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.

Las Vegas: A Not So Sinful Sin City Trip

On the Las Vegas Strip - Paris and Planet Hollywood

On the Las Vegas Strip – Paris and Planet Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

Day #1

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

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

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

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

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

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Day #2

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

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

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

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

Britney Spears during "Work Bitch"

Britney Spears during “Work Bitch”

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

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

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Day #3

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

A canoe art piece outside ARIA.

A canoe art piece outside ARIA.

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

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

The Bellagio fountains

The Bellagio fountains

Ducks watching the fountains at the Bellagio with us.

Ducks watching the fountains at the Bellagio with us.

Day #4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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