Thursday, January 01, 2009

The End of Vegas?

The End of Vegas?: For I don't know how many years now I have spent my Thanksgiving in Las Vegas. (Photos on SmugMug.)I don't know whether it's me or the city, but I simply don't feel the excitement I used to feel going there. Bill Simmons once wrote that there are three places in the U.S. where just being there makes you feel like you're in a movie: Manhattan, Bourbon Street, and the Vegas Strip. But familiarity takes all that away. I don't get those feelings anymore after multiple visits, especially in Vegas.

I used to get geeked up for blackjack sessions, but once I mastered basic strategy it became rote (plus they started getting all namby-pamby on the rules like shortening the payouts for a blackjack). I tried the other table games, mostly just to have had the experience, but again, once I had done it I didn't feel compelled to continue. Poker was good for a while, and it can be a stimulating challenge; on the other hand, I don't ever recall being at a poker table that was fun (like a good blackjack table). The only gambling left for me is NFL betting.

Likewise, I've experienced the other aspects of Vegas life now. I was never truly interested in clubbing, other than as an observer of humanity. They are generally horrible places where if you want to sit you have to buy $400 table service otherwise you get to stand and order $15 drinks provided you can elbow your way to the bar. No conversation can be had over the music. The shows can be fun, but how many Cirque du Soliels can you see before they start to run together in a colorful blur? Gentlemen's clubs? Even the best come off as seamy.

So now I tend to haunt the sports books and visit my favorite restaurants -- Vegas has not let me down food-wise. It's hard to imagine more great food concentrated in walking distance than you get on the Strip. The big new development since I was last on the Strip is the Palazzo, which is an addition to the Venetian. It has its own upscale shopping mall and its own canals and some truly top notch restaurants, the best of which was Carnevino, Mario Batali's Italian Steakhouse. I forwent steak and had the Ravioli Di Stracotto, a duck liver ravioli in a balsamic sauce. It may have been the single most tasty thing I have ever eaten in my life. Also at Palazzo is Cut, Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse where I snacked on some tasty steak tartare, and Woo, a nouveau Asian spot with an awesome ginger chicken dumpling appetizer (I did a lot of snacking around, rather than big meals). I indulged in sushi and sake for the first time in ages; it was a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Generally with respect to the Strip I know where I want to go and what I want to eat and who I want to bet on. As a result, two nights on the strip was just about right. Friday morning, when the masses were flowing into the city for the long weekend I was on my way out, headed toward San Diego.

There are two paths to San Diego from Las Vegas. One is to head westward towards L.A. and then swing south just before you get into the meat of Los Angeles. That's the fast way -- maybe 5 hours. The other option is to head south out of Vegas, through the desert. Once outside the city, the landscape goes barren fast. In Michigan we often find ourselves dodging squirrels and chipmunks as they dart through traffic in pursuit of God knows what. South of Vegas, you see a little critter making its way across the road and by the time you get up to it, you realize it's a tarantula. Three times I sped past these hairy beasts, all eight legs working to get them across the tarmac. Ick.

These long straight roads take you through the Mojave Desert and skirt Joshua Tree National Park. Apart from the tarantulas, all that exists are a few dusty little towns and a few outdoorsy resorts geared toward four-wheeling (which looks like an awful lot of fun). Then, after a few hours, civilization suddenly reappears in all its glory. Resort communities spring up fully-formed and golf course-green: Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Desert Hot Springs, etc. The whole area exists as a way for west coasters to get away from urban life and escape to "The Desert". (We have a similar habit here in Michigan we call "Going Up North".) The streets are all lined with symmetric rows of palm trees while BMWs and Lexuses weave in and out of the gated communities and country clubs. These folks have more money than God, and play more golf than Him, too.

I only had time to stop for a late lunch in Palm Desert, but I was thinking it would surely be nice to hang there. I took a brief walk up El Paseo, which looks to be the Main Street of Palm Desert -- shops, restaurants, etc. -- and had a nice al fresco lunch at City Grill, then it was off to meet Chevy Chase and Ted Knight on the first tee at Bushwood. Actually, it was back on the road to San Diego.

And this is where taking the road less travelled paid off. Exiting Palm Desert you find yourself on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail for a brief period, which entails snaking through hairpin turns up through astounding photo-worthy mountain passes. It turns out that locked between the shiny worlds of Las Vegas and L.A. are some strikingly scenic high desert vistas. From there on it's a dash down from the peaks to the coast and into San Diego, or more specifically, Del Mar.

I have never "gotten" Los Angeles. I know it is supposed to be paradigmatic of Southern California and its praises are raised in story and song, but I don't see the attraction, relatively speaking. If you are not in the film industry, or angling to get in, I see absolutely no reason anyone would prefer L.A. to San Diego. I find San Diego to be about the most beautiful large city I have ever seen. It is a city of easy charm versus the teeth gritted smile of Los Angeles.

North of San Diego sits the famed suburb of La Jolla, and just beyond that sits Del Mar -- possibly a bit downscale from La Jolla, but equally beautiful if not more so. The first time I was in San Diego, several years ago on business, on my one free day I rented a car and asked the desk jockey where he would go if he had one day at the beach. He said would go to Del Mar which, in his opinion, had the most beautiful beach in Southern California. I took his advice back then, and this time I went back. I have to admit that I have kind of fallen in love with Del Mar.

