Travel Roundup: Hong Kong, Macau & Japan 2016

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

It’s a brand new year, and four weeks in, I find myself looking back at 2016. It was quite the whirlwind, and I’m reminded of just how lucky I am, especially when it comes to travelling.

This past November was a big month for me. Not only did I spend another birthday in Vegas, but I was also able to take a fortnight off from work to do some exploring with friends in Asia, specifically Hong Kong, Macau and Japan.

Admittedly, I was slightly worried about being the so-called “guide” for our trio in Hong Kong. When my friends suggested that I go with them because my family is from there and I’ve been several times before, I smiled and agreed. Yet, in the back of my mind, I was thinking I could totally disappoint them. Sure, I’d gone in the past, but I was no expert. My trips to Hong Kong were always oriented around plans with relatives, often leaving very little time to be an actual tourist. They trusted me though, so we forged ahead with putting together a holiday.

What I originally thought was going to be a break primarily situated in Hong Kong ended up including a mini trek across Japan. About eight months before we travelled, the YEG Deals website flagged a round trip flight from Edmonton to Tokyo for a fantastic price and we opted to go for it. This was much to my mother’s dismay. My mom kept telling me that we would have saved money had we booked connecting flights from the start or if we waited for a special on a direct flight to Hong Kong. It was too late to change the booking though and we were determined to make it work.

When November rolled around, I wouldn’t say we were exactly ready. Personally, I felt slightly discombobulated because, for the first time in a while, I wasn’t leaving for a holiday with any sort of itinerary in hand. We did pull it together enough to make sure we had accommodations in all of the cities where we’d be staying. We also found comparatively affordable connecting flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Hiroshima through discount airline HK Express before departing Edmonton. The three of us weren’t totally winging it, but this was unusual for me. I was out of my comfort zone with no clue as to what we were going to do on a day-to-day basis.

Thankfully, our trip happened to coincide with my parents’ holiday to Hong Kong, which means we had a good support system, if necessary. The day we flew into Hong Kong (dead tired from 30 straight hours of travel), they actually met up with us upon our arrival in Causeway Bay. My relatives were gracious enough to let us stay in an extra apartment that they own, and my parents were there to let us into the unit. Although we experienced a few hiccups on the first night of our stay, all issues were remedied by the following day. Our adventure had begun.

I have done a previous post (in photo format) about Hong Kong, so feel free to check that out in addition to what I have to say here. Also, I will say that I’m so pleased that I finally got a chance to explore this territory with minimal family obligations required. Being able to see the city from a different perspective with friends who have never been allowed us to take full advantage of what was on offer. We went at our own pace and it made me feel like this was truly a locale to visit (outside of the usual family reasons).

Accounting for all of the travel time between destinations, we really had to make the most of our days at each destination. Hong Kong was our initial stop, and aside from indulging in all of the food, we thought we’d take in some of the highlights.

Day 1 – Hong Kong

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Day one consisted of a bus ride to the top of Victoria Peak where we got a panoramic view of the city below. We also rode the MTR (one of the best city train systems I know of) to the Kowloon side. There, we waited to see the nighttime laser light show that took place across the water. When it was over, we hoofed it to Dim Dim Sum Hong Kong in Jordan. Named one of the world’s 101 best eateries by Newsweek, we wouldn’t relent until we sought it out. Two words: soup dumplings.

Day 2 – Hong Kong

Dim Sum at the famous Din Tai Fung. Truffled xiaolongbao!

Dim Sum at the famous Din Tai Fung. Truffled xiaolongbao!

We began day two with dim sum at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain with locations worldwide. Two of their branches in Hong Kong, including the one in Causeway Bay, were awarded one Michelin star each. More expensive than the dim sum we ate the night before, it was absolutely worthy of our money. Again, the soup dumplings (Xiaolongbao) were the way to go, but I’d praise the wontons and buns, too. I also love that you can watch the staff in the kitchen. Through the windows, at the entrance to the eatery, we could see them making all the little dumplings and wontons by hand, so we knew the food was fresh!

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When we had our fill, we worked our way to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. Missing the sign directing us there, we wound up getting a little sidetracked. We spent some time climbing the steps of what looked to be a memorial before we gave up and went back down to level ground. That’s when we happened upon the correct entrance. As we scaled our way up the steep hillside on a particularly hot and muggy day, we took in all of the golden gods lining the trail. Eventually, we made it to the top! It’s a beautiful little space filled with colourful statues. Despite the somewhat challenging ascent and the vertigo inducing descent, this off-the-beaten-track spot is one to see.

Next, we stopped in Diamond Hill to check out the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden. This is actually one of my favourite attractions in Hong Kong. Located in Kowloon, it’s a surprising respite from the surrounding hustle and bustle just outside of the garden walls. The nunnery is also a quiet area that magically reverberates with the soul piercing sounds of chants from those who pray within.

Our second evening consisted of barhopping in Central. 001, a “secret” speakeasy with stylish décor and fancy cocktails, kicked off our plans. We then skipped to Brewdog, Tipping Point SoHo and Shack Tapazaka back in Causeway Bay.

Day 3 – Hong Kong

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Day three was sort of a write off when it came to being a tourist. I had lunch with my family at the Crowne Plaza near our apartment, so we spent much of the morning wandering until about one o’clock when we split up for a few hours. When my friends and I reconnected, we chose to take the bus to Stanley Beach. It’s a tranquil site in Hong Kong with sights of the water and a number of restaurants. After we walked the pier and the boardwalk, we settled in for dinner and drinks at Beef & Liberty (suggested to us by the owners of Moonzen Brewery). For a burger joint, they did that type of food really well. The only downside was the slow service, so it’s a good thing we weren’t in a rush.

Day 4 – Macau

A pretty building by Senado Square in Macau.

A pretty building by Senado Square in Macau.

On the fourth day, we ventured to Macau on a TurboJET ferry. Now, most of the hotels in the coastal city offer free shuttles to and from the ferry terminal. It’s simply a matter of finding the right bus. To save a little money and allow ourselves two rooms for our one night stay, we opted to book at the Crowne Plaza. The accommodations are awesome – modern in both style and technology – and, built in 2014, the hotel itself is relatively new and affordable. Unfortunately, the shuttle doesn’t come by to pick up guests as often as some of the larger resorts and it’s also a little further away from the main attractions. In fact, the cabbie who dropped us off at the end of the evening gave me a talking to; he stated that it was too far and we shouldn’t have booked there. That’s just his opinion though. The location certainly isn’t that bad.

