Birthday in Las Vegas

Las Vegas. A name that instantly evokes so many images for all of us. I hesitate to write this, wondering if it would be possible to add any new thoughts to the history of writing about this storied destination. It’s not as if we had any experiences different from the legions of visitors before (and after) us. In the end, I just wanted to make a record of a wonderful vacation together. The trip was Tony’s fiftieth birthday present to me. It was to have been a surprise, but my nosiness and impatience forced his hand, revealing the details many months ahead of time. He has the patience of a saint and I continue to hope that some of that will rub off on me.

He booked a three night air and hotel package that included non-stop flights (yay!), a luxury room at Paris (double yay!) and a 24 hour buffet pass (triple yay!). My annual fee for my airline credit card has as one of its benefits a pair of passes to its corporate/first class lounge. We snacked on bagels and coffee, took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and relaxed in leather armchairs before boarding our plane. After a painless flight, we landed on that Tuesday morning with only a couple of small carry-on bags and headed for the taxi line. Our first stroke of luck came when we were directed to the cab stand slot numbered ONE. This must portend something good, I thought. We were met at the hotel with only a short line at the front desk and given immediate access to our rooms, despite being there 4 hours ahead of the regular check-in time. We dropped our bags and headed out into the heat of the morning.

Our first stop was the Buffet at Bellagio. We arrived to find a line that was moving at a positively glacial pace. We figured out later that it was the transition time from breakfast to lunch, with thrifty guests taking advantage of the opportunity to pay for the earlier, cheaper meal and still eat a full savory menu. The array of choices was quite astonishing. There were several different green salads; a variety of cold vegetable and pasta salads; sliced prosciutto, salame, ham and cheeses; platters of fresh fruit; hand rolled sushi and sashimi; smoked salmon and whitefish; steamed, peeled shrimp; roast turkey, chicken, lamb and pork, along with two kinds of steak; a multitude of grilled and sauteed vegetables; a build your own pasta bar, alongside four kinds of stuffed pastas in sauce; a stirfry station, alongside a selection of prepared Asian dishes; and finally, a large display of breads. Then there were the desserts! There were at least a dozen different plated options, as well as an assortment of cookies, sorbets and ice creams and a chocolate fountain.

We thoroughly enjoyed the food here. Everything we ate was fresh and beautiful. The only issue we had was the service. It took far too long to get our server to take our drink orders, in my opinion. By the time I came back with my desserts, there were four plates waiting to be removed from our table. In fact, some tables near us were never cleared of dirty dishes and glassware for the entire hour that we sat there. The staff seemed unhappy and spent long stretches talking with one another, rather than doing their jobs. As someone who has worked in restaurants and is acutely aware of the staff around me, this made the whole experience less than ideal.

The balance of the afternoon was spent walking the south end of the Strip. Our first stop, the Bellagio, was still a premier property even after all these years. The generous use of marble, the colorful awnings on the casino floor, the Chihuly installation in the lobby and the 27 foot high chocolate waterfall at Jean-Philippe Patisserie make for a magical setting.

Moving south, we next stopped at Monte Carlo. The theme here is the tiny principality on the Mediterranean coast, the main theme of said principality being its casinos. One door south is New York, New York. This interior was one our least favorites, mostly because of its New Yorkiness. Dark, crowded, dirty, noisy and expensive, it was all the things we hate about the city. The exterior architecture is quite a sight, but it’s marred by a rollercoaster running through it. I suppose for some this must be fun, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. Beyond that sat Excalibur, a sort of pathetic visit to Merry Olde England. Next up was Luxor, it’s main property shaped as a giant pyramid with a gazillion-watt beam of light shooting straight into space from its apex. The interior attempts at Phoenician decor were somewhat less than successful. The final property at the south end of the Strip is the luxurious Mandalay Bay, which we did not visit.

Our entertainment for the evening was the Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity. This is the third official Cirque production I have seen. We have also seen four or five “pretend” Cirque shows on our cruises, featuring many of the same styles of acts. We decided that we have seen enough of these! Once you put together a string of performers from jugglers to trapezists to gymnasts to someone spinning from their neck, the only thing you can do to make it seem new is put them in different costumes and give them a different theme. We have seen them dressed up as Peter Pan, a Chinese Opera, a Bollywood movie and, in Vegas, as a sex show. The feats are truly impressive, don’t get me wrong. I think I have just become jaded.

