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Friday, March 26, 2010

Today At McCarren International Airport ...

Actually, I was at McCarren yesterday ... and for those of you who are going "huh?," that means Las Vegas ... Sin City, baby!!

It was my sixth trip out and probably one of the best ... good weather, great friends, and a world of confidence from the do's and don't's under my belt from previous trips. I'm a slow learner, but I think I have the Vegas thing down and we're hoping for a return trek in early November.

It started
four or five years ago when three buddies from my college days contacted me about a gambling excursion. Trevor, a good buddy who has been on five of the six trips, looked into flights and accommodations and got us a "deal" on three days and four nights. I like to refer to this first trip as my own personal "learning curve."

Up until that point in my life I had never flown, so I was nervous. I also got a head cold about three days before our departure in early September, so I was stuffed up and miserable and concerned about when in the flight we would be crashing into the Rockies. Although we suffered a fair amount of turbulence, the flight was uneventful ... that is, until our decent into Vegas. It seems one beverage cart was not properly stowed away so that when our jet reached a steep enough angle, it toppled over with a loud crash. I made my peace with my God. I made my peace with Greek and Roman deities I was fascinated with as a young child. I peed a little in my cargo shorts.

We didn't die, but I should have recognized the "bad trip" omen for what it was worth. See, Trevor had been to Vegas a few times previously, and he was a firm believer that a hotel room was just a place to crash for a few hours between gambling, gorging, and engaging in other forms of debauchery. Vegas Travel Rule No. 1: A hotel room is more than just a place to crash for a few hours between activities.

We stayed at Harrah's in the cheapest rooms they had ... one room with two queen beds. Everything looked okay, but it just felt off. Cramped ... compact ... uncomfortable. And during four days and three nights, we all wanted a place to grab a nice nap, watch a dirty movie, or enjoy the pleasures of food poisoning from a cheap off-the-Strip buffet. Unfortunately, we often wanted those things at the same time and out room became a prison with ugly bedspreads and overflowing suitcases. But we all stayed friends and had lots of good pictures and stories to share with family and friends. It took three times the recommended dosage of OTC cold meds to get me back on the plane.

The next trip came the following April and consisted of me, Trevor, Sal (Trevor's co-worker), and our mutual friend Calvin. Sal got a great deal on everything and we stayed in two doubles at the Luxor, the pyramid, Egyptian-themed casino. It was wonderful ... nice rooms, really cool bathrooms, great room service (Sal has money, not "The Hangover" money, but he likes to show off and I was glad to be along for the ride.), and an outstanding cleaning staff. Vegas Travel Rule No. 2: You can tell a great deal about the quality of a hotel or resort by the quality of their cleaning crew.

Sal was the "Julie McCoy" of our trip and, boy, did he make some great decisions. Unlike the first trip where the group either gambled, drank, or lounged around, Sal made us take the time to do touristy things. I had my first breakfast at a Rain Forest Cafe at Planet Hollywood. I ate dinner at the New Orleans Fish House, one of Emeril Lagasse's flagship restaurants, in the MGM Grande. We got tickets to see Gladys Knight ... yes, you read correctly ... and she was wonderful. We toured the four-story M&M World, and thank goodness we did ... it was connected to the World of Coca-Cola, which featured an automat-style soda shop where you could taste Coke products featured around the world. I spent nearly 50 minutes in carbonation heaven. That Coke exhibit has since closed (there's still a merchandise shop), and Sal gave me and my bladder the opportunity to experience it ... Thanks, man!!

negative point, though. April must be the high season for trade shows and conventions because about 70 percent of the people we saw had big name tags and attaches and sun visors with all manner of corporate logos. Vegas is always a mecca for people watching, but this got to be a bit bothersome ... sometimes you had to wait to play the slots. Vegas Travel Tip No. 3: April seems to be convention month ... if crowds wig you out select another month to visit.

