Vegas Revisited

On the High Roller with a view of the Paris Eiffel Tower.

On the High Roller with a view of the Paris Eiffel Tower.

A week and a half ago, my friend and I returned from our latest trip to Las Vegas. Booked relatively last minute for the two of us – a little less than a month before our departure – we used WestJet Vacations to get a flight and hotel package (we later found the same package for less through WJ, so we put in a claim for their new Price Drop Guarantee and were approved to get the difference back in WJ Dollars). Vegas isn’t necessarily a relaxing trip. Not the way we planned ours, anyway. But, it’s a good city to go when you want a quick and much needed getaway from the everyday. So, despite the fact that we were there together a mere eight and a half months earlier, we decided it was the perfect vacation. This time it was going to be filled less with debauchery (even though it was overlapping with Halloween festivities) and be more like a traditional sight seeing trip. We would catch all the highlights, wander the outlet mall, go on a hike, and, of course, the holiday was booked to coincide with one of the handful of shows Britney Spears would be performing this month. Everything simply fell into place. Rather than give you a day-by-day telling of what we decided to do this time around, I’ve broken our trip down into the following sections: accommodations, shows, nightlife, food and fun stuff.

Hotel

The Cromwell, a new boutique hotel (less than 200 rooms) on the strip, was pretty amazing from before we even left Edmonton to the day we departed Las Vegas. Part of the Caesars chain of accommodations, our experience was top notch. Prior to our trip, the concierge emailed asking if there was anything they could do to make our stay better, so I requested extra toiletries as well as the possibility of champagne upon arrival as we missed the complimentary champagne and tasting that occurs every Friday and Saturday at around 6pm or so. Without skipping a beat, they had glasses of champagne brought out to us while we were checking in and they had a gift bag filled with lotion, shampoo, conditioner, body wash and soap ready at the desk. We were also told that we could have sangria sent up to our room on the house (yes, please!). The receptionist then escorted us to the room elevators, pointed out the free tea and coffee stations, showed us how to scan our keys to get to our floor and sent us on our way. The service was quite impeccable and I could already see that it was going to stand out from the rest of the giants in town.

The only issues I would point out, and these can easily be fixed, was: 1) when we were trying to find self-parking at The Cromwell on our first night there, one of the valet said to drive ahead; however, he didn’t let us know that valet was the only option for the property and that it was free. If we had known that, we wouldn’t have had to park at the Flamingo; 2) Housekeeping missed cleaning our room while we were out on the second day (we were gone for a good 12 hours or so). The good thing is that there’s usually staff on the floor, so we waved one of the housekeepers down and she promptly came to give us turndown service, including making the beds, changing our towels, replacing toiletries and dropping off bottled water and some macarons; 3) The walls are a little thin, so you can hear when people pass by through the hall, which wasn’t much of a problem late in the evening when we went to bed. It could be a bit noisy in the mornings when housekeeping started work though. The staff are all so great, so I hate to say that they should pipe down during early morning hours, but that would have helped. On the bright side, they totally ensured that we’d be up and out with plenty of time to do everything we wanted to each day. As a suggestion, maybe they can think about supplying earplugs with the free slippers they provide in-room.

Despite these few things, I have never felt more like a VIP than at this hotel. I would stay here again in a heartbeat.

Shows

Britney Spears: Piece of Me
She’s still not exactly giving the show her all, but I love Britney nonetheless. I grew up watching her and listening to her music, so to see how far she’s come after her breakdown several years ago makes me happy. I feel like she has pulled it together. Even if she’s not 100% at every concert, I’m still a huge fan. I’ve seen Piece of Me twice now, and almost all the costumes have been updated since I first saw her show in February. A couple of the dance sequences have changed as well. I love her shorter hair, too. I think the wigs were a little constricting  and another thing for her to worry during her previous performances. Fun fact: Comedian Kathy Griffin, who has been doing periodic shows in Vegas, was called up on stage to be Britney’s bitch during her Freakshow performance. I love Kathy, and while I wasn’t close enough to tell it was her when she was taken from the audience, I had a feeling that she was the sassy lady on stage, and I was right! My two favourite segments of the show are the sections that include “…Baby One More Time,” “Oops!…I Did It Again,” “Me Against the Music,” “Gimme More,” “Break the Ice” and “Piece of Me” because they’re the most dance heavy songs and she usually does a good job nailing all her moves. I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t see many fans dressed up in costume, especially because it was Halloween Saturday, but that’s okay. At least people get dolled up for the shows in Vegas.

Me in my "...Baby One More Time" school girl Halloween costume.

Me in my “…Baby One More Time” school girl Halloween costume.

Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil
I’ll be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan of the circus. Clowns especially scare me, so some of the more traditional Cirque shows are not exactly my cup of tea. I know all the showmanship is amazing no matter what, but I still have a hard time getting past some of the crazy makeup, costumes and contortions at times. This is why Michael Jackson ONE was perfect for me. I also grew up listening to MJ as a kid. I had his music on cassette and then on CD, so the music is not only upbeat, it’s familiar to me. While the show did have some fantastic acrobatics and trampolining, it also had fantastic dance sequences, which satisfies me immensely because I’m one of those people who loves competitions like So You Think You Can Dance and dance movies like Step Up. Right up my alley!

Nightlife

Drai’s Nightclub at The Cromwell

The two of us had initially planned on going out dancing more than we did during our trip, but the one night we did was at the new Drai’s Nightclub located on the top floor of our hotel. As guests, we had free access to the venue, which upon walking in was pretty packed. We were there late on Halloween Saturday, which likely contributed to how busy it was. Although, it is Las Vegas, and if there’s ever a place to party any night of the week, it’s there. From what I could tell, it was one of the few clubs on the strip celebrating Halloween all weekend long, and handing out big prizes for those dressed in costume. Most of the other hotels/clubs seemed to only have festivities on the Friday night before we arrived in the city. Full of raised platforms for Drai’s dancers, it’s a circular room where the middle is party central. Fog machines and laser lights were working overdrive and the music was pumped up to keep the ambiance going. Overall, I liked the space. If you needed some breathing room, moving towards the outer edges was a good idea. The club opens up to the hotel pool/beach club, which is cordoned off at night, but still provides a lovely view of crystal clear water and palm trees as well as some fresh air.

