Friday, January 27, 2012

Las Vegas Christmas 2011

For Christmas 2011, my family decided to do something a bit less traditional, a trip to the Grand Canyon via Las Vegas.

We flew from Richmond to Detroit and then into Las Vegas. McCarran, Las Vega’s Airport is right next to the strip. It turned out that our hotel was closer to the airport then the rental car company location. We rented from budget Fox rent a car. I would not advise to rent from them because you have to take 2 shuttles from the Airport. The shuttles are waste of time and it just adds to the worry when you need to be at the airport at 5am and you have to make sure to get both shuttles.
We stayed at the Desert Rose Resort. It was right off the strip. The hotel was very nice and had very reasonable rates. It included breakfast each morning, which after the first morning, we found was important to be there very early.
In the Lobby of the Bellagio.
    We arrived late in the evening, so the next day we explored around the Strip. We first walked around the strip first stopping at the MGM Grand and viewing the white tigers in their native habitat. Then we walked across Las Vegas Boulevard and explored the Bellagio. The Bellagio is a temple to excess and honestly, incredible. We had lunch at Chipotle, then we continued walking north. We eventually decided to turn around and visited the Imperial Plaza because I wanted to see their classic car exhibit. It is run by Don Williams who owns the Blackhawk museum in Danville, CA.
That day we purchased tickets to Vegas the Musical. Before the show we bought sandwiches from the Earl’s of Sandwich, which is located inside the Planet Hollywood shopping place. One of the sandwich’s we enjoyed with the Thanksgiving Sandwich. Vegas: The Musical was very good variety show with a full band.
The next day, we woke up and went to Wal-Mart! We then drove west to Spring Mountain State Park, which was the home of Vera Krupp, famous for being the owner of the Krupp diamond. The ranch was purchased later and owned by Howard Hughes, however it is unknown if he actually ever visited the ranch. After a small-guided tour by the state park ranger we drove north to Red Rock Canyon National Lands. This area is federal and managed by the BLM. The park includes a 13-mile area Loop Road that provided amazing vistas of the rock formations. The visitor’s center was new and provided excellent exhibits on the history of the lands. The center was divided into sections discussing fire, water, air and their effect on the land.
At Red Rock Canyon National Lands
After spending time exploring the state park we drove to Costco. This Costco was very exciting because it sold gelato, which was made in house. I had never been to Costco that sold gelato. Being Christmas Eve the traffic was extremely busy inside Costco. We then headed back to the strip. We drove to the Luxor and parked in the self-park area in the back. For a new visitor to Las Vegas it was nice to know every place had plenty of free parking. We inquired about going to view the Titanic exhibit and realized that it would be cheaper to purchase the tickets from one at half price tickets counters located on the strip. Mom and Ellie went to go view the Hitzville Review Show, a selection of Motown impersonators.
Lunch as Serendipity 3
Alicia and I went to the Mirage to see the 9.30 Cirque du Soleil the Beatles’ Love at the Mirage. We had dinner inside the Mirage at a burger place called BLT. The seating in the theater was all around the stage. The production was incredible and the music was intense. The choreographed movements were psychedelic in nature and breathtaking to watch.
Not Love but Beatleshow coverband at Planet Hollywood
          The next day, Saturday, Alicia and I went back to Red Rock Canyon to do some hiking. We hiked at the Icebox trail and the Red Rocks trail. Both were very enjoyable but would be more fun when the streams actually had some water. We returned and stopped by the grocery store Albertson's picking up lunch items and then we picked up Ellie and Mom at the Treasure Island Casino.

Alicia and I hiking at Red Rock Canyon.
The next day was Christmas, after a later start we again headed to the Mirage, to see Siegfried and Roy’s Hidden Habitat, which included dolphins and tigers. We were confused about the hotel checkout date from the hotel and were obvious that we needed to check out on the 25th. So, we went back to the hotel and packed our belongings.
Through I found the restaurant Tacos el Gordo, which was at incredible restaurant and a great place to have a Christmas dinner of pork on top of French fries.
We then went downtown Las Vegas and explored. We saw the illuminated covered street near Binion’s. We watched a short show on the board, which was very impressive and possibly a bit excessive.
That night we stayed at the Super 8 just off the strip. It billed itself as the largest Super 8 the world. On the property was the Ellis Island Casino, we were given $10 to gamble by joining their “exclusive club”. It was the only time Alicia, Mom and I gambled on the trip and our combined earnings actually paid for the Super 8 hotel bill.
Alicia and I at the Grand Canyon, looking over the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.
The next morning, December 26 we woke up early and headed to the Hoover Dam. We arrived early and were able to go on the first tour are of the day. We went on just the basic tour. The tour took you inside the dam showing some of the generators and one of the emergency release tubes. Just seeing the Dam is very impressive. We were glad to arrived early because once we were leaving at 11, the tour lines had already become very long.
We next headed south towards Laughlin, Nevada. There is a small car Museum inside one of the casinos. It was an interesting exhibit and it was neat to see a different side of the gambling in Nevada. Laughlin is on the Colorado River and it is on the border to Arizona. After a little exploring in Laughlin, we headed east towards Kingman, Arizona. In Kingman we visited a small museum devoted to Route 66. The exhibits seemed outdated and were not particularly interesting. We then headed south towards Phoenix. After another few hours in the car, we arrived in Phoenix finding a La Quinta hotel for the night. Next-day: Taliesin West.