I didn't get to the Strip again until the following late February. Someone in our group just whispered about going west and soon six of us were packing our bags. This trip was unusual in many ways. First off, Vegas in February gets cold at night ... but no one warned our little group. We shivered our way down streets and along walkways like the first settlers facing the Yukon winters. Vegas Travel Rule No. 4: If you like consistently warmer temperatures, avoid Vegas late November through early March.

Another first was, that on this trip, Trevor was absent and two of the guys brought their wives. We were all good friends, but the wives definitely kept their husbands in check. We had decided to try New York, New York for our accommodations. It was okay, but the weird things was that almost everything we wanted to do had nothing to do with where we were staying ... we really did pretty much just sleep at New York, New York. On this trip, we hung out at more "exotic" spots like Caesar's, Bellagio, Paris, and the Venetian. We did get tickets to see Dana Carvey (the SNL alumni) and he was amazing ... I don't usually care for impressions, but really mixed them into a well-crafted act. And Beth, one of the wives, wanted to see "Stomp" and I was the only other one in our group who wanted to go. If you ever get the chance (I guess it's still around), see it. They pulled out all the stops. And with the way the venue seated, we were at a fairly small table ... about 16 people, but there were at least six different languages being spoken. That's Vegas for you.

I'm not sure exactly when the next trip occurred, but it was me, Trevor, Ed (Trevor's friend from clear back to grade school who was also on the first trip), and Steve, a co-worker of mine.

This trip had some ups and downs (I'll get to them), but it was, by far, the best vacation of my life. We stayed at The Golden Nugget along Fremont Street, the older part of downtown Vegas. The entire street is a big pedestrian plaza with a wire canopy overhead containing 12 million LED lighting modules and a state-of-the-art sound system ... at night they project this giant laser-like show called the Fremont Street Experience. It's so camp it's cool! All the bars and casinos along Fremont Street are a bit dated, but they have so much more soul than many of the newer places along Las Vegas Blvd. Vegas Travel Tip No. 5: DO NOT miss Fremont Street.

Our stay was for five days and four nights (longer than usual), and we made the most of them. I can't really remember sleeping ... we just did fun stuff constantly. Our best move ... actually, Trevor made the decision ... was that we rented a car. About half the trip, we hung out and worked the slots and blackjack tables at Binion's and Fitzgeralds and the Four Queens. I had my first celebrity sighting ... I was rammed and shoved out of the way by a very drunk Billy Bob Thornton. I also swear I saw Tom Hanks getting in an elevator and Sarah Chalke having dinner, but my friends refused to validate my star sightings.

During the other times, we explored Vegas and all the places we'd marked in our tour book. We drove to Rio on West Flamingo for the Carnival World Buffet, supposedly the biggest buffet in all of Las Vegas. We stopped at the Orleans and bowled (with copious amounts of liquor) at 3 a.m. in the morning in a 24-hour, 70-lane facility that was as much a nightclub as it was a bowling palace. We spent one afternoon at the Main Street Brewery and Casino taking a one-hour professional craps lesson, only to return at 2 a.m. to befriend a middle-aged croupier named Martin who really showed us and six other tourists how to play roulette ... the "little wheel." Forget craps and its "hard sixes" and "easy fours" ... I liked the outside "dozens" bets and six line inside bets because the odds were low (you might make a little, you might lose a little) and the action wasn't so fast and furious that you needed an advanced degree to follow the action. Ed's mom was a fan of roulette, too. She had instructed him to place a $20 bet on 8 black ... 35-to-1 odds ... Ed's mom made $700 less the $40 he (his mom, actually) tipped middle-aged Martin. I also badgered my friends to visit the Las Vegas Hilton and allow me to out my inner sci-fi geek at the Star Trek Experience (which has also closed since), a multimillion dollar installation of models, space-themed casino games, an outrageous gift shop, a bar modeled after "Quark's" complete with Andorian blue beer, foaming Romulan ale, and alien servers and patrons (including an angry Klingon who picked a fight with me ... Trevor kissed him on the lips to shut him up!), and a 4-D adventure ride/excursion that puts you in the middle of a realistic Star Trek mission ... the effect of being "transported" was super cool! One night, we got tickets to see the Naked Ladies of Magic ... each act had at least one stupendous pair of "magic orbs," and often more. Well worth the price of admission. Another night, on the insistence of Ed on info from an old buddy, we drove all the way out past Nellis Air Force Base to some 24-hour taco place for "the world's meatiest tacos" ... they were out-of-this-world good. And finally, on our last evening (our flight left the next morning), we stopped at the Tropicana to lose a little ... our gambling mantra for this particular trip. I played the slots, putting a crisp-ish $100 bill in and just jamming through maximum bets. First pull ... nothing. Second pull ... nothing. Third pull ... got a hit and some tokens back. Five ... six ... seven ... eight ... zip. Pull nine began and then I was suddenly assaulted by these clanging bells and a noise that sounded like a little girl screaming. Later, my friends explained that the bells were to announce that I had just won close to $8,000, and the little screaming girl sound was me!! I bought steak and lobster for everyone ... the $5.99 after midnight special at some seedy little place on Fremont. I still have the casino check in a frame.