Brooklyn Bowl

This bowling alley/restaurant/bar/concert venue is new to Vegas. Located on the LINQ promenade, we decided to pop in and have a look. It’s a fairly large, open space with two stories of bowling lanes and a mid-size stage and dance floor. The band, New Age Tribe, that was playing was great, and had everyone there up on their feet dancing. It’s really dimly lit in the building, so it sets a mood, but I like the low key, laid back vibe of the place. They also didn’t charge cover that night…perhaps because it was a Monday evening?

Food

Sushi Roku

I don’t recall how I happened upon this restaurant. But, I do know that OpenTable reservations are available, including 1000 point reservations on certain dates and times. However, they can only be made for the dining room and space cannot be reserved at the bar for Happy Hour. The Japanese eatery is located inside the Caesars Palace Forum Shops, so it was super close to our hotel. Dinner prices in the main dining room are quite a bit higher, so we opted to try out their Happy Hour menu, which was available from 4 to 7pm on the Sunday we ate there. For less than $30 I got two orders of maki cut rolls and two appetizers. While I’m sure the portions are a bit larger when ordering from the main menu, I doubt that doubling or tripling the price of each dish means getting two to three times the amount of food, so I think sitting at the bar was the way to go. Every item we ordered was fresh and delicious. The maki was especially good. I’d go back anytime!

Feast Buffet

If you don’t have a car available, this will be hard to get to. Located at Red Rock Casino, which is about 20 minutes away from the strip, we rushed here after a hike in Red Rock Canyon. My friend had redeemed a voucher for two free buffet lunches through the myVEGAS Slots app. We managed to get in about 10 minutes before lunch was technically over and we piled our plates with various cuisines and salads. They were really good about letting people eat past the 3pm lunch cutoff though, so both of us didn’t have to vacuum down our food like we did. I’d say for the usual price of the buffet ($8.99 for an adult at lunch with a casino card), they put out a great spread. There was a decent variety and everything tasted great.

Giada

What can I say about Giada? This new restaurant is the anchor of The Cromwell hotel. The very first eatery from Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis, I would say it’s modern Italian at its finest. My friend and I ended up there on two occasions.

Our initial visit there was a surprise because we hadn’t planned to go out. This was on the second evening of our trip when we unexpectedly had to vacate our room, so housekeeping could clean what they had missed for us. Since the establishment was right there, we thought we’d go for dessert to kill time. We wandered up to the second floor where the hostesses asked if we had a reservation. As we did not, we had to wait for a little bit. However, the minutes passed quickly as we occupied them by taking advantage of the Giada photo booth. When our table was ready, we were led inside where you get an immediate view of the chefs in the appetizer prep area as well as the bar. The restaurant is quite beautiful – a lot of white, light woods, clean lines, neutral accents, a mish mash of seating (leather upholstery, booths, rattan chairs, colourful pillows), original art showcasing Giada, custom made lights with a Giada quote, “I eat a little bit of everything, and not a lot of anything” for added whimsy, and big windows, some of which can be opened up to let in fresh air, that frame the Bellagio fountains.

The wait for someone to come by with our menus was longer than I expected, but once they did pop over to drop them off and explain some of the available items, service was top notch. In the end, we opted to skip getting dessert and decided to go for a couple of the cocktails (all named after films her grandfather, Dino, produced) and crostini appetizers. The drinks were tasty. My friend ordered the La Strada and, I, the Hannibal. Both were excellent drinks with 2 oz. of alcohol, which for $15 a pop should be the case. For the crostini, we went with the Vitello Tonnata – veal loin, seared tuna, caper aioli – and the Tomato & Strawberry Jam – paired with thick slices of feta cheese and a mint leaf. Both were wonderful, but I think the Tomato & Strawberry jam was my favourite. The simplicity of it, along with the salty/sweet palate made me want more. I also love feta cheese, but sometimes I find it can be overwhelming. The feta used here was a little more subtle and incredibly smooth. Oh, and I cannot forget the bread platter that was provided as a start to the meal. A combination of bread sticks, flat bread and a warm loaf, they were all superb on their own, but add some of the butter, pesto, chili flakes, sea salt and capers that accompanied the bread, and those flavours just stepped everything up.

Our second meal there was something we had been planning on. An OpenTable reservation had been made for our last lunch in Vegas before we departed. Our server was fantastic, letting us know that the breakfast menu was still available all day long and giving us suggestions for a shared appetizer. Originally we had intended to go with something from the lunch menu, but the breakfast options completely swayed us. I selected the carbonara pizza, while my friend chose the polenta. My pizza was not overly large, but it really is quite rich. With nice fluffy crust, baked in cheese, crispy pancetta and a sunny side up egg, my belly was filling up fast, and I wanted to sample some desserts, so I left a bit of the crust behind. My friend raved about the polenta dish as well.

To finish off lunch, we ordered two desserts to share – the cookie platter and the zeppoles. The cookie platter had an assortment that included chocolate chip, chocolate with blueberry filling and lemon ricotta. They were all toothsome, but the best, hands down, was the cake-like lemon ricotta, which were soft and moist “cookies” covered in a zesty icing that gave it a great tangy taste. The zeppoles, which were also citrus infused, are like doughnut holes, but airier. Served with a side of hazelnut spread, it was heaven on a plate.

If Vegas didn’t have so many other amazing restaurants to try, I’d say that Giada would, otherwise, make my list each and every time I visit.

