Viva Las Vegas

 

First Impressions of Vegas:

 

After catching the 4 ½ hour night flight from Toronto, as the plane touched down in Las Vegas I was amazed at the fact that I could see some of the buildings, such as the Luxor, complete with sphinx and pyramid, from my aeroplane window. Last time I was in Las Vegas none of this existed. It was 1981 and Fremont Street was the hip-hop-happening place. Now that area is called Downtown (The Fremont Experience) and people go there for nostalgia.

Given the choice of a shuttle for $7 per person, or a taxi, we chose the latter because we were so tired and which, with tips, cost $20. Arriving at the hotel 11.30pm local time, but three hours later on our watches, indicates why we felt a certain amount of exhaustion.

The first thing I noticed when we entered Planet Hollywood, was the really loud music, the type of which I do not like. Doof-doof rap – ugh! Anyone who knows me knows I am a strictly middle-of-the-road girl, with a few rock’n’roll exceptions. I prefer elevator music to that, but wait, it was playing in the lift as well. And I was tired, adding to the fun. To get free internet, you had to go down to Starbuck’s on the Casino floor. Otherwise, it would be $14.99 per day.

Two great big queen sized beds were in the room, and as we desperately needed a thoroughly good night’s sleep, we took one each to spread out. Before we went to bed though, we had to look out the window and admire the view of the Bellagio fountains, which put on a splendid show, although having just been to Niagara in a hotel room overlooking the Falls, the magic of this view was slightly tainted. I think sometimes you can do too much and then not truly appreciate what you are seeing.

What I did adore though, was the view of the Paris hot-air balloon, and looking to the right of our window, something I have always aspired to; a hotel overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Imagine the astronomical prices in the real Paris to garner a scene such as this! That made my day, particularly as I wasn’t expecting it. The beautiful big oval tub in the classy bathroom was great too.

 

 

     

 

 

The Rat Pack is Back:

 

There are various places in Las Vegas where you can buy discounted tickets for shows, similar to New York and London. Why pay full price if you don’t have to? Because Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. were famous as the ultimate entertainment in early Las Vegas, we chose The Rat Pack is Back at the Crown Theatre in the establishment called Rio. These guys were fabulous, and they had the voices, the mannerisms and the looks. Photographers were ready after the show to take more of our money, which we did willingly in this case.

Needless to say, it’s hot in the desert, so I decided to try out the swimming pool. Unfortunately, the DJ had a penchant for music that I don’t like. Give me the Rat Pack above the Crap Rap any day. He did take requests, so he played some Lady Gaga for me. I had chosen something modern because I doubt he would have had other types I like. If you wanted the day beds with cushions it cost $65 for the day, and a cabana was about $300! Oh well, this was Las Vegas at the fancy end of The Strip.

  

 

Lashing out:

 

I spent an afternoon at the day spa, but not at Planet Hollywood, where an eyebrow wax would have cost $35! I took the bus down to a salon so I could have my eyelash extensions re-done, and various waxing treatments plus some reflexology as my feet and Achilles were rather sore. I felt a million dollars when I left, ready for the upcoming cruise.

A sad note to this is that the eyelashes did not last as they should, but I had no recourse once I was in Hawaii. Disappointing but it’s something over which I have no control. Obviously it is better not to go away for too long then.

As you can see by the photograph, Dutchy has been working out (I wish). Las Vegas, the land where fantasies can come true. Thank you, Mr Photo Man at Fremont Street!

 

 

Cirque du Soleil LOVE:

 

We managed to get tickets for Cirque du Soleil performing at The Mirage. In 1999 we took our daughters to see Cirque du Soleil Saltimbanco, so it was a long time between visits. This show is set in the round, and is based on songs of The Beatles, so we knew we would definitely like the music. Their interpretations of each song were fantastic, and I would highly recommend this show. Dutchy was so impressed he bought the DVD of the making of it, which I trust will play in at least one of our DVD players at home, which I hope are multi-zone.

 

 

Roulette:

 

When planning this trip, I had decided I wanted to play the roulette tables in Las Vegas, and I would be prepared to donate $100 to a casino of my choice. I chose The Mirage, because as soon as we walked in I felt comfortable. It had lush green tropical foliage and a lovely atmosphere. After the extremely enjoyable Cirque du Soleil we made our way to the casino floor. The minimum bet was $10, so I figured my money wasn’t going to last very long.