Regardless, we had a good time in Macau. Senado Square is an open gathering spot that constantly looks as if it’s filled by a giant mass of people. With its Portuguese origins, the architecture is colourful with intricate details, but it has become pretty commercial. From there, we followed the signage that led up to the Ruins of St. Paul’s. The façade of the old church made a nice backdrop for all of those who were taking selfies on the steps. I quite like the Fortress of Macau. The vantage points at the top of the building allow visitors a sprawling outlook over the city.

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Since Macau is the Vegas of China, we also made a point of checking out the major hotels and casinos. That included the Grand Lisboa (I’ve stayed here previously), Wynn and MGM. Interestingly, most of the gamblers weren’t drinking or smoking; this was a total 180 from our observations in Las Vegas.

Dinner and drinks were had at Heart Bar. I had read about this location in a brewing magazine back at Brewdog in Hong Kong and it pretty much materialized in front of us. The pizzas were okay, but the cocktails were stellar and so was the bartender. He happened to be the one who seated us, and he had excellent recommendations. We completed our night by working off those calories as we searched for a way to get to the lighthouse on the peak (Guia Fortress). Venturing towards it, we finally found a route that led us to the structure. We weren’t able to enter it though, so when we were done, we worked our way back to the main part of town. Not ideal in the dark, but we ultimately made it to a more populated area without having to take any pitch black, narrow staircases down the hill.

Day 5 – Macau & Hong Kong

Lunch at North

Lunch at North

Our fifth day was scant in terms of sightseeing. We stopped at the Macau ferry terminal in the morning to book our tickets back to Hong Kong. Knowing we had some time to kill before our boat departed, we jumped onto the shuttle to the Venetian. It’s very similar to the resort in Vegas, so it was somewhat old hat for us. Although, I would argue that our lunch at North – specializing in northern Chinese and Sichuan cuisine – was a great way to end our time in Macau.

When we returned to Hong Kong, we dropped our bags off at the apartment and then we immediately set out for our most indulgent dinner on the trip. Tate Dining Room & Bar, run by Chef Vicky Lau, is another restaurant that has earned its Michelin star. At 980 HKD (approximately $170 CDN) for a 6-course meal – drinks not included – one has to be willing and ready to appreciate the flavours and the visuals. We loved it. From start to finish, this was a dinner that surprised and gratified us.

Day 6 – Hiroshima

The following morning we commenced our journey to Hiroshima, so it was chiefly a travel day. By the time we arrived at the Japanese airport and bused into the city, it was quite late. Another long day of travel exhausted us. Arriving in Hiroshima, we wanted to freshen up. Our apartment was easy enough to find and we had no problems getting into the place; however, it wasn’t exactly as advertised. Essentially a micro unit, this apartment was ideal for one person, two at the most. Advertising the place as able to accommodate three people was surely pushing it, but we managed. Otherwise, it was clean and well-appointed. We finished our evening with a satisfying supper at Orenokushikatsukuroda Hiroshimaminamiguchiekimaeten (what a mouthful) where we stuffed ourselves silly with a bunch of deep fried veggie, meat and cheese tempura battered skewers.

Day 7 – Hiroshima

The ferry from Tadanoumi to Rabbit Island.

The ferry from Tadanoumi to Rabbit Island.

Day seven marked a full week of vacation and our second day in Hiroshima. It actually brings up mixed feelings for me. My morning consisted of attempts to exchange my Hong Kong Dollars for Japanese Yen. I wasn’t able to find a nearby money exchange, and the first bank didn’t accept my cash. The second bank did, but at a hefty fee. Since I didn’t have the option to go elsewhere, I went ahead with the transaction.

When that was completed, we rode the train to Tadanoumi. From there, we caught a ferry that took us to Rabbit Island (Ōkunoshima). This was the single reason why Hiroshima was tacked onto our itinerary. My friend has a pet bunny and is basically obsessed with rabbits in general, so when she learned of the isle’s existence, there was no question we were going there. All-in-all, it was an enjoyable time. The bunnies that have somehow occupied the landmass (they’re apparently not the ones from the old labs that used to be there) are very friendly and will approach if there’s food. Indeed, they can be extremely excitable. One rabbit, found in a more secluded area, came up to me, and upon being fed, was so thrilled that it not only did a full 360 degree leap in the air, but while doing so, it also managed to pee itself at the same time. That urine struck me square in the right arm and leg. My jacket and jeans ended up moderately soaked. So, cute as these rabbits were, it ended up being a damper (pun intended) to the visit for me. Thankfully, my clothes dried quickly due to the windy conditions on the island and there was no stench. I was able to last the rest of the day without needing to detour for a change of clothes.

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For me, the day was saved with a meal at this amazing little ramen shop called Ippeiya. We learned of the joint through a Google search, and wow. The scrumptious bowls served to us were absolutely worth the chilly walk. I’d even go as far as to say I’d fly back to Hiroshima just to have another helping of their curry ramen.

Day 8 – Hiroshima & Kyoto

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Week two started with our last day in Hiroshima. Once we stored our luggage at the train station, we used our last few hours before departure to amble over to Hiroshima Castle, and, in fairly ominous fashion, we also took in the remaining ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) and Peace Park. Oddly, this was a rather fitting place to be seeing as how, just the day before, we had witnessed the results of the U.S. Presidential election and Donald Trump’s victory. The location isn’t without its beauty though. I’m glad we stopped there to stand in the presence of history.

Once we had perused the whole park, we realized we had better hoof it back to the station. While we missed the bullet train for the hour we booked (they are super punctual), our seats were non-reserved, so we were able to catch the subsequent one without any penalty. Approximately three hours later, we were in Kyoto. Our Airbnb here was more than we expected, mainly in comparison to the accommodations in Hiroshima. This place was huge! It was an open concept apartment with six single beds, a big closet, full kitchen, a large shower room, separate toilet and in-suite laundry (desirable after the rabbit incident). The only difficulty we encountered was the terrible portable Wi-Fi. Other than that, we couldn’t have asked for more.

My one travel companion knew someone in Kyoto, so we got a hold of this friend who graciously took us out on the town. The three of us were dying for some kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, so he drove us to one where the majority of the plates are 100 yen each (roughly $1 CDN).

