August 28, 2007: Travelogue: Las Vegas
Posts have been in short supply around here for the last couple of weeks. My sister was in town for a good long visit, so I’ve been too distracted to write. Weekend before last, we went to Las Vegas. It’d been a while since we last went – in fact, it was eight years ago, when I was sort of celebrating quitting my job at Talk Soup. We’re sort of celebrating again, so we decided it was time.
Saturday, August 18th: We begin our journey from L.A. by catching the city bus downtown to Union Station. Megabus, a UK-based coach service, has just recently added routes from Los Angeles. It was hard to beat their promotional fares: the cost of two round-trip tickets from L.A. to Vegas, including a service charge? $4.50. Seriously. Since it’s new to the area, the Megabus doesn’t yet have a dedicated stop at Union Station. Instead, we follow a number of signs and markers on a merry romp through the station, outside into a courtyard, up a narrow flight of stairs wedged in between Union Station and the Municipal Water Building, until we find our makeshift stop at a parking lot entrance.
The Megabus itself: clean, cheerful, air-conditioned. A word of caution: don’t use the toilet in back unless you absolutely must. It’s not pretty.
It’s about a four-hour trip, broken up with a fifteen-minute stop in Barstow to stretch our legs and wolf down fast-food cheeseburgers. The scenery on the way to Vegas, through the Mojave Desert, is unrelentingly bleak: nothing but an unbroken desert vista of brown sand and scraggly trees. The World’s Largest Thermometer in Baker (the self-proclaimed "Gateway to Death Valley") proclaims the temperature to be 108. Sounds about right.
The Megabus lets us off on Tropicana about two miles away from the Strip. Walking two miles is nothing. In crippling heat, however? Not pleasant. Not smart, for that matter. We hop on a city bus.
During our previous visits to Vegas, we’ve stayed at Luxor and Excalibur. We’re sort of trying to be grownups this time around, so we’ve booked a room at Monte Carlo. It’s not the most exciting and/or glamorous of all the casinos on the Strip, but overall it’s lovely, and our room is clean and comfortable. Two quibbles with the room:
1. No in-room coffee maker (or refrigerator, but it’s the coffee maker that cuts at the heart of the matter. Fortunately, we’ve planned for such a grim eventuality by tossing a jar of the instant crap in our luggage).
2. The World’s Worst Basic Cable Package ™. I know all the hotels have bad television to encourage guests to get out of their rooms and start spending money in the casino, but even so, choices are grim.
We’ve brought (warm) champagne from Los Angeles, which we ice down and swill out of the bathroom water glasses. Classy!
We dine on excellent Chinese food at Dragon Noodle in the casino (Monte Carlo’s rather confused description claims it serves "chicken, beef, sushi, and seafood from the Cantonese and Szechwan regions of China." Now, would sushi be considered Cantonese, or Szechwan?). Their Sweet & Pungent Shrimp will haunt my dreams.
After dinner, we head over to New York New York. The real New York is not threatened. When I worked on the Paramount studio lot, there was a stretch on the back lot known as New York Street, a permanent set which, in the space of about a block, recreated several New York neighborhoods for use in filming. It’s a ringer for the real thing onscreen, but up close it sure doesn’t fool anyone. New York New York is like New York Street, only with a roller coaster and eight billion drunk college kids.
Sadly, Vegas is overrun by gaggles of drunk sorority girls in tiny jeans skirts and flip-flops. Most of them tote gigantic novelty drinks served in oversized cups. If I liked being around drunk sorority girls, I would have been much happier at USC. The crowds and the drunk kids dim our spirits, so we call it an early night and trudge back to our hotel. Thwarted by our bad television options, we turn to the in-room movies and give serious consideration to paying $11 to watch either Spider-Man 3 or Amazing Grace, then decide that would be silly. We do some reading (vaguely pretentious Vegas counter-programming: she’s brought Dumas, I’ve brought Dickens) and go to sleep. Living it up.
Sunday, August 19th: Because we got to bed at an obscenely early hour, we’re up at an obscenely early one as well. We make instant coffee with warm tap water to give us enough gumption to get out the door to the buffet downstairs.
The buffet is just fine. It’s Sunday, so there’s free champagne. My stomach does not want champagne at 7:30 in the morning, but that doesn’t stop me from drinking it. Vegas, you see.
