Continued Explorations: Autumn in NYC

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Every so often I get the urge to revisit New York City. People always ask me why I go there as frequently as I do. The reason is because it’s a vibrant place to be, but one that I can easily leave behind when I want to go back to the more slow-paced lifestyle that is Edmonton.

This latest trip was one that had been discussed for sometime. However, due to other circumstances, it didn’t come to fruition until this year.

Over a decade since my friend and I had first traveled there together, we made plans to go back and experience the City that Never Sleeps from a more mature perspective.

Hearing that autumn is a gorgeous time of year there, we booked our holiday to run through the first week of October. Although the weather proved to work against us throughout part of our vacation (leading to itinerary changes), it still turned out to be a fantastic several days.

Only ever pausing to sleep in our room at the Seton Hotel, our trip was a mishmash of neighbourhood explorations, music, museums, culture and food as we clocked about 60 kilometers and over a hundred thousand steps through the streets of Manhattan.

The following is a daily account, with pictures, of our adventures. I hope they inspire some of you to explore restaurants and places that are a little off the beaten path.

DAY 1

Accommodations: Seton Hotel

The Seton is a clean, comfortable, renovated boutique hotel. We stayed in a premium room with two double beds and a private bathroom (a number of their rooms have shared baths). It is actually quite spacious if there are only a couple of people staying together. There are a number of spots to layout your suitcases without it feeling overly cluttered. The bathroom is also nice, and while they don’t provide any body lotion for use, they do supply soaps, shampoo, conditioner and packaged makeup wipes.

It’s important to note that your room key must be dropped off with the staff every time you leave the hotel. There is also no in-room safe (the front desk has one) or fridge in each room. But, they have a lovely lounge on the main floor. They also provide free tea and coffee as well as umbrellas that can be taken out on rainy days. On our last day there, the hotel held our luggage between checkout time and when we had to leave for the airport, which was handy.

As with most large cities, there is usually construction nearby and the Seton wasn’t immune. During the weekdays, workers typically started up with the jackhammer just after 8 AM. As luck would have it, we were always already awake, so it didn’t make much of a difference to us. Yet it’s worth noting that you may want to request a room towards the back of the hotel away from the street and the elevator.

The location itself was extremely convenient. Situated on 40th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues, the Seton was only a few blocks away from Grand Central Terminal and from Fifth Avenue. Although it was often quiet late in the evening, it always felt safe.

Staring at the art on the walls of the Cafe Duke

Staring at the art on the walls of the Cafe Duke

Nourishment: Bohemian

Bohemian is an exclusive, referral-only restaurant located in the East Village of Manhattan. It’s hidden behind a butcher’s shop. The address is actually quite easy to find online. However, you do have to obtain an invite directly from the restaurant or get the phone number from someone who has previously dined in order to make a reservation. Walk-ins are not guaranteed a table.

After a while wandering the neighbourhood to kill time before our 9 P.M. reservation, my friend and I opted to go with the 6-course tasting menu. It included a Farmer’s Fresh Vegetable Fondue, Uni Croquette, Washu-Beef Short Rib Sashimi, Pan Roasted Branzino, Washu-Beef Mini Burger OR Sashimi Rice Bowl and a Yuzu Pannacotta.

Needless to say, our starving bellies were more than stuffed after our two and a half hour dinner. By the time we worked our way through the majority of the branzino, we could have given up. But, we powered through like champs and finished the entirety of our meal.

The staff were great there and the food is worth the slightly increased effort required to book a table. It’s especially good value for the price – a drink and six dishes came to less than $70 before tax.

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DAY 2

Attractions: Central Park, The Met, Lincoln Center, The Book of Mormon, Times Square

The forecast called for rain, but we seemed to luck out in the morning as we strolled from Norma’s through Central Park to The Met. Having been to NYC several times, this was my first visit in the autumn, and the most time I’ve ever spent in the park. As we meandered through all the areas on the east side of the park between 59th and 85th Streets, we were surprised that the trees were still so green. It wasn’t quite the imagined yellow, orange, red paradise that we expected, but it was still a beautiful and relaxing respite from the rest of the bustling city.