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If I’m correct, the one we went to was called Muten Kura Sushi Kyotogaidaimae. It was amazing. Not only was there a constant stream of plates running by at table-level (although, we did see a very rare crash on the course, which stalled things), but there was also a second conveyor belt that was used specifically for dishes we ordered through the tablet. Whenever we had a craving for something that we didn’t roll by ready-made, all we had to do was press a few buttons and it’d be there in minutes. Plus, for every five plates returned through a slot at the far end of the table, a game would be triggered on the tablet, providing diners with a chance to win a prize from the machine located at the top of the conveyor shelf. We only got one toy after giving back about thirty plates, so the system may be rigged. That’s okay though. It was still a lot of fun, and everything was delicious and fresh.

Next, we were taken to Shogun-zuka Seiryu-den Temple where I attempted to snap dozens of photos of the temple, grounds, red maple trees (still in the midst of the transition from summer to fall) and city in the dark. Inside the temple is a replica painting of Aofudo (Blue Acala). Considered a masterpiece of Japanese Buddhist art, the actual piece is enshrined out of sight. The temple also has a huge observation deck that provides views of various Kyoto landmarks.

Our new Kyoto guide then led us to his friend’s bar, Loop Salon. There, we spent the rest of our evening imbibing on some refreshing cocktails (I NEED that bottle of FAUCHON Paris tea liqueur!), gin from the fairly new Kyoto Distillery and gyoza that we had delivered as a late night snack. A few hours passed and we determined that it was time to hit up a 7/11 before heading home.

Day 9 – Kyoto

Ramen at Kobushi

Ramen at Kobushi

When the four of us awoke in the morning, we didn’t have to go too far for food. Within a block from our apartment building, on either side, were several eateries. Failing to get a table at the first place we selected, ramen felt like an excellent second choice, so we opted to try Kobushi. With fish broths, we were taking a bit of a chance since my one friend is allergic to shellfish, but we managed okay having a local there to ask questions for us. The restaurant itself is tiny and all the table/counter space is shared. Rather than going with a soup ramen, I went for an oil-based dish instead. I appreciated trying a different take on this Japanese staple, and I’d undoubtedly eat it again.

Once we ate enough, we hopped on a bus that took us to the Zen Buddhist Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinjaju-ji or Rokuon-ji). What a gorgeous and bright day to see this National Special Historic Site. The sunlight reflecting off of the pavilion and the water was picturesque. Following that, we rode another bus to the Ryōan-ji Temple. Known for its large rock formations in the Japanese Zen garden, I found this to be an interesting locale. Maybe I’m a little too restless for a place like the garden. Nevertheless, the land was lovely with its large pond, unusual landscaping and colour-changing trees. Our last stop on the historical tour was the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Regrettably, we got to the grounds a tad too late to make the last entrance.

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With nothing more to see in the area, we went back to downtown Kyoto where we picked up some alcoholic beverages from a shop, cracked them open (yes, you can drink in public), and then perused the Nishiki Market. Basically a long, narrow alleyway filled with stalls and storefronts, it was a lot of fun to see all of the different trinkets and traditional Japanese food available for purchase. For supper, we went to Yamachan for maboroshi no tebasaki (deep-fried chicken wings). These were ridiculously delicious. Complete with instructions on how best to eat them, the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and these wings satisfied any salty cravings we may have had.

Dessert followed at Saryo Tsujiri Gion where we ordered fancy parfait glasses filled high with matcha flavoured ice cream, mochi, cake and whipped cream. We then investigated the maze-like streets, which led us to the Hokanji Temple and Yasaka-no-to-Pagoda. The structure was subtly lit against the backdrop of the dark sky, making for a striking image. We then returned to Loop Salon for a second low-key evening of drinks.

Day 10 – Kyoto

The gates into Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The gates into Fushimi Inari Shrine.

On day three in Kyoto, we ventured out as a trio and made our way to the train station where we had soba noodle set lunches at Kyoto Tagoto and dessert at Mister Donut. Afterwards, the train took us to Fushimi Inari Shrine where we climbed Mount Inari. It’s no Mount Fuji, but it was enough of a workout for me. The higher you go, the quieter it gets though. I’d say it’s definitely a worthwhile hike.

To-ji Temple was next on our list. There, we saw the pagoda and exhibits featuring Esoteric Buddhist art. Getting a chance to go inside the main floor of the pagoda to see the interior was neat. All of the detail was spectacular. Some of the larger statues are also very remarkable when seen close-up, especially the statue of Yakushi (circa 1603) found in the Kondo.

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Done with the temple, we wandered to Kyoto Brewing Company where we had a few drinks on their makeshift patio. Complete with a food truck to feed the masses, it’s a cool venue to hangout for an hour or two.

Beers were followed by some shopping and sustenance at Gyu-Kaku, a Japanese BBQ restaurant. We tried everything from fondue chicken to beef tongue and pork belly to horse meat tartare. The flavours were delightful and the cuts of meat were easy to cook ourselves.

Now, I’m certain that our local friend picked Gyu-Kaku on purpose. Situated on the second story of a building, the main floor housed part of Club World. We’d heard stories of the latter throughout our holiday, so it seemed fitting to the guys that we should go. My girlfriend and I reluctantly went in with them. Although we had our reservations, it turned out to be a blast. The main space of the nightclub is much smaller than we expected, meaning it got cramped. But, the other room, where a different DJ was playing, had a lounge-like atmosphere that we appreciated for a good chunk of the evening. Festivities for our last day in Kyoto ended with the worst bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. Apparently, the food at this one shop only tastes okay if you’re drunk. I guess I didn’t get near that point because I couldn’t even eat it. Those noodles were just too undercooked.

Day 11 – Tokyo

Chicken wings at Kawara Cafe.

Chicken wings at Kawara Cafe.

Day 11 consisted mostly of travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo. When we arrived in Tokyo, our Airbnb in Shibuya wasn’t available for another couple of hours, so we hunkered down at Kawara Café & Kitchen for a late lunch. Once we were able to drop off all of our stuff at the apartment (also wonderful with a small kitchen, two beds in the living room, a separate bed room, full bathroom and laundry), we went back out to explore the neighbourhood.