This is a cupcake and ice cream shop chain. The Las Vegas location is, again, found on the LINQ promenade. For quick pick ups, you can try out their awesome Cupcake ATM machine, which will distribute your selection, boxed, after you swipe your credit card. Once delivered, it plays a stupidly catchy Sprinkles branded song. We watched as someone purchased their snack from the ATM, and then we danced to the music with them, but my friend and I ultimately opted to walk into the store to buy ours. I sampled a full-size triple cinnamon cupcake because I cannot pass up anything with cinnamon. It was surprisingly fresh considering how late we were there. The cake was so soft. The icing was pretty sweet, maybe a little more than I like nowadays, but they don’t slather on too much. In fact, I think the cupcakes there have the perfect amount of frosting as the layer is just thick enough, so that you don’t see the cake beneath. As we were sitting there devouring our cake, I noticed the ice cream on the other side of the shop. The feature flavour was pumpkin – cinnamon ice cream with pumpkin cake and frosting mixed in. Being that I was on holiday, I decided to indulge further and went ahead and bought myself a scoop. It was awesome. My friend ate the red velvet cupcake that evening, which looked scrumptious, too. The next day, our last in the city, we headed back because my friend wanted a salty caramel (available through November) one before she left.

Fun Stuff

North Premium Outlets
This place is chock full of stuff from big name brands and designers. The sales weren’t really that great though, and it’s likely because Black Friday hasn’t rolled around yet. However, some stores offered additional markdowns, but most of them were minor. Despite the lack of slashed prices, I still walked away with a few choice items from Ann Taylor and Max Studio at some excellent prices. I also got in a lot of cardio because I walked over 16,000 steps that day, mostly at this mall.

Red Rock Canyon

With a rented car, it made it easy for us to venture anywhere we wanted this time, so we planned to take a drive to Red Rock Canyon. Only 20 to 25 minutes from the Las Vegas strip, we reached the National Conservation Area where we paid $7 for access to the scenic drive and a number of hiking trails. Like a mini Grand Canyon, the mountains are washed in colours of red, orange and yellow, making the route through the park quite the site. We pulled off at the Willow Springs stop and headed out for a hike. I think we ended up on the Lost Creek Children’s Discovery Trail, which joins up with the Willow Springs Loop because it turned into an uphill course that led to a spot where I think there is a seasonal waterfall. The water wasn’t really flowing for us, but it was a really nice trek in an area that, although there was little sunshine, shielded us from the high winds that day. This particular hike was also one of the shorter ones, which was perfect for us because we needed to make it to Red Rock Casino before the lunch buffet ended and we were kind of tight on time. Both of us really enjoyed the canyon and would love to go back next time to try another hiking trail.

Trader Joe’s and Nordstrom Rack

Before we left the Red Rock area, we stopped at Trader Joe’s, which was just a few minutes away from the casino there. I’d never been to this grocery store before, but it sort of has a cult following in Canada. Their branded products were actually more affordable than I expected, and for a smaller store, they carry quite a variety of items. I was especially impressed with the relatively inexpensive yet huge pieces of Ahi tuna steaks that could be found in the fish aisle. I would have packed some home if I could have. The outdoor shopping area also had a Nordstrom Rack, which is similar to TJ Maxx and Marshalls or Winners, if you’re Canadian. I wasn’t super impressed with the clothing department, but they had a ton of shoes in my size, which ranges from a 7-8, and I ended up walking away with two pairs of shoes for less than $100.
Tantalizing packs of Ahi tuna steaks at Trader Joe's.

Tantalizing packs of Ahi tuna steaks at Trader Joe’s.

Neon Museum

This was probably the number one thing we did on this trip. We pre-booked tickets for a nighttime guided tour of the Neon Museum Boneyard where old neon signs have found a second life. Many of them are past the point of ever being used again, but some have been restored, and all of them seem to have a fascinating history. Our tour guide, Paul, was full of interesting facts about how the signs were made, who designed them, where they came from and why they were of importance. I walked away from the museum feeling ever more knowledgeable. For any photographers out there, this place is wonderful to hone your skills of night shoots and working with the bright neon lights. If you’re getting married in Vegas, think about coming here because the signs provide a really cool backdrop, including the chopped up marquee of the defunct Moulin Rouge Hotel whose letters now spell out “in love.”

High Roller

The new High Roller, a giant ferris wheel, now surpasses the Singapore Flyer as the world’s tallest observation wheel by a mere 9 feet. Having missed the opportunity to ride the London Eye last year, I really wanted to see what it was like, so I was pretty excited to see that Groupon had a deal. The voucher we bought allowed for two different passes, but we went with the Happy Half Hour selection. Our tickets gave us access to a car with a bar and bartender and as many drinks as we could fit in during the 30 minute ride. The views were pretty spectacular and since it moves relatively slowly, you had ample time to take it all in. Should you choose to do the Happy Half Hour, I would suggest that you refrain from pre-drinking because if you imbibe too much, you may have trouble making it off the car when your ride is over. The cars never dock – it is in continuous motion – so if you’re at all drunk, you could find yourself lying in the net that has been strung up below the wheel.

The LINQ Outdoor Promenade

This area of the strip is very new. It’s situated in between the recently renovated The LINQ Hotel & Casino and the Flamingo. Filled with various restaurants, bars and shops, it’s pedestrian and family friendly. When we walked through after our ride on the High Roller, it is where we found the Brooklyn Bowl and Sprinkles. On our last day we also dropped into the Polaroid Fotobar, where you can use the computers to upload photos from your phone or social media and have Polaroid sized prints made. The store also houses a Polaroid Museum that happened to be closed for a private function when we were there. The promenade was also being set up for Britney Day festivities, which were taking place on November 5 when Britney Spears was getting the key to Las Vegas.

A view of the High Roller from near the entrance to the LINQ promenade.

A view of the High Roller from near the entrance to the LINQ promenade.

Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat

My friend and I both redeemed loyalty points through the myVEGAS Slots app for full passes to the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage. I was particularly excited to see the three white lion cubs that had been born just six months earlier. It really isn’t very big, but we spent probably an hour to an hour and half in there. The pass allows you access all day, so you can come and go if you choose. They had lions, white tigers and leopards in the garden. Truthfully, I was a little bit sad to see them all caged up behind fences, but they did seem very well cared for. The cubs looked like they were having a great time with the trainer that was playing with them in their space. In between viewings of the giant cats, we stopped to watch a dolphin training session where a lady had paid for a VIP dolphin experience. Her dolphin was adorable as it used squirt bottles to paint her a picture. As we wandered around I couldn’t help feeling like I had deja vu. When I got home from my trip, I asked my mom if I had been there before when we’d done family trips to Vegas and, sure enough, I had. That’s where my beloved white tiger stuffed toy had come from.

Well, this was quite the rundown of my holiday. If you’ve been to Vegas a number of times like I have, I hope that this post gives you some new ideas for your next trip. It seems like there is always something new, unique and interesting to do in that city. Why not try them all?

Las Vegas: A Not So Sinful Sin City Trip

On the Las Vegas Strip - Paris and Planet Hollywood

On the Las Vegas Strip – Paris and Planet Hollywood

Las Vegas is a bit of an anomaly. Ad campaigns that sell sex, pool parties, nightlife and intrigue are targeted to adults, giving them a place to let loose and forget about their cares while allowing them to return home and pretend as if it never happened.

Yet, on my visit last week, I couldn’t help but notice that, while you can certainly indulge some of your wildest fantasies in Sin City, there is also a bit of a contradiction when I see parents bringing newborn babies with them. I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with people who decide to travel with small children to Las Vegas – the air is rife with smoke that will hurt their little lungs and it doesn’t really allow for you to enjoy a day at the casino – however, this city has become more of a family affair over the years and various events and shows currently cater to a wider variety of patrons. Even I remember going to Vegas with my parents, but as a child I can’t say I recall enjoying it that much. As an adult though, there is more than enough to keep me entertained.

Now a traveler in my late twenties, I can still enjoy an evening of debauchery at a dance club despite never having been a huge partier, but there is no way I can do that a few nights in a row. So, what exactly did I fill the rest of my time with when I landed in the wonderfully warm and snow-free desert? Let me recount the events for you.

Flying over the outskirts of Las Vegas - beautiful brown earth here we come!

Flying over the outskirts of Las Vegas – beautiful brown earth here we come!

Day #1

Upon arriving at the McCarran International Airport, I immediately noticed that the terminal we entered was shiny and new, which was a major plus in my books. There is nothing worse than getting off a plane and entering an area that is old and crowded, so the bright and open space was a great welcome. My friend, Ashley, and I took a cab to Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino where, thankfully, it didn’t take us long to check in. Because we arrived early, we did have to pay a small fee to get our room right away, but the extra $16 was worth it.

After freshening up, it was time for lunch. Ashley had been telling me for weeks how amazing Earl of Sandwich is, so, of course, we made a beeline for the place inside the Miracle Mile. I tried the All American with turkey, cheddar, cranberries, lettuce, tomato and ranch dressing while Ashley ordered the Holiday Turkey, basically Thanksgiving in a bun. Our sandwiches did not disappoint! So messy to eat, but delicious, and for two major foodies, it was an excellent start to our time in Vegas.

Later in the afternoon we walked over to ARIA to sign up for the M Life card, which is a requirement for many of the rewards that can be redeemed off of myVEGAS Slots, a game that is available as an app on most phones as well as on Facebook. As you play the slots or blackjack games, you accumulate loyalty points that can then be used to purchase vouchers for restaurants, buffets, drinks, shows, attractions and merchandise. Both Ashley and I played prior to our trip and we were able to exchange our points for coupons that either provided us with free meals or entrées and helped us to save quite a bit on food during our vacation.

Dinner that evening was enjoyed at Dal Toro in the Palazzo. The restaurant has tables that look into the showroom of the Las Vegas Car Museum, which makes for an interesting atmosphere that is colourful yet quiet and serves a menu of traditional Italian cuisine. The portion size of pasta was quite large and the sauce was not overly creamy and went well with the glass of Prosecco I ordered. I also liked that we weren’t rushed and we were able to linger after we finished eating.

The night was still young, so we crossed to the west side of the strip and walked south towards Caesars Palace Hotel & Casino to catch Shania Twain‘s show, Still the One, at the Colosseum. I have been a Shania fan for years, but had never had the chance to see her live and boy am I glad that Ashley was willing to go with me. We bought tickets way up at the top since they were the most affordable and while the view wasn’t bad, we couldn’t really make out Shania’s face that well. But, as luck would have it, the ushers offered to move us down to the main floor as they like to fill empty seats. We ended up sitting maybe ten rows from the stage and had a fantastic view. Shania was extremely personable throughout the show – she brought fans on stage to hang out by the campfire with her, she stopped to talk to the audience throughout the show, she came through the orchestra seats and shook people’s hands (mine and Ashley’s included!) and took pictures with people – and she has a knockout voice and a killer body. She reminded me of why she is a star and continues to be loved by so many. I also had forgotten just how many hits she has had during her career. This was an excellent end to our evening and I would highly recommend her show to anyone visiting Las Vegas before the end of July this year.

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Day #2

This was a very full day. It began with lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s BurGR located right inside the Planet Hollywood casino. The two of us each got a Farm Burger (a beef patty topped with duck breast bacon, English sharp cheddar and a fried egg) and we shared an order of the truffle Parmesan fries. I wish I could have gone there again, but, alas, we had many other places to go to. Should you decide to stop there for a bite, I recommend getting there earlier, if possible, otherwise the line-up or wait can get long. Also, sign up for Total Rewards because showing the card will give you a dollar off each menu item at the restaurant.

