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Bonus Trip Report: Vegas, an inferior place...

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PostPosted: Jan Mon 04, 2010 2:28 pm    Post subject: Bonus Trip Report: Vegas, an inferior place... Reply with quote

If you're so inclined, you can skip right to Part 3, which is the actual Vegas portion; I threw in all the extra road-trip details for anyone who likes to live vicariously through such descriptions, but you may want to skip right to the action!


Part 1 - Plan

Another year, another Christmas. We usually spend time with the family, but this year, there would be a small delay, as professional cleaners would be coming in, which would make mom and dad's house much more habitable (we usually get terrible allergies in the presence of those antique rugs) - so they advised us to come down a few days later.

So now there was extra time, but of course, we were broke, due to the demands of my new academic venture, discussed elsewhere, which is absurdly expensive. And thus arrived our Christmas miracle: Anyone here unfamiliar with California's Draconian smog check rules? We had recently been getting the dreaded "Check engine" light on Mrs. Allen's car; the diagnosis concluded that our Catalytic converter was in its death throes, and would need to be replaced. That ain't cheap, and if you are bereft of mechanical skills and connections to people who know cars, you are at the mercy of some serious vultures. But the check-engine light was coming on but then going off for several days at a time, and a friend in the know advised that when the light is off, it's worth the risk of doing the smog check at that moment. Registration renewal was looming in January, you see, and so we were stuck, looking down the barrel of a thousand-dollar-plus repair.

On Wednesday, I took the advice of my friend, and brought the car into a smog check place while the check-engine light was off. "You got a check engine light on?" the mechanic asked, to which I was able to truthfully reply, "No", while Mrs. Allen fretted.
And thus did we squeak by California's onerous regulations. Sure, we'll have to make that repair at some point, but for the moment, we had a glorious reprieve. Spared that huge bill, and with extra time suddenly upon us (both our jobs - which we are thankful to have - were on shutdown for the balance of the week), we made the always-delightful impulse decision to head out on a little trip. Destination: Vegas, like so many of our California brethren.

Of course, the difference is that most normal people in the Bay area would take a plane to Vegas, but that seemed like a burdensome additional expense: it's just not like what it was, when you could make the round trip for a hundred bucks or so - with two people, you'd nowadays be looking at a grand total of five hundred dollars, once you factor in airport transport, parking, and such, not to mention the irritation and inconvenience of security, threats of terrorism (painfully played out later, as we all saw, over Detroit), and general hassle. Sure, driving is a waste of a full day, one may argue; but if you factor in the airport transport, you're probably looking at a grand total of three hours of effort - since it's about eight hours' drive, it's a difference of five hours of travel time, which can be argued away.

So a road trip it would be; we focused in on the "Monte Carlo", where we had once stayed, and found it a reasonable choice. Plus, they were offering a "Third night free" deal, apparently to drum up business during the Christmas lull - it really is one of the few holidays where occupancy, and thus room rates, don't shoot dramatically upwards, and one can even get a good deal.

Now, the reservation clerk over the phone seemed to be saying that we were not eligible for that third-night free deal, although the website made no such indication - but the website just couldn't be made to take the reservation with the 3rd night free, even though the calendar on their site gleefully announced that our timeframe would qualify. So it was all getting a bit messy, and we hadn't even left yet.

I looked on travelocity, where the 3rd-night free boast was being made with regard to the Monte Carlo, which even claimed that the free night would be Saturday, the most expensive night of our proposed visit. A subsequent call to the Monte Carlo contradicted what we'd heard initially, and the clerk cheerfully proclaimed that we would indeed get a free night - although it would be the cheapest of the bunch, rather than the hundred-plus night.

So the choice was between gambling on Travelocity, or booking direct. Now, I'm as big a believer in a good deal as anyone, but I'm skittish when it comes to this type of thing, favoring the notion of dealing directly with the hotels and airlines whenever possible. Though Travelocity appeared to be offering a better deal, it took almost no effort to locate a website of travelocity reviews which were scathing in their admonitions against Travelocity's ability to do just about anything. Page after page contained user reviews along the lines of "Travelocity isn't worth the paper I wipe my b*tt on", and such. Thus was Mrs. Allen convinced that we were better off taking the direct line with Monte Carlo, and accepting the cheap-night-free arrangement - despite the confusion of the initial call.

It was around three in the afternoon when we wrapped up these preparations, and I had to fight off the urge to leave immediately, and add a fourth night, even though it would have been cheap. I calculated that we could get there by midnight, but decided we'd be better off starting fresh in the morning. Guess I'm showing my age.

Part 2 – Road Trip

So the next day, we departed, and managed to get on the road around ten a.m. - we took the San Jose route out of the area, which involves going down route 101, and then taking a funky road (Rt. 152) East out to I-5. This is slightly more direct by the map, but for reasons you'll see later, it's less advisable when coming back.

