Thursday, August 15

All we did on Wednesday was to take JetBlue to Vegas, and take a shuttle bus from the airport to our hotel/casino, The Bellagio. For one, it was good that we took the shuttle bus than the cab - it would probably have been cheaper in a cab, considering the 4-for-1 ride price, but the bus took us through the strip, which was an excellent way to start a Vegas vacation. For another, the Bellagio was a paradigm shift from our usual motel stays and Tropicana or Circus Circus in Vegas - but this trip was centered around Vegas, so there. Oh - when we landed, at just after midnight, it was 95 degrees in Vegas.

Every casino has a theme that its decorations center upon. For MGM Grand, its the lion habitat, their icon since the start of the >Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer movies back in the silent era. For The Bellagio, its the gardens and the water bodies - gigiantic Lake Bellagio in the front with the water fountains dancing to the tunes every now and then, dozens of swimminmg pools scattered around the hotel area, and the Conservatory - a garden that forces even the gmbling addict to stop and smell the roses. This time we came across a display of a farmer's market (display only, of course), and a ferris wheel of sorts that you could not take a ride on, and 2 baloons - rigged for riding - that would go up and down. Everything happening at a comfortable 70 degrees, when outside the gates its a sweltering 110.

The only reason we have photographs of the casino floor before we had our breakfast is that we took the most direct and comfortable (read: mostly air conditioned) route to go from our room to the buffet in Paris. That took us through the Bellagio Shops - beautifully decorated atriums lined with big brandname fashion labels - across a footbridge crossing over Las Vegas Boulevard (Paris is right across Bellagio) - into Paris, through the impressive Eiffel Tower entrance. The buffet is in the far corner, so we had to make our way through the entire casino - about half a mile of walking indoors. Sadly, I missed taking pictures of the buffet - but would recommend this to be among the very best there is in Vegas. This beats MGM Grand's hands down, is at par with the Alladin's - but now that Alladin has become Planet Hollywood, I am not sure of the repurcussions - and is more diverse, albeit not as extravagant, as the one in the Bellagio. Lunches are always a little limited than the dinners - but they cost half as much.I was won over by the made to order crepes - sweet (raspberry/chocolate/peach/etc) or savory (ham/cheese/seafood), and the piles of jumbo cocktail shrimp. Their winner dish was the Coq au vin - a buttery smooth presentation of what looked like Corninsh game hens. The carving station fare - lamb, salmon, pork - was as expected. Their selection was diverse enough to cover everything from Pâté to Dolmas. The dessert selection had Crème brûlée, naturally, and an assorment of plans, cakes and pastries.

On our way back from the buffet, we chanced on the musical fountains of the Bellagio - from a vantage point high up in the pedestrian bridge. We came back to our rooms around 3:30, and went for a long siesta until about 8 in the evening. By the time we came out again, Vegas had transformed - from an extravagant place of buffets and shops to a party maniac, with neons and marquees every which way you looked. Our target for the evening was to catch the free shows before the Mirage (volcano show) and the Treasure Island (pirates show). The volcano show was a disappointment - what a waste of 15 minutes of waiting and 5 minutes of watching. The show in treasure island is more interesting, and lasts a good 15 minutes, but gets crowded like hell. My opinion - the Bellagio Fountains are still the best there is among the free shows in Las Vegas. While waiting for the pirate show in front of Treasure Island, we did a quick hop inside the Venetian - the roof art in the main lobby never stops to amaze me, just like the textbook Parisian interiors of Paris.

Friday, August 17

After the hectic first look of Vegas the day before, today we got a surprisingly few things done - as each of them took a lot of time. We started off with toast and coffee delivered to our room - Bellagio's room service brings in a table on wheels, complete with silverware and napkins, to the comfort of your rooms. Of course, at some $8 for a place of toast, it is the most expensive toast I have yet ordered. There's a nice coffee place in the marketplace of (now) Planet Hollywood - their Jalopeno bagel really hit the spot. The light breakfast held us over enough for the lunch buffet in the Bellagio to start. As with everywhere, the lunch buffet costs half as much as the dinner buffet, and almost skips the seafood section. Among notable dishes - the grilled gyro meats with mint jelly was excellent - reminded me of the Asterix book where someone craved for wild Aurochs with mint jelly. Unlike Paris's mint jelly, that I had the day before, this one had various peppercorns in it for an excellent flavor and texture. Like our last trip, even this time I felt Bellagio's buffet is sometimes quality for the sake of it - they'll have jumbo prawns when slightly less jumbo tastes just as well. They did have a sushi table - a first in Vegas buffets, from my experience. Their grilled fish selection was also notable - my memory fails on the exact varieties, but they were all very soft, tender and juicy. So much for the buffet. We headed straight for the Mandalay Bay Palace - we had been told that the Shark Reef out there is a great experience for non-gamblers. Fortunately, this came out great in pictures, as seen below. Unfortunately, in real life, this was a very small aquarium - smaller than the Mystic Aquarium, where we had been last winter. Marginally bigger than the one in Niagara, I would say. And with a $20 or so admission per person, I would rather wait to go to any of the Sea World locations - the one in Singapore deserve an entire day to roam about. Still, it was about an hour or so well spent - and out of the 110 degree heat outdoors. We found the artificial beach in the Mandalay Bay pool area - complete with waves - rather interesting, and the interior looks rather palacial. This is far out in one corner of the Strip, which is why I had never ventured out here before.

