Once again, on Thanksgiving I found myself in Vegas and Southern Utah, which is about as typical a Thanksgiving as I have ever had.
I started out at The Cromwell, which is located right in the center of the strip -- corner of Flamingo and LV Blvd. -- and features and a bit of a gaudy, New Orleans whorehouse chic style. Great location of course, I'm told the pool scene is where it's at, but I'm no scenester and at 50 degrees a pool doesn't really interest me. Cromwell itself is fine; a cut above the properties on either side (Flamingo and Bally's) and more intimate than the behemoths across the street (Bellagio and Caesars). I see no special reason to pick it over something else, but I also see no reason to dismiss it.
Food was big this time around as there were lots of new restaurants to try -- all of which were excellent. The real stand outs were Lago in Bellagio: creative Italian style small dishes, under the name of Julian Serrano whose titular restaurant at Aria is also one of my favorites; and Yardbird at Venetian: advertised as Southern comfort food but it is really well prepared and there is a careful focus on quality. I'm not a crazy fried chicken guy, but I had the fried chicken and it was my favorite meal of the trip. Brined for 27 hours, evidently. Not heavy or greasy at all. The crust seemed like a mix of breading and batter and was not overly salted or spiced. It was just perfect. Made we want to try brining chicken at home. Definitely, on the list for a return.
Another new twist this trip was my first experience with Uber. You can't get Uber to or from McCarran Airport, but everywhere else Uber is available. Uber is, in fact, fairly new to Vegas and is engaged in a war (which they should inevitably win) for airport access [edit: you can now, hooray], as such there are still some glitches to work out. Most of the major properties have Uber waiting areas, but they seem to be located in odd and awkward places -- I don't know if this is just what they had available or a they're throwing a bone to the cabbies. Anyway, I took two Uber trips. The first was to pick up a rental car for my run to Utah. This guy was 10 minutes later than predicted and did not speak much English. He did not know how to get to the rental car center, but just followed his GPS, which was fine. I made it OK, probably saved a couple of bucks over a cab. The second trip was a run from the Strip to Downtown. This guy had previously been a cabbie for 18 years; now he was Ubering in a big shiny Mercedes sedan. Obviously with so much experience he had no need for GPS. He was wearing a stifling amount of cologne and offered me advice on the best strip clubs to visit (this is not an unusual experience for a single guy).
I'm glad Uber is around in Vegas and it will be even better when they get airport access and they get a more experienced cadre of drivers. Their app (at least for Windows Phone) could use some work. It doesn't seem to want you to input your location by the name of the place. It'll take it, but it may guess very badly at what you mean. When I entered "McCarran Rental Car Center" it came back with some place near San Francisco, so requesting a ride can be a little tricky, but obviously, paying is much more convenient and they don't seem to take the long way to increase the fare, which is a favorite game of Vegas cabbies. There is currently a debate as to whether you should tip your Uber driver. Some believe it is a bad precedent and counter to the dead simple transportation model. Other feel if you would tip a cabbie you should tip your Uber driver. I'm agnostic on this topic, but for the record, I tipped the cologne-smelling guy, but the not the late guy. That puts me in the position of having tipped a local in a big Mercedes, but not an immigrant in Nissan Sentra. Hmmm.
As always, when Thanksgiving proper comes around I get out of town. This in itself can be an interesting experience. By Thursday night, the whole appears to be driving into Vegas. It' as if folks wolf down an early dinner with their annoying relatives, hop in the car and head for Sin City. As I go in the opposite direction I laugh at all the cars crawling in at songle digit speeds. In this case I headed up to the Red Mountain Resort in St. George Utah. There are few hiking destinations more appealing than the red rock regions of Utah. Most notable are the National Parks -- Zion, Bryce, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands are considered the big 5 -- but there are also many state parks the feature smaller scale but no less delightful features. Just on the outskirts of Vegas proper is Red Rock Canyon where I have passed a morning or two in my time. Head north out of Vegas on I-15 for 45 minutes and you'll come to Valley of Fire where I have both hiked and run a brutal half-marathon. Another hour or so north from there you clip the northwest corner of Arizona and cross into Utah where you have a hidden gem, Snow Canyon State Park.
St. George is as outdoorsy as any community. There are wide bike paths connecting the major hubs, outfitters and activewear outlets seem to do a robust business, and the parking in Snow Canyon fills up by noon. Snow Canyon is criss-crossed with trails over a wide variety of geology -- sand dunes to huge rocky outcrops. Its main attraction is something called Lava Tubes; remnants of ancient volcanoes which have left behind cave like tunnels that can be explored. They look deep and scary but it's really not a major deal to lower yourself into them and have a look around in the darkness. In a separate area of the park you can scramble down the red rocks into a canyon and make your way to a series of petroglyphs, then scramble back up the other side to a view of St. George and the surrounding areas from on high. It's all good fresh air in the lungs and more than a little sweat on the back.
In the midst of this is Red Mountain Resort a nice destination spa which is not surprisingly dedicated to physical activity. It is a full on resort in that you generally get a package that includes meals and a number of fitness classes and some other services. Then on top of that they offer longer hiking and biking trips, rock climbing, rappelling, etc., for fees. It's a nice place, but it does have its quirks.
I should note that my criticisms come from my days as a spa snob, but it is not in the same class as a high-end destination spa such as Miraval. The gym is so-so -- equipment is somewhat limited. The classes are fine but fairly standard stuff you could get at any gym at home. The dinners are nicely prepared but rather bland; lunch and breakfast are buffet style and rather industrial. Alcoholic beverages are extra cost, which is to be expected, but certain soft drinks are also extra -- lemonade is free, but $2 for a can of diet coke (why?). Also three meals means three meals, snacks not included. The spa facility itself is not really high end. There is a nice sitting/relaxation room, but the locker room is just a small room, with lockers and little steam room -- again, like what you would see and your gym at home. But you know what the weirdest thing was to me? There were no Do Not Disturb signs for your door. I know that sounds like a silly little thing to be concerned about, especially when you are up and hiking before housekeeping even starts in the morning, but it threw me a bit. I'm very used to hanging that sign on the door and leaving the tv on while I'm away in an effort to make people think someone is in the room and wants to be left alone. Also, on the last day when I was bugging out back to Vegas I wanted to sleep in a little later and sure enough, housekeeping knocked and woke me up. Anyway, like I said, it's minor but weird.
None of this is to discourage you because, while it isn't up to Miraval or Canyon Ranch standards, it's still very nice with strong, friendly service from the staff. It's also a screaming good deal -- not much more expensive than a standard hotel. You, not being snooty and opinionated like me, and not having eaten astounding food in Las Vegas just a couple days before, would no doubt enjoy yourself immensely.
But back to Vegas I went, mostly to reckon with my football bets which as of early Sunday were looking abysmal. FWIW, the Packers spot-on imitation a dead skunk on Thanksgiving assured I wouldn't come away ahead. Sunday it was shaping up to be a bloodbath when the Patriots disintegrated. Literally the last play of the week had the Ravens winning for me and I ended up with tolerable losses -- maybe a couple hundred dollars overall, but you can drop that on dinner and drinks in Vegas, or in ten minutes of blackjack so...tolerable.
Thus continues my personal Thanksgiving tradition. The last touch of ebullience for 2015. Winter is upon us. This will have to hold me for a while.