The I-5 stretch was fairly light, and the sky was a tad overcast, but there were no real weather issues. We took I-5 down to Route 46, which crosses the San Joaquin valley and puts you on to route 99. Route 46 takes you through mostly agricultural communities, and it’s hard not to characterize it as “The middle of nowhere”, though I’m sure I’d take offense if I were a resident. One town center has a traffic light, which seemed to be the highlight of civilization. One curiosity in that area was the presence of multiple “Drive-in” style restaurants, complete with ‘50’s-style signs proclaiming the ability of shakes, burgers, and fries – they are clearly not chains, and were a welcome sight – a tiny bit of individualism nestled among the predictable offerings of the roadside stops.

At one point, a golf course appeared, which seemed an anomaly in the area – the greens were about 50% brown, and just as I was about to write it off as an abandoned project resulting from a dot-com and/or real estate real estate boom trickle-down era, I spotted golf carts whizzing around. It was in use, after all. A nearby “New Homes!” project proudly proclaimed itself, though it was obviously no longer new, and I had to wonder what the current prices had descended to from their no-doubt lofty heights of just a few years ago.

Route 46 put us on to route 99 after twenty miles or so, and then we picked up route 58 going East out of Bakersfield, a pretty well-populated area – I could swear I’ve even heard of a famous person or two coming from this area, though the names escaped me. At this point, we began the ascent up the mountains – these aren’t quite the Sierras, but there was more and more snow visible. Interesting series of communities, there – I think there’s a prison up there, or some such thing – one wonders what propels these micro-economies.

Up here can also be seen the enormous windmills, which are supposedly the model on which our newer, greener energy consumption will be based. Yeah, right! How much power do they produce, and who is the beneficiary of this extra power? The answers are probably buried in some weighty tome of California law and procedure – I think I’ll wait until I’m licensed before pursuing such enlightenment.

After the mountainous area, one is greeted by what are essentially flatlands, for one is now entering the famous “Mojave” region, where ground-based vehicles that can run in excess of 700 mph are tested, and where one can see a jetliner graveyard off in the distance – at least, that’s what I think it is; no better explanation appeared for the multitude of jet planes sitting side by side.

After that, signs for Andrews Air Force Base appear, and there is a bunch of top-secret military stuff in plain view on the faraway hills. It’s just far away enough so that you can’t really see what it is, but you can see that there’s something. Additional middle-of-nowhere communities sprout up here and there, once again prompting the question, “Where the heck do you go to buy a quart of milk when you live here??”

Then, more straightaway. At some point, you come to the intersection of route 395, and it’s a wondrous thing down here to contemplate what sits between you and Carson City, now way far off to the North. One of these days, I’ll make that drive, too.

Onward – you now pass through some neglected farming and residential areas, which have definitely seen better days. Many former dwellings are rotted to the point of having big holes in them, or no roof, or both. Then, there’s a fascinating junkyard of dead cars – it’s huge and sprawling, and there are hundreds and hundreds of car-casses (sorry, couldn’t resist) – if you’ve ever wondered where your junked clunker wound up, there’s a halfway-decent chance that it’s here. It’s a dramatic sight.

A little farther along comes the connection to I-15 at Barstow, which is the last leg of the drive. You are no longer in the badlands, but are now a part of the migration path between L.A. and Vegas, a well-traveled route, and the cars suddenly are nicer and newer, as you have joined the ranks of the beautiful people, as they zip back and forth between their coastal and adult-Disneyland playgrounds. A large billboard for MGM holdings of some sort proclaims, “BOREDOM ENDS IN 151 MILES”, paying tribute to the no-attention span generation, which is apparently incapable of appreciating the stark beauty of the landscape. Sure, it’s monotonous, and there isn’t a whole lot happening, but what better insight into the dramatic contrast between nature and man’s shrines to himself?

We stopped for refueling at a McDonald’s, which is not exactly a top pick, but it’s convenient, and cheap – Ray Kroc understood this, even as his accomplishments are denounced in every conceivable way.

One fascinating sight out here is a water park, arbitrarily located in the midst of the middle-of-nowhereness that permeates this portion of the drive. We can both remember seeing this development on our last road trip out this way, several years back, and the effort has clearly died an official death – the paint is worn off, the plaster is cracked, the metal is rusting. I wondered about the investors who bit this off back then, and now my thoughts turn to them again – what were they thinking?? Oh, well – you can see an argument for creating the thing, but it clearly just couldn’t get off the ground. Now it stands as another abandoned reminder of the travails of desert development.

