, but we made do. Back at our room later, we celebrated with our champagne, which was fancy enough for us. In the morning, we checked out of our Airbnb and had breakfast at the Waffles Café in North Vegas (the same shopping center where we had our pizza the first night), and were pleasantly surprised by the delectable waffles in a small, unassuming locale. The décor could use a bit of sprucing, but the waffles are amazing, and the people there were incredibly nice. I would recommend it for breakfast. It’s unique and fun. After food, we took a few hours to wander Ikea, a dangerous escapade for us. No matter what, we always seem to find a boatload of stuff we want/need/must have. We went anyway, and rounded out our visit with cinnamon rolls and coffee, both of which were absolutely divine. I love that a store anywhere, nevermind in Las Vegas, chooses to keep its prices low while still offering a great product because the mission of the business is to provide affordable, nice things to anyone who needs them. That’s a business I want to support. No matter what, I try to vote with my dollars whenever possible, which is just as powerful as voting in a booth on election day, in my opinion.

Our visit to Vegas for our anniversary made us happy, even if we didn’t fill every moment with gallivanting. At this point in my life, I like a little space between events. It’s like letting them breathe so I can fully enjoy the experience by appreciating each place I go. I no longer feel the need to rush through a city to try to wring out every last ounce of time there. Instead, I give myself time to relax, to stop and really take in a sight in front of me, really engage the people around me, and to fully appreciate what I am doing. It means more to me now that I pay attention rather than needing to bang around like a pinball from one activity to the next. This time, I kept my camera in my purse more often than I took it out for a photo. I did take photos, but I spent more time looking during this trip, being in the moment with the joy of people having fun, letting go for a while, and being delighted by beauty.

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