Absolutely stuffed after finishing our lunch, we caught the SDX bus in front of Paris Hotel & Casino. Six dollars will allow you two hours to ride either the Deuce or the SDX, but I suggest paying an extra two dollars to get a twenty-four hour pass. If you are planning to take the bus to the north outlet mall like we did, it is a safer bet to have the extra time to ride as it takes 40 minutes just to get there from the middle of the strip and another 40 minutes to get back. Having a bus ticket that gives you a full day’s use ensures you can peruse the stores at your leisure. Ashley and I spent about three hours at the Premium Outlets looking for wallets and while a number of stores had what we were looking for, the prices and quality at Fossil could not be beat. Aside from that, we didn’t leave with much else, but deals can certainly be found there.

We made it back to the strip in time for our six o’clock reservation at Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill inside the MGM Grand. Each of us decided to go with a fish dish – Ashley had the Pan Seared Black Bass and I had the Grilled Scottish Salmon – both of which were cooked to perfection. Paired with wine, it was a light meal that left us satisfied.

Back at the hotel, we had a little time to kill, so we shopped the Miracle Mile for a bit and found some killer discounts at French Connection. We also received wristbands for the Britney Spears afterparty at Koi Ultra Lounge inside Planet Hollywood.

Britney Spears during "Work Bitch"

Britney Spears during “Work Bitch”

Next up was Britney Spears‘s show, Piece of Me, at the Axis theatre. I’d been waiting all through 2013 for her to announce her residency, so when I heard it was official, I had to go to Vegas to see her. I grew up listening to Britney and I’m still a big fan. I have to say, she did not disappoint. She’s still not matching the level that she was at back in 2001 with “I’m a Slave 4 U” or 2003 with “Toxic,” but we have to remember that was more than ten years ago and times change. Her show was so much fun. She seemed energetic and present and I hope that, as she continues on with her time at Planet Hollywood, she will move further into the zone (pun intended) and just own it. Still, there was tons to keep my attention – plenty of dancing spread out between her and her dancers and music to take me on a trip down memory lane. Dare I say that I would go back and see her again? Absolutely!

Pumped up after the concert, we dolled ourselves up and headed to Koi Ultra Lounge. The cover charge was $20, but drinks were free all night. Although, I’m truly not sure how many drinks you can get away with there. The bartender basically free poured and every beverage we had consisted of at least five ounces of alcohol. It made for a fun evening of dancing though, which is why we went out that night. If only married men didn’t continuously hit on us. Why do they think it’s okay? Do we want to go use your hot tub? No, we don’t. Notwithstanding some of the unwanted attention (there were a few guys that were alright), the night went by quickly and before we knew it, the lights were up and it was time to go to sleep.

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Day #3

We took it pretty easy on the third day of our vacation. After “sleeping in” (we didn’t really get much sleep since we didn’t go to bed until about four in the morning) we ventured across the street to ARIA for the lunch buffet. I’ve eaten there the last three times I have been in the city because the desserts alone are worth the cost. There is literally something for everyone. I enjoy the sushi, snow crab, curry and naan, but what brings me back time and again are the Jean Philippe Patisserie sweets that are to die for. While I completely overate, I think it was worth it.

A canoe art piece outside ARIA.

A canoe art piece outside ARIA.

A quick trip to Topshop and the Tix4Tonight booth at the Fashion Show mall helped to work off some of our meal. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck snagging any discounted tickets to the O by Cirque du Soleil show for that evening, but we checked with the desk at Bellagio and managed to purchase a couple of the few remaining tickets in the balcony.

O was quite the treat. I’ve never really had much of an interest in the circus, but many of the performers are pure athletes and how they are so flexible I’ll never know. It was certainly entertaining – my favourite part being the diving segment – but, out of all the Cirque shows that are currently playing in Vegas, it is probably the most expensive one there and one of the more mellow ones to see. The music is quite soothing throughout the show, so after the previous night we had, we found ourselves nodding off for a few seconds here and there. Still, I would recommend O to others as it had a great mix of stunts and comedy. Next time I go to Vegas I think I’ll see something a bit more upbeat like at MGM Grand, The Beatles LOVE at The Mirage or Michael Jackson ONE at Mandalay Bay.

The Bellagio fountains

The Bellagio fountains

Ducks watching the fountains at the Bellagio with us.

Ducks watching the fountains at the Bellagio with us.

Day #4

Our fourth and last day in the city, we had to be out of our hotel room by 11 AM. Because our flight wasn’t leaving for another nine hours we checked our baggage with Planet Hollywood before making our way to Luxor to redeem our free buffet lunch from myVEGAS Slots. The variety of food there was nice – the orzo salad was great and so was the health bar (weird name) cheesecake.

This was also the day that we finally had a chance to see the small, but spectacular Liberace exhibit found on the main floor of the Cosmopolitan. The American vocalist and pianist’s intricate stage outfits and grand piano that glittered from the sunlight that shone through the windows were literally works of art. Everything was extremely detailed and ornate, the perfect fit for a man who seemed to be larger than life.

A few of Liberace's stage outfits on display in the Cosmopolitan's exhibit.

A few of Liberace’s stage outfits on display in the Cosmopolitan’s exhibit.

Of course, we couldn’t leave Vegas without doing one last thing: losing some money. Ashley and I played the slots both in the Cosmopolitan and at Planet Hollywood, gambling away around $20 to $30 each while providing a bit of entertainment for an hour or two.

Next thing we knew, it was time to go back to Edmonton. Four short days was actually plenty in Sin City. I had an incredible time, but I always feel ready to head home by the end of a Vegas holiday.

So, whether you’re my age, older, single, dating, married, or with your girlfriends, kids or your mom, there are so many things to keep visitors occupied in Las Vegas. If you like warm weather, hiking (if you’re willing to venture over to Red Rock Canyon), lounging by the pool, eating, walking, shopping and watching shows, I guarantee you’ll enjoy a stop in this desert of excess!

