Archive | Travel RSS feed for this archive

Barcelona: Dia Dos


Yesterday I went in search of soup. (Long story. Short version: I love Euro cup of soup.) Destination: Carrefour. For those of you unfamiliar with buying American-size groceries in Europe, Carrefour is a gigantic French supermarket chain. Kind of like a Safeway blended with Target. If I had any hope of locating a mass quantity of Knorr cup-of-soup, Carrefour was it. Simple errand, right?

Turns out, not so much.

For starters, my version of the plan involved acquiring a bike. Bikes and scooters are my new thing for international travel, a private version of public transportation. It’s still technically public transportation since I’m, er, in public and transporting myself.

I had planned on renting a bike but R has family here and his super-cool aunt ordered me up a residents-only Bicing pass. Bicing is like Zipcar for bikes only you don’t have to return the bike to the station where you picked it up and you pay by the year not the hour. Also, inexplicably, there is no hard “c” sound in “Bicing” like there is in “car”.

Here’s how that went:

Assessment Phase.
I think the nearest Bicing rack is a schlep. I look out the window of our hotel room. There’s a rack downstairs. Excellent. Smooth start.

Acquisition Phase.
I do not read instructions. I prefer to be an idiot, often in public, while trying hard to look nonchalant and in the know. It’s kind of a hobby of mine.

In keeping with that plan, I go outside and try to insert my Bicing card into various parts of the bicycle to release it from the rack. I can confirm that it is possible to slide a card between the light and the light fixture. Naturally, this does not release the bike, but I’m just letting you know in case you need somewhere to store a single business card while you’re biking.

I watch a guy drop off his bike and stare intently at the rack for a second before he leaves. I follow his lead and stare intently at the rack. My laser vision does not kick in and release the bike.

I go back into the hotel, back into the elevator, back into our room, reconnect my laptop to the internet and try to read the “how to release your stupid bike from the stupid rack” instructions on the Bicing site. The site comes up in Catalan. I stare intently at the screen. My laser vision does not burn a hole in the screen or translate it into English.

I go to Wikipedia because I am a genius. So is Wikipedia which explains how you have to use your card at the pole at the end of the rack. I didn’t see a pole but am open to the possibility that I am blind, so I go back outside and have a bike in my possession in under 10 seconds.

(The instructions say that staring is necessary to determine if the bike has locked back into the rack when you return it. So much for laser vision.)

Riding Phase.
The bikes weigh a ton and many of them are in some kind of disrepair, but I’m on my way and console myself for all the trouble by telling myself that even though I have blonde hair and hips I look like a Spaniard.

Navigating Phase.
Having no sense of direction is a significant barrier to getting anywhere.

Also a barrier: the total lack of bike lanes along my chosen route. That route turns out to be pretty much a freeway, so I weave my way across the city, making ever possible wrong turn. It takes me an hour and a half to make a trip that should take about 20 minutes.

Drop-Off Phase
When I drop off my bike to go into the grocery store, I cannot get it to lock into the rack. The bike appears to now be mine permanently. I try my nonchalance thing again, turning away for a second like I don’t care. Sadly, that doesn’t turn the “I’m locked” light on. I try my stare again. No luck. I ask a girl who comes to return her bike. The system has flaws, she says. We try the fourth slot. It works. I run off to Carrefour.

Soup Phase.
Carrefour has no Knorr soups. Let’s not get into my disappointment.

I buy hairspray and chocolate instead.

Return Phase.
I pick up a different bike for the return trip, load up my stuff, bike three feet and realize the bike has no brakes. I consider suicide by bike. Instead, I return to the rack, unload, redock the bike, release a different bike, load up and start on my revised route home.

Turns out my revised route is all one-way streets going the other way. I keep going anyway because variables are the enemy.

Two and a half hours to go about four miles on a bike. On the up side, I have chocolate and am not dead.