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To satiate ourselves, we combed the internet for sushi places and came across Uobei, another conveyor belt restaurant that is actually owned by the Genki Sushi chain. Rather than having plates that constantly make their rounds, diners are actually seated in rows where each line has their own belts. A tablet assigned to an individual is used to place orders of up to three items at a time, ensuring that every plate comes fresh from the kitchen. To avoid any wait, the belts are stack three high, so food can be delivered on multiple levels. Admittedly, the atmosphere does make one feel as if they’re part of a weird assembly line; however, it’s efficient. I also loved that the tablet had buttons that provided multiple options for each sushi order (i.e. no wasabi). Plus, it’s affordable.

Day 12 – Tokyo

Good Town Doughnuts

Good Town Doughnuts

A dozen days into the trip and it occurred to us that our vacation was coming to a quick end, so we packed it in on our last full day in Tokyo. We started off by seeking out the Good Town Doughnuts shop (I read about it in a Japanese magazine). Since we kind of ambled and popped into other stores along the way, by the time we got there, our snack ended up being our lunch. What a treat though. I’d say their fluffy pastries are the closest rival to Lucky’s Doughnuts (in Vancouver) that I’ve managed to find. Turns out I just had to travel half way around the world to do it.

Eating completed, we strolled to Harajuku (Takeshita-dori) where we did a bit of shopping. Towards the end of the area, we made a turn down a narrow street where I found a stall selling some clothing, including the now ubiquitous bomber jacket. Instead of a satin one, as seems to be very popular, I noticed one hanging there made using black velvet. Decorated with appliques of embroidered flowers and tiger heads, it was the best one I’d seen. I didn’t think it was my size, but the vendor had already pulled a mirror out, so I could see how it looked on me. It fit like a glove and I adored it. It was also a steal at about $60 CDN. That’s about half of what I would have paid at home for something similar and of the same quality. Looking at Wikipedia as I wrote this post, I learned that some of the stores in Harajuku are known as “antenna shops” where manufacturers provide prototypes as a way to test the market. That’s really cool because that means one can walk away a trendsetter and not even know it.

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We continued our walk by heading to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower (Tocho) in Shinjuku. There, we were able to take the elevator up, free of charge, to one of the observation decks on the 45th floor. My friend said that on the other side of the block is where he remembered seeing the homeless cardboard housing, and that’s something I had wondered about. As a child, I had been to Tokyo, and I distinctly remember seeing dozens of large cardboard boxes lined up outside the train stations. Those were people’s homes. They probably still exist, but we never saw them during our holiday.

Ready to head back to Shibuya after a long day, our quest for a good spot to dine turned into our goal. It was raining out (the only time during our whole trip), so we didn’t go too far from our apartment. Yet, we still lucked out when we stumbled upon a dining room called Jibieno Hut (I found the site by Google translating while in Tokyo, but it eludes me now; if you’d like the logo/Japanese name, email me for a photo. I found the website again!), specializing in wild game. Our night was completed with shopping at Loft department store and one last ice cream bar from 7/11.

Day 13 – Tokyo

The final day of our vacation crept up all too fast. We had to be out of our apartment pretty early, so we stored our luggage in lockers at Shibuya train station first thing in the morning. With our few remaining hours, we decided to take a look at what was on the other side of the building (not a whole lot). We did, however, get to use a vending machine that dispensed tickets, which we gave to the restaurant cook who then whipped up a fresh order of food for us. That was different. We don’t know how to read Japanese, so we relied on the photos. If there are no pictures and only text on the buttons, it’s a chance one has to take when making their selection.

A bit more shopping at UNIQLO and 109 Men’s, a snack at Uobei Sushi, a ride on the Narita Express train, and then we were back on a plane to Edmonton. Just like that, it was over.

I’m so happy to have had this experience. I know that my travel companions are people that I can get along with for a prolonged period of time and I made a new friend in Kyoto. My single disappointment is that my passport is only one “stamp” fuller as Hong Kong and Macau no longer issues them. Japan was the only place where I received a sticker. My one regret is that my boyfriend couldn’t join us this time. The upside is that I know I’ll be going on more adventures, so there will be more chances in the future.

The State of Things: A Nevada Photostream

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A trio of landscapes from Death Valley.

It seems that I go to Las Vegas, travelling through the state of Nevada, so often that there wouldn’t be anything left for me to do or see. When it is taken into account that I was just there in November for my 30th birthday, one would wonder what the point is of going again so soon. Partially, I needed a getaway from work. It also turned out to be one of the less expensive options at this time of year, despite the terrible exchange rate at the moment. Lastly, even though we’ve had a much warmer winter than typical of Edmonton, the mid-twenty highs in Las Vegas were still a welcome change.

On this occasion, aside from a couple of shows, my friend and I avoided the Strip. This time we stayed downtown. About a block from Fremont Street, it was a completely different experience from the Strip. With many independent restaurants in the area, it was great to see another side of Las Vegas. My only qualm is that there is live music played every single night on Fremont, and it’s loud. The sound was manageable after the weekend, but, Saturday night, the music was so amplified that we could hear it loud and clear through the shower in our hotel room. The music was also relentless, being performed until at least 4 o’clock in the morning. Thank goodness for the earplugs that the Downtown Grand Hotel supplied to us.

Otherwise, this vacation was really relaxing. We sampled food from some new places, went to play games at the arcade and ventured all around Nevada. As usual, I’m sharing my photographs here in the hopes of inspiring others to branch outside of the familiar in Vegas and to travel, in general.

To read past posts about Vegas and Nevada, please check out the Travel category or do a search on my blog.

A mix of things seen on the trip.

A mix of things seen on the trip.

Food

Le Thai

A bowl of the spicy eggplant with tofu.

A bowl of the spicy eggplant with tofu.

Affordable meals, particularly at lunch time. We actually missed the lunch specials, but the prices are still good. My friend and I probably could have split one dish and it would have been enough to comfortably fill both of our stomachs.

Portofino

This was a great find on the myVEGAs app. Redeemed for only 9,000 points, we received a voucher that gave us one free entree with purchase of another. The cocktail we each ordered was refreshing. The pasta was delicious, but very rich, and it was a struggle for me to finish my dish, although I still managed to do so. We were surprised that we didn’t know of the restaurant’s existence since we actually stayed in the Mirage hotel on our last holiday in Vegas.

