Friday, February 18, 2011

Vegas 24/9
We got up a little later today which was nice. It turned out to be quite a hot day as we wandered down the strip, on our way to brunch at the Harley Davidson Cafe. The cafĂ© was quite over the top as you would imagine, with a massive track built around the room holding motorcycles on movable platforms. It’s a bit hard to describe so hopefully some photos will do it justice. They ended up doing some pretty good food there; I had Huevos Rancheros which was a massive plate of scrambled eggs with some re-fried beans on a tortilla with hot sauce and corn chips. Kirsten ended up having a tortilla creation with prawns and vegetables served on a sizzling plate, you then had to assemble the tortillas yourself, adding to the adventure. Thoroughly stuffed, we purchased some Harley merchandise for people at home before walking back to the Tropicana in the now very serious heat. We had a bit of a rest afternoon in the hotel before heading off to see the Cirque du Soleil show ‘Ka’ at the MGM Grand casino. We joined up to the free MGM gambling club which entitled us to ‘by one get one free’ tickets on the show, which meant of course that we were happy to pay a bit more for a single ticket to get good seats. As it turned out we were right in the middle of the fan shaped seating with a great view of an amazing show, performers and surroundings. I won’t go into detail about the plot, suffice to say that it was a quite engaging story with a bit of action and some stunning visuals thanks to the outlandish costume designs and elaborate sets, including a hydraulic floor that could be raised high in the air or turned on its side to form a wall depending on the demands of the storyline. Following the show (we went to the earlier showing at 7.30 – they were doing two shows a night) we had some late snacks at a popular cafe in the MGM casino. We ordered up a large snack of onion rings, fries and some pretty awesome shakes which came on plates decorated with massive amounts of M&Ms, Gummi Bears and caramel popcorn. Not a meal for the weight conscious or those generally concerned with sugar, salt or fat levels it was bloody magnificent, and one of the best shakes I have ever had – black cherry and cinnamon. Waddling back to the room, we felt thoroughly sated.

Vegas to Vancouver 25/9
We were up early the next morning for our flight to Vancouver . Despite having a close view of the airport from our hotel window, it was still not a cheap cab ride as we had to go all the way around the perimeter to the other side. It was a couple of hours up to Vancouver , and we arrived in pretty good shape. Sadly Kirsten left a jacket which she’d had made in Vietnam on the plane, never to be seen again. We called the airline but the plane had already left to go back to Vegas. We were met at the airport by our good friend Dara and we headed into Vancouver by cab to her apartment in a cool part of the city. We dumped our bags and headed out to lunch as the offerings on US internal flights a meager. We had some great fish & chips down by the water, there was a huge queue of people waiting at a little mobile cabin – it was well worth the wait. I have forgotten what type of fish it was but it was right up there with other fish and chip fare we have had while we've been away. Following the food we had a wander back to Dara’s place, she had to work in the evening so we spent a quiet night at the apartment.

Vancouver to Victoria Island 26-27/9
In the morning we headed out from Dara's apartment and caught a taxi to the Canada Line train. This service offers a link to the airport as well as downtown and because it's fairly new the train ride was very smooth all the way out to a bus terminal, where we boarded a bus heading out to the ferry. There is a ferry service running to Victoria Island several times a day. It took about an hour and a half to travel, with some good scenery on the way. The ferry meanders slowly through a group of smaller islands on its way to the harbour on Victoria Island. We were met by Carly, a good friend of Dara's who had kindly ventured along to pick us up and show us a bit of the island. Our first stop was a bar/restaurant on one of the waterways downtown, where we had some great food and drinks in the sunshine. We've had a great introduction to a Canadian version of the Bloody Mary, named a Caesar. Instead of tomato juice, it incorporates Clamato juice, which, like the name suggests is a mixture of clam juice and tomato juice. This ramps up the sodium content a fair bit so it tends to make you a bit thirsty while trying to quench your thirst, but along with some heavy spice and some vodka, it makes a pretty tasty drink. Following a couple of Caesars (Kirsten went for the virgin version) we headed out to visit another friend of Dara's, Lauren along with her kids and husband. They were trying to pack up their house in order to make way for the new owners. We also had a bit of a look at Lauren's new place, still being worked on by a team of builders. It’s a lovely historic building in a nice part of Victoria, and pretty expensive I’m sure of it. Following our drop in, we were lucky enough to be driving along a section of the coast with the sunset in the distance, very picturesque. We were heading back to Carly's condo in order to get changed and head out for the evening. Kirsten ended up staying home to watch some movies as she was worn out, so the three of us (Carly, Dara and me) headed out for drinks, firstly at the Sauce and then Lucky bar, both of which were quite crowded with Saturday night punters. We ended up having a moderately early night after a few drinks as Dara peaked a bit early on the drink stakes. Back to Carly's for a snooze. The next morning we went out for breakfast at the Herron Rock, a local cafe that served nice food. It was pretty packed so it took a while to get our food but it was pretty good when it came. Another Caesar helped to take the morning edge off. There was an eclectic thrift shop next door where Dara scored a couple of lamp bases to add to the great decor in her apartment. Carly dropped us back at the ferry just after 12 and we headed back to Vancouver after a great couple of days out and about. We had better weather heading back so we spent a bit more time outside before the wind eventually beat us.