R has a card too so we decide to bike to our dinner date. We go to the Bicing rack which has four bikes locked to it. My card releases a bike. R swipes his card. The screen says, “No bikes are available. Your next nearest Bicing stations is at blah blah blah.” We look at the bikes locked three feet away. We look back at the screen. Bikes. Screen. Bikes. Screen. I decide that the Bicing system is trying to make me insane. I walk away. I think I can hear diabolical laughter behind me.

Barcelona: The Packing Job


I am wandering around the apartment in a pair of olive suede ballet flats with bronze ribbons and a white terry bathrobe. You’re right: I do look like a high-end homeless person.

There is clothing strewn on every surface in the living room and bedroom. Dresses, swimsuits, a pile of clean laundry, gym clothes, scarves, flip flops. Who knows? There might even be a puppy or a scrumptious dinner under one of the heaps. That would be sweet. Much sweeter than packing for Spain, I can tell you that much. Hell, a dull book would be sweeter than this packing job.

Here’s what happened. On my last trip, I packed like a drunk toddler. I took nothing long-sleeved, nearly overlooked pants entirely and ended up with 150 T-shirts, 40 pounds of magazines and some tall boots to go with the 85-degree weather on the east coast.

It wasn’t my best effort.

So now I’m making up for it by packing for every single event that could even remotely happen during the ten days we’ll be in Barcelona. Bull fight? Covered. Dinner at the beach? Check. Jamón shopping? Yes. Staring cluelessly at natives trying to explain the metro? I have an outfit specifically for that. (It definitely involves a belt and might include, if things go sideways, a tiara.) Clubs? Done. Sulking in the hotel? Ole!

I’m telling you, there is no eventuality I have overlooked. Do you know how I know? Because I am taking everything I own. It’s the only way to know for sure that you’ll have everything you need. Except for mobility, that is, but that’s a small price to pay for security, don’t you think? Yes. It is.

Unrelated, does anyone have the phone number of a sherpa willing to work internationally?

Barcelona: Packing Checklist


Packing is my Waterloo. The only antidote to overpacking is careful planning. Since I have less than a week before we leave for Spain, it’s time and I’m the one. Here’s where we stand as of this morning:

  1. I’ve checked with American Airlines’ web site and sure enough, as long as I pay the $100 fee, I can bring a javelin to Spain. That’s a relief. I was worried that I wouldn’t have anything to do at the Olympic stadium. Now I just need to find a javelin emporium and someone who can teach me how to throw one in under a week and I’m all set.

    Mind you, my javelin can’t weigh more than 70 lbs. or they won’t accept it. This is very generous of them since women’s regulation javelins clock in at 1.32 lbs. I’m assuming that that that means I can bring 53 of them. (Of course, I’d bundle them up like firewood and wrap them in bubble wrap to make one single 70-lb. javelin. I’m not an idiot.)

    If I had 53 on-hand, I could give three of them as hostess gifts to R’s godmother and her daughters, whom we’ll be seeing while we’re there, and still have 50 to lose in the outfield. Perfect.

  2. My antlers will cost another $100 to bring along. I’m not sure I’ll need antlers while I’m there, but you never know. Our hotel room might be too drab to tolerate and there’s nothing like a good set of branching antlers to liven up corporate digs.

    I wonder if Javelins ‘R’ Us also carries taxidermy.

  3. The Encyclopedia Britannica in 32 volumes is a must-have on the road. I think Spain has electricity and internet access, but you can’t be too careful when you’re dealing with mission-critical information, so better safe than sorry. What would I do if someone asked me about the half-life of strontium or the primary exports of the Niger Delta and I was Wikipedia-less? I’d look like a fool, that’s what. The American reputation abroad is damaged enough after the Bush years. I don’t need to add to that national burden just because I couldn’t be bothered to be prepared.
  4. Fresh eggs are a luxury of the modern world that soften the blow of hangovers and jetlag. I care enough about my own comfort abroad to make sure that I have a nice soft-boiled one waiting for me at breakfast every morning.