The Perch

A cute restaurant located in the Downtown Container Park, we were treated to a lovely, light meal. I had bought a Groupon that included a shared appetizer, two entrees, two desserts and a whole bottle of wine. It was indulgent, yet I didn’t feel overly stuffed, which is a good thing. The beef carpaccio was fresh and thinly sliced, and although there was some cilantro in the salsa verde that topped my salmon, it was a very tasty dish with the roasted Brussels sprouts and asparagus. As for dessert, the kitchen was out of everything that they would normally have had available, but they threw the chocolate dipped berries together for us.

JinJu Chocolates

The chocolate display at JinJu.

The chocolate display at JinJu.

Again, I came across a Groupon for this store, which is also located at the Downtown Container Park. The voucher I purchased included their signature box of 64 assorted chocolates. All of the chocolates are beautifully crafted, looking like little works of art. At over $1 CDN per chocolate with the deal, these are not inexpensive, but the Groupon definitely helped.

Pink Box Doughnuts

On day three of our holiday, we planned to road trip across the border into California and further north in Nevada. Knowing we’d have to be up earlier than most places were open, we sought out any place where we’d be able to stock up on snacks for a full day of driving. Pink Box fit the bill. The Summerlin location is open 24 hours a day, so the doughnuts are made fresh throughout the day. Closer to cake style, they were fluffy. However, I did find that the glazes were very sugary, leaving my teeth feeling less than ideal.

Park on Fremont

A really fun restaurant with an enviable patio space, this was a charming and quirky getaway from the hustle and bustle of Fremont Street just a block down the road. Portion sizes were large and filling.

Cafe 6 at Palms Place

One of our last meals in Vegas was at Cafe 6. Off the strip at Palms Place, they specialize in burgers, and great ones at that. I ended up with the Smoke Out, which I’m guessing is a top choice at the restaurant since they use a photo of it in much of their advertising. I can safely say that the ads didn’t point me in the wrong direction.

Attractions

Fremont Street

Although we stayed nearby, we really spent very little time on Fremont. We often went out of the area instead. I do love all the bright neon signs down the block. Old and new, they reminded me of our tour through the Neon Boneyard a couple trips back.

Graffiti Art – Downtown Las Vegas

Driving around downtown Las Vegas early in the morning, we attempted to find a bakery to pick up some breakfast before heading to Valley of Fire. The bakery happened to be closed, but we came across some fantastic graffiti art. If I knew of a walking tour, I would have signed us up as I’m curious about the stories behind some of the pieces. The pictures here don’t even account for everything within that area. Maybe next time we can explore more.

Downtown Container Park

A park that consists of shipping containers made into storefronts and restaurant spaces, this was a fun Las Vegas destination. Most of the businesses create an outer circle around a play zone that caters to children. There’s a big screen on the one end where various music videos were projected as we ate dinner at The Perch.

Valley of Fire

We’d already been to Valley of Fire in November, but we only made it through about half of the park. This time, we checked out the Seven Sisters, the Petrified Log, Elephant Rock and Mouse’s Tank. The sunny day saw that the open valley heated up quickly, so even though we started early, it was scorching hot (to us) by noon.

Lake Mead

From afar, Lake Mead looks nice enough, but, up close, it was kind of a sad sight. Other than the fact that you can see just how much the water in the lake has receded over the years, the lake is home to dozens, maybe hundreds of seagulls and very little vegetation. There’s no actual sand, and it seems unappealing to swim in the water. Granted, a lot of visitors to the beach didn’t seem to care.

Clark County Wetlands Park

For a wetlands park, we expected more water than we saw. Also, the park could do with a lot more signage. Whenever there was a fork in the road, we just made a decision and walked. Yet, we really had no clue where we were going or just how far away were getting from the parking lot. There was little wildlife to be seen, too. Perhaps it’s the sort of man made nature of the park that contributed to that sense. Otherwise, it was a quiet, peaceful place that might be better to wander through later in the spring or during the summer.

Death Valley, CA

Aside from the questionable gas fill up at the Alien Brothel on the way to Death Valley in California, this was one of my favourite days on this trip. Within reasonable driving distance from Vegas, this national park is vast with varying landscapes throughout. Unbeknownst to us, we even happened upon a super bloom year (millions of wildflowers growing in the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America due to extreme rain in the fall), which hasn’t occurred in a decade.

Ghost Town of Rhyolite

The ghost town of Rhyolite is just a minute away from the Goldwell Open Air Museum that we had on our itinerary. I’m sure that some of the building were quite gorgeous in their day. It’s actually quite sad to see what’s become of this gold mining town.

Goldwell Open Air Museum

What an oddity this open air museum is. Large scale pieces of art are scattered around a parcel of land in Goldwell, Nevada. If the art, the store, and the barn in the far distance wasn’t there, you’d assume it had been abandoned as well.

Goldfield, NV and the International Car Forest of the Last Church

The most northern location on our road trip, the International Car Forest is easy to miss. We stopped in the tiny town of Goldfield to ask for directions. Turns out the forest was simply a minute’s drive away, but somewhat hidden from the road. While wandering among all the cars that had been left behind and tagged by graffiti artists, I wondered what exactly has gone on in this place. It seemed a perfect location for middle-of-the-night raves, and is apparently the backdrop for a music video. I also questioned how exactly these cars were placed where they were and if anyone could drop their decrepit vehicle there. Needless to say, it’s an interesting vista for photographers, and it’s another random place, dotting the American landscape, for road trippers to see should they be inclined.

Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Botanical Cactus Garden

I really enjoy getting the behind the scenes look at various businesses. Whether it’s touring a brewery or a guitar factory, they’re often fascinating. Ethel M does things a bit differently with a self-guided viewing lane at their chocolate factory. Large glass windows allow you to peek into the factory at the assembly line, and there are plaques and videos that provide information along the way. While we went through during their suggested hours, the factory was actually very quiet that day. Most of the areas lay empty, save for a few maintenance workers checking out the equipment and some staff filling heart shaped boxes with chocolate. It’s still a neat concept though.

Equally as quiet was their botanical cactus garden, located just outside of the factory and store. It is not a particularly large garden, but they have plenty of variety when it comes to cacti, making for a somewhat educational visit through a colourful, dry desert space.

