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.

California Dreaming: A San Diego to Los Angeles and Back Road Trip

A photo collage of some memorable moments on this Cali trip!

A photo collage of some memorable moments on this Cali trip!

Making a mad dash through the Edmonton International Airport, we caught our first connecting flight to Calgary. Aside from minimal rest we managed on the planes, it was a blur of a morning that started at 4:30am and didn’t stop until four and a half hours later when we boarded the flight that would take us to San Diego. Needless to say, we were a little bit exhausted as we landed in the golden state. But, as soon as we walked out into the bright sunshine, it was like all of our troubles melted away.

I always like to share my adventures with all of you when I get back. It’s my hope that what I experienced will inspire others to visit and explore things they may otherwise have not, or that my writings and pictures will remind people (in a good way) of their own past vacations.

So, without further ado, here’s a day-by-day recap of the trip that my friend and I took at the beginning of February!

Day 1

Arriving in San Diego before noon, and, having no real plans for the day, we took the shuttle from the airport to the Thrifty/Dollar Rent A Car lot by Harbor Island to pick up our rental vehicle for the week. Despite the rep’s best efforts to talk us into spending extra on a convertible, we stuck with our economy car. The uphill challenged Chevy Spark would be our transportation for the next six full days. Once we drove off the lot, we headed to Little Italy where were were staying in the adorably charming Hotel Vyvant. A small boutique hotel, we occupied one of 23 rooms in the two-storey building. Our two bedroom deluxe suite with kitchenette could have accommodated up to six people with the three double beds that were fit inside. The bathroom was also quite spacious. Compared to the rest of the hotel, the room felt like it could have used a little sprucing up, but it was clean, which was the most important thing. They also provided free bottled water and Wi-Fi. Plus, the included kitchenette housed a small refrigerator and microwave as well as a Keurig machine. For one night, it was more than I could have asked for.

Once we freshened up, we needed to fill our starving bellies. Pinpointing a place just a few blocks away, we wandered in the direction we thought we should go, and, while we didn’t find what we were looking for, Underbelly appeared in our midst. Bustling with people during the lunch rush, it beckoned us inside where we ordered at the till and then planted ourselves at the bar. The casual-cool atmosphere with a bar lined by taps was made even better by the food. My friend ordered the vegetable ramen which combined a variety of succulent mushrooms with asparagus and noodles. The flavour, enhanced by truffle oil, was delicious. I sprung for the tuna tataki and the trio tartar. The albacore tuna tataki was seared just right, giving it the perfect texture. Marinating in a ponzu sauce and accompanied by garlic and daikon sprouts, it was a light dish. My starch came from the trio tartar, which were plated as three squares of steamed rice, each individually topped with hamachi, spicy tuna and salmon and drizzled with sesame oil. Out of the three types of fish, my favourite was probably the hamachi. While I usually like spicy tuna, this one had a lot of kick to it – more than expected – so I would have preferred something a little more subtle.

After lunch, we had planned to stop by the cheese shop that we had spotted across the street. We thought we could pick something up for a wine and cheese supper to be had outside on the adorable patio space of our hotel. Alas, the store wasn’t open, so we continued a couple of blocks down to the waterfront where we walked along the boardwalk and took in views of the Maritime Museum, navy ship and tour boats.

Eventually, we headed back to our hotel where we picked up our car and headed to La Jolla as we were told we could find basking sea lions in the cove. As we ambled towards the beach, we came across the fabulous Bobboi Gelato. Sampling a number of unique flavours, I ended up with a piccolo size (small) cup with a pineapple & basil and goat cheese & grape combination. It was wonderfully refreshing. The rocky beach was tranquil and provided a gorgeous vista of the deep blue water. A quick perusal of the shops in the area landed us at Warwick’s, the country’s oldest family-owned and operated bookstore. My favourite find there: whimsical necklaces with kaleidoscope pendants.

On this particular trip, we decided to get most of our shopping out of the way at the beginning. Instead of going to the outlet mall, we actually ventured to Fashion Valley where they had an Anthropologie store. Honestly, with the Canadian dollar having dropped in value recently, we were inclined to buy a lot less, so we really made a point of being more selective.

Our first day was completed with a return to Little Italy where we ended up at the fantastic Prepkitchen for dinner. The steak tartar was amazing and the squid ink cappellini was incredibly rich with a nice cream sauce that was both savoury and ever-so-slightly tart. Their bartender, Simon, was stellar as well. He conversed with the two of us throughout the night and, before we left, he made us a whole list of recommendations for food and drinks in the city.