    Don’t worry: I’ll pack them carefully. Ten eggs, one for each day, wrapped carefully in a clean shirt, stuffed gently inside a shoe or boot in my suitcase and handed over to conscientious professional baggage carriers should do the trick.

  5. As I understand it, in countries with suspicious water supplies, you can’t drink tap water nor can you have their ice, which is, of course, made from the tap water. I have no reason to believe that Spain has issues with water-borne illnesses, but really, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything, right? So safety first: I’m taking ice with me. Two large bags should be plenty and shouldn’t weigh more than, say, 20 lbs., which, happily is exactly the carry-on weight limit on international flights. Since it’s a solid and not a liquid, it shouldn’t be a problem to take it on the plane with me.

I love it when a plan comes together. This is going so smoothly already, I can’t imagine how anything could possibly go wrong.

Barcelona: Ramp Up


We leave in less than two weeks. I have no plans. I haven’t packed. Nothing’s sorted. It’s very unlike me. Also, I’m not excited. Weird, right? At one end is duty-free and at the other is Spain. What’s not to be excited?

I think I’m worn out from other recent trips and all the wedding planning pressure on top of the career change. Can I go into the hospital for “exhaustion” like celebrities do? Or is that really a euphemism for coke addiction? In which case, I guess not. Maybe I could get addicted to coke to get me through all this and then I’d be justified in taking a nice long break at one of those pretty rehab facilities. Not a good idea, you say? Drugs are not the answer? Well, that just seems narrow minded re: how to get a nice rest. *sigh*

I’m trying to kickstart my enthusiasm by spending swaths of time reading up on the city on-line and off. So far here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. Ham. Jamón ibérico to be precise. At about $75/lb. I’m thinking setting up an import/export venture might be a good way to finance my writing career. Also, it would give some structure to my time in Spain. I’m working on a way to rebuild my suitcase to accommodate a lining of cured ham.

    Alternatively, I could work on importing the actual pigs, but I’m thinking they’re probably bigger than a carry-on. Also, noisy. And unaccustomed to travel. So that’s definitely a fallback position.

  2. Solidifying my dislike for Gaudi. Everyone likes Gaudi now except me, so I feel that I need to make a strong stand. Let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with: 128 years to build a church? Seriously? That is clearly a man without a plan. Your average pyramid was built in 30 years. Is this really gonna be better than 42 pyramids? Really?

    All that disorganization just rubs me the wrong way. Also, the tile work is lost on me. Just because it’s 1000 times bigger than my sixth grade craft project doesn’t mean it’s 1000 times better. That’s all I’m saying.

    (Please don’t get all worked up about this the way you do when I say I hate jazz: I can respect the effort without enjoying the output, so leave me alone already.)

  3. Acquisition of Kleenex and cup-of-soup. You haven’t had cup-of-soup until you’ve had European Knorr Cup-of-Soup. I lived on the stuff when I was a student in Switzerland and, layering on years of carting boxes of it back from all over Europe, I’m like a sommelier of dried soup. It’s a small market. Maybe as small as just me, but I can’t tear myself away. I love that powdery goodness.

    European Kleenex travel packs are square, not rectangular like the American ones. And I’m not ashamed to be seen with the nice patterns on them. That’s all I’m looking for in a Kleenex pack, really: square, non-annoying.

  4. Renting a bike. I’ve never been in Barcelona when it hasn’t been 153 degrees outside, so a bike has never been a practical option. An air conditioned hamster ball was more in order, but I’ve been stuck with the Metro until they get around to my brilliant hamster ball idea. It’s supposed to be a balmy 72 degrees the entire time I’m there, according to, so I should be good to go. Actually, past ten days out, is listing 72 as the permanent temperature in Barcelona. Which might mean they have no clue what the temperature will be but they’re going out on a non-controversial limb with a soothing 72. No one’s going to object to 72, least of all me on my shiny, shiny bike.

