How I Spent My Winter Vacation

by Alan J. Claffie

The last time we were in Las Vegas was in November 2002. Six years later, one could ask "how much could it change?"

It's changed a lot since that first trip, and I don't know if all the changes are going to make it that much better.

We had to be in the Los Angeles area for the weekend but we flew out a couple days early so we could spend a couple days in the desert. We stayed at the Palms that first time and it was pretty nice so we elected to stay there again. First sign of change was discovered when making those reservations. I didn't know they put up a second hotel tower since we were there last.

We flew out of Dulles Airport the morning of Inauguration Day. There's no better way to celebrate Washington DC's turning itself upside down and inside out over the installation of a new President than by getting the heck away from there. The Jetblue flight to Long Beach, CValifornia was painless and, once on the ground, it was time to get the rental car.

Jerry Seinfeld did this bit the best, but our fun with Hertz is a close second. Our reservation was for a mid-sized sedan, and there weren't any. Granted, our flight got in half an hour early, but does Hertz really cut things this close? At first, we were given a choice of alternatives: a Nissan 350Z convertible or a minivan. The 350 was tempting but wouldn't hold all our luggage, while Kate didn't want to spend a week driving a minivan. The third choice was to wait and see what showed up. We elected to wait, but only for a short while before deciding to get going in a minivan was better than sitting around in nothing. That would have worked out great except the minivan was no lonhger available.

This left us in a Pontiac G6. Its trunk barely held our two suitcases;p everything else had to go in the back seat. Strike two came shortly after we got going. Plugging in a cell phone charger and GPS resulted in nothing happening since neither outlet was working. This wasn't going to be a serious problem with our phones since we brought the house chargers for them, but we did not do so for the GPS. We'd have to use it sparingly, and when it was kaput, it was kaput.

The drive to Las Vegas was uneventful. I'd followed the route on Google Maps and it looked like we'd be spending a lot of time in desolation, which is to be expected in a desert, but it didn't seem as desert-like as I'd expected. I figured we'd see long views of nothing but sand for miles on end but the road was lined on both sides by rocky mountains, and the terrain was a lot more hilly than I thought. I also thought that one could see the strip rising out of the desert while still many miles away, but it kinda popped up out of nowhere not soon before we were already on top of it.

When we got to the Palms, I was surprised to see a third tower on the site. When we checked in, we discovered that this was the building we were going to be staying in. It's called Palms Place: hotel, condos, and spa. Our room was on the 35th floor with a view of the strip and it was spectacular. Amazing room, balcony, lounging space, and even the bathroom was a cut above what we were expecting. We hadn't been in there long before asking each other if we really had to go back to L.A. for the weekend.

The first place we went was Fremont Street, or I something like that. Old Downtown. No shortage of neon on street-level casinos, and a roof over the sidewalk that turned into a tenth-mile long video screen. On the hour, the street turned dark and the roof turned into a multimedia show featuring a couple George Thorogood songs. It's not the fountain show at the Bellagio, but cool nonetheless.

On the way back to the Palms we saw that there is plenty of construction on the strip, and even with all the coolness that is the Las Vegas strip, I don't think it's going to be that cool that much longer. But more on that later.

Wendesday morning dawned sunny and cool, and we were off in search of a dam. Hoover Dam is a lot bigger in pictures than it is when you're standing on top of it. The height of the structure is impressive, but for some reason I thought it was something like a mile across. In reality, it's only about a quarter-mile drive. The roads leading up to it and away from it were Miata-worthy and it's a shame that the Pontiac was far from Miata-like. And while traffic wasn't heavy while we were there, an impressive bridge is under construction to bypass the whole thing with a boring straight road - but one, we imagine, that'll have a pretty impressive view.

Mr.Photogeek brought a pair of cameras along for the ride: the super-duper all-singing all-dancing D100 and the relatively simple and significantly cheaper Fuji S700. Both took great photos but even I have to admit that I got better color out perhaps even better clarity out of the Fuji cheapie. I could have spent more time fiddling with the Nikon's various settings but that was testing Kate's patience as she said "you're becoming that guy again". The Nikon is very good at taking photos of race cars at speed on a race track, maybe it'll be left to that duty and I'll only have to get away with carrying a smaller/lighter/easier Fuji on future boondoggles.

As mentioned before, the car was not charging electronic devices, specifically the GPS. We tried to fix it by going to Fry's Electronics to see if they had a home charger for the Magellan but came up empty. Back outside, we realized we were basically at the end of one of the big airport's runways. Flight after Southwest flight came in for a landing basically right on top of us so Mr.Photogeek got the Nikon out of the trunk and waited for the next one. And waited. And waited. Finally one flew over us and I got my shots, wondering if we were going to be arrested before we got out of there. It was neat to see, but not quite as cool as the precision formation Air Force team whose name escapes me that we saw last time out.

Next on the agenda was a walk on the strip. It's nice but someone really really has to do something about the dudes who line the sidewalk with their flyers for brothels or sex phone lines or whatever they're trying to foist on passersby. Some of them got so bad that you figure they're not that far from sticking the flyers right in your pants pocket if they thought they could get away with it. I wouldn't wish harm on most people but if I read an article tomorrow about a bus careening out of control, crashing onto the sidewalk and taking out a dozen or more of these guys, I wouldn't feel too bad about it.

We didn't venture far after parking at the MGM Grand. We tried some cheap video poker but didn't fare well, so we moved on. At the Paris, we struck gold, relatively speaking, and turned one dollar into six. Thinking we were on a hot streak, we ran off to the next casino in line and put those six bucks into a quarter video poker machine. It disappeared in no time flat.

We wrapped up the night taking in a couple fountain shows at Bellagio and then back to the Palms for a buffet dinner.

Thursday morning we packed up and hit the road for L.A. As we left civilization behind us, I wasn't too bent out of shape leaving Las Vegas behind. Yeah, it's a cool town with plenty to see and do. But the entire strip is under construction. Our view from the balcony at Palms Place saw a lot of construction cranes on the strip, a mile or so away. They're putting up huge complexes in spaces where I didn't think there was space for more major developments. I figure it's not going to be long before the strip's going to be wall-to-wall hotels packed at maximum density. The constant dodging of those pamphleteers turned what should have been a nice walk on a Wednesday evening into a headache I could easily live without.

I guess Vegas is something that has to be done every once in a while just to keep up with the changes and see what's new. Whether these changes wind up becoming overkill with the increasing emphasis on it being an adult playground rendering the place irrelevant to those who don't need strip shows and phone hotlines to get one's kicks. We'll probably go back sometime, but I'm not really in any hurry to do so.

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