Eventually, we made it to The Met where we spent hours perusing the maze of collections housed in its walls. The American Wing and European Paintings were my favourite. Sadly, the Costume Institute collection on the ground floor was closed off, so we didn’t get to see that, which is unfortunate. Their most recent exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, looked like a superb view on fashion, so it’s too bad that it closed before we arrived.

On our way back to midtown, we cut through Central Park. Unfortunately, we got caught in the rain. The trees helped to shield us a bit, but we were still a damp by the time we managed to make it to Lincoln Centre. My one wish is that we could have seen up-close the two large murals by Marc Chagall that hang in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House. The unmistakable style caught my eye through the windows of the building and I didn’t want to look away. If only it wasn’t pouring out, so we could have lingered longer.

A performance of The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre gave us a break from the rainy weather. Finally, after years wanting to see this show, I did. Was it worth the money? Probably not, but the Mormon song and dance numbers and the spun stories were highly entertaining, especially for those who are not easily offended.

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As we exited the theatre, our evening finished off in Times Square. Other tourists jostled past us as we found our way to the subway station and we called it a night.

Nourishment: NORMA’s, Whole Foods, Shake Shack

NORMA’s at Le Parker Meridien has been a favourite of mine ever since my cousin took me there for brunch back in 2009. Every trip since, I have made a point of going there. This visit did not disappoint. I’d been thinking about the restaurant’s Waz-Za Waffle for months and it was as good as I remembered. My friend’s Red Berry Risotto “Oatmeal” was hearty and scrumptious as well.

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Later in the day, after our long perusal of The Met and two lengthy walks through Central Park and photos at Lincoln Center, we made a quick pit stop at the Whole Foods at Time Warner Center. We had intended to buy a bit of sushi and eat in their food court area, but it was so full that we weren’t able to get a seat. We ended up trying to sit on the floor of the mall to eat until security told us we had to get up. The guard was nice about it though. He said we could stand and eat wherever we wanted.

The Midtown East Shake Shack just down the block from our hotel was perfect for quick late-night meals or snacks after shows. My friend’s featured bratwurst burger looked so tastily greasy that I was a little jealous when I decided to eat the chicken dog instead. However, the chicken dog was perfectly satisfying and light enough just before bed.

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Late night snack from the Shake Shack

DAY 3

Attractions: NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Grand Central Terminal, MoMA, Terminal 5

When I was last in NYC back in December 2013, I pretty much just stumbled upon the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, it was so close to our hotel that I had to take my friend there this time. Having studied to be a librarian, I knew that she would appreciate the building and the rooms housed within. We arrived before it opened to the public for the day, which gave us time to take some photos in the rain. So, as soon as the doors were unlocked, we booked it inside.

The NYPL provides free tours at 11 A.M. and 2 P.M. Mondays to Saturdays. Our original plan was to check out the library shop until the tour started, but we ended up skipping the tour because it was quite crowded and it was hard to hear the guides. Instead, we wandered around on our own and stopped to watch the excellent video about the building in the library’s theatre, which I would certainly recommend.

Following the NYPL, we headed over to Grand Central Terminal for a guided tour led by a docent from the Municipal Art Society of NYC. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable. She took us into different areas of the building while telling us about the history of the Vanderbilt family, the Biltmore Hotel, the decline of the terminal and Jackie O’s part in saving the landmark. Despite tired feet, the tour was incredibly interesting and worth it.