Las Vegas: The Guide: Abbreviated

The Guide ran about 4000+ words. If you’re The Decider for your weekend in Vegas, if you like detail and options, or if you just can’t get enough of my writing, The (long) Guide is for you.

If you’re into being told what to do, if you have a short attention span, or if you just love blunt directives with no explanations, this “You’ll Just Have to Take My Word For It” Guide is for you.


Where to Stay

The Bellagio.

For: Vegas haters, fakery haters, plastic and plaster haters, luxury likers, people looking for a resort (as defined outside Vegas).

On-site worth seeing/doing: Cirque du Soleil’s “O“, the botanical gardens, the art gallery, the Chihuly glass lobby ceiling, the fountains out front.

The Wynn.

For: People looking for a resort as defined within Vegas, serial fine diners, people who like enormous plaster umbrellas.

On-site worth seeing/doing: Boulud restaurants, Cirque du Soleil’s Le Reve.

Palms Place.

For: People who like excellent suite apartments, people who do not plan on leaving their suite apartments except for brunch, people who like bathrobes.

On-site worth seeing/doing: Brunch at Simon. Nothing else.

The Mirage.

For: Fans of wild cats, baby dolphins, and tropical fish.

On-site worth seeing/doing: The Secret Garden, the lobby fish tank, Chihuly glass in the baccarat lounge.

What You Should Do (daytime)

  1. Go to the Bellagio. See the fountain shows out front (every 1/2 hr after noon), gape at the Chihuly ceiling in the lobby, visit the botanical garden next to the lobby, hit the art gallery if you’re into that, and book a ticket to “O”.
  2. Visit the Liberace Museum. Buy as many trinkets as you can, snicker behind your fan and ask a lot of questions. It’s like time travel back to before irony.
  3. See The Secret Garden. It sounds like porn or saccharine kiddie entertainment, but it’s not. It’s cool.

What You Should Do (nighttime)

  1. See a Cirque show, preferably Mystère, or “O“.
  2. Eat dinner someplace nice. Le Cirque (Bellagio), Boulud (Wynn) or any of the other big-name places in The Strip’s behemoth resorts.

What to Avoid

  • Caesar’s Palace and related shopping mall. (Hell on a Triscuit drenched in mayonnaise and Mafia chic.)
  • The Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. (Bad lighting, mini sharks.)
  • Large black pyramids. (Luxor horror.)
  • The Hoover Dam. (Not worth the drive time.)

Have a nice trip, kids!

Las Vegas: The Guide


We had an educational conversation with a bartender at the Wynn who let us in on the hotel-casino rating system. The reviewers look at the rooms, the casino, the entertainment options (theaters, restaurants, activities), and the configuration and rate it all together.

So if your rooms rule but you have no restaurants, you’re screwed. If you have an Iron Chef but no pool, same. It gets a little odd in the finer combinations though: he says the Wynn got five diamonds and the Bellagio only four because the distance from the garage to the casino at Bellagio is too far to be considered “accessible”. He’s wrong – they’re both 5-diamond resorts – but I can still appreciate the annoying specificity of the rating system.

I used a variation of that combo rating system to come up with my recommendations and no complex math was needed. My highest rating went to one place, the Bellagio, and it amounts to, “I like it.” Everyplace else made me a little sick to my stomach and made me wish I had a crock pot or my college diploma or something equally solid to ward off the Vegas schtick.

Pretty much anyone who’s going for a weekend trip and is under 70 is going to gravitate to the massive hotel/casinos on The Strip (actual address: Las Vegas Blvd). If you’re a Vegas regular, are not risk-averse or are leathery and 100 years old, you might head to the old-school places like The Golden Nugget or the Sahara, but that isn’t part of my Vegas 101 curriculum.