Earlier I had even chosen the number I was going to play: black 26, because both our daughters were born on the 26th and I met my husband Dutchy when I was 26. I placed my first chips on the table. The wheel spun, and number 29 came up, which is next to 26 on the table. Next spin, number 23 came up, which is on the other side of 26. Then number 9 came up, which is next to 26 on the actual wheel. So close and yet so far. By the next spin I had outlaid $80 on the table, when to my delight my number came up!!! With odds of 35 – 1 this was great news. Dutchy suggested I step away from the table, but I wanted to have a little more fun, so I played with some of my winnings but kept most of them back, with the intent of buying something to commemorate my win later on the trip.

That experience certainly improved my impressions of Vegas!

 

A tinge of sadness:

 

Many years ago, on my first trip to Las Vegas, I met a wonderful guy named Michael Kendall. Though our relationship was brief, he taught me a lot about myself. We stayed in touch spasmodically over the years and I was looking forward to the day we would meet again. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us, so returning to Vegas was bittersweet. However, on the upside I met up with his delightful sister Gena, and we sat at Starbuck’s sharing fond memories of a wonderful person, whose time on this earth was too short.

Last day in New York:

Never forget 9-11:

We paid an emotional visit to the area where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood. When I went there in 1981 I souvenired a leaflet, which declared “The closest some of us will ever get to heaven” – shades of the Titanic? There is a temporary memorial which will move to the currently being built Freedom Tower. There were moving stories to read and then we walked over to an exhibition of photographs, taken by professionals and amateurs of various aspects of the actual event and the aftermath. As I was nearly crying at the beginning of this, imagine how I felt by the end.

After having been here in 2001, just ten weeks after those horrific events, where you could see roads buckled far away from actual Ground Zero, it is an air of positive hopefulness that I could feel. At the service we had attended in Middle Town, they spoke not of victims, but of survivors. Construction of the Freedom Tower is in full swing, and there is a special memorial also being built. Life goes on.

 

 

 

Little Italy, New York:

Recommended by my good friend Teri, we made our way to Little Italy, to source out a restaurant she had recommended. Teri is a real foodie, and anything she suggests is usually a winner. Taking the subway, we alighted at Grand Canal and walked up to find Little Italy, past markets and various places selling all manner of things, avoided by me only because of my precarious baggage weight.

We saw that many stalls were being set up, as apparently the next day was the start of a big food festival in Little Italy. Da Nico’s was very reasonably priced and delicious, a fitting end to our stay in New York.

 

 

Luggage and Central Park

Luggage:

As baggage allowances keep looming over our heads every time we are about to take a flight, Dutchy thought it was time to change luggage. The suitcase he had brought with him was the very large one that Bridget had taken over to Brazil for a year, but which weighed 6kg on its own, plus the wheels were getting decidedly wobbly. He chose a brand called Black Paw, which was supposed to have been made by Samsonite. The salesman could have told us anything, because of course we would be leaving in a day or so, and what recourse would we have?  It was a taupe coloured hard case with an expansion zip and four wheels, weighing in at only a few kilograms, allowing more weight for actual luggage. Since he was using a big backpack as his hand luggage he lashed out and purchased a large cabin-sized trolley case also, to use instead. We had noticed that a lot of people travelling had huge hand luggage as well as other bags, none of which seem to be weighed at check-in.

I have researched that you can purchase extra baggage allowance with Qantas for $25 for a domestic flight, one which we will be taking from Sydney to Melbourne after the cruise. I have been dreading being overweight (in more ways than one) on our return, so this could be the answer. I’m going to look into upgrading to business class with Frequent Flyer points also, which would serve the same purpose and not cost actual dollars.

As we have been travelling, our Korjo digital scales have been invaluable in working out how to pack our suitcases, rearranging things so that the checked baggage remains close to the allocated 23 kg. I have thrown out clothes as I work my way around the world in order to keep around the right amount, but it is becoming increasingly difficult as I buy more stuff!

The irony of this purchase came at JFK airport, when Dutchy picked up his brand-new case to put on the weighing machine and the side handle came off!! I was so proud of him when he didn’t hit the roof in frustration or anger or any of those emotions. Anybody who knows Dutchy would see that he definitely is in holiday mode, though he still gets anxious about missing flights, understandably.

