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.

Sunset on the NCL Pearl

Taken near the end of the cruise, this is us looking serene.

We had a grand time on the Pearl.  Although we opted for a simple inside cabin, we agreed that this, our sixth cruise, was the best ever.  We liked this ship the best.  Its public spaces were the nicest of any we had experienced.  There was rarely a sense of the ship feeling crowded, despite 2400 passengers and more than a thousand crew being onboard.  Our Friends of Dorothy meetups had the bonus of being hosted and this made us feel that NCL had gone out of its way, rather than just including them on the schedule as an afterthought.  We made some interesting and rewarding choices on our shore excursions, especially the petroglyphs at Acapulco and the coffee plantation in Costa Rica.  Of course, the experience of transiting the Panama Canal was also a once in a lifetime treat.  And then there was the food….

Ah, the food.  We have generally been very happy with the food on all of our cruise vacations.  We had some minor concerns this time around, what with two weeks of eating and all.  We honestly felt that this sailing offered the BEST FOOD EVER.  The variety was simply amazing.  We never tired of the choices.  The quality was the highest that we could hope for.  The quantity was mind-boggling.  The buffet setup offered the best flow of any we have seen.  Extras such as the ice cream bar, chocolate fountain and afternoon tea station were a big plus.  The dining rooms were also excellent, offering fourteen different days of menus so we never felt bored.  We both gained more weight than we would like to admit!

We met some wonderful new friends on this trip as well.  Richard and Bill are such a great couple and it was a real treat getting to know them.  They generously invited us to their cabin multiple times to take in the sunset on their balcony.  We also enjoyed a nightcap several times with other new buddies from our FOD meetups.  The people we had met through Cruise Critic online before we even sailed were great too!  We participated in a cabin crawl that gave us a chance to view a variety of cabins, including oceanviews, balconies and a whole range of suites.  The most spectacular of these was the Garden Villa, which accommodates six guests in more than 5000 square feet of luxury, including a private hot tub, butler service and four bathrooms!  It was more cabin than we could ever hope for and we felt lucky to get the chance to see it.

The staff on the ship was also among the best we have experienced.  Our Cruise Director, Andy Steinhauser, put together action packed days and nights that kept us as occupied as we wanted to be.  His assignment of a staff member to our daily meetings was a wonderful treat.  Our host, Erwin Baltazar, offered us a genuine feeling of welcome.  He was engaging and friendly and very, very funny.  Of all the hundreds of other waiters, chefs, bartenders, receptionists and  room stewards we encountered, we felt they all were going above and beyond to make our cruise simply unforgettable.

Acapulco, Mexico

These carvings are on a hill high above Acapulco.

Arriving early in the morning, we took our coffee out on the deck and watched as we sailed into Acapulco Bay.  There is development nearly all the way around this harbor, with even some highrise hotels in the tourist district.  This is not the same Acapulco visited by the winners of The Dating Game in the 1960’s.  Nearly a million people are crowded into the city and up the sides of the surrounding mountains.  We chose a tour that took us up into the hills for a chance to see the ancient petroglyphs at Palma Sola and capture the panoramic views that climb would afford.  We boarded a large van at the pier and headed out.

At first, we stuttered through the morning rush hour traffic along the bay and the nearby streets.  Once we began climbing the hills, there was less traffic but the road began narrowing at an alarming rate.  As the city grew in the last century, residents staked out their own plots of land on the mountainside in a crazy-quilt fashion.  When the city administration annexed this land and brought services such as water, electricity and paved roads to these neighborhoods (known as colonias), no one wanted to give up one single centimeter of space.  Houses extended all the way to the edges of the individual properties.  The layout become a nearly impossible maze of unbelievably tight roads.  Added to this was the steepness of the hillside.  None of the roads is marked and we faced many byways blocked by parked vehicles.  When asked how he knew which way to go to reach our destination, the driver responded, “I just keep heading UP.”

The Pearl sits in the Bay.

