Saturday, December 05, 2009

[Travel] Home for Thanksgiving

Home for Thanksgiving: [[update: Valley of Fire State Park photos, Zion National Park photos, and Bryce Canyon National Park photos now available]]

I am sitting on a chaise lounge in a "GO room" at the Flamingo looking out at the dancing fountains of Bellagio. It's not a particularly nice room; better than the Motel 6 level standard rooms, but far short of anything luxurious. A burnt out bulb, a slow as molasses LCD TV -- it's as if they decided to upgrade these room but didn't budget enough to make them wonderful. That's fine -- they're cheap (about $70/night). But there's that wonderful view: the Bally's sign is most prominent, with gyrating scantily clad women appearing at regular intervals. Beyond that the Bellagio fountain. Beyond that the Strip southward. Plus there is a little mini-fridge in which I have socked away some Diet Coke that I bought at Walgreens rather than pay $3 from the gift shop. I have never seen a mini-fridge before in Vegas. I'm starting to like these "GO rooms".

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, as of the time I am writing this. Actually in the Eastern Time Zone it's already Thanksgiving, technically. I arrived this afternoon (upgraded to first class), pillaged the various sports books for the best lines, and then hit Palazzo where I dined at one of my favorites, Mario Batali's Carnevino. Despite the name, which means "beef and wine" more or less, they create the very best pasta dishes in the known universe. I had a half order of a special turkey pasta they had prepared (merely excellent) followed by a half order of the Ravioli Di Stracocco which, to my mind, is probably the most remarkable taste sensation I have ever experienced.

I then did a brief Strip-walk, explored Encore, the new-ish addition to Wynn which is equally as lovely it's mother property, and equally overpriced. Returning to Wynn to place my NFL bets and grab a nightcap at Parasol Down. Fully lubricated I walked back to the Flamingo, pausing to listen to an exceptionally talented band at Carnival Court outside Harrah's then a quick pass through Imperial Palace, the site of some epic blackjack throw-downs in my past, but I forwent repeating the experience -- now older and wiser and with no desire to recklessly tempt fate.

Chances are, dear reader, you spend Thanksgiving rehashing familiar and eternal neuroses in the bosom of family then fall asleep turkey-satiated in front of the football games. I go to Vegas. You probably have mixed feelings about the whole holiday charade, but despite the emotional turmoil, you find comfort in the tradition and all the known quantities. I do to. Whatever the course of the world from year to year, Vegas is still Vegas. The Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace are still packed with window shoppers. Cheesy shows are still advertised from gigantic, garish displays. The restaurants are still serving amazing food that is dreadfully overpriced. People are still drinking and carousing and cranking away at the slots. Couples with strange foreign accents are still asking for you to take their picture. Sex is still for sale everywhere you look. The cabbies are still queued up. The fountains are still dancing. And though the odds are dire, I may still win every bet I place. Just like you, I am home the holiday.

Actually the odds are less dire now. It is now Thanksgiving evening and I have won every bet on today's games including my three team parlay. Sweet payoffs. Even if I lose all of Sunday's action, I'll break about even.

Vegas still being Vegas, things are always changing. This morning I took a walk down towards an enormous new development project called City Center. It is masterminded by MGM and is, in theory, an attempt to recreate an entire city writ small between Monte Carlo and Bellagio. Of course, this "city" consists of a new monster hotel/casino called Aria and a new high end hotel, the Mandarin Oriental. There will be courtyards and pathway and parks and its own little monorail. And a mall; gotta have another mall. It's tagline is "A new Capitol of the World", I'm sure it will be priced as such. Parts of the complex are slated to open sometime next week, but I can't see it being fully functional before the New Year, judging from the state of construction. Then, it might be something worth visiting.

