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USA

Viva Las Vegas

semi-overcast 10 °C

December 2005 we spent 5 days in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. The true city that never sleeps, anything and everyone goes. It shuns the healthy image portrayed by other US states such as neighbouring California - smoking is the norm - everywhere - it's the done thing to get boozed up and gamble your life away. Vegas is truly and adult playground and not for the faint hearted or for those out to relax and chill - yet l may contradict my self on that last statement as some of the hotels on the strip do have oasis's of peace and relaxation.

We booked our trip through Expedia - which was a totally painless experience and we would definitely recommend using them again. We even received an email when we got home, hoping that we had a good time and asking for our recommendations so that they could be passed on to other travellers - good customer service.

We didn't fly direct - Virgin Atlantic, BMI and BA do direct flights. We chose to fly with United Airlines to Los Angles and then flying from LAX on to Vegas. It was in all probably a 15 hour journey.

We stayed in the Stratosphere Tower Hotel at the end of the strip. A decent hotel with all the usual facilities - it is a bit far out although there is a bus which is 24 hours and travels from Downtown up the length of the strip so there were no problems. I think on hindsight we wouldn't stay here again but the hotel was fine no major complaints.

Arrival

McCarran International Airport - 6th busiest airport in the world apparently according to the PR - is so close to the city you are almost on the strip! Our transfer took 20 minutes to our hotel. It was great flying into McCarran - it was dark so you could see the strip at its neon best - picking out the sights l had read about in the guide book brought me around from the severe tiredness which was definitely kicking in!

In true Vegas style McCarran is a hive of active - neon lights and boards advertise all the shows on at the strip hotels, slots are everywhere and everywhere is noise hustle and bustle.

We booked our transfer with Expedia which worked out at £12 return for 2 adults. There are lots of transfer bus desks just outside the main terminal for those who don't pre-book but they do cost slightly more. Cabs are readily available and you should expect to pay at the most $20.

Climate

As l have noted we stayed during the start of December and the weather was chilly. During the day time we were lucky enough it was warm enough to where short sleeves - around 18° C maximum but temperatures rapidly fell to around 2 to 3° C at night. So sweaters and jackets were required. During the day it was bright and it didn't really rain, we had one overcast day which dulled the photographs but on the whole the weather was fine. During the summer months though - expect to be baked - Vegas is set in the desert so expect desert temperatures and don't forget your sunscreen.

Hotel Accommodation

There is a level of accommodation for everyone in Vegas - from 6 star luxury of the Wynn Hotel - the most expensive hotel and opulent in the world to that of B&B and hostels. Our hotel was middle of the road - it had its own Casino which was well air conditioned so the smoking wasn't obvious, a smattering of diners and restaurants, a Starbucks, Theatres for shows, gift shops, a shopping level, and its main attraction - the Stratosphere Tower - where you can visit for a fee to see the sights of Vegas Strip. Up on the tower for the insane are rides that swing you about so you dangle with nothing between you and the ground meters and meters away!! Also there is a revolving restaurant - which we lunched in - you get the view without paying the entrance fee to the Tower - the food was excellent but expect to pay for it, and l would guess it was the dearest meal we ate whilst in Vegas around £20 a head (for lunch).

I found the hotel itself to be adequate - the rooms were of a decent size - television, hairdryer, towels, iron and board. The bathroom was of a decent size and the shower was powerful. I do have a few complaints that being the walls were paper thin - l could hear our neighbours in the shower or their alarms going off; and guest services were slow with making up the rooms - we left one day at 10am to go out for the day - and we were back by 6pm to get ready to take in a show that evening - our room was still not made up.

There is a wealth of accommodation as l said and on the strip - the hotels themselves are the attractions with something going on to draw in the unsuspecting tourist and to swipe away their dollars.

My Favourite Strip Hotels

To go through the hotels on the strip would require a book and l would guess everyone's interpretation of them is different therefore these are my favourites - l cannot comment on the service and state of the rooms as l did not stay in them.