Day 2

The next morning we awoke early to take advantage of Hotel Vyvant’s provided breakfast before checking out. A lovely spread of Bread & Cie pastries, granola, Greek yogurt, juice and coffee, I was impressed. It was simple, but everything was yummy.

Probably our most relaxing day out of the whole trip, we headed back towards the waterfront where we boarded a 9:30 Flagship Cruises (tickets purchased through Groupon) boat for a three and a half hour whale watching tour with fantastic guides and volunteers from Birch Aquarium. As we departed from the dock and moved past the shoreline, the clear views turned cloudy and we soon found ourselves surrounded by a dense fog. The most memorable image was seeing a solo fisherman in a small open boat being engulfed by the mist. Perseverance paid off though. About an hour before we turned around, the blue sky and sunshine broke through and we observed a small pod of juvenile grey whales diving under and breaching the surface of the water. We even saw a couple of dolphins and some more sea lions.

The triple threat pork sandwich from Carnitas' Snack Shack.

The triple threat pork sandwich from Carnitas’ Snack Shack.

Leaving the water behind (and a few chilly/windy moments), we took advantage of the time we had to stop for lunch in North Park. Carnitas’ Snack Shack was one of the many places Simon the bartender suggested to us, and he didn’t disappoint. Literally a “shack,” we ordered at the window. When we turned the corner to the side of the shack, I was surprised to see the ample amount of outdoor seating. Our triple threat pork sandwiches were truly a threat to our health, but it was a holiday and we didn’t care. Stacked with pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork, bacon, pepperoncini relish and shack aioli, it was piled high. My only qualm is that the pulled pork is placed at the bottom and the sauce caused the bun to fall apart, which made it a bit difficult to consume. In fact, my friend ended up eating hers with a fork and knife.

As soon as we devoured our meals, we got back into the car and drove to the Hyatt Place San Diego/Vista-Carlsbad where we decided to stay the night because of its proximity to the Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido. The hotel staff could have been a bit friendlier, but rooms were good. Extremely spacious and quiet, I would stay there again if I had plans in the vicinity.

The second big event of the day was our 6pm tour of the Stone Brewery. Arriving quite early, we browsed the gift shop and had a pint in the bistro and gardens before being led away by an indoctrination specialist. For $3, we got to learn about the brewing process and then sample four of their brews. The glass used was ours to take home as a souvenir. Sitting on their outdoor patio underneath the stars while we had dinner afterwards was lovely. Sharing duck tacos, brussels sprouts and mac ‘n beer cheese, I felt full to the brim quickly. It was well worth the visit though.

Day 3

Deciding to take the scenic route on the way to Los Angeles, we followed along the I-5 until we were able to get onto the CA-1, which allows us views of the coast. It was double the time, but it was interesting to see all the beach towns and their differences as we passed by each of them. Four hours later, we successfully made it Santa Monica where we had lunch at The Albright on the pier. My buttery lobster roll was awesome. It tasted super fresh and the flavours were pleasantly subtle.

When we were done eating, we strolled the pier, which is actually smaller than I expected, and then we descended the stairs to the beach where we dipped our feet in the water and kept our eyes peeled for sand dollars. The sound of the water and the waves hitting our feet and legs as we continued down a stretch of beach was so relaxing. I could have stayed there for longer, but we wanted to get into L.A. while it was still relatively light out.

Our initial stop was our hotel in Burbank. Tangerine Hotel, an upgraded little motel with free parking, in the studio area was really cute. Staff were so nice, making sure to point out their complementary coffee/drink machine and the fact that they bring in breakfast pastries from Porto’s Bakery & Cafe in the mornings. We quickly freshened up once we were assigned a room and then we jetted off to Hollywood Boulevard, so my friend could see the hand and footprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre as well as the stars on the Walk of Fame. Since that was a quick detour, we ended up back inside Hollywood & Highland Center for dinner at Cho Oishi. The sushi there was good. Although, compared to what we had during the remainder of our trip, it didn’t really compare.

A night view of L.A. from the roof of the Griffith Observatory.

A night view of L.A. from the roof of the Griffith Observatory.

The cap to our evening was a visit to the Griffith Observatory. A stark white building, it shines even in the darkness. Free to enter, we walked around the exhibits and onto the roof for a wide view of the valley below and a dark, shadowy inkling of where the Hollywood sign was located (why don’t they spotlight the iconic sign at night?). Unfortunately, there was quite a long line-up for a look through the telescope. It would have been really cool, but we didn’t feel like waiting, so we skipped it.