The next morning we boarded a bus for Hoover Dam. Our driver gave us lots of info on Las Vegas on our ride out and added a stop at the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign for a photo opportunity. Once we arrived at the dam site, we took an escorted tour that included the Turbine Room. The sheer size of this entire operation was amazing. Lots of superlatives can be used to describe it, but you really need to see it to understand the scope of it. It brought to mind our feelings about the Panama Canal. It is just incredible to think that mankind had the hubris to even attempt such massive projects. If you are in Las Vegas for more than a day, I would definitely recommend a tour out that way.

That afternoon, we returned to our hotel and activated our “Buffet of Buffets” wristband. This pass, included in our hotel package, offered twenty-four hours of continuous access to seven of the Strip’s buffets. By starting it in the middle of dinner service, we were able to squeeze four meals out of it (dinner, breakfast, lunch and another dinner). We started with dinner at the Flamingo, in the shadow of a twenty story high photo mural of Donny and Marie. The food was alright, but not the best we had. What was amazing was the view from our table. We overlooked the hotel’s Wildlife Habitat and had views of black swans, penguins and, of course, flamingos. It was quite a sight!

After another short night’s sleep, we headed for the breakfast buffet at Planet Hollywood. This was an amazing setup! They had just about anything you can imagine for the day’s first meal. The food was fresh, hot and well-seasoned. The service was really great, too. Actually, almost everyone we encountered in Las Vegas was just wonderful. Folks seemed truly happy to be helping you wherever we went. Bus drivers, cabbies, hotel desk clerk, cocktail waitresses, buffet servers, and even hotel maids were gracious and friendly. I talked to a couple of them about this fact and they responded, “We want you to come back!” Why can’t people everywhere reach this same conclusion?

We spent the rest of the morning visiting other properties. My personal favorite was Aria and the shopping center connected to it, Crystals. These properties are part of the brand new City Center, a cluster of hotels, casinos and shopping between Monte Carlo and Bellagio. Aria’s casino floor was elegant and refined, a welcome change of pace from what we had been seeing. Crystals is a soaring, light-filled space, the center of which is dominated by a restaurant suspended in midair, encased in a wooden “tree.” We also stopped in at Caesar’s Palace, which is the polar opposite of all that restraint. The decor here was completely over the top. If you can imagine a gaudy Roman enclave, you can imagine Caesar’s. We paid our respects across the street at the Venetian, too. Here, the streets (and even a canal) of Venice are lovingly recreated, right up to endless frescoed ceiling reminiscent of Michelangelo. Never have so many angelic cherubs gazed down upon so much depraved excess.

There were brief interludes at the Wynn (gorgeous, still shiny-new), Treasure Island (campy, smelling faintly of coconut and jasmine?), the Mirage (slick, smooth beauty), the Flamingo (seriously old school, despite attempts at modernization), Harrah’s (the Carnival theme is worn thin), Bally’s (what theme?) and finally, back home to Paris. We loved this property, and not just for the half-size Eiffel Tower ¬†and Arc de Triomphe out front. The casino floor is dressed like a Parisian street, with faux gaslights and a blue and white-clouded sky. Cobblestones underfoot and diminutive streetscapes complete the effect. Even the reception area gets into the act with its Versailles-esque pastiche of mirrors, chandeliers and gilt.

The last evening of our visit we took the bus up to Fremont Street to see what had become of the Las Vegas of the past. Millions of dollars have been poured into these early casinos, restoring them to their original glory. Classics such as the 4 Queens, Binion’s and the Golden Nugget continue to be crowded even today. The addition of the Fremont Street Experience is a big draw, too, offering a light show on an arched roof above the street. If you are going to Vegas, you should definitely check that out.

We ate some wonderful things during our stay. I enjoyed a different French pastry every day (in celebration of my birthday), including a pot of luxurious chocolate mousse; a delicate raspberry and almond tart; and finally a madeleine, a financier and a tiny chocolate cake. We ate a light supper one evening on the edge of the terrace at Paris, in the restaurant Mon Ami Gabi. We started with a classic salad of frisee, lardons and a poached egg, followed by scallops baked under a blanket of bechamel and cheese. At other stops along the way there were crepes filled with Nutella; more shrimp and crab legs than I have had in ages; an excellent cheese danish; and lots and lots of coffee.

We had a wonderful time, although we agreed on the third morning, as we packed for the trip home, that seventy-two hours was just enough time to spend there. We saw the sights. We ate the buffets. We paid the “Casino Tax” everywhere we went…meaning I gambled and lost in every hotel. We enjoyed the complimentary cocktails on the casino floor, even while playing penny slots. It was a relaxing time together, with not a care in the world.

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