Pinball Hall of Fame

The Pinball Hall of Fame was one of my favourite places. From the outside, the building doesn’t look all that appealing, but once you enter the dimly lit warehouse space, you’re greeted by several rows of pinball machines that span decades. Far from the look, but don’t touch mentality of most museums, the Pinball Hall of Fame is part history, part arcade. You can read the index cards placed inside most of the machines to learn more about the origins of each, or you can play the games as the majority are still in great working condition. It took a few games to get the hang of the pinball machines, but it was a lot of fun. I was reminded of when I was a child playing arcade games at Fuddruckers back when Edmonton used to have one of those restaurants.

The Strip

As previously mentioned, my friend and I spent very little time on the Strip during this trip. The only reason we were there at all was to see comedienne Kathy Griffin‘s show at the Mirage and Canadian singing sensation, Celine Dion, at Caesars Palace. Otherwise, we likely would have skipped the area all together. However, since we were nearby, we made sure to stop at Sprinkles for our cupcake fix (peanut butter banana is still one of my favourite flavours). We also perused the stores in the Forum Shops at Caesars. Ted Baker had some beautiful pieces that were surprisingly less expensive than expected, but still not within my price range. Lastly, as a fan of the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, I was kind of excited to see some of the actual looks worn by the models being used as window displays. It’d be a dream to work for the VS Fashion Show (and try on a pair of wings). The amount of work that goes into it is insane and, although the clothes are small, the details of each outfit are intricate. It was very cool to see some of the outfits in person.

Unconventional Las Vegas

To celebrate my 30th birthday a week ago, my friend and I flew down to Las Vegas for a long weekend trip. Itinerary in hand, we had no plans to party or gamble over the four days. This being our third holiday in Vegas within a two year period, we didn’t need to go dancing and drinking until the clubs close at 4am. No, this vacation was going to be different and unconventional – relaxing, eye-opening and filled with great food and a bit of shopping.

Here’s the info on where we stayed, what we drove, what we ate and where we went. I’ll try to be as brief as possible and let the photos do most of the talking.

Hotel

Whenever we go to Vegas, we tend to stay at a different hotel. On this occasion, we purchased a flight and hotel package through Expedia that included accommodations at The Mirage. Upon check-in, we were given keys for a non-smoking, two queen bed room on the 15th floor. The room was clean (although the countertop was a bit dusty) and spacious with enough room to lay out our luggage and walk around.

There is a fridge under the counter, but it’s a fully stocked minibar, which I didn’t dare touch because you just never know and my money isn’t going towards overpriced mini bottles of alcohol or bags of candy. I do wish that there was some empty space in the fridge to store some leftovers though. Otherwise, the beds were comfortable and housekeeping never bothered us in the mornings.

Overall, I liked the hotel enough to consider another stay there and I would recommend it to others.

On a side note, I still question why Vegas hotels continue to charge people a daily resort fee. This is especially the case during the colder months when amenities like their pools are often closed for the season. What exactly are we paying for?

Car Rental

For this trip, a car was required for drives to the Grand Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park. We rented through E-Z Rent-A-Car because it was one of the cheaper options. It was easy enough to get to the large rental location because of the shuttle bus from the airport, but the problem with E-Z is that we thought what we paid through Expedia would cover the entire cost. Unfortunately, liability insurance (we thought my friend’s credit card coverage would be enough) still had to be added on top of that, meaning we didn’t really save any money. We’ll probably look at other options next time.

The one good thing is that we were upgraded to a nice sage green (they listed the colour as white) Prius for the weekend, which was really efficient on gas.

Shows

Instead of going to Cirque du Soleil or a concert this time, we decided to change things up by checking out some new shows.

Lipshtick

Our first evening in Vegas, we ventured to the Sands Showroom at the Venetian for Lipshtick. They’ve been running shows under this name for the whole year to showcase female comediennes. The headliner for the night was Whitney Cummings who was hilarious. I’m actually happy to have seen her do live stand-up. She can be crass, but she has great rapport with the audience and she’s quick on her feet with jokes and comebacks.

Whitney Cummings will be back in Vegas for another show in January under the Lipshtick banner. I’m hoping that they continue to add new dates because they’ve also had Iliza Shlesinger in the past and her Netflix shows always make me laugh out loud.

Mat Franco: Magic Reinvented Nightly

America’s Got Talent 2014 winner (I never watched the series), Mat Franco, now has his own residency in Las Vegas at the LINQ. Neither my friend or I had seen a magic show in Vegas (I’m fairly certain I haven’t), so we were game to check it out.

Mat Franco is definitely a showman and he has got his tricks down. I was impressed with his humour and his sleight of hand. Also, I’m one of those people who doesn’t think about how a trick was done. I don’t need to know. I just want to be amazed.

Food

Jean Philippe Patisserie at Aria

For lunch when we arrived in Vegas, we ate savoury Italian crepes at Jean Philippe Patisserie. The two of us had each redeemed myVEGAS vouchers, so we got to eat for free. The crepes were huge with plenty of veggies for the filling and a good portion of prosciutto on top. This was a satisfying meal.

Sage at Aria

Dinner led us back to the Aria hotel where we indulged in the $89 Signature menu at Sage. To start, we ordered the Pearfection cocktail, recommended to us by our wonderful server. Bread (with butter and salt) was provided as well as an amuse bouche.

The Signature menu consists of your choice of four courses. Both of us had the wagyu beef tartar. That dish was fantastic. I could have eaten 10 plates. My friend had the salt roasted beets next. It was a beautiful dish that looked delicious. I had the Maine day boat scallops, which were perfectly seared and tender. The salted caramel reduction was rich and went well with the slightly bitter greens and the earthy mushrooms.

For our mains, my friend had the 48 hour beef belly and I selected the Beecher’s Farm whey fed pork loin. The bite I had of the beef belly was really succulent. The pork loin wasn’t as juicy as I would have liked, but it was tasty and not too heavy.

Knowing that I was celebrating my birthday, our server had told the kitchen about the occasion and my pumpkin clafoutis dessert arrived with a candle in it. That was a nice touch that I didn’t expect.

Tableau at Wynn

Before our excursion to the North Premium Outlets on day 2, we stopped at the Wynn for brunch at Tableau. What a gorgeous restaurant. We were seated near the entrance by a window that looked out into the garden. I didn’t see further back, but I think there’s an atrium space with more tables that would have been lovely.

My friend had a juice and I had a smoothie (vanilla strawberry balsamic) to wake us up. Both were refreshing. The smoothie was interesting because the balsamic made the drink more acidic than it would have been without. Judging from the strawberry that was placed on the rim, if it had just been vanilla with strawberry, it would have been very sweet because the strawberry was the best I’d had in a long time. I would love it if we could get such amazingly flavourful berries at home.