Not a lot to report on the rest of the approach, but our daylight hours were coming to a close, and after six-plus hours of consecutive driving, that last hundred miles really wears. Part of the payoff comes in the form of the southern version of “Stateline”, which rises out of the darkness like a neon mirage – you get a tremendous view of it coming down out of the hills, and then a long, flatlands approach, with all the promise of Nevada lunging at you out of the darkness. At least now, the majority of the driving is over, though there’s still that persnickety last 25 miles or so.

Part 3 – Vegas, Baby

The final approach, at last. Just in case you’ve forgotten, huge billboards remind you of the various mega-hotel-casinos that beckon from the horizon. If you are approaching on Christmas eve, as we were, you’ll find traffic jams leading into the main “Strip” exits off I-15, although even this is nothing like what awaits those unfortunate enough to be making the approach just before new year’s, or other holiday weekends. It’s really the macrocosm version of the Bay Area-Reno relationship, but on a huger scale. I made the error of being in the rightmost lane off the Flamingo Road exit, which turns out to be just a huge line for the Bellaggio – once I corrected that error, we were able to slide through, and get to our destination, the Monte Carlo. In retrospect, the far superior approach is to use the Russell Road exit, and then got on Frank Sinatra drive – this gives you back-door access to the major spots on the West side of Las Vegas Blvd, such as Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, New York, New York, Monte Carlo, and so forth. For the rest of the trip, I used the Frank Sinatra drive approach to get in and out of the Monte Carlo to our other destinations, and it worked like a charm.

And thus did we arrive, wrung out a bit by our eight-hour drive, but still with a sense of excitement. We checked into the Monte Carlo, and went upstairs to decompress for a bit. Our room didn’t face the strip; that’s what you get for traveling with a cheapskate, unwilling to shell out an extra ten dollars a night for an exciting view. Instead, we were able to see the parking garage, the pool, and some new behemoth of a building project right next door, which turned out to be the new “CityCenter” project. From what I recalled before, you could walk through the back area of the Monte Carlo, and just past their brewery/restaurant was a little tram, which took you directly to the Bellaggio. So now, the tram is still there, but it’s integrated into the CityCenter project.

In any case, we came downstairs looking for a dinner strategy, and this is where the “Food Court” in the Monte Carlo came in handy. As a rule, I’m distrustful of such establishments, but in the case of our current location, it was a no-brainer, as we were on a cheapskate budget, and were planning to have one or two good meals, supplemented by cheap-o travel strategies. I had pizza at the “Sbarro” – I think that’s what the generic-Italian place was – and Mrs. Allen had a selection of offerings from the “Dragon Kitchen”, or whatever the Chinese-themed place was calling itself. Each of our dishes came to just under nine bucks, and though a tad on the pricey side – at least, to our way of thinking – both were good, or at the very least, not bad, and far from terrible, which is what I’d usually expect from such facilities.

We did splurge just a bit, in this case, for an overpriced shake at the “Haagen-Dasz” stand – coffee flavor, one of the least-appreciated-but-best ice cream flavors. What’s a mere seven bucks for a milkshake? You’re in Vegas!

We then took a little stroll, intending to wander in the direction of that Bellaggio tram, but instead found ourselves diverted by the flashy, beckoning new CityCenter.
As we would later learn, the wrapping paper had only just come off this splashy new venture, just within the last week or so – we’re talking really new, people – and it was palpable in its freshness; sleek, modern, pseudo-Asian décor and architecture, fancy-shmancy lounges and bars, fifteen-dollar table minimums, and this was on Christmas eve. We identified a Tapas restaurant which seemed to be not too outrageously expensive, and made a loose plan to have dinner there the following evening.

Exhaustion began to set in, and we were forced to stagger back to the Monte Carlo, and settle down for a long winter’s nap. Whoops, mama forgot her kerchief, and I had no cap. (sorry, couldn’t resist again.)

The next morning, I went down to acquire some McDonald’s breakfast offerings from the food court. Again, it’s more than you’d pay at any other McDonald’s in the U.S. (Well, with the possible exception of Honolulu, now that I think about it), but the fare is predictable, and man, the service is fast at that food-court establishment. I had scarcely placed my order when it was presented to me before I’d even pulled out my wallet.

We ate in the room, and prepared to venture out. Our first destination was anyplace that was open, to get supplies. Mrs. Allen had somehow forgotten her toothbrush, and I didn’t feel like asking the hotel if they had any. You know how it goes, with the signs that say, “Just let us know if there’s anything we can do to make your stay more special!” – and then you inquire about the availability of some basic necessity as a razor or a toothbrush, upon which you are directed to the hotel’s overpriced gift shop – feh!

