The End of the Beginning Part 1 (a.k.a. VEGAS BABY!)

(104 […103? 105?] days in – we almost completely lost October 17th due to crossing the international date line, so I’m no longer sure how to work this out.)

As readers will know, the last post covered up until Vegas, even though it was written after we had left the city. And this time I will be writing about Las Vegas, even though I write from the Pacific islands of Fiji. I would also like to thank you all for putting up for my artistic foray into writing a conversation piece last time – hope you enjoyed it!

ONWARDS!

Sin City on the Approach
I have always wanted to go to Las Vegas. For as long as I’ve been old enough to drink and gamble, I have wanted to do it in that glorious neon city in the middle of the desert. I can say that I had hoped to have a millionaire’s budget by the time I finally got around to visiting the city, but what else is Vegas for if not hitting it big and leaving with those millions instead. I was excited from the very minute I woke up in Zion National Park, eager to get going and Megan knew it – we brewed a cup of tea for the road and headed out. The image of first seeing the city from the freeway is one that will stay with me, and while I’ll admit that it wasn’t quite like those views from any of the national parks, it was still a sight to see – the towering hotels planted in the middle of a desert, flanked by mountains on all sides.

Bearing in mind that we’d been in the US for two and a half months by this point and had only stayed in motels at best, I was also excited to stay in the Stratosphere Hotel Resort & Casino. Check-in for our room wasn’t until 3pm and we were scheduled to arrive at about 1 but I was sure that, if nothing else, the hotel would hold our bags as we explored its halls. Now I find I have to mention that the grand arrival into Las Vegas and that humongous hotel was spoiled a little – our van was 6 foot, 11.9 inches tall and the height restriction for the carpark was 6’7”. 7 is smaller than 11.9 (as any mathematician or engineer will tell you) so we couldn’t get in. This led to a few minutes driving aimlessly around the back of the building trying to see if there were any other entrances to the parking lot. Eventually we found a small lot next to the casino entrance used for deliveries, parked up and headed inside, hoping to find someone to ask about oversize parking. Having located the check-in desk we were informed that the normal oversize lot was being used for an event so we had to find ‘Lot M’ – an empty, dodgy-looking lot a block from the hotel. We had no choice but to leave Manone there to fend for itself (M: it would be just our luck to get the van nicked days before needing to return it).

We were on floor 20. I had made the reservation myself (shocking, I know) (M: I triple checked it following the ‘Fiji debacle’) and as the ‘mountain view’ rooms were no more expensive than the normal rooms, that is what I chose. Now, as anyone who knows Vegas will tell you (and as I now know), the city has mountains on all sides, and as the hotel rooms are only on floors 5 and up, I’m still not sure what distinguishes a ‘mountain view’ room from any other. But nonetheless, I was finally in my hotel room, in Vegas, on our grand adventure. Immediately I had at every drawer and cupboard, searching for any room conveniences I could – no nook was safe. I didn’t happen to find a lot (I’m not sure what I was expecting) but I found the one holy grail item of my desires – the room service menu, its printed letter holding the key to herculean acts of laziness. At this point I looked up with glee on my face, only to meet Megan’s eyes of supervision (and at least a little judgement). Like a child caught with a hand in the cookie jar, I slowed put the menu down and backed away. “What should we do, dear?” – I yet again hoped that the question would placate her. (M: he’s starting to sound a little terrified of me… I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing at three and a half months in and four months to go. Is there such thing as reverse Stockholm Syndrome? We’ll see how it goes.)

Quite some months earlier I had obviously made my colleagues aware that I was to leave the office in search of some kind of meaning in the other half of the world. (M: to clarify, I’m reasonably sure he means looking for meaning in his own life while travelling, not ‘what’s the point in this side of the world?’ – I could be wrong though.) Aside from the usual feelings of jealousy and betrayal (and maybe relief in some of their cases), one of them suddenly sprung forth with almost an entire itinerary for most of the United States. Mr Cook had found himself at some point working in Sin City and came at me relentlessly with suggestion after suggestion of how we should spend our time. I’ll come to another of his brain nuggets shortly but first and foremost he suggested an app that allows you to play fake casino slots on your phone for fake money and then use the ‘loyalty tokens’ for real-life perks once in the city. I had been keeping an eye on this app for a few weeks prior to our arrival in the city, trying to work out exactly what we should be using it for. But the first thing that was suggested by my self-proclaimed ‘worldwide concierge’ was the monorail pass. It allowed us to get a 3 day pass for two people for the price of just one, and as we’ve said previously on this trip ‘every little helps’ (Tesco would be proud). We were on our way!