Viewing the menu, we both chose the duck hash & eggs. Our server told us that was one of the most popular dishes, so much so that it has never been removed from the menu even when they make updates. The duck was smoky, the eggs were fluffy, the pastry was decadently buttery and the hollandaise sauce was lighter than normal.

Sprinkles Cupcakes

Prior to our Vegas visit, I joined the Sprinkles Birthday Club and received an email offer that allowed me to redeem for a free cupcake on my celebratory day.

This turned out to be our quick “dinner” before the Mat Franco show. I ended up getting the pumpkin cupcake (seasonal) along with an additional chai latte flavour, which was my favourite when we picked up Sprinkles in San Diego earlier this year.

Sprinkles cupcakes are awesome. However, I will say that two of them eaten back-to-back does cause sugar overload, and I don’t say that often.

BLT Burger at The Mirage

After the magic show and a drink at the Seahorse casino bar at Caesars Palace, we were feeling pretty famished, so we decided to head back to The Mirage for some food at BLT Burger.

This was a great choice. The burgers were stacked high and for a decent price you could add a drink and a side of fries (skinny, curly, fat, waffle or sweet potato). My friend opted for the buffalo chicken burger and I went for the sesame tuna. Everything about mine was scrumptious. What was most surprising was seeing that they stacked two steaks (not extremely thick though) of ahi tuna on top of each other for my sandwich. Our crisp sweet potato fries were also accompanied by some ranch dip. Yum!

The Buffet at Monte Carlo

The reviews for the Monte Carlo buffet were less than stellar, but going in with lower expectations meant that I was pretty pleased with what we got for breakfast.

Eating for free because of another redeemed myVEGAS reward made it all the more worth it.

I had some banana bread french toast, hash potatoes, potatoes au gratin, bacon, chicken apple sausage, fruit and a glass of club soda and I was ready to go.

I would have tried more of the food, but I didn’t have a big appetite that morning. If I had, I would have gone for the roast beef, which some reviewers have said is often dry, yet it looked cooked to a nice medium rare when I walked by.

Maybe we can give this place another go.

In-N-Out Burger

On our way to the Grand Canyon, we paused in Kingman, AZ at the In-N-Out Burger for a snack.

My friend had been wanting to try their burgers for a while, so we thought this was the perfect opportunity. Plus, celebrities always rave about this chain.

Sticking to the regular menu (they also have the not-so-secret one), we both ordered a single patty cheeseburger without onion. I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

When we were waiting for our orders, I saw customers picking up their double-doubles and they looked good. However, when I ate my burger, the patty, while fresh, was thinner than I thought it would be. The meat itself wasn’t that seasoned, so most of the flavour came from their special spread. By far, the best part of the burger was the toasted bun.

Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at MGM

Another day, another deal from myVEGAS. This time, we got a free entree with purchase of another during dinner at the MGM Grand’s Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill.

The restaurant is the bees knees. Our server was friendly and quick to offer his suggestions and favourites off of the menu. We each started with a pineapple mojito to quench our thirst. Those were great. I would absolutely order that drink again.

A basket was also provided with two types of bread. The onion bread is amazing. In fact, we asked for more and our server practically gave us a whole loaf.

We continued our meal with a plate each of the short rib entree and shared sides of roasted cauliflower and brussels sprouts with pancetta.

The amount of food that came with our order was crazy. We ended up packing half of it with us (bread included) for breakfast and snacks the next day.

If you ever go there, and you like meat, I highly recommend that you try the short ribs. The beef is divine and I swear that they gave us twenty ounces of meat per plate. We could have shared one entree with the same sides and it would have been more than enough to feed the two of us.

Sushi Roku

With just a little over an hour before we had to leave for our flight home, we grabbed a quick dinner at Sushi Roku in the Caesars Palace Forum Shops.

Their happy hour is a great deal and I ended up getting a small order of albacore tataki and three maki rolls – spicy tuna, rock shrimp tempura & jalapeno and salmon & avocado – for $29, including tax and tip.

The service is good and the food is prepared fast while the seafood is fresh.

More info about Sushi Roku can be found in my last post about Vegas.

Fun Stuff

North Premium Outlets

Since we happened to be in Vegas the day after Black Friday, I expected to find better discounts and deals at the outlet mall, but they weren’t as great as I thought they would be.

That’s not to say I didn’t find anything. Actually, we did a lot of damage in five hours, and we weren’t even able to get to every store that we had planned to stop at.

One of the reasons for that is the addition of an extra strip to the mall. An associate at the new Marc by Marc Jacobs outlet store said that they had just opened earlier this year. They also now have a Neiman Marcus Last Call Studio, Saks Fifth Avenue OFF Fifth, Dolce & Gabbana and AllSaints among others, so it was a lot to take in.

Grand Canyon National Park

On day 3, we drove the four and a half hours to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park, avoiding the exorbitant entrance fees charged by the Hualapai tribe at the west rim.

Once through the south entrance, we drove along making stops at many of the parking lots. We got out to walk along the rim at each location. The best spot that we went to was the Desert View Watchtower. With the canyon and the Colorado River before our eyes, it was a beautiful sight to behold. The watchtower provided various vantage points to take photos and it is also home to an extremely showy raven.

It was windy and cold that day, but nature is amazing and, if we weren’t freezing and it wasn’t going to be dark so soon, we would have stayed there longer.

On the drive back to Vegas, I noticed that the sky was so dark that all of the stars could be seen. They sparkled so brightly. We ended up taking the exit onto the Kingman Wash Access Road, so we could stop and soak it all in.

Valley of Fire State Park

Rather than revisiting Red Rock Canyon, we decided to go somewhere different during this vacation.

I came across images of Valley of Fire State Park on Instagram about a month before we were set to leave and it looked beautiful.

About an hour away from the Strip, we were able to fit it in on our last day in Vegas.

Although we didn’t quite make it to every feature of the park, we managed to see Atlatl Rock, Arch Rock, Beehives, Rainbow Vista, White Domes and Fire Canyon/Silica Dome within two to three hours. That’s only about half of the sights in the park, not including various hikes that you can do as well. Some Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep also graced us with their presence.