More Vancouver Action
As I've been a bit slack in writing down the last section of our adventures, I can't be absolutely certain of the chronological order of some of these events. A night out drinking might have had something to do with it too. One evening we had dinner at Vijs, which is a great local restaurant just near Dara's apartment where she works in the evenings. It's some pretty tasty Indian style fare, with some great service and some excellent wines on the menu. We also spent a day out and about shopping about in Vancouver, where we saw some great stores, including Zulu records and a great Ice Hockey apparel store named Ironhead. They do limited edition t-shirts but sadly one I was interested in didn't have my size. Our last evening in Vancouver saw us heading downtown to Gastown for the afternoon, where we met a friend of Dara's working in a great bar named Pourhouse for drinks. We got into some cocktails early, with a very tasty bourbon based drink called a Gold fashioned. Suitably fortified, we went out for dinner at a new pizza/pasta bar, for some lovely food before a last drink or two at another bar where another friend of Dara's works. For our last day with Dara she cooked us an awesome lunch of local sockeye salmon with a pickle on the side, before we headed off to the airport. We had such a great time in Vancouver and enjoyed the company of all the Canadians we met along the way, it's a destination on our list to return to.

Transit hell
This is going to be a short post since it’s the bitter end of our trip. Suffice to say, we had a decidedly average 31-hour transit from Vancouver to Melbourne. However, it’s a very small complaint up against six months of brilliance so I don't need to go into further detail.

To all of those who showed us their hospitality we must say thank you. It was a blast.

The end - for now.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Viva Las Vegas 23/9

We had a rancho relaxo day in the room out of the heat. We wanted to be rested for the evening as we had some big plans. Our first stop was the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, on Las Vegas Boulevard. We had arranged in advance to renew our vows with a ceremony hosted by the great man, Elvis Presley. The ceremony included getting dressed up, so we got changed into our respective costumes. I was Elvis from the 70’s in a bejeweled jumpsuit with big hair to match, while Kirsten was dressed as Priscilla, complete with baby doll dress, dark tresses and white veil. The ceremony went fairly quickly, with the King going through a set of vows suited to renewal, with a few Elvis specifics in there like ‘not stepping on each other’s Blue Suede Shoes’. After the ceremony we danced as the King sang ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and the photographer took some snaps. Our last photos were taken out on Las Vegas Boulevard with the King and our names up in lights behind us. It was lots of fun and we laughed a lot doing it. Once the King had done his thing we got changed and then grabbed a cab to the Venetian for dinner. It’s a ridiculously huge and opulent casino, with over half a dozen top quality restaurants inside. After some tough decision making, we ended up at David Burke’s restaurant for his take on modern American cuisine. Kirsten started with some grilled octopus, a serve large enough to be a main and one that I enjoyed helping her eat. I had two large seared scallops which were lovely. Kirsten’s main was Striped Sea Bass, while I had John Dory. We were both stuffed after the fantastic mains so we didn’t end up having dessert at the restaurant. Next we headed out to the gaming area to try our luck. We had budgeted an amount to spend out on the floor, which we used at the roulette wheel followed by the blackjack table. Our dealer Andrew was nice enough, sadly this did not translate to any kind of luck or winnings in most of the hands we were dealt. Suffice to say, we did not last that long at the table. Our last stop was at a Star Wars themed slot machine, where we managed to make our money last slightly longer but this did not translate to a serious win either. Following all that we decided to invest our money more wisely in gelati, followed by a cab back to the Tropicana.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Vegas 22/9