While one really doesn’t need – or want – a car while cavorting along the strip, it comes in very handy for anything else you may want to do. I discovered the aforementioned pleasure of using the Frank Sinatra drive backroad, and we crossed I-15, and headed towards the non-strip economy. Most establishments were closed, as is proper in any American city on Christmas day (in direct contrast with the strip, which never, ever closes), but we eventually discovered a supermarket that was open – Vons, as Safeway in this region is known; my Safeway club card even worked with no complications. We stocked up on hotel room-style provisions, and then made our way to Vegas “Chinatown”, which is really more of a single, though large, shopping center. This reminded me of our Christmas trip to New York last year – in Chinatown, everything was open, and doing a brisk business, and the same applied here. We acquired a few knickknacks, and then headed over to the Rio for some research.

The purpose behind the Rio visit was to scope out their seafood buffet, which we’d been hearing about in a sort of legendary capacity – though the ownership has apparently changed hands over the years (yeah, what hasn’t?), this is supposed to be a worthwhile buffet, so we thought we’d check it out before committing ourselves. Neither of us had ever seen the Rio before, as it’s one of those destinations one tends to notice while spending all one’s time on the strip, but never quite actually going there. We found parking easily enough, and made our way in. Almost immediately, we saw the buffet, and marveled at the length of the line – I mean, it was REALLY LONG – I would guess you’d have to spend at least an hour in that line, if not longer – it seemed slightly crazy to me, but upon inspecting the buffet (just go in the exit, and ask to have a look; they’re almost always very accommodating to such requests), I had to admit, it looked quite good – vegas-scale, certainly. It’s been too long since I’ve had a Reno buffet to compare it to, but it’s difficult to imagine that Reno’s could compare well – this thing was massive! And it looked, at least, to be of good quality. Still, that line was brutal, and we remarked that if we were planning on eating here, we’d have to come at a time when it wasn’t so crowded. Price per head? About twenty-eight bucks. No chump change, but not a bad deal, considering the breadth and volume of the offerings. We continued on in the Rio, so as to gawk and gaze, and I noticed a sign pointing towards the “Seafood Buffet” – apparently, we weren’t even looking at the right one!

So we ventured on, and way at the other hand, we came across the *actual* seafood buffet – a totally separate establishment. This thing was just opening, so it was a good time for an inspection – and it also seemed to be of pretty high caliber. The price tag here is even higher – thirty-eight bucks apiece – but Mrs. Allen declared it worthwhile, and we made plans to return on the morrow for our “official” good meal.

The inspection complete, we returned to our car, and headed back to the Monte Carlo. Here’s where parking became a “Situation”, to put it nicely – only the second floor of the parking garage appeared to be open to guests, and now it seemed that everyone had arrived at once – we were reduced to circling around, and pouncing on people who appeared to be leaving, only to be estopped by someone else’s good fortune of being closer to the departee. This went on for a good twenty minutes or so, and my patience was wearing thin. Eventually, we lucked out, and came upon a spot which was empty and uncoveted. We took our supplies up to the room, and had a brief rest before pursuing the evening’s excitement.

As we’d envisioned the previous night, we walked over to the CityCenter place, and located the Tapas restaurant. It wasn’t busy, and we were seated quickly. I had a tuna-sashimi-style dish, which was very well-seasoned – for you sashimi fans, you know as well as I that little can compare to a good piece of sashimi with some soy sauce and wasabi, but the chef here had provided some extra stuff I didn’t recognize, and the whole thing really melted in the mouth. Mrs. Allen had Mussels, which she is almost always disappointed by, so difficult are they to be obtained fresh in a restaurant. An obsequious host asked us how everything was, and we offered our bumpkin-level praise. The newness of the place was still on full display, and we realized later that this was probably the best the place would ever be. The tab came to forty-something bucks or so – certainly not cheapskate heaven, but not a crippling blow, either – I had a large-size Asahi beer with dinner, and we remembered our previous visit, where we’d gone to a little Asian-style place in the Bellaggio, and were charged nearly fifty bucks for essentially two bowls of noodles and a beer. This was a legendary ripoff, at least to our way of thinking, and tonight’s fare was clearly a far better deal. We were thus perfectly satisfied, and then made our way out to the action of the strip.

I had suggested perusing the also-new (at least, to us) Planet Hollywood hotel-casino across the street – there’s a flashy new shopping arcade, called the “Miracle Mile” or some such indulgent name, and there was plenty to take in. A laser light show graced one of the atriums, for some free entertainment. I was carrying a bottle of the beer we’d purchased at the supermarket, for which Mrs. Allen kept chiding me – “But this is Vegas!” I protested, “and that’s what everyone on the strip does!” – but I had to admit, few others really did seem to be doing the same thing, perhaps because of the fairly-chilly temperature outside – apparently, Vegas was experiencing a cold snap – and the only people also imbibing on the street were the actual hicks, with their fifty-eight ounce gigantic daiquiris in their outsized novelty cups. Oh, well, from what I recall, it’s still legal to have an open container on the strip – at least, so I hoped!