We’re certainly planning to go to Valley of Fire again. But, we’ll be a bit more prepared next time. Here’s a tip: bring hiking boots with excellent grip and high ankle coverage. Much of the park is covered in deep sand, which makes for a difficult walk in basic flats or runners.

This was another whirlwind holiday down south. I like that we’re going off the beaten track to explore more of what Las Vegas and Nevada have to offer, and we’ll continue to do so on subsequent visits.

Again, I hope that this information inspires others to expand their horizons whenever they might find themselves there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cibo Bistro

Mezzaluna pasta

Mezzaluna pasta

I think it was still summertime when my friend and I first attempted to visit Cibo Bistro (@cibobistroedm), only to find that they were closed on Mondays. Since we had to postpone our meal there, it took us quite a bit of time to circle back around to the idea. It wasn’t until mid-November when we finally made a point of going to the restaurant again.

Located on 104 Avenue in Oliver Village between Safeway and MacEwan Residences, it’s slightly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of one of downtown Edmonton’s main arteries. I had made a reservation through OpenTable about a week or two in advance, but, as my friend was running late at the office, I called to have our booking pushed back. The hostess that I spoke to said it wasn’t an issue as there weren’t any conflicting reservations within that time frame. The two of us eventually made it there at about 6:15pm, and I was surprised to see, as the server led us to our table, that the place was still empty, save for the semi-private room near the back (although, it was pretty much full by the time we left an hour and a half later). With maybe just over a dozen tables in the space, it’s not large by any means, but still likely seats more than the city’s other lauded Italian restaurant, Corso 32 (read my review). Unlike Corso, however, the dimly lit space of Cibo Bistro looks a little more traditional with earth tones, leather upholstered chairs, cobble-like tiled floors, stone tiled walls and paintings of Italy.

As we perused the menu, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between its layout and the offerings of Corso 32. That means I was apt to do a comparison by sampling a few items, so I could truly see the difference. Both have made The Tomato‘s top 100 list for two years in a row. Corso has been No. 1 each time with Cibo trailing just a few spots behind (No. 6 in 2013 and No. 4 in 2014).

Arancini is one of my friend and I’s favourite Italian dishes. Since we had eaten that at Corso, it was a no-brainer to use that as a starting point for our showdown. That, along with the Salumi, served as our appetizers.

As far as arancini go, they are considered an indulgent antipasti because they can be quite heavy and filling. It’s essentially risotto that has been battered and fried until a crisp outer shell is formed. The filling at Cibo is mixed with roasted cauliflower and Fontina cheese and, once cooked, is generously sprinkled with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think that, even with all the rice and cheese, there was a lightness to these arancini that the ones I ate at Corso didn’t have. The bowl we received had 6 to 7 arancini, which we shared. The breading was perfectly fried whereas Corso’s were a little overdone, making the shell harder to break. The cauliflower added a little more texture to the risotto, so it wasn’t all just mush, and the cheese was nicely melted inside. I also believe that these ones were a lot less salty.

The salumi platter that evening was a steak tartar with shaved truffle served with a side of crostini. This was probably the best dish of the evening, no doubt about it. They say the meats are cured in-house, and the tartar was prepared so well that it literally melted in your mouth. Paired with the shaved truffle, this was a completely decadent starter. I would have gladly eaten that has my main meal. The board came with 6 pieces of crostini and there was enough tartar provided that we weren’t sparingly spreading it on the bread. In fact, I was piling the tartar on thick, so I have to say that this selection was worth it.

For our entrees, we had a harder time deciding. Our server was excellent and, to help, she described, in detail, each of the pasta dishes on the menu, including that evening’s special. We finally made our choices – I ordered the Mezzaluna and my friend chose the Pappardelle.

The food menu.

The food menu.

The Mezzaluna was ravioli stuffed with braised beef that is cooked until tender and then pureed, so it can be stuffed inside fresh, made from scratch pasta. The pasta shells were thin and prepared al dente. The sauce was a burro bianco (white butter) with Balsamico Vecchio (aged balsamic) and Crotonese Calabrese cheese, which was flavourful, but felt delicate. I particularly loved the used of the balsamic as a dressing, something that I hadn’t had in a long time. The sauce and the beef played off one another really well, so much so that I wanted more as soon as I polished off my plate.

The Pappardelle consists of fat ribbons of fresh pasta bathed in tomato sauce and served with braised lamb, mint and Pecorino Romano cheese. I had just one mouthful of the dish and the pasta had just the right amount of bite. The lamb was succulent and the sauce was subtle.

Pappardelle pasta

Pappardelle pasta

Unfortunately, we did not have room for dessert on this occasion. Plus, we were in a bit of a rush to make it to book club, but I will say that after our trip to Las Vegas and our meals at Giada in that city, had I been able to manage some sweets, I would have gone for the Zeppole (Limoncello and Mascarpone doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar). They’re certainly on my list for next time!

In the end, and I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last month, I’m inclined to say that, while Corso was excellent, I honestly think that my meal at Cibo was a tad better. And, I feel like that says a lot. The pair of restaurants has a lot going for them – fantastic food, fresh, housemade dishes, wonderfully knowledgeable staff – yet they’re also hindered (arguably by some) by small spaces that make them seem exclusive when, in fact, they’re not. They’re friendly, intimate atmospheres that are very welcoming, so perhaps it comes down to preference which one you would prefer. Based on my singular visits to Cibo and Corso, I found them both to be great hangouts. They’re equally quiet in terms of ambiance, making it easy to converse with your dining companions, which is a big pro nowadays in a world where dance music seems to be pumping everywhere else.

The semi-private room at the back. A great place for a small group to have fantastic conversation.

The semi-private room at the back. A great place for a small group to have fantastic conversation.

After a few weeks of contemplation, my companion critic for that night and I agreed. Until I have a chance to revisit each, I cannot say with absolute certainty which will come out on top a year or two from now. Only time will tell. One of my friends who had dinner with me at Corso said that our meal there was one of the best she’s ever had. I’d be curious to see her thoughts of Cibo and her comparisons to Corso.

Nonetheless, examining my own experience of the food, which, of course, is the foundation of a stellar restaurant, I believe that Cibo has won my heart and my stomach. That is not to say I won’t be eating at Corso again, because I will, but contrary to what every other review or person has told me, Cibo is going to be my personal number one for now.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment’s involvement in the local community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Cibo Bistro.

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?