Central Park:

At first we had contemplated taking a walk through Central Park, but after the previous day dragging our suitcases along, we were a bit tired. We knew we also had a lot of walking to do later, so we paid $80 to our “driver” to be escorted on a thorough tour of Central Park in a bicycle driven carriage. The horse-drawn ones were a lot dearer, and this was quite cute. Our heads were covered by the shade, but the lower legs could be getting a little sunshine while we were on the move. He was an Asian-looking guy from Uzbekistan, a country next to Borat’s home of Kazakhstan, with a slight Russian accent. Every now and then I would need to clarify something with him, with me being the translator for Dutchy. One example was the “sheep meadow” which is now the only place in the park where animals cannot go, where people lie around and/or sunbake, but he thought our driver had said “sheet metal” and he was relieved I was there to translate.

Given the way we were feeling, this money was well-spent, because if we had walked, we may not even have made it to the centre of the park, we would have been really tired, and then we may be at the mercy of someone charging too much just to get us out of there. At least we knew up front what we were up for, and we learned a fair bit also. It was amusing near the beginning of the journey, where there was a building that he told us had a generator that was powered by people like him cycling. I did a double take before I realised he was joking and also testing out whether we were even listening. As we were, he probably then gave us more information than had we not picked him up on it.

There is a statue in the middle of the fountain that is the geographical centre of the island of Manhattan, and the 843 acres that is Central Park was designed via a competition.

New York Food and Entertainment

New York, New York:

Train in from New Jersey to New York was a lot cheaper than in 2001. Not only is our dollar better than parity, with us only receiving 51 US cents for our dollar back then, but we had the girls with us and we bought two days’ worth of return tickets. This trip one-way cost under $30! Imagine if you didn’t work it out properly and you took a plane between destinations, from NJ to NY, and then having to get to and from airports! The time and expense and waste of a day would be crazy.

In my infinite wisdom, to avoid escalators or stairs in the subway after arriving at Penn Station New York, I suggested we walk to the hotel up on 7th Avenue and 55th Street. I had envisaged it would take about ¾ hour, because I had google-mapped directions which said walking would be half an hour. Tired hot bunnies finally arrived after an hour at their destination, the Wellington Hotel. Check-in time was ridiculously late, at 3pm, so we had to sit around awhile waiting for our room, which they upgraded to a king-size bed.

Out of all the accommodation we have had through this trip, I think the shower at the Wellington was the best, with wonderful water pressure. It also had a bath, very necessary at times after lots of walking.

On Broadway:

Hitting the street after a cup of tea with our trusty travel kettle, we made our way down to 47th Street and Broadway to “Tkts” where you queue up after 3pm to buy reduced price tickets for one of the shows. We bought tix for “Rock of Ages” for $76 each (plus tax), a saving of 40%, which played at the Helen Hayes theatre. A girl was handing out vouchers for free Tequila once you had purchased your ticket. We availed ourselves of this offer, as this was the one we had already decided to go to. I love an unexpected bonus. We had been told we were nine rows from the front, so we thought that sounded special, but it turned out we were also six or seven rows from the back, as it was a small theatre! It had an intimate feel about it, as we brought our Margharita in its plastic cup to our comfortable seats. I enjoy this trend of taking song hits and building a live musical around it. In this way it was similar to Mamma Mia, but with 80’s songs and a lot of comic relief. A few moustached men were in it too, so I was happy!

Carnegie Hall? No, take me to Carnegie Deli:

Diagonally across the road from our hotel sat the renowned Carnegie Deli. The walls are totally covered with autographed, framed photos of celebrities. We shared a Reubens open sandwich which was delicious. The waiter brought out a bowl of dill pickles to start, which is a tradition and quite tasty. Dutchy is a great fan of “Man versus Food” in which Katz’s Deli is visited, but this was far more convenient and probably very similar.

This ended up being a very late lunch or early dinner, as we had to be at the theatre by 7pm, so when the show had finished we returned to the Deli and purchased a piece of Baked New York cheesecake with strawberries. It cost $12.95 but they cut the huge serving in half and placed them into two containers to take away, with a plastic fork and serviette. That way we could have it for supper in our room, with a cup of tea. Dutchy thought he didn’t really like baked cheesecake, but obviously he had a previous bad experience. He is a convert now, as can be testified to by the fact that the following night we shared the Truffle Torte cheesecake for dinner!! Decadent but delicious.

 

New Jersey

From Amsterdam to Dusseldorf to New Jersey:

Picking us up from Newark Airport was my dear friend Teri, whom I met in 1981 when I had a Eurail Pass and backpacked around Europe for two months. I had been travelling on my own and we shared a carriage from Amsterdam to Dusseldorf. We can both chat, and the three hours just flew. As a family we visited Teri and Frank in 2001, and then I returned with my sister in 2003.