Fortified with a weird array of non-breakfasty foods (clams, parsnips, crab, kung pao chicken), we go exploring. The never-ending Renaissance Faire that is the Excalibur is first. Going down the moving walkway into the garish blue and red castle, listening to the heartfelt strains of Patrick Swayze warbling "She’s Like the Wind", we have the first of what will be only a few moments of sheer cheeseball Vegassy happiness. From Excalibur it’s on to Luxor. They’ve toned down the faux-Egyptian nuttiness since our last visit, which is a pity: no more Pharoah’s Pheast buffet, no Nile River attraction. I think a thirty-story obsidian glass building shaped like a pyramid featuring a spotlight that can be seen from space fights a losing battle in trying to class up its act, but what do I know? We stop for the World’s Worst Coffee™ at the Starbucks of the Damned.
Vegas is a long way to go for a Starbucks.
On to Mandalay Bay: We want to visit the shark habitat, but, like most of Vegas, it’s overpriced. Whatever happened to the good old days of Vegas, where the food and rooms and entertainment were kept fairly cheap to lure guests into spending all their cash gambling? Nowadays, Vegas is enough of a destination on its own, even for non-gamblers; the casinos can afford to keep everything pricey, because guests will pay for it. Mandalay Bay does have that most wonderful and rare of all things on the Strip: a bookstore. I buy my sister a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, because she hasn’t read it and everyone should; she buys me The Hardy Boys’ Guide To Life.
Next stop: the MGM Grand, which is consistently our least favorite of the major theme casinos. It’s huge and ungainly and disorganized. The lion habitat (free! free!) does earn them some major brownie points with us, though, and we happily kill some time watching a couple of cute teenaged lions scamper around. We spend far too long looking for the entrance to the tram to Paris, then decide to walk there instead. It’s not far, but it’s far too hot to be doing much walking outside.
Who thought building a Planet Hollywood-themed casino in 2007 was a good idea?
The Strip is dirty and crowded. The ground is littered with discarded advertisements for escorts. Most of the ads are pretty prosaic; our favorite features a nekked girl holding a picture frame in front of her picture-perfect bare bottom. Marketing is everything.
Paris: Still under construction during our last visit, so we’re interested to see how it turned out. It’s very nice. About as authentically Parisian as New York New York is New Yorkish, but that’s not really the point. Paris has a wide array of nice-looking French restaurants and bistros, and we’re hungry. All of Las Vegas is hungry too: the restaurants are all swamped, with lines snaking into corridors. We end up at a French-themed burger joint. If you put brie and shallots on a hamburger, it’s French. Really. Just go with it.
Our waiter hates us. We never figure out why.
After Paris, we trudge down the Strip back to Monte Carlo. We’re hot. We’re exhausted. We’re kind of sick of Vegas, honestly. We hide in our room, reveling in the air conditioning and staring out the window at the roller coaster snaking endless circles around the gaudy Manhattan skyline of New York New York. Vegas is weird.
Our hearts aren’t into dinner. The brew pub in Monte Carlo doesn’t look like much fun (drunk college kids toting drinks in enormous cups shaped like what I thought were ostrich eggs, but turn out to be footballs. Ostrich eggs would have been way cooler). After much aimless wandering, we pick up wine from the gift shop and pizza from Sbarro and head back up to our room.
Las Vegas is a long way to go for a Sbarro.
It’s another early night.
Monday, August 20th: We’ve had our fill of Vegas, thank you very much. We call Megabus to see if we can switch to the early morning bus instead. We can’t. We’re beginning to see a drawback to the otherwise lovely Megabus.
Stuck in Vegas for a few more hours, we head over to the in-your-face opulence of Bellagio. It’s gorgeous and calm. We’re looking for breakfast, but Bellagio is not the place to go for cheap eats. We keep walking.
Caesar’s Palace. An old standby. We hit the Forum Shops, stopping at the Stage Deli for breakfast. We’re both tired of heavy foods. And yet, we both order heavy, meat-rich, man-sized breakfasts. There’s something about Vegas: it short-circuits the area of the brain that controls common sense. Caesar’s Palace has a special place in my heart just for the great tacky Roman spectacle, and unlike Luxor, it seems to have no intention of classing up its act any time soon. We watch some awesomely cornball Atlantis-themed exhibit with animatronic statues shooting flames. Now that’s why people come to Vegas!
We stop for gelato. $15 for two dainty servings. The dark side of Vegas.
Mirage: More animals! Some free (the tiger exhibit), some decidedly not (the aquarium). There’s some moderately horrific Cirque du Soleil/Beatles hybrid extravaganza going on. It scares us.
Back down the Strip. A quick bus hop down Tropicana to the Megabus stop. A wait in the interminable heat, a return trip which is a mirror image of our voyage out. Four hours later, we’re back in Union Station.
It might be another eight years before we go back to Las Vegas.
We might be okay with that.