We ended the day with the showing of Ka at MGM Grand. This was a fitting end to the entire trip - nothing in Vegas has the power to surprise you more than any of the Cirque Du Soleil shows, in our collective opinion. We had seen the O at the Bellagio the last time we were here, but nevertheless found Ka just as surprising as our first Cirque experience. Unfortunately, all I could take pictures of was the stage, before the denizens of the dark came and threatened to seize my camera. Stages in Vegas are tremendously more elaborate than those found in the travelling Cirque shows - say, in Madison Square (we have tickets to Wintuk already!). What was a stage became a vertical wall, then started spinning around, then swayed in every which way. The mechanical challenges are mind boggling, not to mention the seemingly impossible feats the acrobats perform on top.

Saturday, August 18

Haven't heard of anyone doing the Grand Canyon as a day trip from Vegas. We were thinking about the possibilities - since Bellagio wanted us checked out by morning, and our flight was at midnight. Surprisingly, with all the 5-star benefits of the Bellagio, they are cheapskates when it comes to Internet conenctions - there's no wireless (even the cheap motel we stayed in Niagara had free wireless), they wanted $15 for a cable connection to the ethernet jack, then wanted $15 for 24 hours of internet use. That seemed pretty ridiculous. Oh - this is probably a good place to point out - all their room items have sensors in them, so if you move them about, the charge keeps spinning up - just like the rolling jackpot numbers in the casino downstairs. Also, they had a convenient room checkout process through the TV, but that wanted us to pay $80 in laundry services which we never used.

Anyway - given the lost conenction to the Internet, and the limited information we could gather from the concierge desk, we figured Zion was about 3 hours away, while the Grand Canyon was about 5.5, so it made more sense to try to get to the Grand Canyon. We had picked up the car on our way back from Ka at the MGM - we were packed and checked out by 4, and after a quick visit to the ATM (the rental GPS from Avis was a very good use of $10), hit the road by 4:30. Speed limits in Arizona are not quite the same as those in New York or - shudder - New Jersey, and we managed to pull into Cafe Tusayan by 9, and were standing at the Mather Pointviewpoint by 10. Not bad at all. Oh - word of note - if you need to use a GPS to get to the Grand Canyon (which, being large and a canyon and all, does not really have a street address), use the address of the Best Western in Williams - [ 2600 W Route 66, Williams, AZ ] - this will put you on 64, and all you have to do is follow 64/180 north to the park entrance. Given our extremely compressed timeline, we did a quick hop to Yavapai, parked, and got on the bus, which was a nice way for my in laws to see the park without having to move much. The bus took us to Hermit's Rest connection, where we had to wait for 3 busloads in what seemed like 200 degree weather before we got seats in the front car of the 2-car buses that take you to Hermit's Rest. This route - unlike the one from Yavapai to here - is only possible by bus, or by special permit, which is why the red line buses here are a lot more crowded. Also, the trailer jumps about a lot, so its probably worth the wait to get on to the first car. The ride here is spectacular - the bus (and the road, that is) goes right along the canyon edge, and every now and then the huge canyon opens up before you. The ride to Hermit's Rest took about 45 minutes. We got down, strolled around a bit, tried to pump out as much water as we could out of a quirky water fountain that needed you to press the button down for 5 seconds, shopped a little at the Hermit's Rest gift shop, and was on our way back. Without the time for a sit-down lunch, we did a quick takeout off a Wendy's next to Cafe Tusayan, and hit the road back around 2:30.

Back in Vegas by 6:30, we spent about an hour at the Bonanza Gift Shop - the largest gift shop in the world, as per its self proclaimation, and the best we have found to shop for trinklets and Vegas memorabilia. This took about an hour, which made it 8pm, and we were late for dinner. P F Chang's on Paradise Boulevard, our target destination, had a 45 minute wait time for 4 people - so it was a no brainer that we headed for the rental car return. This is the trickiest part of a Vegas vacation - getting to the rental car return is way more complicated than driving all the way to Grand Canyon and back. Good that we had the GPS. We grabbed what we could at a sports bar and sandwich place at the airport, and was back in New York in a few hours time. Since we had used the off-airport parking services of AviStar, it was a breeze taking a shuttle back to the parking lot, where our car was ready and waiting, and then drive back home.