We took advantage of MoMA’s Free Friday Night sponsored by UNIQLO (if you’re tight on money, you can save a lot by hitting up most of the museums on evenings where entry is complimentary; check out their websites for information). Arriving shortly after 4 P.M., one of the museum staff members told us that the wait to get inside could be up to an hour and a half, but we stuck it out. Thankfully, construction scaffolding shielded us from the rain the majority of the time we were outside, and it really only took about 30 minutes for us to make it around the block and through the doors. That gave us about three full hours to view the top five floors, which we were able to do. Although it was packed in some of the galleries, it actually wasn’t too bad. We even managed to find bench seating every so often when we felt like taking a breather. Some of the rooms even emptied out enough to allow us more time and space to soak in the art.

Our day finished off at Terminal 5, a nightclub turned live music venue, where we saw The NBHD and Bad Suns. It’s a neat venue with three levels, but its sight lines aren’t the best if you’re not one of the people who gets a spot leaning against the railings.

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Nourishment: Cipriani Le Specialità

I wasn’t feeling all that well during the Grand Central Terminal tour, which I chalked up to hunger. Therefore, as soon as we finished there, we sought out a place to eat. The food court in the lower level was way too warm, so we went outside for some fresh air. Along the way, we came across Cipriani Le Specialità. It’s part of the Cipriani group of restaurants, but it’s a teeny little fast service eatery with a handful of tables where you can either eat-in or takeaway. The day’s feature steak and pasta was actually perfect for a quick meal and I felt much better afterwards.

Steak and pasta for lunch at Cipriani La

Steak and pasta for lunch at Cipriani Le Specialità

DAY 4

Attractions: Shopping at Century 21, New Yorker Festival

Original plans for the day had included a Watson Adventures High Line scavenger hunt. However, the company decided to cancel the event the day before due to the dismal weather. That left us with a fairly wide open schedule. This was the only day that we slept in at all. Thankfully, there was no noise from construction on the Saturday.

A subway performer packing up her things

A subway performer packing up her things

Once we finished lunch at Time Warner Center, we took the subway over to the Century 21 department store by Lincoln Center, which we had passed by a couple days earlier. It was not my intention to do any shopping during this particular trip, but entering Century 21 quashed that notion. I walked away with a few things, all useful to me, and a bill that indicated savings of over $350. That’s my attempt to look at my receipt with a glass half full.

A dancer practicing his moves

A dancer practicing his moves

Later in the evening, we went to a New Yorker Festival talk between Lauren Collins and Ellie Kemper. I had to pick up my tickets from will call and then we joined a very long line up. As it turns out, the line up was really for the Patti Smith event in the same venue, but none of the staff pointed that out to anyone. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were turned away and asked to wait outside until they started seating for Ellie Kemper. It still worked out though. If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have spotted Damian Lewis of Homeland fame leaving from his talk, and the ticket taker made sure that those who were already at the door for Ellie Kemper were the first to enter. We ended up getting seats right in front of the stage. Ellie Kemper is absolutely hilarious and charming. It was great to end the night with some laughs.

Nourishment: Landmarc at Time Warner Center, Bouchon Bakery, Mira Sushi & Izakaya

As luck would have it, the cousin I stayed in NYC with back in 2009 was in town for a few days. He treated us to a wonderful lunch at Landmarc. We left the decisions to him and were met with delicious appetizers of fois gras terrine, fried calamari, and roasted marrow bones along with shared mains of certified black angus marinated skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and chicken sausage cavatelli. He always has the best suggestions when it comes to food.

Before we parted ways, he took us next door to Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery where we split a lemon tart and chocolate cheesecake between the three of us. As great as both were, the density of the second dessert really pushed us over the limit for lunch.

Dinner before the Ellie Kemper talk was had at Mira Sushi & Izakaya in the Chelsea neighbourhood. The restaurant was busy, but not entirely full when we arrived. However, we did make a reservation (on OpenTable) as did others. The Yuzu Lychee Sangria was a little pricey, but they didn’t skimp on the alcohol, ensuring that it wasn’t overly sweet. For our meal, we both ordered the salmon sampler set. The fish was fresh and the rice was perfectly prepared for the sushi. The spicy salmon roll was so tasty, but didn’t quite have the heat that we expected. What really made this supper memorable was the dessert. We shared a matcha green tea brownie s’more and it was heavenly.