In front of Taliesin West.
           We woke up early and headed towards Scottsdale driving to the downtown, we then headed towards Taliesin West. Again, we had the first tour of the day to explore Taliesin with the guide. I have not yet visited Taliesin in Spring Green Wisconsin, but I was struck that Taliesin West seemed much smaller than I envisioned. Throughout the tour, Frank Lloyd Wright wass hailed as the most amazing and architect in 20th century America. He was definitely an fascinating architect, but I never realized that he was always keeping one step ahead on his finances. Taliesin West is still a working architecture school and uses Wright’s innovative, hands-on approach in education. In some ways, it is incredible that Taliesin West is still in existence. I never knew Wright used many cheap or free materials when he could. Wright would design around something if it could be had for a bargain. Fortunately, the weather was wonderful in Scottsdale. One major item that had changed since Wright lived at Taliesin West was the addition of major power lines that now obstructed the view into Phoenix. Wright lived in Scottsdale during the mild winters. I could not imagine spending the summer in Phoenix.

Another picture from Taliesin West.

Having been mentioned on the tour multiple times, we decided next ahead in the Phoenix Biltmore. Its design is classic Frank Lloyd Wright, melding to its landscape but not distracting from the landscape in its quintessential Art Deco style. It was what definitely one of the most beautiful hotels I’d ever seen. RM auctions has its annual Scottsdale auction at the Arizona Biltmore.
We were looking at the other attractions in Scottsdale and Phoenix and decided to head north towards Prescott, Arizona. Prescott is a little gem of a town rich in history. We have wanted to visit the Sharlot Hall Museum, however, we would not make it in time for its 5 PM closing, so we decided to stay in Prescott for the evening. The downtown surrounds the courthouse square in classic American style. The courthouse was decorated for the holidays and they were going to have their first annual boot dropping to celebrate the New Year. That evening, we had dinner at the Prescott Brewing Company, which had great drinks and food. The meal was one of the highlights of the trip for its “cowboy” cooking and reasonable prices.
Dinner at Prescott Brewing Company.
The next morning we went to the Sharlot Hall Museum. It is a complex of historically significant buildings that was assembled in the 1920s by local historian Sharlot Hall. During the Civil War while Arizona was a territory, Prescott was the territories capital. Prescott was chosen over the more populous Tucson because Tucson was a haven for Confederates. The museum was interesting but what made each building more fascinating were the knowledgeable staff that were able to answer any questions. After we finished at the museum we headed for Jerome, Arizona. We hoped to have lunch and Jerome.
Jerome, Arizona
Jerome is literally situated on the side of the mountain. I had never seen a city in the United States that seem to be clinging to the side of the mountain like Jerome. By the time we arrived in Jerome it seemed like every tourist in Arizona was currently there. We looked at a few menus but nothing seemed particularly interesting or affordable so after a short walk around town, we headed towards Cottonwood. There we stopped at Safeway and picked up some sandwiches.
Next, we drove to Sedona, an amazing little town surrounded by the most beautiful red rocks. It was late afternoon and traffic was busy and so we continued driving on scenic route 89A towards Flagstaff. It was a beautiful 45-minute drive through a valley, with many curves following the riverbed.
When you think about Arizona, you think about desert, but as we arrived in Flagstaff, many people were coming back from the ski resorts after a day of skiing. Because we were tired, and had another hour and a half to Grand Canyon Village, we kept driving and did not stop in Flagstaff. We took 180 North (and west) towards the Grand Canyon Village. We passed many people heading back to Flagstaff for the evening. We arrived in Grand Canyon Village at the Holiday Inn Express and were very surprised that the hotel was fully booked for the evening. Fortunately we had reserved a room in November and gotten a much better rate, it was good we made reservations.
Grand Canyon
Alicia at I at the "corkscrew".