Going to the store for the American cookout:

Beautiful weather allowed for a barbecue on their deck, with their fun friends Janet and Ted. Earlier I had gone shopping to the “store” with Teri for supplies. Because I had run out of chewing gum I was asking for “chewy” and they found it amusing. It really is amazing how many words we pronounce differently as well as what we call things, as in the USA they call it “gum.” Shopping for alcohol I was impressed at how much cheaper it is in the USA. Australia is renowned for too many taxes on drinks. I found a double sized bottle, yes one and a half litres, of one of my favourite Australian merlots, Yellowtail, and it only cost US $10.99, plus tax. The pleasant evening flew.

What shall we do today? Plan A-Z

After we had been to ten-year-old Frankie’s practice for flag football, there were big discussions on when we would have dinner. It’s hard co-ordinating a large family and the daughters’ boyfriends and overseas guests with most suitable times and arrangements, especially when we had decided to go to the 9-11 tenth anniversary memorial service in the centre of Middletown.

Teri and I ended up going shopping while the guys went to the driving range. At the running store I purchased a new pair of Asics runners, which they call training shoes, to replace the ones I had been wearing. I did that with a few items on this trip. I also replaced a black camisole with a new one that has a beige abstract floral lacy part at the top, and goes very well with the skirt and sandals I brought with me.

The men met us at Billabong to look at watches and sunglasses for Dutchy, both of which need replacement. I told them all that Billabong was Australian, and finally I found information that said it was founded on the Gold Coast in the early 1970’s. We found a potentially suitable watch but thought we would look elsewhere as well, which took us to Macy’s at Monmouth Mall. Bingo, we managed to find a Seiko watch that was on clearance, reduced from $200 to $125. In this part of the world though, the price is marked before tax, so make sure you factor that in when shopping. Because we were from overseas, the saleswoman sent us upstairs to obtain a special voucher that gave us a 10 percent discount, thereby almost covering the tax.

Hooray for clearance sales: I managed to get a tankini and bikini bottom in a beautiful royal blue reduced at the end of the season, for under $20. Now I can throw out the brown ones I brought with me.

America remembers:

It was a sobering ceremony we attended, to commemorate 9-11 ten years ago to the day, where Middletown lost 37 people. Unfortunately we were standing for the whole hour, on top of the standing at Frankie’s practice earlier that day for over an hour. Walking is better for my Achilles than standing.

Thanksgiving dinner:

The family gathered for a pre-thanksgiving dinner, beautifully prepared by Teri. Since we don’t celebrate this occasion in Australia, it was a great idea. The pictures speak for themselves, with a spread of turkey, broccoli gratin, kugel, stuffing, sweet potatoes and cranberry jelly, followed by delicious cakes from The Flaky Tart.

Monday, Monday:

As Teri was teaching for the day, we stayed at the Massa Resort, enjoying blogging, their treadmill, some Body Balance and their swimming pool. Later, when she returned Teri drove Frankie and me to visit her mother Edna, who is 91 and amazing for her age. On my request she played a mini recital for me on the piano, still a magnificent pianist. It has inspired me to start practising again.

Dutchy and Frank bonded over Monday night football, which Australians call Gridiron to differentiate between our Australian Rules and theirs, which is entirely different. They drank Bourbon and did the obligatory “half-time hot tub.” Meanwhile Caitlin did a Keratin hair straightening treatment in my hair for a reduced price while we watched the remake of “Arthur” upstairs in her bedroom.

                                    

From Bahama Breeze to Disney World

Bahama Breeze:

Sharing a car park with our hotel meant it was not far to walk over to Bahama Breeze, a rather nice restaurant, for dinner.  A tropical ambience was evident, and the food was in generous portions, consisting of Coconut Shrimp and the Breeze salad for me, and chicken sliders, which were strips of chicken in small sweet buns for Dutchy. We were supposed to be sharing all the dishes, but that crumbed shrimp with the citrus-mustard sauce was mainly eaten by me, as they were such delicious morsels.

For the third time that day we didn’t have something sweet. Earlier we were tempted to have some fudge from Honeydukes at Harry Potter World, but didn’t, mainly because I was depressed about the recent discovery of the loss of my glasses, then later some afternoon tea, but decided the prices were rather exorbitant and we didn’t really need anything because we were about to leave the Park, and then after the generous portions at the restaurant we decided to forgo dessert and perhaps have cheesecake and Key Lime Pie for afternoon tea on our lazy day planned for between theme parks, which we did the following day.