After some thirty minutes of this tortuous climb, we reached the Palma Sola Archaeological Site.  Arrayed up the hill from the Welcome Center here are more than a dozen petroglyphs produced the Yopes peoples, from 800 B.C. to 200 A.D.  A set of 500 rough stone stairs is set into the hillside, requiring a good bit of stamina to climb.  Along the way we stopped to view the carvings, finally arriving at a plateau at the top where we rewarded with a simply astounding view of Acapulco Bay.  It was worth the effort to see this panorama.

Bahias de Huatulco, Mexico

This was our view of the Pearl from the beach.

Our first stop in Mexico was the resort town of Huatulco in the state of Oaxaca.  It is a resort development ranging across nine bays (bahias).  We chose to stick to the small tourist area set up at the end of the pier.  Given that it was meltingly hot that day, this was more than enough activity for us.  We walked the few streets lined with shops, where Tony purchased a wooden fish, representative of the brightly painted, indigenous Oaxacan carving style.  On our way back to the ship, we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the host of one of the seaside bars into having a drink on the beach.  We sat and sipped a bottle of Pacifico, protected from the brutal sun by a thatched roof.  There was the echo of  marimba music drifting up from the beach, mingling with the persistent sound of the crashing surf and the laughter of the glistening, tanned young people playing in it.  Birds darted between the tables, seeking any scraps dropped to the sand.  We lingered in the cooling breeze, having truly relaxed at this point in our vacation and feeling in no rush to return to the relative confines of the Pearl.   This is one of my favorite moments of the entire fifteen days of vacation.

Guatemala

We docked at Puerto Quetzal as the sun rose and it was already close to eighty degrees.  We we were definitely in the tropics here.  The sun in this part of the world is intense in away that is unfamiliar to those of us from temperate climes.  It is so completely, directly overhead with a power that is unflinching.  Only the traditional afternoon rainshower offers any relief.  We made our way down the pier to the marketplace set up at the water’s edge.  Tony bought some souvenirs right away, so we could return them to the ship and not be saddled with carrying them on our tour.

We had booked a do-it-yourself style excursion, offering us only passage on a motorcoach to the interior city of La Antigua.  Given that we were in port on a Sunday, we were concerned that many businesses would be closed.  To the contrary, La Antigua is a tourist destination for people from all over Guatemala, as well as foreigners.  Families travel here for the weekend to take advantage of the sights, restaurants and shopping that this bustling town offers.  We alighted from the bus and made our way to the Parque Central in the middle of town, flanked by the Catedral de San Jose.  This lush park was studded with cool fountains and filled with musicians, families and lots of we gringos.

This church sits on the Parque Central in La Antigua, Guatemala.

We strolled through the streets, visiting the Arco de Santa Catalina and shopping in a multitude of markets.  The variety of local handicrafts was amazing.  The most stunning work is the weaving.  There were all kinds of examples of this, from placemats to backpacks to wall hangings.  I purchased a notebook with a beautiful, multi-hued cover.  We also stopped in a local shop selling sweets.  The proprietress spoke very little English and my limited Spanish was not helping with the names of the wide array of goodies offered in beautiful glass and wood cases.  I made some choices out of thin air…some of them delicious, others, not so much.  There were almond tarts, dulce de leche candies and tiny doughnuts, heavily glazed and stacked together in pyramids.

Our ride back to the ship was probably the most impactful part of the day.  As our luxury bus (complete with air conditioning, reclining velour seats, tinted windows and restroom)  squeezed through the narrow city streets, we were afforded views directly into the homes of local residents…and I do mean directly.  These were adobe structures without windows, with just a curtain for a door.  There was little or no furniture in some of them.  Children ran through the streets shoeless.  It was an awakening moment.  This was not the first time we had seen such conditions.  Each of our ports allowed such views.  Arriving on our luxury cruise ship, planning to return by plane to our homes filled with clothing, furniture, computers and appliances, we were truly humbled by our travel in this part of the world.  Now, when I complain about the heat, or the washer not working right, or my car being dirty, I am reminded of this view into a different world.