On the first day in the Grand Canyon Mom and Ellie were going to take a mule ride. Alicia and I dropped him off at the Bright Angel Lodge and we headed down the Bright Angel trail. The top part of the trail was especially treacherous due to the ice on the trail. The trail was not busy and the temperature started in the 30s. It was was also cool because we were in the shade. We did not really have a specific timetable for how far we were going to hike, we just wanted to get a really good view of the Grand Canyon from inside. I had read multiple reports that you cannot hike the 9 miles to the Colorado River and back in one day, so we were not going to attempt this. The trail is also a deceiving because the easy part is going down and the hard part is coming back up the guide suggested spending one third of your time going down and two thirds climbing back up. Alicia and I just kept on going, passing the Indian River Campground and eventually hiking about six to 6 ½ miles into the canyon where we found a vantage point called the “corkscrew” which provided 360° viewpoints of the canyon. It was an incredible sight. On the way back up we encountered some deer on the trail. For me, the toughest part was the last 2 miles, which despite the switchbacks are steep especially when you have already been hiking for 4 to 5 hours. Alicia and I hiked from 8:30 AM and arrived back at Bright Angel Lodge at 3 PM. We found a quick snack in the Bright Angel Lodge. We explored a little bit more around the area seeing the Kolb studio and the luxurious El Tovar hotel.
At the start of the Bright Angel Trail.
I would definitely suggest that the time to visit the Grand Canyon is during Christmas. The temperatures were excellent for hiking the crowds were nonexistent. I cannot imagine hiking on the Bright Angel Trail with temperatures above 100° and many people and lines of people on the trail.
We headed back to the hotel, rested and went across the street to the Best Western Hotel, which had a “cowboy” dinner, which was utterly disappointing. The interesting thing about Grand Canyon Village is that all the workers are brought in and live in company owned housing, that results in higher prices and I’m sure for the workers, an interesting social dynamic.
The next day we woke up and went down to breakfast, which was done much better at the Holiday Inn because they had two lines to get food and it never seemed as busy as the Desert Rose Inn. I imagine during the summer it is especially crowded at breakfast. We drove back into the park and went on the 25-mile driving loop, which afforded amazing views of the canyon. It was incredible because we were there early in the morning and at many of the viewpoints, which had 25+ parking spots we were the only people there. We then drove back to the Bright Angel Lodge area and went to the Hopi House which was a store containing various Native American made goods. The coolest item in the store was an image of Albert Einstein visiting Hopi house in the 1920s and wearing Native American dress.
After some shopping, we left the park heading south to Interstate 40 and Seligman, Arizona. We stopped in Williams, Arizona, a quaint town that owes its success to its location on Route 66. The town was full of stores selling various souvenirs of a bygone era. Then we headed west on I-40 and got off in Seligman to drive the scenic route of Route 66 through Peach Springs. I had heard positive things about Peach Springs, which is located on the Indian reservation. However, when we arrived in Peach Springs we did not see anything in town that looked worthy for a stop, so we kept driving west.
Alicia and Mom at the "Cowboy Dinner".
We continued on to Kingman, Arizona, then headed north on 93. Through the Hotel Tonight iPhone app, I had found a greatly reduced rate at the Stratosphere Hotel. Which is where we decided to spend our last night before a 6 AM flight. We drove back finding some “rush hour” as we drove through Boulder City, Nevada. We arrived back in Las Vegas around seven after a quick fill up of gas at Costco.
In the "Pawn Stars" store.
That night Alicia and I explored the Pawn Store from “Pawn Stars” which is located a few blocks away from the Stratosphere. It was simply a pawnshop. It is funny how television seems to be able to glorify anything. We also stopped at another Taco stand located just north of the strip. It provided a nice “last dinner” for the trip.
The next morning, we woke early and then it hit us. I had left the keys with Alicia and Ellie when Mother and I went in to check-in to the hotel. After checking in, we left the keys in the ignition and locked the car. So it is 3.30am, we have a 6 am flight and the keys are locked in the car. Fortunately after calling AAA only a few minutes later Juan from AAA showed up, we got into the car and we made it to the airport, with no minutes to spare. We made a flight and were safely on our way back to Richmond. What an adventure!

Here is a map of a the places we visited (and a few we did not): 

View Las Vegas 2011 in a larger map

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