Disney World:

We took the shuttle at 9.15am to Epcot, with a return time of 6.15pm set for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s hard to estimate exactly when you may want to leave, and to change the pickup time you had to give two hours’ notice. Realistically, though we had the Park Hopper which allowed us access to all four parks, we decided to forgo Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom and split the day between the other two parks.

I hate to admit it, but the Disney Magic has been somewhat extinguished for me. Why? Have I been too many times? Because I had desperately wanted to go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disney World had been added to the agenda because it was also in Orlando, but now we agree we have had our fill. I never thought I would say that, but never say never.

However, we enjoyed the day, but funnily one of the highlights was visiting “France” for lunch. The staff all spoke French so I was happy to practise my favourite language, and delighted when I was told that I spoke French very well. We loved the cheese platter, baguette, tarte au fraises and the Napoleon. Perhaps the Americans cannot pronounce “millefeuille” successfully, so they have renamed it after Bonaparte? Delicious either way.

Disappointed that the Studio Backlot Tour had been cancelled due to refurbishment, we found another interesting thing to see, American Idol. It was done realistically, with three (American) contestants who had auditioned earlier in the day. That night they would have a winner from the heats who would receive a golden ticket to be at the head of the queue for auditions for the next real American Idol – shades of Willy Wonka.

Dutchy’s not big on rides, though his stomach can stand really hot and spicy food. I, on the other hand, don’t like my food too piquant, and yet I love roller coasters. Drop-type rides no, but up and down and over and round with g-forces thrown in excites me, such as the Aerosmith Rock’n’Roller. We filled in the rest of the day easily, when after being hot all day, suddenly the heavens opened an hour before pickup. We actually enjoyed the respite, sitting under an umbrella at a table being entertained by piped music from old television shows as diverse as Mission Impossible to the Addams Family. I managed to scrawl down this blog which was good time management, and at the end of the day was proud of myself that the only one souvenir I had purchased was what I had planned before I even left home – a movie clapper board.  Another season has ended but there are always fond memories.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Potty about Potter:

Dutchy suggested an alternative title for this post “I’m just wild about Harry” which isn’t bad, but whose blog is this anyway?

Universal Studios has a sister theme park by the name of “Islands of Adventure” in which you can find The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which was our main reason for coming to Orlando.

Having only three full days in Orlando, we sensibly decided to theme park on the Wednesday and Friday, and have Thursday as necessary “down time.” My Achilles thanked me for that decision.

A guy in England wearing a Hogwarts T-shirt had suggested we make our way to the ride “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” first off, which we did. Waiting time was only 20 minutes, and during that time we were entertained by chatting moving paintings and other little vignettes. Unfortunately it cost us $25 in taxi fares each way, because we were at a hotel closer to Disney than Universal, about seven miles apart.

Butterbeer creates brain freeze. It hurts my head just remembering it. Yummy though, and it had a somewhat caramel flavour as I had hoped it would. The idea of pumpkin juice didn’t thrill me so I didn’t spend any money on that.

It will be the only time we’re here was our mantra, as we spent money on Harry Potter memorabilia. The wand chose me, I swear. Dutchy even entered into the spirit of things and bought himself a Tri-wizard Cup that lights up and is ornamented with a dragon, one of his favourite mythological creatures, which will sit nicely on the bar.

Loving lettering and calligraphy as I do, I just had to buy a lovely bound notebook emblazoned with a pewter-looking “H” for Hogwarts (or our surname Holland). To go with this, I purchased a Hogwarts seal and sealing wax. Excess baggage watch out!

Making a spectacle of oneself:

The only dampener to the day was when I lost my prescription glasses at Universal. Unfortunately I only bought them a few months ago, and they were beautiful gold, bling-trimmed transition multifocals that cost about $600, so along with entry to the Park and souvenirs, this could have been the most expensive day of the trip, and even more costly than Moulin Rouge in Paris, but probably more fun on an hour-by-hour basis.

I rang Universal every day for a few days, to no avail. When I asked about emailing them so that they would have a record of my loss, they were very unhelpful. Obviously I didn’t want to keep ringing from all over the country, as the further away I moved, the more expensive the call would be. While I was at Teri’s later, in New Jersey, she let me use her phone for one last effort. At least this time I was speaking with Sybil, with only one personality, and she was particularly helpful, searching through different files and locations to source the glasses. Unfortunately they were not located, but she was the only one who actually recorded all my details so that if they are found they could be catalogued and sent to Australia, slim as the chances are. I didn’t feel fobbed off any more.