If you want to go beyond the Strip there is a bus service but as we had a few different stops to make today we went for a cheap hire car. First stop was Starbucks for some breakfast, there’s one every couple of blocks over here so it’s pretty handy for a caffeine hit. Next up we went into the retail giant, a Walmart Supercentre, where we had to get a couple of bits and pieces, including another piece of luggage for the trip home. Our main use of the car though was to drive to the Neon Museum, a not for profit organisation who have a collection of neon and illuminated signs, starting from the 1940’s through to a couple of decades ago. They rely on donations to restore the signage back to its original glory. The local government is supportive and rents the land that they use for 1c a year. They rely on the casinos to donate the signs and one of the main manufacturers to relocate the signs. Some of these signs are so massive it costs a great deal to transport them to the ‘boneyard’. So called because the signs are spread out everywhere in varying states of condition and repair. There are some fantastic examples of graphics and lettering everywhere you look. Almost everywhere you turn there’s a great photo opportunity. Combined with our visit to the Grand Canyon, the Neon Museum drained our camera battery, but not before we got some shots we are really pleased with. We’ll post them when we can. The Killers shot a video there too which is also pretty cool - watch to the end to see the boneyard. Once we’d returned our car in the afternoon we had a bit of a relax back at the hotel before heading out onto the Strip in the evening. The Tropicana is next door to the MGM Grand so we had a wander through to enquire about a Cirque du Soleil show that we might be seeing on Thursday. Inside the casino there’s a lion enclosure which we thought a bit cruel with all the racket, lights and people everywhere but the lions seemed to be fairly inactive/content. We eneded up at the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner. It had only opened five days beforehand (a second location in Vegas) and we saw an impressive collection of memorabilia, including some Elvis jumpsuits, most appropriate for the location. The nachos at the Hard Rock cafe are amazing!

Vegas 21/9

We spent pretty much all day today checking out a huge mall and doing some shopping. In the evening we had some free tickets to a magic show at our hotel so we went along to check it out. The show is called Dirk Arthur’s Xtreme Magic. We went along without too much in the way of expectations, which was probably for the best. Some of the illusions were quite well done and there was some impressive displays, like cutting a girl into nine pieces but the overall effect was undone a bit by Dirk being a complete ham as well as the dancing girls doing a touch too many dance montages. He wasn’t too shy in the self promotion stakes either, giving us a mid show magic break by showing us his Animal Planet special which showed him caring and training his big cats. The rare tigers he has as part of his act are the main stars of the show, I was wondering at one point how all the loud music and explosions didn’t incite the tigers to get stuck into Dirk. All up it was good for a free show but we are looking forward to seeing a more serious production later in the week.

Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon Tour 20/9

As we had some extra days in Vegas we thought we would make the most of it and take in the Grand Canyon. Our bus tour picked us up from our hotel at 6.15am and took us to the tour depot where we signed in and got some breakfast. We were out on the road in an almost full double decker bus by about 7.30am and made it to the Hoover Dam in a bit over an hour. Just before the Hoover Dam is a huge electricity sub station that we are sure my Dad would have appreciated. The Hoover Dam is a masive structure and well protected by local cops and homeland security. There is a checkpoint everyone has to go through before crossing the dam to a lookout on the other side. I’m hoping the pictures will do it justice as it’s too big to really describe properly. The trip out to the Grand Canyon took a couple of hours from the Hoover Dam. We changed buses for the last 15 miles as it was dirt roads and not suited to the double decker. Once we arrived at the first tourist station we changed to a local shuttle bus that loops the main viewing areas and a ranch all on the Western Rim. We headed along to the first viewing area, Eagle Point, which is home to the Skywalk. It is named Eagle Point after a rock formation that looks similar to an eagle spreading it’s wings. The point is on the western side of the canyon and provides excellent views, all the way to the bottom and the Colorado River, about 5000 feet down. The Skywalk is a glass and steel structure built out from the side of the canyon wall, so that when you walk out on the U shaped Skywalk, you can see right through the glass and down to the canyon floor below. It is quite an amazing effect and some tourists were coping better than others. We did fine and quite enjoyed it, the only issue being we couldn’t take our own pictures while we were out there. We had our picture taken by one of the on site photographers. We will hopefully scan it at some point and add it to the blog to give a clearer picture on how amazing the Skywalk and Canyon are. We had lunch at Eagle Point before heading to the next viewing area, Guano Point. So named as some of the caves on the cliff opposite were formerly mined for nitrate rich guano deposits (bat poo). A huge winch on our side of the valley showed how the guano was transported across the huge canyon mouth. The view here was even more impressive than at Eagle Point as the rocks stick out forming a peninsula into the canyon. I’m not going to worry too much about writing about it, apart from saying that we were both really amazed at the shear scope and size of the canyon. It is very beautiful and the ever changing rock colour amazing. We spent quite a while sitting and taking in the view at Guano Point so we didn’t have time to do the third stop, The Ranch, but as it was more a cowboy display and pony rides we preferred to see the canyon anyway. Once back on our tourbus we headed straight back to Vegas and to the hotel. The return journey took just over two hours. It was a big day and combined with the drive the previous day, we were both very tired and had a relatively early night.