After a brief miscalculation of our directions (not naming names but I, for one, definitely wanted to see the front of that restaurant barring our path) we were at the monorail station, tickets in hand, waiting. (M: Pete has the false confidence stereotypically bestowed on him as a result of his gender that he can glance at a map – if I’m lucky – and know where he needs to go. He rarely gets this correct.) Our plan was simple: get the monorail to the other end of the strip and gamble explore our way back to the hotel. Most of the main hotels there have their own stop, so we could duck into one once we were done and get the train the rest of the way. The stop we arrived at was for the one and only MGM Grand. Megan wanted to show me the live lions they had when she had last come to the city, but unsurprisingly (and quite right too) they had removed this live exhibit some time earlier facing a number of different health and safety and animal cruelty accusations. But no bother – as we weren’t really in the city to see these caged kings of the savannah – and we headed outside, across the overpass and into New York New York (which I’ll refer to from now on as NYNY). Here I walked into exactly what I expected from a Vegas Casino; a huge open floor of spinning, shining, singing machines, a bar at their centre, screens and ATMs on every wall and an alarming array of eateries planted in whatever corner they could find. With that cheek-splitting grin plastered across my face we descended the escalator into the very cause of Megan’s anxiety (M: Pete blowing the budget trying to work out how slot machines operate).

The first machine I had the courage to sit down at was Game of Thrones themed (surprising, I know). It had taken me a few minutes of childish panic to decide what I actually wanted to do but swiftly deposited 3 dollars into the 5 foot screen of cycling GoT houses. What I learnt from the machine was that you can in fact buy happiness in Vegas, but it is not cheap. One win had me hooked and I promptly lost the original 3 dollars and the 2 additional I had accumulated. We (M: I) thought that that was probably a swift enough entrance to the world of registered addiction and made our way to the next casino over, Excalibur. We also procured two large frozen daiquiris en-route for the simple act that we could, and that the lady had asked us ever so nicely.

Excalibur, as its name suggests, is a ‘King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table’ affair and is built in the shape of a huge red and blue castle with towers and an almost-drawbridge. We would find ourselves back in here another time later but for now we simply explored. Megan was keen to curtail frivolous spending – as much as we were underbudget at this stage, one does not gain that status by throwing handfuls of notes at whirling machines. What we also discovered, to my minor disappointment, was that the machines and games were the same in the different resorts. I had expected a slightly more zealous grasp on their individual themes, but I suppose you can only expect a certain amount of gambling machines to be made in the first place.

From Excalibur we took an underground moving walkway across to Luxor. This one is built in the shape of an ancient pyramid (M: or a modern one, pyramid’s a pyramid) and it was plain to see the theme they were going for (Egyptian, if you needed help) (M: ha, now, you see, this is where he should have used ‘ancient’). From the hall floor you can see straight up the middle of the pyramid with the hotel rooms lining the walls – it must be hell to actually stay in those rooms as you would surely hear the constant peel of the ‘one more spin’ mentality below.

Luxor is pretty much right at the other end of the strip compared to where we were staying so at this point we decided to slowly meander our way back. And this is where we fell into the trap that the gambling overlords had so carefully put in place: we got slightly lost. It was easy to find our way out of the pyramid as its hall so conveniently connect back to Excalibur, but the walkway between Excalibur and NYNY was closed for work so we had to find our way outside (M: Dun dun duuuuh). And once we did that, we had to find our way around the building onto the footbridge that took us across the main road. This was harder than it should be (we might also have been 2 daiquiris down each at this point) but we were desperate to see some more on our first night in the city. So, after a little persistence we were finally standing on the main Las Vegas strip, our main goal being to at least see the Bellagio fountains on our way back. I also had a side objective of walking into every establishment I could find but (thankfully, looking back on it) Megan’s guiding hand was ever present. We wandered on over to the famous setting, waiting eagerly alongside maybe a hundred other people for the display that happens every 15 minutes (we had sadly turned up just a minute too late for the previous showing). And, like clockwork, a solid quarter of an hour later we were informed over a large PA system that the showing would not go ahead as high winds had hit the area. I had noticed that the city in the middle of a desert had gotten a bit breezy but was more than willing to take a face full of fountain spray to feel like I was in the end of Ocean’s Eleven.