One thing that has definitely not changed is the hordes of barkers passing out little pamphlets with scantily-clad women on them, apparently “Escort” services – I recall that the legal prostitution takes place well outside Clark County, which is where Vegas resides – but I guess there’s no shortage of tourists willing to take their chances with some in-room harlot – lord only knows what awaits such fools who take these advertisements at their word. The shills wear jackets emblazoned with the message “800-VEGAS-GIRLS”, or some such predictable number.

In any case, the “Miracle Mile” fell short of a “Miracle”, but I have little doubt that it’s an actual mile – we had to bail out about halfway, and return to the strip, but not before spotting a few interesting tidbits, such as a store entirely devoted to the theme of “Bettie Page”, the notorious pin-up model of a bygone era – very nice ‘50’s-style garb, for those who favor this look. We also saw a moving crowd furiously taking pictures of something – I moved in a little closer, and saw that the attraction was two small animals, which turned out to be a baby tiger, and a baby wolf. They were being walked around to drum up interest for some local show or other, and I couldn’t help feeling bad for the poor little things as multiple flashbulbs popped right in their eyes – but of course, I contributed, and snapped a few pictures myself.

Strolling through the Planet Hollywood casino area, I spotted some new-fangled “Star Trek” machines, complete with a captain-style chair in which to commandeer the action. It was a phantasmagora of Trek sounds and look (the original series, thank you very much), and looked like it could be fun. A fellow playing the machine remarked that he’d been having pretty good luck on it, too.

Table minimums also seemed to be in the ten-to-fifteen dollar range, well too rich for my blood. Advertisements declared the availability of “Dollar Blackjack, 24/7”, but you have to go to the Sahara for that – or the downtown, and who even bothers these days? We hadn’t quite recovered from the previous day’s trip, and so we had to call it a night, and headed back to our room at the Monte Carlo.

Now, I’ve had nothing but praise for this hotel in the past, but it did seem a bit curious that the room was lacking the customary “Do Not Disturb” door-hanger, as well as the usual hotel-themed pen and notepad. Plus, the bathroom tap was leaking; no matter how far you turned the handle to the “Off” position, it continued to drip a small stream. Since you’re paying a nearly-ten dollar a night “Resort Fee”, one would assume that infrastructure would be the recipient of such largesse, but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this tax is merely lining the pockets of the Nevada politicians, who, like such people everywhere, see declining tax revenue as a reason to either raise such taxes, and/or introduce new ones – but that’s a topic for a different blog. We got the missing items, but only after asking for them, and really, why should I have to bother? Sure, these are little matters, but with a place like Vegas, with its cornucopia of choices, these establishments have got to do better!

We ended the day tuning in the obligatory TBS 24-hour run of the movie, “A Christmas Story”, which has somehow achieved cult status. I don’t think I had ever taken in the whole thing, and Mrs. Allen hadn’t seen it at all, so it was sort of educational. Not a bad outing, really, and the ‘30s-era period feel is rather entertaining.

The next day, we breakfasted on our in-room supplies, feeling a tad smug for having escaped the lure of the bloodthirsty restaurants. We then ventured out to what I considered the biggest attraction of the trip, the Pinball Museum. Yes, I’m old-school in many regards, and while we take for granted the lights, bells, whistles, and computer chips found in modern-day slot machines, it’s important to remember that their origins are largely found in pinball. Many were the instances of my youth in such questionable establishments as pinball parlors – sure, videogames came along, and stole the show, and once they made it into the average household, they acquired respectability, something that was a long time coming for pinball.

The museum itself has recently moved from wherever it was before, and it now occupies a nondescript concrete square building on Tropicana Avenue, just past the University of Las Vegas. It’s not much to look at on the outside; there isn’t even a real sign, just a banner hanging off the entrance identifying it: “The Pinball Hall of Fame” – but inside, it’s an old codger’s delight – machines of practically every decade of the 20th century grace the rows of machines, most of which are kept in mint condition by the proprietor – talk about a labor of love! I made change, and set about rediscovering my boyhood with titles such as “Fireball”, “Night Rider”, and others. What a joy, to hear that clicking machinery, those non-digital scoring reels, and that unforgettable “CRACK” sound when one wins a replay! It’ll bring tears to your eyes, I tell ya. Mrs. Allen gracefully put up with this for about as long as I figured she could stand, and then we departed, with me thoroughly satiated. I took a few pictures while we were there, to immortalize the visit.