Del Mar seems nothing more than a little surfside town with a main shopping and dining area and a couple of state parks along the shoreline. There is a famous racetrack there, and Torrey Pines Park, which constitute its main public attractions, but my impression is the vibe is still that of a small, beach community. I snagged a decent room at the Best Western Stratford Inn, which is a five minute walk to the bluff overlooking the beach. You walk down a very pretty little side street and come to a set of railroad tracks over the shore along which runs Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner service, from San Diego all the way up past L.A. to San Luis Obispo (gotta try that sometime). You can walk north along the bluff looking down on the beach (or climbing down to hit the surf), eventually the bluff slopes down and merges with the beach proper at Powerhouse Park, where everyone gathers for the sunset. Me, I could have hung out shooting pictures all day and fantasizing about learning to surf.

San Diego proper is only a few minutes away and my only full day free was dominated by a visit to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. I had picked the perfect day, it was sunny and not too hot. I managed to be one of the first into the zoo and got to enjoy it before it got too crowded. The SD Zoo is an exceptionally well-designed place. Most all the critters are easily viewable, the exception being the pandas, for which the viewing line was ludicrously long from the opening of the gates. They have foot-saving busses that run throughout the park and an aerial tram that takes you from the far end back to the entrance.

Outside the Zoo are the other attractions of Balboa Park which is, effectively, a museum campus -- Art, Photography, Air & Space, History (both natural and manmade), Cultural this and that -- all with a certain local angle to them. The grounds are nicely landscaped. It is a place where San Diegans go to promenade on a sunny afternoon. I snagged a bite to eat from one of the cart vendors and found a comfy spot on the lawn to watch the world go by for an hour or so in the late afternoon. I do awfully like San Diego. And in my visits (maybe 4 of them over the years) I have just scratched the surface.

After a sunset photo shoot and a quick dinner back in Del Mar, I was up the next morning and headed back towards Vegas. In an effort to save time I took the road more traveled back. Ugly gray freeway all the way; hideous truck stop towns outside L.A.; a bizarre place called Primm just inside the Nevada border that looked like a parody of commercialism: a huge flashy casino and outlet mall in the middle of a barren desert. And for the hundreds of miles from L.A. to just outside Vegas the traffic was stop and go in the other direction as the folks I passed on the way out Friday were returning to the West Coast from their long holiday weekends. What a living hell for them: After a grueling Thanksgiving with the annoying relatives, you crawl through traffic, turkey-nauseated, to the Vegas strip, spend the weekend overpaying for your room, overeating in buffets, and losing your shirt in blackjack or on the slots, then you claw your way back to L.A. at a snail's pace. Thank you, God, for making me a contrarian.

I closed out my trip on the outskirts of Vegas at the Red Rock Resort. I chose Red Rock for three reasons: 1) I could easily make the run into the strip to collect on my NFL bets (I broke roughly even), 2) it is about the nearest place to Red Rock Canyon State Park, and 3) it was supposed to be beautiful. All three were true. Red Rock Resort has a sweet pool area and would probably be a killer spot to hang in the summer when pool time is an option. The rooms are big and awesome with high-def flat screens and gigantic marble bathrooms. There are a ton of restaurants on the property; you could have a decent trip if you never left the resort. But that would be silly because Red Rock Canyon is only 7 miles away.

Red Rock Canyon is called that because it is dominated by a canyon of reddish rock, go figure. But there really is a good deal of geological diversity in relatively small area (it's barely a blip on the map relative to major national parks). Technically it is not a National Park, but a National Conservation Area, which I believe differs from a park in that there are minimal facilities and maintenance. Basically it's just a chunk of land that no one is allowed to develop. There is a 13-mile one way road through the place with a visitor's center at the start. There are a handful of parking areas and overlooks, each with a primitive restroom and a trash can. From many of the stops there are hiking trails through various regions, generally starting from the road and heading into the canyonland.

I took off for a quick hike through an area called the Calico Tanks, and promptly found myself off the trail, with no idea where I had lost it. This is par for the course considering my hiking habits and usually I pass it off to my congenital trailblindness, but this time I cut myself some slack in that these are some very poorly marked trails over and around boulders; I think it would be tough for even experienced hikers to keep on these trails.

The good news is that I was able to make my way fairly deep into the crevices and recesses of the canyon. Surrounded by towering walls of red boulders, it was eerily dark and astoundingly quiet. The only sounds came from within the strewn-about thickets where birds engaged in periodic screeching matches. I am not particularly aware of what might be termed the "spiritual essence" of a place, but some combination of isolation, security, silence, and the cool desert air inside that canyon made me feel as though I was in some sort of secret hiding place.

Apparently a fit chap with some time on his hands could make his way all the way to the top of the ridge, scrambling up large boulders the whole way, no special rock climbing skills needed. I debated finding my way back to the car to drop off my Nikon then doing just that, but decided against it. I wanted to see the rest of the park. As it was, I still got to do a good deal of rock-hopping, followed by crab-walking down the steeper parts just finding my way back to the trail. Good fun; definitely lined up for a return visit. The remainder of the road loop is lovely and offers some decent desert hiking, just not the drama of the red rocks proper.

So that's how I spent my Thanksgiving. Despite my misgivings above, I'll likely go back next year. Even if the Strip is fading in esteem, Vegas offers all the opportunity I need to Southwest exploration. I still have never been to the Grand Canyon or Hoover Dam (damn contrarian). Besides, by next year Wynn's Encore and MGM's City Center will be open, and I have to see those. There's plenty of opportunity left for giving thanks in Sin City.

Photos on SmugMug.