With our water-based hopes dashed, we decided to take a route back to the monorail and head home. This took us through the Paris and Bally’s Casinos (what a shame). Our average speed dropped as we tried out a few more of the ever-present, unrelenting slot machines. We were shortly in for more disappointment as the monorail had been closed for undisclosed reasons (this apparently is what you get when you build a train on one rail above ground – sure you don’t get the wrong types of leaves on the track, but the wind has to be taken into account). The Stratosphere resort we were staying in was actually about a mile south of the strip itself (M: I mean, it’s north of the strip and about three miles from Bally’s, but points for effort), so we didn’t quite feel like walking it. This meant that we fell into another trap of the gambling overlords and stayed in the casino for a while longer, waiting for the train to re-open. An expensive hour later and we tried the monorail station again, only to hear the same automated announcement that it was closed until further notice. Finally giving in we decided just to bite the bullet and walk back – we thought that taxis would have ridiculously overcharged and it appeared the bus wasn’t running the way we needed it to. I was later informed by a Megan, with tears in her eyes, that walking the distance was a bad idea if you were wearing sandals and had already traipsed a good few miles around casinos that day.

Golden Oldies
The next morning we awoke with somewhat of a fire burning the soles of our feet (I was a lot better off than Megan, who had barely recovered at this stage). This meant that for most of the morning we resigned to stay in the room, stare at our wallets and try desperately not to pick up the room service menu again. After a short period of time I was feeling a little claustrophobic so decided to leave Megan in the room as I explored the casino floor some more. As I’m sure all of you are already guessing, this was probably not a smart move and about an hour later I returned to the room, with coffee, lunch and a sullen look of disappointment.

It was at this point that we remembered we had left our third comrade by itself in the mysterious ‘Lot M’. Rallying ourselves we headed down, hoping at least that the tires and windows were intact. We shortly found that they were, to our relief, but we had to observe this from about 30 feet away as no one had reopened the lot that morning. We waited with another couple who had apparently been there for about an hour for a member of security to turn up and let us in but each time we enquired with someone we were simply pointed in another direction and told that ‘someone’s been sent to do it now’. Finally a gentleman let us in and seemed not all that pleased that we had needed his assistance in the first place. We promptly gave Manone a once over and headed directly across the street to Denny’s for lunch. We had found that the actual oversize parking provided by the resort was almost identical in look and feel to Lot M but simply across the road from the front door instead of a block down. At least we could now keep a watchful eye on him as our room would overlook that chunk of tarmac.

It was then time for us to take in the other attraction offered by the Stratosphere and we shot up over 100 floors to the viewing deck at the top. Here there are three theme park rides that dangle you over the edge, presumably so you can catch a glimpse of your own fleeting mortality. I would have been more than up for any of these had the prices had not been extortionate. We had a discount for entry to the viewing deck as we were staying in the hotel and I had wrongly assumed that we would also have special treatment for these thrill-seeking experiences. But either way, we took in the sight of the surrounding mountains and all we could of the Sin City Strip (due to recent development part of it is now hidden from view by a new unnamed hotel). But as the entry covered a full day we concluded that we would come back up once the sun had set so we could catch of the glittering city from a wholly different perspective.

All too soon it was dinner time and, on another recommendation from Mr Cook, we had a reservation at the Bootlegger Bistro for a celebrity open mic night. What I had not realised as I made the booking was where this restaurant was – it happened to be not only at the other end of the strip but also another mile further out of town. Either way, it was an excuse for us to sample another form of public transport and we took the bus all the way out (which Megan was obviously thrilled at).

Walking into the venue we quite quickly found that we were the youngest in there by about 20 years. This is not to say that we didn’t enjoy it as the food served in the family-run Italian restaurant was absolutely incredible. The serving portion was large even by US standards and Megan had to ask for a box to take the majority of hers back. Also, the singers (although unrecognisable to us) were fantastic, all of whom either had a show coming up or currently running in some venue or another on the Strip (it has inspired me to listen to more Frank Sinatra, they definitely knew their audience).

It was then time for us to head back to the Strat’ and to the top of the tower once again. We took in the sight of this manmade marvel of a city (as well as the wind, which was even stronger up near the clouds), took a few selfies and wandered some more of the gambling hall. By this stage we had a favourite slot machine, ‘Wonka’, which as you can guess is based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original film). Its pastel colours and cheery outlook lured us in and took yet more of our money (I did say that I shouldn’t have been left unsupervised earlier that day). Then we were off to bed, dreaming all the time of Grandpa Joe and that golden ticket.