The Belliago

Named after an Italian town and costing $1.6 billion to built - its themed after its namesake and inspired by its lakeside beauty. You can expect to see Tuscan architecture, and a huge man made lake outside the hotel - opulence and elegance and the buzz words! The fountains draw in the tourists nightly - and from nightfall every thirty minutes the fountain show stops people in their tracks - the fountains elegantly dance to music to entertain the throngs.

There is a fabulous shopping mall - where if you are like me you simper past wishing for a lottery win - Fendi, Prada and Tiffany are the stores to expect.

The Casino as one would expect judging from the rest of the hotel is elegant and chic - but as l found with EVERY single Las Vegas hotel static electric shocks - Paul would take my hand and we would be blown apart with the shock!

There are many restaurants inside, we ate at the Belliago Buffet - around $26 ahead for all you want to eat - soft drinks and coffee are included in the price but alcohol is separate. The buffet was huge (and is very popular in Vegas) - seafood, American, Italian, Mexican and Asian, along with a superb selection of deserts to tantalise any taste bud! And the best thing about it - it's all you can eat!

Vegas is renowned for its spectacular shows and the show at the Belliago is believed to be one of the best in town. Prices are not cheap expect tickets to start at around $120 dollars and if you really want to see this show pre booking is not a bad idea - it was totally sold out when we were there - and December isn't peak season! The show on at the moment is the Cirque du Soleil's O - a water based spectacular.

The Christmas decorations were fabulous in the Belliago - with dancing water fountains at the foot of a massive tree, the Coca Cola Penguins and Polar Bears which moved and all this with softly piped Christmas music in the background.

The Venetian

Out my listed hotels the Venetian is possibly my favourite. Expect gondoliers gliding by on the Grand Canal whilst you experience a replicated Venice - to scale. It opened in 1999 at a cost of $1.5 billion - the attention to detail is fantastic - beautiful archways, gondoliers with voices of angels punting lovers along the flowing canals, and cobbled walk ways.

There's another shopping mall, not of the opulence of the designer Belliago but still set apart from the usual high street shops. There are 15 restaurants - we ate at the Mexican set by the Grand Canal so we were able to watch and listen to the gondoliers as we ate. Food was reasonable and a decent Mexican for the price - around $70 for main course for 2 and drinks.

We also saw a show in the Venetian - the world acclaimed Blue Man Group - who have their own Theatre named after them. Again tickets do not come cheap although availability was much easier than that in the Belliago. The tickets cost $90 each and the show lasted just over 2 hours with no intermission. Whilst there is no actual dialogue the Blue Men communicate through rhythm and comedy. They have a fantastic backing band and actively encourage (and seek) audience participation. We thoroughly enjoyed the show.

It goes without saying there is the ubiquitous Casino as with all Vegas hotels - we did play the slots for a time - but really lm no gambler so l was never going to win a fortune!

Mandalay Bay

To be found right at the end of the strip - towering above the others and in a golden colour so instantly recognisable. While we were in town - Rocky VI was being filmed in this hotel - and they were looking for volunteers for the crowd scene! The hit West End Musical Mama Mia was also playing in the Mandalay Bay. This hotel cost slightly less than the previous 2 l have mentioned a mere $950 million only!

Mandalay Bay is based around an Asia Tropical paradise and its pool area is based in sand and has man made waves which gently lap to the shore. I'm sure this is a haven for relaxation.

Attractions include that of Shark Reef - which we did visit - but l really would not waste my cash again - lm sure kiddies thought it was great - the attraction an aquarium featured mainly sharks and the main tank had a moving walk way for visitors to watch the marine life in action. It lasted around 40 minutes and cost $16 per adult.

There is a monorail which runs between the Egyptian themed Luxor Hotel and the Knights of the Round Table themed Excalibur Hotel which saves your feet and is free.

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There was a nice atmosphere about this hotel - it was big and spacious and something attracted me to its atmosphere.

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Well l think the name of this hotel gives the theme of it away really. A miniature Manhattan awaits those visiting this hotel. It cost $485 million to build and really is a must see - even from the outside only. Expect The Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty and a façade of NYC skyscrapers.