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DAY 5

Attractions: The Cloisters, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Rockefeller Center, Hand to God

The morning didn’t go as smoothly as we hoped. The train that Google told us to take ended up being only an express train on the Sunday, so we had to switch lines part way there. The last stop was further removed from The Cloisters and we stopped to ask a tailor for directions.

We eventually made it to Fort Tyron Park, which seemed to have been taken over by a medieval festival. Rather than join the crowd, we bypassed it and followed the signs to The Cloisters building, eventually finding the entrance.

The museum is filled with medieval European art, including the famous Unicorn Tapestries donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. We almost missed seeing them as we took a staircase down to the lower level of the building and ended up looping past the room all together. But, I made sure that we went back into the galleries before we departed. The gardens are also beautiful and tranquil. I’m not sure how busy The Cloisters is on a regular day, but it was clear that the festival taking place outside brought in more than usual.

When we were done at The Cloisters, we caught a bus (the coldest bus we’ve ever been on) down to the Cooper Hewitt museum. With exhibits that cover historical and contemporary design, there were some unique pieces on display. What I loved the most about the museum is the digital pen that you’re given for use during your visit. If you see something you like, you can press the pen up to the symbol on the summary cards and it saves it to a URL that is specific to your entry ticket. It gives you a chance to look back at what you saw and takes less effort to document the things that capture your eye.

Prior to our evening performance of Hand to God, we made a quick trip to Rockefeller Center to see if we could obtain a Dwight bobblehead doll from the NBC Experience Store. To our dismay, it was already closed for the evening (silly, considering all the tourists milling about at 6 P.M. on the weekend).

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Since that was a bust, we started walking towards Broadway in search of food. As soon as we finished eating, we met up with the TodayTix staff member who hand delivered the tickets that we ordered using the app. Hand to God, showing at the Booth Theatre is a new American play about an awkward teenager whose sock puppet seems to come to life, bringing to light the many issues that surround him and those closest to him. It was sad, funny and, as our shows often leaned, inappropriate. Hand to God will remain in NYC until January when it moves to London.

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Nourishment: Carve Unique Sandwiches & Pizza, Shake Shack

Food was kind of low on our list this day, so we were starving by the time we got close to Times Square. We tided ourselves over with slices of pizza from Carve. The thin-crust spinach and ricotta pizza was delicious and it hit the spot before the play.

Spinach and ricotta pizza from Carve

Spinach and ricotta pizza from Carve

Another night, another stop at Shake Shack before bed. I stuck to my tried and true chicken dog, but added a draught root beer (to be honest, the drink was nothing special). My friend got the ShackMeister Dog™. Again, I was slightly envious that I went the healthier route once more.

DAY 6

Attractions: 9/11 Museum & Memorial, The High Line, Bowery Ballroom

The day started with a somber visit to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. When I was in NYC less than two years ago, the museum wasn’t complete yet. Now that it’s open, I thought it was important to see it, and while I still believe that to be the case, it is a tough one to get through. The exhibits have been carefully curated and are thoughtful despite the subject matter. I cried a lot. The museum covers one of the worst days in recent history and as a remembrance of the event and the people who were lost, it feels like a necessary reminder.

What I love about NYC is that there’s always something “new” to do. For me, this was the High Line park. We managed to fit this in on our last full day in the city. Unbeknownst to me, the park (phase one) was established as far back as 2009, but until this year, I hadn’t heard of it. Created from a disused elevated railway, the tracks from 34th Street and 11th Avenue all the way down to Gansevoort Street have now been transformed into a gathering place for citizens and tourists to enjoy the beautiful views of Manhattan’s west side. We spent a couple of hours spotting the public art, large murals and graffiti tags along the route. We people watched, stopped to watch bees pollinate flowers and saw the sun setting over the water.