Our next stop, since it was right nearby, was the “Hard Rock Hotel and Casino”, which I had seen once on a long prior visit. This time, I made sure to stop and check out the pool area, which is the source of a “Reality” t.v. show on the “Reality” channel no less, which documents a “Club”, that apparently operates at the pool on Sundays during the good-weather season. I wondered if all the personae on the show had now automatically graduated to celebrity status, and would thus no longer be found here when the season resumed.

Inside, you can check out the displays with gold records by the beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and others. The main casino area has even more such displays, of course, but many of them are the newer-generation music “Stars”, who mean little to me. I never even saw a Zeppelin display – it might be there somewhere, but I just couldn’t spot it.

We gawked for a while, then got back in the car, and headed down to the Stratosphere, which we’d always been curious about. There, the sixteen-dollar per head entry fee for just the elevator turned us off from going up, and besides, my inner paranoia warned against voluntarily entering such a precarious structure. I hate to indulge bad karma, but I’ve always thought that if one wanted to commit an act of mass terrorism in Vegas, this would be the ideal target. The metal detectors at the elevator tend to cement this impression, so we just looked around some more, then took off. It also occurred to me that this property especially has been a serious victim of the hard times gripping the rest of the city, and the country, as well – when it opened, the Stratosphere was the ultimate Vegas attraction, with its way-high observation deck, restaurant, and carnival-style rides – it was a new era, an engineering marvel, and so on, and so forth. Now, it appears to be the desitnation of choice for the seedier, low-roller-but-still-on-the-strip crowd, and the advertisements of $29 dollar-a-night hotel rooms do little to dispel this impression.

We then headed back to the Rio, our destination of choice for our “good” meal, and took up a spot at the end of the line, which was still pretty short, considering it was now almost five-thirty.

At thirty-eight bucks a pop, it ain’t cheap, but one can gorge on various high-level fare – I concentrated on Tuna sashimi, raw oysters, and prime rib (yes, it’s not seafood, but I’m the carnivore of us two). Mrs. Allen steadily piled on crab, mussels, clams, and so forth. We even indulged the dessert section a few times, as the ice cream appeared to be made on-site, and either way, was really, really good – this was no grudging industrial offering. Exotic flavors such as tiramisu were on hand, and the pastries and such were all top-notch.

We ate slowly and steadily, so as to maximize our investment, and waddled out of there about two-and-a-half hours later, with a sensation of dense fullness such as I could scarcely remember. We realized the importance of walking off this humongous feast, and set about taking in some more of the Rio’s casino.

So, finally to the gaming: The big ticket item here was the Ten-dollar freeplay for signing up for the Rio’s club card. I could hardly remember the last time I’d seen such a promo, and we both dutifully filled out the forms. Armed with our casino money, we set forth to make good use of it. I started in on Lucky Larry, my personal fave, as you may recall from my previous trips. Mrs. Allen somehow managed to blow her freeplay without quite figuring what denomination she was playing, and when she cashed out, the freeplay seemed to have largely been burned. I kept silent, as I had quietly been getting favorable plays, and was now up a solid ten bucks. Once my freeplay ran out, I happily reported our profit to the missus, and we eagerly cashed in.

Finally in possession of a profit, we took off, and headed back to the Monte Carlo, again via that blessed Frank Sinatra drive route, totally avoiding the traffic of the strip.

There was still time to take in a little scenery, so we headed next door to get a taste of the New York, New York property – it was more or less as I remembered it, and having spent time living in New York, I could once again appreciate the attention to detail – the art deco edifice to the “Chrysler Building” tower, the transplanted parking meters, the mock-tenement facades hanging over the restaurants on the faux-Greenwich Village walkabout. A prominent steakhouse has a facility for the aging of steaks, which is on full display – you can practically taste the meat. Elsewhere, the casino is more or less what you’d expect – loads of machines in all shapes and sizes, and plenty of takers. One thing I forgot to mention was that commonly throughout the tables on this visit, one can see that stupid, sheep-shearing “Single Deck 21!” game being played, but it’s not even called, “Super Single Deck” – instead, the little rules screen (no more placards, they’re all little t.v.’s now!) states, among other rules, that “Blackjack pays 6:5” – a pox on this game!!!

We threw away a couple of our precious dollars of winnings in some machines, but still were up by seven or eight bucks in the end. I still like that “Mariachi” game, or whatever it’s called, where the bonus spin has that silly guy shaking Maracas – and I got to see the bonus round, so all was well with gaming for the night.

Another odd development was that I hit a four-of-a-kind while playing nickel draw poker back in the Monte Carlo – why does that always seem to happen on the smallest bets?!