I’m even hoping to go back in October for the Life is Beautiful Festival, a fantastic mix of music, food, art, and learning, which are all the things I love rolled into one. My friend went last year and said she had such a good time at the festival, so I would love to experience it for myself, if possible.

NYC Winter Wonderland: Photostream

Wow! My trip to NYC really crept up quickly this year. My friend and I booked it all the way back in March (see my April post about planning for our vacation) and, at the time, we were thinking it was forever and a day away. But, before we knew it, it was the end of November and we only had a few more days to prep for our holiday. If there’s nothing else I’ve learned with this trip, I will walk away with the knowledge that time sure slows down for no one as we get older. I mean, it’s already been three weeks since we returned home and I’m only just getting to this post.

Aside from my contemplation of the passage of time, this, my sixth visit to the Big Apple, proved to be as spectacular as ever. All of my vacations in 2013 sprung up as a result of a concert and this was no different. Shopping and shows was the name of the game, along with a bit of sightseeing and partying, lots of eating and getting into the Christmas spirit.

What never ceases to amaze me is how much of Manhattan you can cover in the span of a day. It is also an extremely walkable city. My friend’s wireless fitbit® surprised me by telling us that on Day 2 we took over 28,000 steps, climbed more than 40 flights of stairs, walked over 12 miles and burned over 2,000 calories, and I wasn’t even tired. That’s the thing with New York; it’s a little like Las Vegas where you don’t realize how long you’ve been awake or how much you’ve been doing until you get home and you’re completely burnt out and you need another vacation from your vacation. New York City is like this magical place where the atmosphere completely makes you forget that you require sleep to survive. New York City right before Christmas is like that times a hundred.

My photos are grouped into galleries by day and I’m going to let them do most of the talking, but I thought I’d give a little synopsis as well.

Day 1:

Compared to last December in New York City as well as what we left behind in Edmonton, Alberta, we were extremely lucky when it came to the weather. Goodbye -30 degrees Celsius! Hello +14! It was so nice outside that, unlike the rest of the New Yorkers and tourists we encountered, we walked around in just our sweaters and still felt warm. I certainly wasn’t complaining. After we checked into our hotel, 6 Columbus, we started off our first afternoon with a Japanese meal at Natsumi, a quick jaunt to Times Square and then followed up with a Broadway musical called First Date. We loved the show – it was a little clichéd, but so true and very funny – and we left the theatre with newfound crushes on Zachary Levi (@ZacharyLevi) whom I already was a fan of from NBC’s Chuck and Disney’s Tangled. I’m a bit sad to share the news that the show closes on January 5, 2014, so I’m glad that I had the chance to see it while I was there. The night ended with a trip to Whole Foods (please open up a location in Edmonton!) for sustenance to keep us energized for the rest of the trip.

Day 2:

The day started with one of my favourite meals ever. Norma’s Lox & Lox of Bagel and their Waz-Za Waffle. I sort of feel like it’s the quintessential breakfast place and if I’m going to eat anywhere whenever I visit New York, Norma’s is definitely going to make the list. Ever since my cousin took me there, I haven’t skipped it once on any subsequent trips. That breakfast powered us through a visit to Statue of Liberty Island, a shopping excursion to Century 21, a walk through St. Paul’s Chapel and an introspective look around the 9/11 Memorial site. That evening, we had a delicious Greek meal at Ethos Gallery, strolled along Fifth Avenue looking at the holiday window displays and made our way back to our hotel and another stop at Whole Foods (seriously, this place would make so much money from us if they opened in Edmonton).

Day 3:

After a couple of late nights staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning for no reason whatsoever, we started the day a bit later and headed over to one of the better rated sushi restaurants according to Yelp and Urbanspoon. Aoki provided us with a comfortable atmosphere and an affordable and tasty lunch of miso soup, assorted rolls and über fresh salmon sashimi. We took an express train to Brooklyn and got a little lost (we shouldn’t have been on the express), but we eventually made it to the borough where we met a couple of friends for dinner at The Burger Bistro, completely stuffing our faces with burgers, fries and sangria. Then we ventured to Barclays Center for the first Knicks vs. Nets game of the NBA season. Apparently both teams are doing abysmally this year, but I would say that the Knicks are doing better based on this particular game. Since we missed out on the tree lighting festivities the night before at Rockefeller Center, we went back to Manhattan and took pictures in front of the rink and the giant tree. It was so beautiful! As it lightly snowed we hopped onto a carriage and Benny the horse towed us over to the bar, so we could ring in our friend’s 30th birthday at midnight.

Day 4:

We slept in a bit and upon waking we headed to Central Park where we found the fabulous Columbus Circle Holiday Market, which had been set up for the Christmas season by UrbanSpace. Locally made gift items, Christmas ornaments and festive snacks and drinks to warm up customers really helped to bring out the cheerfulness of the season despite the rainy day. After browsing around for a little while, we made our way to Greenwich Village for a pre-booked dessert tour. Unfortunately, the guide did not show up to meet us, but thankfully, we were just a few steps away from Joe’s Pizza (even after a half dozen trips to New York, this was my first time enjoying a famous Big Apple slice) and numerous other food establishments where we decided to create a tour of our own. If plans don’t pan out, you just have to make the best of it! Since we had some time to kill upon finishing our impromptu meal, we ventured back to Fifth Avenue where we came across the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Afterwards we enjoyed supper at a cozy Italian restaurant in the lower east side called Grotto. And, last, but not least, we, again, met up with our friend to officially ring in her 30th birthday at Tao Downtown and then Le Souk.