After reading about all these things, you might be thinking, damn, Las Vegas is non-stop fun. But remember I mentioned ups AND downs. One of the big "downs" was Steve. Steve liked a neat and tidy vacation, so he tried to schedule our daily activities instead of just letting things happen. He became very annoying. So did Annie, his fiancee back home. She kept tabs on Steve the entire trip and expected him to check in each night at midnight. And even though he had a cell phone, Steve thought it was better to call her from the hotel room where it was quieter. Steve missed bowling ... and roulette ... and the taco run. Steve missed a bunch. Steve will probably (definitely) not be invited again. Vegas Travel Tip No. 6: Don't Take Steve.

Several months later, Trevor called about another Vegas run. At first I said no, but I got tired of hearing him talk about planning the trip ... and then someone backed out and he really needed a "fourth" to keep things balanced. I agreed and we whisked off for another five days and four nights, this time lodging at the Monte Carlo, right next door to New York, New York. The trip sucked. We had fun, but it wasn't non-stop. We tried to "redo" a few things from the last trip, but it just felt forced and hollow. And Ed wasn't on this trip and, frankly, he was way more fun than the other two friends combined.

her things, too, added to the lackluster experience. For the first time, our flights were not non-stop. Going west, we stopped in Chicago ... coming east, we sat in Phoenix for three hours. Also, we had booked two adjoining rooms, but ended up with two rooms several floors apart. Trevor and I got the room on the lower floor just off the elevators ... very convenient. Seth (Trevor's neighbor) and R.J. (a friend of the good friend who canceled) got a much nicer room ... I was kind of jealous. We got a few vouchers for our troubles, but there were some times when the adjoining rooms would have been so much more convenient.

ne evening after I aborted my attempt to ride the bungee thing on top of the Stratosphere ... I honestly almost puked when I got to the front of the line ... we were having drinks and we realized we had about 30 hours of Vegas left and we were all ready to go home. I was $600 down and in the best financial shape of the quartet. We found some filler activities, but we were actually at the airport about four hours early just because it seemed closer to being home.

o, now trip six is complete. It was three days and two nights at the Luxor again ... enough time to have fun but leave you wanting more. I played roulette at several casinos and only lost a little. I bought M&M stuff for some friends at work, and we bowled in the middle of the night again creating a scoring system that involved tequila shots. We drank vodka at a cool bar at Mandalay Bay and watched the talking "gods" show at Caesar's. We even grabbed a cab and watched the Fremont Street Experience in all its glory ... one of the guys on this trip had never seen it and I'm always up for classic Vegas. One afternoon, we spent two hours in a bingo parlor ... it was a blast! We had prime rib TWICE and even ventured into a seedy strip club with very sticky floors.

I think November may be too soon for a "rematch" ... but attending a real boxing match in Vegas
would be fun!

OF RANT: Vacationing is great, but so is coming home ... you get to gloat about how much fun you had!!

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