Our final evening was spent at the Bowery Ballroom where we saw Geographer and Stars perform. Both were excellent. I walked in as a fan of Stars and left loving Geographer just as much. The Bowery Presents runs Terminal 5 and the Bowery Ballroom, and it may come down to the performer each evening, but I have to say that the Bowery Ballroom felt like a better fit for us. The venue was much smaller (a capacity of less than 600 versus 3,000 at Terminal 5) with just two stories and better sight lines. The crowd was closer in age to us and everyone seemed to be respectful of personal space. My only suggestion is that they add a bit more seating to the venue.

Nourishment: Bouley, KULU Desserts

When we met with my cousin for lunch on the weekend, he mentioned dinner with his colleagues that same evening at a restaurant called Bouley. He was lamenting the fact that he was in store for a 6-course tasting menu just two hours after eating with us. We couldn’t help him, but we were certainly intrigued, so we looked into Bouley later that night. What we found was the lunch tasting menu, which is an absolute steal at $55 for 5 courses compared to the $185 for the 6-course dinner. Once we found that, we immediately decided to book a table.

We were forewarned that Bouley, located in Tribeca, was more upscale, so we knew we had to dress up a little. I still felt slightly out of place (I packed appropriately to fit in with the Manhattanites, but not so well that I looked like I belonged in a fancy schmancy restaurant like Bouley). However, all of the staff we came into contact with were extremely friendly and accommodating. They made us feel like we were their best patrons. The food wasn’t too shabby either. Every dish I had was fabulous. Even the ones that seemed simple to execute surpassed my expectations.

On the way out of Bouley, the hostess grabbed our jackets for us and then promptly handed us a couple of gift bags. I heard her say something about lemon tea. As it turns out, the bag had a pamphlet about chef David Bouley’s empire and an entire loaf of lemon tea cake. I carried that cake around for the rest of the day because I really appreciated the extra thought that Bouley put into their diner’s experience.

Our dinner that evening wasn’t exactly a real meal. I had purchased a Groupon ahead of the trip for a place called KULU Desserts. The reason why I really wanted to try this place is because they make Asian fusion desserts like ones that I ate in Hong Kong and Singapore from Honeymoon Dessert. Talk about dessert ruining your appetite for supper. $20 worth of food was more than enough to fill the two of us up. We shared the Mango Pomelo, Black Sesame Paste, Matcha Sawdust Pudding and a Papaya Smoothie. Everything was great, but I’d definitely go back for the Mango Pomelo bowl.

Our dessert dinner at KULU

Our dessert dinner at KULU

DAY 7

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Nourishment: Zengo

Day 7 of our trip was pretty short. We made a quick, last-minute jaunt to the Library Shop at the NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, so my friend and I could pick up some gifts before we left. A bit of time was also spent circling the neighbourhood around our hotel because the restaurant we had our eye on didn’t open until 11:30 A.M.

Zengo, a Latin-Asian fusion eatery from chef Richard Sandoval, sat on the corner across from our hotel, so it was the perfect place to relax over a nice meal before we began our journey home. For a little while, we were literally the only people in the restaurant, so the service was excellent. The place did fill up quickly at around noon though, so it’s good to know it’s well frequented.

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I thoroughly enjoyed my bento box, which consisted of the Angry Zengo Roll (spicy tuna), grilled skirt steak, wok vegetables, green papaya salad (not my favourite due to the addition of cilantro) and jasmine rice.

The deconstructed key lime pie was the perfect finish to lunch and, in a way, a good visual of what our vacation was. A mishmash of various flavours and textures that, when brought together, created magic.

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?

Lighten Your Load: Learning to Travel Compactly Through the Seasons

Heys 21″ Peacock Hardcase Luggage

I’ve once again gotten the travel bug. I used to fly away for leisure a few times annually, but in the last few years I’ve been lucky to have the time to take one trip per year. 2012 seems almost an anomaly having been to both Las Vegas and Toronto. Now, I’m anticipating my next holiday, whenever and wherever that may be. What strikes me everytime I’ve traveled with friends or whenever I visit anyone is that they always seem surprised to see how little I pack. I likewise am surprised when I look at their giant suitcases. Why carry such a large piece of luggage when all the things that are necessary can fit into carry-on sized baggage?