The Curse of Minimum Bet
The next day brought our final one in the city. I was trying to decide whether to try out another shooting experience as it would be pretty much my last chance before we left, but resigned myself to the fact that I had spent enough money in the slot machines and didn’t need to spend more firing live ammunition. This meant that we had another lazy morning, strutting around our room or the casino floor of the Strat’. When we arrived in the city Megan had informed me that two of her workmates had managed to get themselves invited to a conference being held in Las Vegas that same week, which meant that we had plans to meet up with them for dinner and drinks that night at Dick’s Last Resort in Excalibur (thank you again Mr Cook).

Late afternoon hit and we decided that we should start slowly heading in the direction of Excalibur as I wanted to look inside Caesar’s Palace and Bellagio on the way – two of the best known hotels on the Strip made famous by The Hangover and Ocean’s Eleven (among other films). We did at least tour the inside of Caesar’s Palace with all its grandeur, but having left maybe a little bit too early we were reluctant to start gambling should we lose the rest of our budget before we even had dinner. So we settled for a Starbucks and caught up with whatever social media had for us.

Then it was onto the Bellagio, which I can say now is by far my favourite of the resorts on the strip – not just because it is a 5 star rated resort. Not just because it felt so classy and cool to be there. Not even because it had our favourite ‘Wonka’ machine right by the ATMs. But because we put in $25, sat for about an hour and a half, were served free drinks by the (very attentive) cocktail waitress and made it out of there with $205. We were up! We had begun making profit! And in the most expensive place on the Strip (it’s not like $180 was going to break their bank). Giddy with excitement we had lost track of the time and suddenly found ourselves needing to be in two places at once, as we printed our winning slip, converted it into cash and headed out to Excalibur (which was MUCH further away than we thought).

Once within the castle walls we met up with the first of Megan’s colleagues and had a swell time in DLR (Dick’s Last Resort, not the driverless train system in London – no one has a swell time on that) (M: unless you’re sitting at the front and pretending to drive, of course). We found that DLR had a special method of service – ‘with sarcasm’ as they like to say – where the staff have no proclivities against brash attitudes, name calling and insults all in the name of getting you good food and drink fast. We were quickly labelled as ‘easy hookers’ as we knew what we wanted to order as soon as she came over (we were very British at this stage and had rehearsed the order for fear of ridicule) but were also quickly fashioned makeshift hats each with their own lovely and endearing sentiment on.
We were presently joined by the fourth of the night’s party and headed on over to Luxor (the hotel where No. 4 was staying), settled at a regular bar and had a good old catch up. I had mentioned that I wanted to play on one of the many table games but most of what I had seen had been slightly too obscure or just too pricey. Now, after a few drinks and with another to share my guarded enthusiasm, we sat down at an empty table marked blackjack – a simple game and one that my mother had taught me with the use of pennies as betting currency. This table was slightly pricier than that at £10 per hand as a minimum. (M: I felt like this was a bold choice as despite having an allowed ‘cheat sheet’ for blackjack, one of my ex-colleagues – ‘No. 3’, I guess we’re calling him – had earlier admitted to getting his ‘H’ and ‘S’ notation mixed up. This resulted in him holding when he should have been hitting and asking for more cards when he should have been sticking, much to the bafflement of the croupier.)

I have to explain that up until this point, our $180 win at Bellagio had not only put us in profit for that day but actually in profit overall for the previous days, something that we did not expect at all this visit. I therefore have to apologise to Megan and all who had a hand in raising me and explain that we were not in profit after I left that table. I won some, I lost some, I lost more and then I had lost the $60 I had in my pocket (M: in the space of five minutes, if that). Megan, quite rightly, disallowed me access to the cash she had within her purse knowing that we had already lost the valiant shine of the profitable accolade.

Seeing as Megan’s colleagues had to get up early for the conference and we did need to check out at some point the following day, we said our goodbyes and headed back to our respective hotel rooms. Waking with dark clouds behind the eyes the following morning, we slowly meandered our way our of the hotel room, checked out and left (after spending some more time with Willy Wonka, Grandpa Joe and Starbucks).

Next time on Pete and Meg Travel the States: The City of Angels, Los Angeles. Venice Beach, Warner Bros Studios, an elusive housemate and a cat.

Thanks for reading!

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