Another new discovery (although it's actually be around over a year) is the sportsbook at the Palazzo. Most sportsbooks are sullen affairs -- rows of chairs in a darkened space, gigantic odds boards, dozens of big screens, half showing games while the other half plays the horse races. Guys sitting around angling for comped Bud Lights. It's like being inside a movie theatre with a very unsettling film on display that, if it ends badly, costs you money. It's a very cold and uninviting effect. At Palazzo, the sportsbooks is like a big freindly man cave. There are beds and big comfy chairs and couches. Part of it is open air. Reservable cabanas. There's even a pool table. Emeril Lagasse's Del Toro restaurant is on site. I would love to go back for the Super Bowl. Far and away the best sportsbook in town. It goes on the list for next year.

But for the most part I know what I want from Vegas. And now, on Friday morning, I have it. I still have to stop by on Monday to cash out and of my Sunday winners, but the next three days are dedicated to Zion National Park just across the border in lovely Utah.

First though, a quick stop at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada as a warm up. It's odd to consider how much good hiking is within close range of Vegas. Red Rock Canyon is literally about seven minutes outside of town (in the other direction). A little over a half-hour north on I-15 is Valley of Fire. It's basically a drive through park with some striking red rock formations, kind of like the parks in Utah, only significantly scaled down. There is really only one hiking trail of any significance, the rest are parking areas by the rock formations, one of these, called the Beehives is apparently open for climbing since folks were swarming all around them like, well, bees.

A bit more than two hours north from there you get to Springdale, Utah. Springdale is situated right at the entrance to Zion and is quite a sweet little place in itself. Outdoorsy and upscale, basically one main street filled with inns, boutiques and homey restaurants with tasty food. My flop house is the Desert Pearl Inn which is absolutely beautiful. The room is as nice as anything I've seen -- in Vegas you would call this a luxury suite, in New York City you wouldn't bother calling it anything because you couldn't afford it. Here in Utah, it's reasonably priced. It would work well for long-termers because it has a kitchenette. The balcony looks out over the pool and the nicely maintained grounds. The aforementioned shops and restaurants are a few steps away. There is also a bidet, which I don't think I am coordinated enough to use. Before turning in I strolled down the street for a bite to eat and a pale ale, taking in lungfuls of the bracingly crisp clear air.

This morning, Saturday, I tried for Angel's Landing, knowing full well I may not make it. The hike to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park is not trivial. It's only about five-miles round trip, but the elevation gain is nearly 1500 feet. The National Park Service labels it as "strenuous". It is I suppose; it took me about 40 minutes to get up. It's a magnificent trail, steep switchbacks cut into massive red rock overhangs including a section called Walter's Wiggles which I can only describe as a hiker's version of Lombard Street in San Francisco.

I made it through all that, which put me at a place called Scotty's Landing, but the final half-mile from there to Angel's Landing is basically a scramble up the rock and across a narrow pathway, with sheer drops on either side of thousands of feet. Chains have been pounded in place to assist hikers through this section, but the Park Service warns: Do Not Attempt This if you are Remotely Afraid of Heights.

That, apparently, describes me. It's clear that I struggle with heights in some circumstances. The trail up featured many sheer drop-offs but they were no problem. I still am not sure exactly the situational requirements that trigger my acrophobia. I have in the past jumped out of an airplane, but I will struggle looking over the ledge of a skyscraper.

I made two abortive efforts to start the rock scramble upwards and in both cases I felt vertigo coming on. I knew there were points further on in the climb that would be even more scary and I could just see myself freezing up at the worst possible moment. I had to step off. Meanwhile, all sorts of people, from kids to soccer moms to beer belly dads to retirees, were slowly but surely making their way along to the summit. I took some photos and turned back, knowing this failure was going to bother me deeply.

Back at the trailhead I sat at a picnic table and forlornly munched on a granola bar. I felt shamefully pathetic. I looked with bitterness at the folks wandering to and fro who probably hadn't given a second thought to the climb. There are times when I loathe myself and my fears and my limitations, and curse all the failures and self-doubt they have brought on me in my life. This was one of those times. I am what I am, though, even if I hate facing it. I will never climb a mountain.