Day 5:

I have to say this day was a bit of a write-off. We were at Le Souk until 5am and I was wired from the night out dancing. I didn’t sleep until we got onto an 8:30am shuttle bus to Woodbury Common Premium Outlets just outside of Manhattan. Dead tired, but determined, my friend and I were real troopers and pretty much got our shopping done within the first few hours. Maybe if we had more energy and it wasn’t so bitterly cold in contrast to the first few days of our trip, we may have walked around a bit more. But, after days of late nights and next to no sleep for at least 24 hours, we just couldn’t do it any more. Once we made our way back to the city, we went to Aoki for dinner (becoming regulars) and then I bought myself a last minute ticket from the TKTS Discount Booth in Times Square to see Big Fish at the Neil Simon Theatre, which I am, again, sad to say has ended its run as of December 29th due to poor sales. The night I attended, it was a packed house, probably with those wanting to catch the well-reviewed show before the curtains officially closed, but it was too little, too late.

Day 6:

This was another slightly late day where we worked our way to Murray Hill for lunch at S’MAC. The portion sizes of our mac and cheese dishes were massive and I only finished about half of mine. A walk to burn off the heavy meal led us to Grand Central Terminal and the MetLife Building and back to Fifth Avenue where we shopped at Saks and Bloomingdale’s before having our final three-course meal in New York at David Burke at Bloomingdale’s (delicious by the way!). A stroll back to the Columbus Circle Holiday Market for one last look around before it closed for the night and a quick stop at our hotel to drop-off of all our stuff from the day and we were off to Barclays Center to finally see what we had booked the trip for in the first place – P!nk’s The Truth About Love Tour! Let me just say that I have seen many concerts over the years and this one just blew me away. P!nk is a topnotch performer who entertained us with her acrobatics, dancing, and incredible voice, which, to my knowledge, was live and not recorded. She was everything I hoped and, honestly, her show was a perfect cap to our holiday. I left thinking that if I could still get just a single ticket to her sold out, but postponed Edmonton show on January 16, it would be worth it to see her one more time.

I really hope you enjoyed my adventure and that it inspires you to visit New York soon. Whether you go on your own, with family or friends, you’ll be sure to have a great time.

I thought I would leave you with some extra information that would be useful for your travels to New York or wherever your next trip finds you.

General travel tips:

– Use deal vouchers – Groupon and LivingSocial can save you a lot of money on what would be otherwise extravagant meals or shows!

– Prepay for what you can (it’ll help take the sting out of it come bill time if it’s all spread out). Although make sure you can cancel and get a refund in case plans go awry.

– Make reservations for restaurants that you really want to try out – many restaurants, in the States especially, use Opentable and it’s a great way to ensure you get a table.

– If you don’t have a particular show in mind and you’re willing to take a chance, get last minute discounted tickets – in NYC go to the TKTS locations to see what Broadway and Off-Broadway shows are available the day of.

– Check Booking.com for hotel deals – many of the hotels offer free cancellation up until just a few days before you are supposed to arrive. They also don’t charge booking fees and most hotels don’t require that you pay ahead of time, so you can keep a watch out for better deals in the meantime.

Tips for NYC in December:

– Layer – you never know if the weather will take a turn!

– Mix and match pieces, so that it looks like you’re wearing something different everyday even though you only brought a few things.

– Winter items are heavier, thus taking up more space, so re-wear items, such as pants, throughout the trip, but bring enough, so you can alternate.

– Bring an umbrella, a hat and gloves. While we were there, it was balmly (to us anyway), wet and snowy within the span of 6 days.

Things to check out in NYC in December:

– Rockefeller Center – the Christmas tree is a must see!

– Columbus Circle Holiday Market was lovely, especially if the weather is nice and you can take your time. Grand Central Terminal also had a market set up for Christmas and it’s indoors, so you can stay nice and warm.

– Fifth Avenue – Christmas displays at the department stores are quite exquisite. I didn’t even get inside Bergdorf Goodman, but the windows were beautiful!

Lastly, I wish I was going back to NYC in 2014. I want to see Neil Patrick Harris (@ActuallyNPH) kick serious ass in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, which is playing a limited engagement run from the end of March through to almost the end of July 2014. I’m so jealous of anyone who is planning to see that. If you’re going, take me with you.

If you liked my photos, please follow me on Instagram @crystalcarwin.

The Travelling Concertgoer: San Francisco Photostream

Walking from the BART station to see the Rolling Stones at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA on May 5, 2013

Walking from the BART station to see the Rolling Stones at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA on May 5, 2013

I’m not sure about you, but I haven’t met anyone in my life who has said they don’t enjoy music. Most find a genre they like and the majority are pretty passionate about music in some form or another. Whether they’re a musician or just a lover of the lyrics, beats and rhythms that make up the variety of songs out there in the universe, there is literally something for everyone.

I’m one of those passionate ones. I find artists I love all the time and I remain a devoted fan throughout the majority of an artist or band’s career. The genres of music I listen to run the gambit. Everything from top 40 to rap to folk to country can probably be found in my playlist, so I’m lucky that I live in a city that has become one of the major stops on many a concert tour. However, there are still some artists that don’t quite make it to my city, let alone my country because they either haven’t managed to crack the North American market to the point that it’s worth their time to tour here extensively or they’re such bloody legends that they know people will follow them instead. I’ve travelled to New York and Montreal to see Kylie Minogue, Toronto to see U2, London, England to see Girls Aloud and this coming December to New York once again to see P!nk. But, just earlier this month, I booked a whirlwind trip to San Francisco to see the Rolling Stones.

Prior to the Rolling Stones announcing their 50 and Counting tour, they were still one of the bands on my musical bucket list, if you will. I admit when I was younger I wasn’t much of a fan. I never really listened to them much and wasn’t necessarily inclined to, but after about a year of working full-time at my first “real” job after graduating from university, in an effort to create a regularly occurring social event for my friends and I, I decided to start a movie club. One month, in 2008, we chose to see Shine A Light, a documentary about the Rolling Stones that was directed by Martin Scorsese. I went in excited to see it because it was a documentary about one of the world’s biggest bands seen through the eyes of one of the best filmmakers and I wasn’t disappointed. That was the day I fell in love with their music and the characters that make up this long lasting group that, despite the pitfalls that rock and roll has brought to others, has stayed together with its original lineup for half a century.