Costa Rica

Our first port on the Pacific Coast was Puntarenas, Costa Rica.  We boarded our plush, Mercedes-Benz bus early in the morning and headed up into the mountains.  After a shopping stop (an unusual placement at the beginning of the day’s tour), we parked in the town of Palmares.  We walked around the town square, complete with a statue of the founding father and a brightly painted gazebo set in lush gardens.  We were far from alone here;  a quick scan of the trees above revealed a nest of brightly colored parrots and a couple of iguanas lazing about on the high branches.  After a tour of the stone church, built by the Conquistadors, we headed back across the mountain range to the Doka Estate coffee plantation.  We got a hands-on trip through the entire process of coffee production…a product near and dear to me.  For the first time in my life, I was able to see coffee beans on the actual bush!  We walked through the facility with our guide and ended up enjoying a delicious lunch in an open pavilion overlooking the fields.  We were served chicken and vegetables, black beans and rice, plantains cooked with butter and palm sugar, as well as coconut bars for dessert.  Of course, there was also all the coffee you could drink.

Our final stop of the day was a the Lankester Botanical Garden.   We arrived to the typical afternoon deluge, only to find we had forgotten our rain ponchos.  The rain eased after just a few minutes and we were able to join the tour.  The specialty here is orchids.  We saw literally hundreds of different types, with blooms ranging in size from the width of your thumbnail to that of your entire hand.  The scent was intoxicating.  One plant even had the aroma of chocolate!  This garden is also home to families of scarlet macaws and cockatoos.  They love the rain and made quite a racket during the storm.  We boarded the bus one final time and made the perilous journey back to the ship.  Many of the roads were really only one lane wide.  Sometimes cut from the sheer rock face of the mountainside, there were rarely guard rails or painted edge lines.  There were several moments when one side of our bus gave up a collective gasp as we rounded a particularly treacherous bend.

The Panama Canal

The ship on the right is the Island Princess

First off, let me just say that after all the hype, after reading David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, after hearing about this wonder-of-the-world all my life, the actual passage through the Panama Canal is not that exciting of an event. There were thrilling moments, to be sure: the initial approach to the locks in the morning; the few minutes when you are actually rising and then descending in the locks; the narrowness of the Gaillard Cut, which we happened to experience during a torrential, tropical downpour. But mostly, it is just a very leisurely trip through a lake in the jungle. Gatun Lake comprises the longest part of the journey. The stately traversing of this body of freshwater allowed us time for lunch between the sets of locks. We sat at the window, gazing out at primeval forest which has been allowed to grow back as a security measure.

We awoke that morning to find our ship positioned, along with a dozen or so others, in a bay outside the Canal. We would be entering just after the only other cruise ship of the day, the Island Princess. Cruise ships are always allotted daytime passage appointments, while freighters pass all times of the day and night. The locks themselves come in three sets. The first set we entered, at Gatun, are the northernmost. (Look at the map and you will see that a trip through the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific actually runs from northwest to southeast, not east to west as you would think!) Nearly all of the ship’s 2400 passengers and 1000+ crewmembers crowded near the front of all the open decks and the glassed-in Spinnaker Lounge, craning their necks and cameras for a good view. It was a moment of typical human behavior as the taller and more aggressive members of the herd pushed their way to the rail.

You could feel the excitement in the air as we slowly manuevered into the first lock. The ship is actually guided and powered completely by tugboats at this point. Each lock is only a few feet larger than the ship itself. There are just two feet of clearance on either side of the ship and less than a dozen at either end. Once the craft is in the channel, it is attached with steel cables to a trio of electric locomotives, known as mules.  The cables are drawn tight, keeping the ship centered in the narrow lock.  At this point, all forward motion is accomplished through the movement of the mules.  The electricity to power the mules is generated by the dam on the Chagres River;  the water to raise the boats in the locks comes from this same source.  The large amounts of rainfall in the surrounding area provide the water to make all of this happen. In this way, the system is almost completely self-sufficient.

An afternoon thunderstorm sent water cascading down the side of the Cut.

By the time we reached the locks on the Pacific side, it occured to make to take advantage of my access to the spa and its amazing views.  Located all the way forward on Deck 12, sandwiched between the Bridge and the aforementioned Spinnaker Lounge,  I was able to take the photos that I had such difficulty snapping in the morning.  With about 25 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows and only four guests at them, I got the best pictures imaginable.  I re-joined Tony on the Promenade Deck as we passed underneath the Bridge of the Americas, completing our transit of the Canal.

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