Despite my foul mood, I made another brief hike to a section called the Emerald Pools. Pleasant enough, although at this time of year, the "pools" were little more than puddles and the color was more Mudpie than Emerald. I'm sure they are quite lovely in the spring and summer. Now late afternoon, I turned back to Springdale for a shower and dinner and the hope that tomorrow would bring something more uplifting.

Don't want to leave the impression that Zion is some kind of depressing place. It is certainly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Just standing in the Court of the Patriarchs, under the ancient gaze but towering mountains on every side is utterly gobsmacking. In fact most of the beauty is on such a grand scale that I am not a skilled enough photographer to create adequate perspective. It is, simply not to be missed.

The next day, I found myself in a better frame of mind. In the morning I did a short but stunning hike accurately called Canyon Overlook. It had a lot of "heighty" stuff -- sheer cliff drop-offs, narrow ledges, even a wooden platform to cross the angled around a cliff face. Many of the hikers were fretting some of this, but in a complete reversal of the day before I had no problem being a ruddy mountain goat. Again, I have no clue as to what the specific visuals are that trigger my vertigo. I guess Nature giveth and Nature taketh away. The view at the end of this hike is magnificent, taking in the entirety of Zion Canyon.

From there I again took to the road for my last outdoors destination, Bryce Canyon, about two hours northeast. I know I have spoken ecstatically about Bryce before and this, my second visit, didn't alter my opinion. It is simply otherworldly. Not of this Earth. Physics defying rock spires everywhere you look. Wandering the canyon I suspect it was something created by the art department for a sci-fi epic. The tagline would be Bryce Canyon: Total Landscape Outrage.

Sunset comes early in the canyons so I only had time for the three mile Queen's Garden/Navaho Loop trail, described in the brochure as the most amazing three mile hike in the world. This is an absolute fact. And unlike Zion, the hoodoos (the freaky rock formations) are not so overwhelming in scale that they can't be easily captured in photos. I took more pictures here than everywhere else put together.

Back for my last night at the Desert Pearl Inn I checked on my Sunday NFL bets. Of five wagers I lost four and tied one. Unbelievable. Still up about 50 bucks overall because I swept my Thursday bets, but geez. Like Nature, Vegas giveth and Vegas taketh away.

One final run back to Vegas. With a 6 PM flight I have time for a massage and a bit of R&R at the (relatively) new Encore Spa. It is quite a place. It may replace Qua at Caesars as my preferred spa for future visits. They have all the requisites: whirlpools, cold plunge, sauna, steam, they even have these things called "experience showers" which have about eight nozzles at various positions and can be programmed via LCD display with different temperatures and settings, but I found them way too complicated to deal with. I was happy just doing the hot/cold/hot/cold thing. Got a deep, deep, deep tissue massage and otherwise availed myself of all the amenities. The place is truly quite beautiful with a kind of oriental motif. You don't have to get a service to get in; should you find yourself gambled into oblivion and/or hungover and/or overly laden with rich food I strongly recommend you pay for day pass and just hang out for a two or three hours either at Encore or Qua. It's a perfect way to resist the temptation to go beyond overindulgence. It's especially good if you have a late flight and have had to check out and need to kill a few hours.

From there off to the airport to wing it back to the newly frigid Michigan winter. Already I have thoughts of next year. City Center will be open and I should certainly investigate. There is also the Country Club, a restaurant at Wynn that I thought was a very exclusive reservations only place, but looks like I could walk in and snag a bite at the bar if I got there early. The post-Thanksgiving weekend is an open issue. I'm tempted to hit San Diego/Del Mar again, since I enjoyed that one so much. I could do L.A. I doubt I'll hit the trails again, but maybe. I'm lucky. When I'm home for Thanksgiving there is always some new reason to give thanks.