One more note about the Monte Carlo: I had taken the trouble to stop at the check-in area to ask about the very limited guest parking, and was told that the parking garage is now “Shared” with CityCenter employees – so that’s the problem, and it will probably mean I’ll seek out a different hotel next time, one that isn’t staggering under the weight of its newly-unveiled next-door brethren – who needs that hassle?
Another silly in-room movie ended the day – “Overboard”, with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell – mind-numbingly dumb, of course, but who cares? It was a decently humorous romp, and could have been much worse.

The next day was our reluctant departure, and while he had vowed to get started early, it seemed impossible to get underway until about eleven (a.m.) – and if you want a Starbucks coffee, but don’t want to pay the extra dollar for the hotel version, figure out which one you’re going to ahead of time! A billboard on the way out of town proclaimed the availability of such an establishment at the next exit inside the local nondescript, non-strip, non-downtown hotel/casino, but for the life of me, I couldn’t spot it, and knew that I’d have to park, get out, and make my way through yet another casino floor to get to it, that is, if I could figure out which one to go to!

So we got back on the highway, and headed out of town. At the Stateline establishment, I tried again, but still no luck – the Starbucks is apparently in the building on the *other* side of the highway, and I figured I’d just get a McDonald’s brew. Sorry, no luck, they were still making coffee, and there were several such orders ahead of me, so it would be a good “ten to fifteen minutes” just to get a cup of Joe!

We abandoned that effort, and continued. Stateline is where the highway merges from three lanes down to two, so there was a bit of a backup, but it didn’t last too long, and we were then back on our way. Right around the absurd “Agricultural Inspection” station, where the cars were simply being waved through, I noticed a backup had begun, going in the opposite direction towards Vegas. This backup extended all the way to Barstow, many, many miles later, and I began to understand what it was really like for those L.A. people who decide to take a little trip to Vegas for the weekend – it’s a nightmare exceeding your worst fears of what could happen to I-80 in inclement weather, heading towards Reno, and I was not sorry to have no part of such goings-on in my regular life.

The rest of the drive was merely the reverse of what we’d done coming in, but with the strategic decision to try I-5 going back to the Bay Area, rather than the I-99 approach, which is more roundabout, but less daunting – and I of course regretted this decision once darkness settled in and I-5 traffic got bad. And then, the 152 cross-over – which by itself isn’t too bad, but again, at the tail end of an eight-hour drive, it’s far from welcome. Because of the decrease in road efficiency, the return trip was just about nine hours, and I could feel the difference. Nope, I never let the missus drive, despite her constant offers – must be the caveman in me; I just couldn’t relinquish control in unfamiliar territory, despite the obvious wear on me. Am I a stubborn fool, or a nostalgic throwback to a more-chivalrous age? Probably a little of both.

And thus did our spontaneous excursion come to an end; it was nice to go, but it was nice to come home, as all good trips should demonstrate.

Thanks for tuning in; I’ve tried to be thorough, since I just don’t know when I’ll have another chance to bombard you with such details!
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PostPosted: Jan Mon 04, 2010 8:08 pm    Post subject: Top notch report on an inferior destination! Reply with quote

Thanks Stan

That's some mean trip reportin' dude!

I guess the big thing about Vegas is it's bigness. It requires a trip report that exceeds the norm. You've met and exceeded all the requirements. I took a nap after reading it. (Thoroughly enjoyed it though!)

I haven't been to Vegas for years and kinda miss it. But theres no cool guy living just of the strip with a couple of lively birds. Or at least I haven't met him. Until then Reno is the superior destination.

Janice and I have stayed at the Flamingo a couple of times. We love the pool area there.

I've heard that the Flamingo is slated for redevelopement. Hope they can find a way to save those grounds.
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PostPosted: Jan Tue 05, 2010 11:11 am    Post subject: Footnotes (you expected less?) this is STAN-dard protocol... Reply with quote

Thanks for making it all the way through, Dave; I know it was a lot to ask!

The first time Mrs. Allen and I ventured to that part of the planet, we in fact stayed at the Flamingo, and I do remember thinking that the pool area was quite cool. We didn't use it at the time (it was New Year's eve/day), but it was clearly the place to be.

Yes, Vegas is a towering monstrosity of gargantuan and behemoth stuff. But it's true, as we all know, that Reno is the superior destination. Why? If you have to ask, and even snort derisively at the question, you are probably not quite ready to become a board member.