Visitors can get up close and personal with these buildings as a roller coaster - accessed from inside the hotel - twirls, zooms and whips you through the Manhattan Sky Line! From what lm told not for the faint hearted - me lm not insane and like to keep my feet on terra firma!

There's as usual the Casino inside with bars such as Coyote Ugly - made famous in the movie, Nine long Irish Men - funnily an Irish Themed pub and many NYC style diners.

Another Cirque du Soleil Show can be seen in New York New York - that called Zumanity which is apparently more risqué than other shows in its books. Again tickets are around $100

As you see l could write a book on the strip hotels - others worth a brief mention include Cesar's Palace - where Celine Deon is currently warbling; Aladdin - a fantastic mall which actually recreates a tropical rain storm; The Mirage - see the Volcano erupt nightly and Treasure Island - where the sirens of Treasure Island perform nightly shows outside on pirate ships.

Trips Outside of Town

I'm will be brief as this tour really deserves a tour of its own. Vegas is a perfect location for visitors to take a day trip out to the Grand Canyon - pass through Boulder City and the Hoover Dam. We did a bus tour and it cost around £85 for each of use but it included a fully guided tour, hotel pickup, stopping for pictures at Hoover Dam, a visit to a range and a horse cart ride with some cowboys; a visit to an Indian reserve, food and of course the Canyon itself. For an addition cost a helicopter tour was available.

The Canyon is mammoth, phenomenal and awe inspiring. The colours are constantly changing and looking down into its vast depth really makes you feel small and insignificant in this world. The trip is highly recommended to all who visit Vegas.

We picked up our trip from a street vendor on the Strip - just down the street from Coca Cola world and Gameworks, in the Grand Canyon Shop - but street vendors are ten a penny. There are numerous trips from a few hours helicopter tour, to boat rides along the famous Colorado River to the romantic champagne and sunset tours, whatever tour you choose believe me you will enjoy it.

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I hope l have given you a taste of Vegas life - there is really something for everyone whether it is shopping, gambling, food or the shows. Kids will not be disappointed either as lm sure their parents will entertain them! The day trip to the Grand Canyon was fabulous for me and l highly recommend it. An area l didn't go into detail about but is worth a visit is downtown to Freemont Street where the giant canopy covering the street with the animation and visuals every half hour is jaw dropping. It can be seedy but don't let that put you off. Vegas does have its nastys - those handing out flyers for girls to come to your room and the like but ignore it (or not if that's your bag!) just as we did. The buffets are fabulous and l would recommend a champagne brunch at Mirage - delicious with as much bubbly as you can take!

Posted by Purdy 08:50 Archived in USA Comments (0)

San Francisco in Sept 04

Though l didnt wear any flowers in my hair!

sunny 20 °C

I love California, to be precise, San Francisco. We are just back from a fantastic week there from the 11th to 18th September. There was amazing weather even though l was warned by everyone that SF is notorious for being cold and foggy. To be honest l saw fog once - on our first morning there l woke up to find the most amazing dense fog l have ever saw in my life – but this disappeared by lunch into a glorious day.

So San Francisco, in Northern California, set on a bay – a more laid back yet cosmopolitan city you could not find. It is a very tolerant city – renowned for its gay quarter in Castro and back in the 60’s was a haven for hippies and beatniks. What l did notice and found quite disconcerting was the numbers of homeless on the streets. When l was in New York l didn’t see any street people, having been told the city had made a concerted effort to get people off the streets and indeed “clean up” the city so to speak. So when l hit the streets of SF l think l was expecting more of the same yet on every corner in every district there was someone sleeping rough or begging for cash. Apparently because of the mild weather it is a lot more conducive for sleeping rough than the streets of New York.

We got to San Francisco via a flight from Belfast to London and London direct to San Francisco. The flight took a little over 9 hours and we actually arrived half an hour earlier that anticipated. We flew direct with United Airways although others such as Virgin Atlantic and BA both fly direct to the city also. Now the queues to go through immigration were phenomenal – but l would expect that any US airport to have the same queues – a necessary evil we will simply have to endure lm afraid.