Day 4

This was our most relaxing morning. Even though we still woke up relatively early, we didn’t need to be anywhere until 12:30pm, so we caught up on our emails and played with our tablet apps until we had to leave the hotel. Months after obtaining my pass through Conan O’Brien‘s 1iota ticketing site, we were finally going to see a taping of his show. Just a few minutes away by car, we drove to Gate 8 at Warner Bros. Studio where we parked and then lined up in the cordoned off area on the main floor of the parkade. The organizers recently decided to tighten up the whole process by starting check-in later in the day and, while the line was half full by the time we arrived, it was a quick wait. I’d say we were in and out within 15 minutes – going through security, getting our hand stamped, trading our pass for tickets, wristbands and a number, and having our photo taken – before we were allowed to leave for lunch.

Since we only had a couple of hours until we needed to return to Warner Bros. for the show, we decided to venture over to Universal CityWalk where we ended up at Karl Strauss Brewing Company (Make Beer, Not War). Turns out this restaurant is San Diego based, so it’s funny we tried it in L.A., but it was great to soak in the sunshine on their patio. The tree hugger mac and cheese was decently portioned and yummy, and the Windansea Wheat brew on tap was refreshing. If you’re going to spend a short amount of time at CityWalk between the hours of 11am to 3pm on weekdays, do choose to valet park. If you make a purchase and get your ticket validated by that store/restaurant/cinema, your first two hours are only $2. Plus, the valet service offers free drinks, such as bottled water, coffee or hot chocolate, while you wait for you car.

When we returned to the parkade at Warner Bros., the waiting area was packed with excited people. A small portable souvenir stand was open for business, so we took a gander and I couldn’t resist buying a shirt where Conan was depicted as a bird. Soon after, they started calling up numbers in groups of ten and leading each pack towards the stage. I’d say that whole process took about a half an hour, but they did have a giant basket of mini chocolate bars to hand out to people as all of us entered the set. Once we were all seated, a guy came to warm up the crowd and explain the whole filming process and what was expected of us. Then, right at 4:30, the whole production started and didn’t stop until an hour later. It was so much fun. Guests Jeff Bridges, Lily Collins and Slash with Myles Kennedy were great. The biggest surprise to me was what Jeff Bridges is like in person. He was incredibly laid back; he even led us in an “omming” session where he conducted Conan, Andy Richter, the band and the audience to meditate together. Being that this was my first experience of a taping, I’m sure this is something I’ll never forget. I’d love to go back to L.A. to see someone else’s show, like Jimmy Kimmel Live, or attend a taping of a sitcom.

To finish off our L.A. adventure, we thought we should check out The Grove where the pretty people hang out. Dinner was had at Umami Burger where sides must be ordered separately. The truffle burger was so juicy and flavourful though, and the ketchup with truffle oil was a stellar dip for our cinnamon dusted sweet potato fries. Those calories were minimally worked off with a quick walk around the Farmers Market, and then quickly gained back and then some with dessert from the Sprinkles Cupcakes window. I’d like to thank the lady in line behind us who kept asking her daughter what the phrase of the day was because I then found it on Twitter for all of us to use and, when spoken to the employee, we each received a free cupcake! I opted for two flavours, one lemon and one banana.

With a detour to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills where we just did a quick pass through (all the stores were closed for the evening), we then made our way back to our hotel where we crawled in bed with cups of Stone Brewing Co. beer and watched the episode of Conan O’Brien that we were at (trying to spot ourselves in the split second shots of the crowd). Seeing it on TV was great. Being in the studio during the live taping was one thing, but getting to view the final product was neat, too. Very little was edited out, if anything at all, but the close-up shots of Conan and Andy that we didn’t catch on set had me cracking up in the confines of our room. That’s the magic of film for you!

Day 5

The following day we turned our car south and headed back to San Diego via the I-5. On the way, we sang along to top 40 hits and oldies on the radio and kept an eye out for different state license plates.

Our one stop was in El Cajon for the tour of the Taylor Guitars factory. Highly automated compared to other luthiers, they’ve found ways to make guitars that are consistent in quality and sound while maintaining beautiful craftsmanship. I wouldn’t have known about the free tour, which is offered every weekday at 1pm, if I hadn’t found the suggestion listed on the back of the fantastic San Diego explore series map from AMA. It turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the trip. The information shared by the guide was interesting, and getting to peek at each step of the manufacturing process was cool. All visitors were also invited to test out the guitars hanging in the showroom, so there were a bunch of musicians each sitting on their own stool strumming and singing away.