LA to Vegas 19/9

We left LA a couple of days early as we did everything we wanted to do in the city and on the Hollywood tour. We both think we would have spent a bit more time there if we knew someone with some 'in the know' places to go. Without that inside knowledge the city isn’t that interesting. We hired a Dodge Caliber to get to Vegas which was a fairly easy drive, about five hours in total. Driving out through the desert on the large highway gives you a bit of an idea why there’s so many large SUV’s and trucks on the road. They really suit the landscape out here. The Caliber had a satellite radio which was great as there was no loss of signal out in the middle of Death Valley. We cranked some ‘80s hits to get us through the drive. This one had us singing along (badly):

Having an American voice on the GPS made a nice change too. I was fed up with the English lady on the GPS we had in the van - she had a bad attitude. We are staying at the Tropicana, a bit of a faded star amongst all the grand and over the top casinos on the Strip. We are happy enough with the room as it’s comfortable, clean and not too expensive. Once we were checked in and the blazing sun had gone down, we took the car back and walked back to our hotel along the Strip. It’s such an amazing specatacle at night, with huge crowds out and about checking out the neon, huge decorations, rides and gaudy opulence. It took us an hour or so to walk back to the hotel so by that time we were ready to go to bed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

LA 17/9

We started our LA tour by heading down through Marina del Rey, where apparently only 10% of the boats actually leave the harbour. The rest seem to be for showing off. Next up we went through the canals of Venice on our way to Venice Beach, checking out some very expensive real estate on the way. We had a good driver by the name of Monday who took great delight in pointing out expensive sports cars and houses. Down at Venice Beach, or Muscle Beach as it’s more commonly known it was quite quiet, still a bit early for all those pumping iron and making an exhibition of themselves. Next we drove through Santa Monica, the beach being part of where Baywatch was filmed, sadly no sign of the Hoff though. We did a loop through Beverly Hills and a couple of other suburbs viewing some stars homes, including some quite nice looking places, some gaudy and some just ridiculously huge. Some of the ones we saw belonged to: the Beckhams, Tom Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer (we later saw a bar belonging to her), Quincy Jones, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Liz Taylor, Britney, Ronald Reagan, Tom Selleck, Johnny Weissmuller (now owned by Val Kilmer but left empty after a fire several years ago), Joan Collins, Eddie Murphy, Nicholas Cage (a bargain for sale, reduced from 30 odd million down to 16), Rod Stewart, Tom Cruise (where they are filming some scenes from the Green Hornet), Walt Disney, Ricardo Montalban, Matt Damon (who had quite a nice house by our tastes), Michael Jackson (where he died), the Playboy Mansion (no bunnies in sight), Steven Seagal (totally over the top), Charlie Chaplin, Elvis' last purchase and finally the massive sprawling Aaron Spelling residence, a mere 117 rooms. After the viewing of these massive and expensive properties we had a quick stop on Rodeo Drive, checking out some expensive boutiques and the Wiltshire Hotel. Following this testament to obscene wealth we had some lunch, consisting of shakes and fries, after which our group headed to Hollywood Boulevard, viewing some of the stars on the sidewalk. There was also a good view of the Hollywood sign from the fourth floor of a shopping mall. While on the boulevard we also saw Mann’s Chinese Theatre, with star signatures, hand and foot prints out the front. Once back in the bus, we travelled along the Sunset Strip where we saw the Viper Room, Whiskey A Go-Go and other late night venues and bars where the stars apparently let down their hair. Had we been more in party mode we might have gone out to one of the clubs but as it is we are being very tame. We left it to the likes of Li-lo and Brit. LA is very spread out, with cars being the most popular choice in getting around. Everything is miles away from each other with suburbs in between. Amongst the whole slew of cars we spied a great variety of Ford Mustangs. Everything from a lovingly cared for 66 coupe through to a brand new GT. Nice. We had a quiet dinner at the hotel as the NYC jaunt has left us a bit tired. More local brews to be tried though: Flying Dog - Old Scratch Amber Ale and Hollywood Blonde Ale, both pretty tasty.