We had booked the super shuttle bus before we left the UK for our transfer from the airport to the hotel (www.supershuttle.com) which cost $28 for 2, and picked us up directly from the international terminal straight to our hotel. It should be noted too that super shuttle will cover lots of other US cities too.

We stated in the Union Square area – that of O’Farrell Street. It was the Hilton San Francisco. This opinion is not about our hotel, just a simple by line to say that this is a decent 4 star hotel, large – in fact the largest in the city and international. Our rooms were of decent size – we were on the 34th floor so had excellent views of the city – there was everything you would expect of a hotel of such caliber – hairdryer, TV, towels, business traveller facilities and over priced minibar. I would say that the Union Square area was a great central place to base our stay in SF at, central to shopping, restaurants, cable car turn arounds and bus stops.

So on to the city itself – what does it have to offer?

ALCATRAZ ISLAND & STATE PENITENTUARY

This is the most popular visitor attraction within the city. Once the world renowned and notorious prison known to all as the Rock. Thought to be inescapable – in fact although attempts have been made it is unknown if those actually made it to the free world or drown in the bay. Alcatraz is Spanish for Pelican – and is still today a sanctuary for bird and wild life. The site is now run by the National Park Service and visitors can not only learn about the prison life, but also about the wild life living on the island and indeed the Indian occupation of the island.

To get to Alcatraz l had to pre book tickets – it really is that popular an attraction. To do so go to www.blueandgoldfleet.com – this is the only tour company running scheduled ferries from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Island. Our tour cost $16 each and this included an audio tour of the cell house. I would recommend this great tour. You follow the lines of your feet and listen to former prisoners and wardens talk about “The Rock”.

The cell house is really rundown and worn, but this really adds to the atmosphere of the place, the spooky eeriness of what must have been hell on earth. Step inside a minuscule cell and image the confinement or pop into solitary and shut the door, try and stop yourself panicicking – they really shut men up in these black boxes for weeks on end. This is really one trip in San Francisco that you cannot miss.

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FISHERMAN’S WHARF/PIER 39 & SEALIONS

If there is one area know for its tourists, then it’s the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city. This is where you get the tacky tourists shops, street artists, ferries and boats touring the bay. It is also where you meet your blue and gold line ferry to Alcatraz. The area during the day is a hive of activity – whether it be tour buses dropping off or picking up passengers, street artists singing, thrashing drums, miming or even those darned pan pipes who seem to get everywhere to wandering tourists walking around wondering what to do next! Here you can gain entry to the Aquarium of the Bay (this costs $12 for adults) – which takes around half an hour to walk around - has a few touch tanks with stingrays, sea cumbers and star fish – but really aint that worth it (which we found out!) There is also the Wax Works and Ripley’s Believe it or believe it not – neither of which we visited – there’s plenty more to enjoy and spend your money on!

Also at the wharf area you will find the really star attraction – which is free and great entertainment – that of the sea lions! These sea lions located themselves just off the main Pier 39 and became instant attractions after they were affected by the earthquake of 1989. Tourists flock to see the sea lions – both young and old alike. The antics are quite amusing and you really can while away some time watching the young sea lions annoy the older ones and watch them laze the afternoon away.

Finally there is Pier 39 – this as l have said previously this is the main Pier for tourists. Here there is shopping galore – any tacky souvenirs you may wish to purchase (although expect to pay through the nose for them here), college shops – get your sweater with Berkley or USC, Dept 59 – a shop where you can by seasonal displays – Halloween was all the rage when we were there! There is also every style of restaurant under the sun – Seafood – clam chowder in a sourdough bowl – fills you up for the day, Italian – a feast of a slice of pizza – your choice, American burger bars, or Mexican – whatever your appetite it will be catered for. At night you will find live music giving the place more of an atmosphere. Also there is the old fashioned carousel which the kids will adore.