Last year when the Rolling Stones announced their November/December shows in London and New York I thought my chance was finally here. The last time they had come to Edmonton, AB was back in 1997, so I wasn’t holding my breath that they’d grace my hometown with their presence, but maybe they’d come to Vancouver? Well, it was a long wait before they officially announced cities and dates for 2013 and while the west coast of Canada didn’t make the cut, San Francisco did.

I was more than determined to see them. With Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie between the ages of 65 and 71, this could very well be the last time they’ll perform on a tour like this and I couldn’t miss out. And, I wouldn’t call it fate exactly, but I do think it was by luck that I happened to come across the band’s $85 link on their website the morning the tickets for San Francisco went on sale. The catch with those tickets is that you could only purchase them in pairs and you wouldn’t know where your seats would be until you arrived at the venue and picked them up. That was perfectly fine with me! A chance to see the Rolling Stones at half the price of even their lowest priced tickets in the main sale meant I couldn’t go wrong.

The concert was superb. I loved seeing the crazy array of people at the venue. The audience was having such a great time, dancing like there was no tomorrow and Mick Jagger literally is more energetic at his age than I am right now. They played many of their hits, but with their extensive catalog, I missed hearing songs like Wild Horses or Ruby Tuesday. I can understand why people follow them around from city to city on their tours. They are notorious for changing up their sets every show, so they’re never exactly the same, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear your favourite song.

This is their set list from Oakland, CA on May 5:

  1. “Get Off Of My Cloud”
  2. “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It)”
  3. “Live With Me”
  4. “Paint It Black”
  5. “Gimme Shelter”
  6. “Little Red Rooster” (with Tom Waits)
  7. “Dead Flowers”
  8. “Emotional Rescue”
  9. “All Down The Line”
  10. “Doom and Gloom”
  11. “One More Shot”
  12. “Honky Tonk Women”
  13. “Before They Make Me Run”
  14. “Happy”
  15. “Midnight Rambler” (with Mick Taylor)
  16. “Miss You”
  17. “Start Me Up”
  18. “Tumbling Dice”
  19. “Brown Sugar”
  20. “Sympathy for the Devil”

Encore

  1. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
  2. “Jumping Jack Flash”
  3. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

Even after a 2 and a half hour show, I still wished it was longer. But, alas, I can now say that I have seen the Rolling Stones live. The experience was certainly worth the trip, and though they’re the reason why I booked a vacation to San Francisco, I do try to make the most of my time in the cities I visit.

Over my three days in the home of the Golden Gate Bridge, I visited the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero and perused the stalls at the weekly farmer’s market, walked the streets of Chinatown, shopped around Union Square, ate at Tadish in the Financial District (apparently the oldest seafood restaurant in San Francisco) and at Bask SF (only a year old), walked up Lombard Street, followed Columbus Avenue from California Street past North Beach and all the way down to Hyde Street Pier and then down to Pier 39 to see the seals. I regret the shoes I brought with me because I thought those flats would kill me by the end of the trip, but I made it and it was fantastic.

Another trip and plenty to document it! As my friend said, she knew I must have just returned home and finally gotten Wi-Fi because I started Instagraming one photo after another to share with everyone. She also asked me how long I was there for, and when I replied that I was only there for three days, she was pretty amazed at how much I managed to do in such a short time span.

San Francisco through my eyes is here for you to view. Hopefully it inspires you to visit, too. Maybe for a show, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth seeing and with many things within walking distance of one another, you can cover a lot more ground than you think.

How to Make Sure Your Friend Has the Best time on Their First Trip to NYC

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Times Square billboards

Why, crowdsource some ideas from the writers and readers of the blogosphere, of course!

New York City is one of my absolute favourite places to visit. The first time I went there was as a child on a bus tour with my parents. Since then I’ve been four more times – all have been memorable, but the best might just have been the week I spent there after freshman year of university with my friend Ashley. I’d never been on a trip without my family prior to that and the two of us had an absolute blast. We walked 60 blocks a day weaving our way all over the city and we never ran out of things to do. That’s the best thing about NYC. It literally never sleeps and there’s always something going on.

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Midtown Manhattan at 5:00am in the morning. Fog is still lifting!

This coming winter will mark my sixth venture to New York and this time around I’ll be joined by one of my girlfriends. It’s going to make it a half dozen visits for me, but a first for my friend Kendra. I want her to love it as much as I do, which really isn’t difficult.

We already have quite the ‘To Do’ list:

1) See P!nk in concert (this spurred the whole trip when we couldn’t get tickets to her show at home)

2) Go to an NBA game

3) Pretty much all the tourist attractions (Statue of Liberty – hopefully the statue is reopened by then, Empire State Building, Times Square, etc.)

4) See a Broadway (or Off-Broadway) show – we’re not picky

5) Play Accomplice (NYC mystery play/scavenger hunt)

5) Eat!!

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A visit to Norma’s for the Waz-za Waffle is a must in my book!

6) Shop – outlets here we come! SoHo, too!

7) See the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center – Dec. 4th!

8) Museums – I can literally spend a full day at MoMA

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Does the naked cowboy still come out in winter?

So what am I hoping to learn from my fellow bloggers and readers? I’m sure many of you either live in NYC or have visited before. Everyone has a different and unique experience of the cities they go to.

What are your favourite memories of NYC? What’s something that someone who’s been there several times and someone who’s never been will both love? Anything that you think is overhyped and not worth the money to see? Neighbourhoods that are a must to go to? Restaurants that will satisfy our foodie palates without costing an arm and a leg?

One of the downfalls of the city is that, yes, you can do a ton in just a weekend, but, no, you won’t manage everything. No matter how hard you try you will need to make a trip back in the future and that’s A-OK.

Your suggestions are appreciated and we will make every effort to do as many of them as possible.

As always, thanks!