Knowing we’d need dessert later in the evening, we thought one last Sprinkles Cupcakes run was in order. There was a shop in La Jolla, so we popped in to pick up a couple of cupcakes each. This time I chose the chai latte and the pumpkin flavours. Alas, there was no phrase of the day!

Then we headed to Inn at the Park where the check-in was lightning quick. The only thing that was disappointing was that the price of the stay didn’t include free Wi-Fi; we had to pay extra for that on a daily basis. The only good thing is that the cost of use included two devices, so both my friend and I were able to use the internet. Our two bedroom suite was pretty and super spacious, and, if we were going to be there for an extended stay, the full kitchen would have come in really handy.

When we were home planning this trip, I made an effort to search for a list of the city’s best restaurants and came across San Diego Magazine‘s 2014 compilation. Since the two of us love sushi so much, I wanted to see if we could make it to Azuki, which was the critic’s pick for best sushi. Luckily the restaurant was only a couple of minutes away by car from our home base. Upon entering, I noticed and loved that in the main dining room they were playing Jiro Dreams of Sushi on a wall screen. How appropriate. Although we didn’t have a reservation, they managed to seat us at a table in their cozy enclosed patio space. We even made it in time to order the albacore tuna tataki off of the happy hour menu. The fish was so fresh, and the dish wasn’t overly adorned, which was good because it allowed the fish to be the star. After some deliberation over my main meal, I selected the By the Border and Spicy Scallop rolls. Oh man! It was as if the entire thing, rice included, just melted away in your mouth. As I was eating those, my friend was enjoying the salmon special, which includes five different types of salmon sushi. She liked it so much that I was convinced I needed an order of my own. In all seriousness, this was probably the best sushi I’ve ever had. It was also our most extravagantly priced meal of the trip – four dishes each and a cocktail and I paid about $75 CDN – but it was well worth it. I have absolutely no regrets. It’s on my wishlist to go there again.

The poster for Aziz Ansari: Live! We were close, but not close enough to the stage to get decent photos of him pretending to do stand up using our phone cameras...so, here's the poster, which I obtained from his website. Aziz, please don't hate me.

The poster for Aziz Ansari: Live! We were close, but not close enough to the stage to get decent photos of him pretending to do stand up using our phone cameras…so, here’s the poster, which I obtained from his website. Aziz, please don’t hate me.

The evening’s entertainment led us to Valley View Casino Center (truly one of the dumpiest arenas I’ve been to) to see Aziz Ansari: Live! I guess a special recording of his performance in New York City’s Madison Square Garden is being released on Netflix next month, but I’m glad that I went to the actual show. It was hilarious and everything Aziz brought up – mostly dating and relationships – had that ring of truth to it. One of his biggest jokes still makes me smile every time I think about it. We were even treated to an unexpected, yet very welcome additional set by opener Ron Funches who I knew of from the show Undateable. He has, literally, the most adorable man giggle.

A damp cold and heavy fog thwarted our plan to find a drinking hole with a good view after the show. Instead, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.

Day 6

Honestly, I’m not sure why I didn’t heed the warnings from reviewers who had stayed at Inn at the Park. As great as the actual accommodations are, the hotel is now part of Wyndham’s timeshare program, so they usually try to talk all short-term guests into attending a presentation. They sucker you into it with the promise of incentives. Since we love free things, they succeeded in getting us to sign up. Our session was only supposed to be 90 minutes and we were supposed to be shuttled back to the hotel by 10:30am, but, despite our constant reminders to the sales representative and his manager, and the fact that we were given a “faster” presentation, we didn’t get out of there until 11am. We actually missed a walking tour that we had already purchased tickets for, so we were a bit livid when we left in an Uber car that they had to pay for to get us back to the Inn because their shuttle driver was nowhere nearby.

The only plus side to that situation was that we did receive a $100 AMEX gift card and two San Diego Zoo passes for putting up with them. Those incentives essentially covered any costs associated with the last day of our trip. I also convinced the manager at the hotel to reimburse us the money we spent on the walking tour (since it was the fault of the presenters that we didn’t make it back in time), so, at the very least, I didn’t lose out monetarily.

A statue across from The Prado at Balboa Park.

A statue across from The Prado at Balboa Park.