Another 2 areas down by the Wharf worth a mention were Ghirardelli Square and the Cannery. Ghirardelli Square used to be a chocolate factory of the same name – this is now a boutique shopping area and restaurant area – try out Gaylord Indian or Louis Diner. Also you got to go get some Ghirardelli chocolate (there was a 2 day choccie festival on when we were visiting – chocolate strawberries and chocolate beer!!) call into the shop and you will be given a free square! There’s also an ice cream parlour. The Cannery used to be an old Del Monte fruit cannery – now converted into and pubs and eateries area – live music at nights.

The Wharf is well worth a visit and you can catch the historic street and cable cars down to the beginning and take a walk along. I was quite surprised at night – although it does cool down quite a bit l did think it would be a lot busier and lit up at night.

Sealions @..s Wharf.JPG

LOMARD STREET

Catch a Powell and Hyde cable car and jump off at the top of Lombard Street – take the steps down the hill and turn around and watch cars slowly navigate the bendiest and windiest street in the world. It is very pretty with grassy areas and flower boxes. It is actually a residential street. At the bottom lots of silly tourists stand in the middle of the road and play dodge with traffic to try and get a picture of the cars coming down the street. A free attraction which takes half an hour out of your day.

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UNION SQUARE

This as l have said before is the area where we stayed. This is the main shopping area in the city. There are plenty to the shoppers amongst us busy. The biggest being the renown US store Macys – this is a huge store a block in size, and has everything under one roof one could need. It’s great for clothing, cosmetics or even household goods. Top tip being – those visitors from out of town – take your passport to the visitors centre on the 6th floor and you can get a discount card – watch out though – it’s not available to use on cosmetics or fragrances. On the top floor of Macy’s is the Cheesecake Factory and restaurant. The cheese cake is nice – not great nice. Paul got a chocolate and peanut butter slice – way to rich, my original was much better. The problem being with the Cheesecake Factory – portion size – they could feed a small family on one portion! The cheesecake is also available for take away – but be warned be prepared to cue!

There are Tiffany’s Jewelers. Banana Republic, Nike World – all the usual suspects. Borders book store stays open to 11pm each night and has a coffee shop. There are Starbucks on every corner of every block!

The Nordstrom centre – is a big shopping mall – with the likes of Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, or American Eagle as residents. I must admit l carried out serious card damage in Abercrombie!

CABLE/STREET CARS

The cable cars are world renown in San Fran – a real symbol of the city. There are 3 lines Powell & Hyde, Powell & Market - both leading to the Wharf and California line. We mostly rod the Powell and Hyde line – the other Powell line was closed. It’s an experience which costs $3 and you have to be prepared to wait. Head down to the Powell St turnaround and watch the Cable Car guy physically turn the car around. Ride the car all the way to the Wharf – the operators are real characters – they will give you a rundown of the city and help with directions. There is also a cable car museum where you can learn all about the cable cars and how they operate and their history.

The street car is slightly different its not manual but still quite historic – the F line takes you from Union Square area to the Wharf is cheaper than the Cable Car at $1.75 a ride and quicker as well.

A top tip if you are in the city for more than a few days is purchase a MUNI pass – 1 day for $10, 3 days for $15 and 7 days for $20 – you will get free rides on buses, street and cable cars.

Cable Car SF.JPG

San Francisco has a plethora of other attractions to view and visits including a huge Chinatown – visit and check out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and pick up a bag for around $3, Coit Tower at Telegraph Hill, Alamo Square – Victorian Houses or the Transamerica Building which is the triangular shaped building.

There are also trips out of town – we took a wine country tour – with Tower Towers (www.towertours.com) out to Napa Valley and Sonoma Valleys. We visited 3 wineries – Madonna, Viansam and Cline – none which l had heard off – but l drank and tasted the wines. Lunch was in the town of Sonoma – this is somewhere l would like to visit for longer than an hour – its very picturesque – craft and antique shops, wine shops selling the local produce and lovely restaurants.

In the city itself there are an abundance of places to eat – you are spoilt for choice – there is great seafood, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and of course American – amongst all the other choices for you. There are numerous sports bars and Irish bars – where you will find a welcome. I would recommend trying out the Anchor Beer – mmmmm!

Posted by Purdy 17:29 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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