I do have to add two supplementary notes to the report:

(1) In the Mojave portion of the drive I discussed, there's one exit off the freeway that's a local route, and it crosses over route 58 (the road one is using in this particular venture) in the form of a bridge. When we were returning from our trip, traveling Westbound on 58 in this region, I spotted a CHP car parked under the bridge on the other side of the road, facing East. It occurred to me that drivers coming the other way, who would be passing right by the cop, had plenty of time to see him, and thus slow down. I concluded that he was strategically located there not to stop traffic going his way, but in order to see - and stop - motorists who were going the *other* way. I remarked aloud on this to Mrs. Allen, who said, "How would he get over to this side of the road?" (Mrs. Allen, it should be noted, has somewhat less experience with this kind of thing than I) I replied that all the cop had to do was cross the divider, and turn around, and there was little more than dirt separating the two portions of the highway. Just then, as if by magical explanation, a small connector between the two roads appeared, a clear "Service" trail.

And what do you think happened next? Sure enough, that copper pulled out of his not-so-secret hiding spot, sped up to the connector path, and swung around to our side of the highway. I observed this in my rearview mirror with a sense of smug intellectual deduction, but with potential disgust at the possibility of being pulled over. Fortunately, he was after another driver, who was behind us - apparently, my first observation of the cop had afforded me enough time to slow down sufficiently to escape his grasp.

The lesson is: never assume that a cop on the other side of the highway won't be coming after you - he could really surprise you, and not in a fun way!

(2) Just to expand a bit on that parking garage business, recall that we had a view of the entire parking structure from our room; it had about ten floors, all told, and it never seemed to have a shortage of action - cars were routinely coming and going from even the top level.

It was with this information that I struck up that conversation with the front desk employee, who offered the explanation that only the 2nd floor was open to guests, and the rest was for employees.

"You mean," I said, "That there are nine floors of parking for Monte Carlo employees, and one floor of parking for guests?" That was when she explained that the structure itself was being shared with CityCenter, and all became clear to me.

But she then stated that "Valet Parking" was a very good option, because they are "really quick", and added that it was "free". All very attractive, I suppose, to someone who doesn't mind having a total stranger behind the wheel of his very own car, and we're not even talking about an antique or a collectible, or whatnot.

But more importantly, it's pretty clear that one is expected to tip a valet, and it is thus far from "free". Oh, now we are in the petty zone, one could argue, and I felt like replying to the employee something along the lines of: "Free? You claim your valet parking is 'free', when the entire city of Vegas, which never met a sin it wouldn't heartily embrace, would not only frown at the prospect of not tipping a valet, it would probably do doughnuts with your car until the bare rims shot sparks on the concrete? Free, good madam, means 'without obligation', and your claim of a valet service as being such is willful ignorance. Do I look like some sort of high-roller whale, to be skimmed from and scammed at every opportunity? Do I look like some shallow patron whose goal in life is to buy respect with his ill-acquired lucre? Whom do you take me for?"

"Do you not realize that I am Stan Allen, legendary low-roller and travel cheapskate? Yea, I am worse, for I am the embodiment of your hotel's one mortal fear: the guest who will play less than five dollars in your casino, the spendthrift penny-pincher who will fail to eat at your pompous and overpriced restaurants, the whiner and complainer who will raise bloody hell if a single complimentary bottle of conditioner is not replaced every day of my stay, as each such item goes directly into my years-old suitcase."

"Behold me and tremble, as I consume two full meals by spending the better part of the afternoon in your buffet, and leave with apples and oranges in my pockets! Try as you may, your pleas to help "the environment" by releasing you from your duty to replace every one of my towels and bed linens every day fall on deaf ears. Plasticware, napkins, and even jelly packs from your food court will disappear into my pockets for use in the room, such that I may deprive you of even more profit. When I leave my room, I shall not even bother to turn off the lights and t.v., and woe betide those who would pray that I might tune in pay-per-view fare on your pathetic t.v. interface, or access the internet or video games; you'll see none of these activities on my bill, and should you add a fridge stocked with pay items to the room, you'll never see me take even one of them, so careful am I to waste precious vacation time by shopping at local supermarkets, just so I can deprive you of that one revenue stream over which you salivate like so many bloodsucking vampires."

"Witness my reverse-vampire approach, as I wear down your hotel, your materials, and your staff with my minimalist stays. I shall erode your profit, your hopes, and your dreams, for I am the cheapskate traveler!"

I didn't bother saying this to the beleaguered employee, for obvious reasons, but it was fun to contemplate!
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PostPosted: Jan Thu 07, 2010 3:45 am    Post subject: Vegas Reply with quote

We're not worthy of such a tome.

If it wasn't 3:45 am and I'm on my way to work...I'd read it all.

THAT's going to have to wait for the weekend and a LARGE glass of whine....I mean WINE!

Looks good but you've raise the bar mighty high.
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PostPosted: Jan Thu 07, 2010 11:33 am    Post subject: Too much information! Reply with quote

It may be *too* much - can voluminous detail about the landscape of the Mojave entertain any but the most fact-hungry among us?

Anyway, I feel I owe the board. I'm willing to make that sacrifice!
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