The explanations I’ve been given for packing heavy are 1) sometimes you don’t feel like wearing something you’ve packed and options are good, 2) you can never have enough shoes, and 3) you can never be too prepared. My reply is that if you pack properly and think about how you will pair pieces together, 1) it simplifies your days while you’re away from home, 2) you know you’ll look good if you stick to what you brought, and 3) you can pack a small suitcase for a week and still have room to bring a few things home.

In actuality, my obsession with packing compactly started five years ago after I returned home from a six week European bus tour. Being gone for that amount of time I undoubtly took a large suitcase with me. That was proabably a mistake. There is a reason why people go backpacking. Aside from it being a lot less expensive, it guarantees a lighter load. I learned then and there that I never wanted to drag around something so large again. Therefore, no matter where my trips have taken me, my suitcase is now always 21″ or less in size.

It’s come down to a bit of a science. Only the basics for makeup come with me and all other toiletries are travel size. For the days I’ll be on the plane, I wear leggings and a top or a dress with flat sandals or shoes. I avoid wearing metal entirely to help get me through security faster. I usually have a jacket or a sweater in my bag in case it gets cold on the plane or the weather is a bit chilly when I land.

I have a general plan for my outfits before I pack. The pieces I bring can usually be mixed and matched, so I don’t feel like I’m without any choices. Items that are interchangeable, layerable and able to be accessorized are absolutely necessary. Pick clothing that resists wrinkling and is comfortable. Comfort does not mean dressing like you’re heading to the gym though.

The key is to bring a pair of walking shoes – optimally cute ballet flats or strappy sandals that you know won’t hurt your feet – to wear while you tour around during the day and a second pair of dressier heels for nights out on the town. Both should be in a metallic or neutral shade to make it easy to match all of your looks. The second thing is to pick a neutrally colored jacket or coat. Thirdly, choose clothes that can be dressed up or down depending on how you put things together. A great pair of jeans can be worn out to dinner, dancing, a concert or a show when matched with a sequin top. By the same token, a dress that might typically be meant for more formal occassions can be dressed down by wearing a pair of casual flats and a leather jacket. The fourth thing is to color coordinate everything. Your shoes and clothes should be able to be intermixed as if you were at home with your full closet. Bring seven different outfits to give you at minimum seven days worth of clothes. If you are traveling for longer, those pieces should be able to be switched around to create alternate looks.

You can be comfortable without sacrificing style on holiday. Afterall, every city is a new place to show off your personal fashion sense.

With the help of Polyvore I’ve compiled packing blueprints to help you prepare for your next trip. I’ve created each set of suitcase essentials based on the seasons, so that you have a general idea of what to bring depending on the time of year and where you’ll be going. There’s also a special beach/hot weather blueprint for those who are heading to Las Vegas, Hawaii or any other all-inclusive destinations.

Update: My friend has made it known to me that I did not think (I did, but decided to ignore it initially) about the fact that some people have to bring their hair dryers, diffusers, curling irons and hair products with them when they travel. My first thought is that if you’re staying with a friend or at a hotel, check to see if they have those items and if they’ll let you borrow them while you’re there. Those items take up room and increase the weight of your luggage. If it’s not entirely necessary just think twice about it first. If you absolutely must bring those items along, make sure you take a medium sized overnight bag with you as carry-on. I usually stuff my purse into it and pack slippers and a change of clothes and my jacket or sweater, so that I only have to carry the one piece. By putting those items into an extra bag, that frees up space in your main luggage (check-in or not) for more of your hair and product essentials.

Spring

Summer

Fall

Winter

Beach

Do you have any packing tips? I’d love to hear your ideas. Please share in the comments section below.