With that behind us, we drove to Balboa Park where we had a speedy lunch in the lounge of The Prado. We had heard that the restaurant was beautiful, and, while the smoked salmon flatbread was great, the lounge felt a little chaotic. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday, so it was extremely busy and we didn’t have the time to wait for a table in the main dining room or for the patio. All things considered, the couple that we did share one of the raised tables with were visiting California for their anniversary, and they were lovely to talk to. That was one of my favourite things about this trip: the friendly nature of the people we were lucky to come into contact with.

No first trip to San Diego is complete without a visit to the zoo. Countless people told us that it requires at least a full day, maybe even two, to get through the entirety of the habitats. However, the website, which we checked the evening prior, suggested a minimum of three to four hours to take in the 100 acre zone and its 3,700 animals. That’s basically all the time we had, so we pulled up the map and made a plan to ensure that we wouldn’t miss the animals that we really wanted to see. Starting on the east side of the zoo, we worked our way through by following the various paths. Being a weekend afternoon, the zoo was packed with families, making it a bit harder to maneuver around certain exhibits, but we managed to check off everything on our list of must sees and then some. My top picks were the out-like-a-light koala bears and the happy looking giant pandas. They’re just so darn cute.

With daylight still on the horizon, we made a quick stop at the Botanical Building since it is a famous San Diego sight. The structure is visibly in need of repair, but it is beautiful and the accompanying pond provides a tranquil spot even when surrounded by the buzz of other tourists. Too bad the interior was closed for tours by the time we got there, otherwise it would have been nice to see as well.

A friend of ours suggested that we go to Sushi Ota to eat at some point on our trip, so that’s what we did for dinner. I didn’t realize until now that this restaurant was selected as the readers’ choice for best sushi in that same San Diego Magazine article mentioned earlier. We lucked out that a large party had a few no-shows, so, without a booking, the hostess managed to accommodate us (only for a little over an hour until the next reservation arrived). Another great restaurant where the fish tasted freshly caught, I felt spoiled with amazing food this holiday.

Before going back to our hotel, we made an attempt to stop for drinks at C Level on Harbor Island. One of the great Birch Aquarium volunteers from the whale watching tour earlier in the week recommended it because the views of the water and San Diego skyline are so pretty. The wait for an actual table was over an hour long, so we looked into the bar area, but everyone was packed in like sardines, so we gave up on that idea. Instead, we returned to our hotel, popping into the 7-11 across the street first to pick up a couple of beers. We grabbed glasses from our room and our last cupcakes, taking them to the rooftop patio where we chatted away and made friends with two couples from northern Los Angeles who had offered us amazingly good home smoked cheddar cheese.

The view of the San Diego skyline at night from Harbor Island.

The view of the San Diego skyline at night from Harbor Island.

As usual, we fit in a lot of things on this trip, but it never really felt like we were overdoing it. And, we understood that we could spend more time somewhere if we felt like it was worth it.

On a quick note, Californian architecture blows me away, too. Many of the buildings are somewhat understated, but they’re also very distinct. They’re just simply stylish, and I think the look fits in with the state’s culture and its inhabitants.

For a couple of people who assumed all there would be to do in San Diego was the zoo and Sea World, we were proven wrong. Between the two cities, San Diego seemed more laid back – traffic was better, the people came across as friendlier and it didn’t feel as hyped up – and was preferred to Los Angeles, which was fun, but didn’t feel like it required a longer stay (unless it was to see more late night talk show or sitcom tapings). The more Cali residents we spoke to, the more we we realized how much there actually is to occupy your visit. There were a number of museums located in Balboa Park that we didn’t even have a chance to set foot in. We barely broke the surface and I left thinking another trip to San Diego and along the coast must be in my future.

Tips

Watch where you park in California. They do have quite a bit of street parking available, but you should make sure to read the signs. Some are very specific and it would be a shame to get a ticket for parking in a spot that is available every day except Tuesday because of street cleaning.

If you intend to do anything, take into account added time for travel. Traffic is unpredictable.

Should you take the highway and you have more than two people in the car, go for the car pool lane. There’s a chance it’ll still get backed up, but it tends to flow more freely than the others. Just be aware of when you have to exit because it’s not necessarily the easiest to get through to the far right through four or five lanes.

Definitely get a GPS for your car. You’ll be thankful for the direction.

There are a lot of things that you can do in California that are inexpensive (also a lot that’s not). See what’s available and plan accordingly. Don’t overbook things if you’re not sure you can actually make it.

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?