Where to Stay

Keep you itinerary in mind when picking a place to stay. The distances in Vegas are not massive but they’re substantial and can be a pain to schlep from one giant casino to another at night. When we’ve gone for events, we’ve stayed with our group: it’s more convenient to be able to stumble back to your room at 3AM than get in a cab. But it’s also meant that we’ve ended up staying at not-great places like the Rio because that’s where the group all found space. Consider the expense-to-convenience-to-comfort ratios when you make your pick.

The Bellagio

If you can swing it, stay at the Bellagio. It’s the most human of all the places we visited. Yes, it’s got the same over-the-top Vegas vibe as everyplace else, but it’s excess isn’t completely tacky: the place is palatial for real. Added bonus: the color scheme does not make you want to run screaming out of the room(s).

The pool area looks like a garden and not a jungle, which is a nice break from the Vegas palms. The corridors aren’t crammed with drunken idiots. The cafes where you’ll end up eating your in-between meals are just as overpriced as everywhere else but the food, unlike everywhere else, is quite good. (Palio was a favorite. Try the panini.)

If you’d like more serious food, you can go all the way up the scale to Vegas’ outpost of the New York premier, 5-star restaurant, Le Cirque, and it’s sister restaurant Circo. For entertainment, Cirque du Soleil’s “O” is installed in its own permanent theater on-site and is worth the price of admission. The water theme takes center stage (literally), so it’s not Cirque’s most mind-bending, pure circus show in Vegas, but it’s still impressive, a pleasure to watch and completely entertaining. If you’re on the fence about circus, this is a great show to win you over.

The Bellagio is also home to the most amazing ceiling anywhere. Well, maybe not anywhere – there’s still the Sistine Chapel – but it’s a thing of beauty. Dale Chihuly installed a few thousand of his glass “flowers” in a space above the lobby and it’s astonishing. Also, Bellagio has it’s own art gallery (with proper world-class exhbitions, not velvet Elvises), an unexpectedly charming and intense botanical gardens (just off the lobby) and the famous Bellagio fountains.

All in all, Bellagio is the full resort package. You’ll like it there. And if you’re not into the Vegas thing, this is the place to insulate yourself from it.

Palms Place

Second choice – purely for the rooms, mind you – would be where we stayed this trip: Palms Place. It’s the new tower at the Palms and the rooms are luxurious without the usual Vegas garbage color schemes and accents: huge floor space, killer bathrooms with overhead showers and jacuzzi tubs, a small kitchen, great beds and, unbelievably, an understated dark wood, taupe, cream and palm green décor that is a pleasant antidote to the rest of Vegas.

Unfortunately, “the rest of Vegas” starts the minute you get out of the elevator at the Palms, so Palms Place is only a good choice if you’re going to stay put and luxury it up on-site (not even across the corridor to the original Palms, which is terrible) or immediately leave the premesis when you leave your room.

The brunch at Simon on the sixth floor of Palms Place is a marvel. The restaurant overlooks the swanky modern pool area, it’s sunny, the servers are in hipster PJs and the menu is a combination of a la carte (the corn-flake encrusted French toast and the dessert plate cannot be missed) and a staffed buffet featuring fruit, sticky rice sushi, wheatgrass shots and other eclectic and tasty delights. It’s worth a trip off The Strip just for the brunch.

There’s no shopping here, if you were looking for that. Except the gift shops, where I bought a Palms Place bathrobe. It’s the one I’ve been hunting for it and I love it like I would love a pet. Since I don’t have a pet, this bathrobe’s getting all the love.

While we’re on the subject of the Palms, a couple more notes:

  • Don’t get sucked in by The Playboy Club on-site at the Palms: you pay an arm and a leg to get a table with bottle service and your bunny will pour your first round and then disappear. That’s it. Only go if you have money to burn or are into the retro leave-something-to-the-imagination bunny thing. There’s no striptease or anything racy, so don’t get all worked up. Bunnies on the job. Done.
  • Paul Oakenfold has a not-so-resident residence at the club here (Rain), but getting in is a nightmare and you’ll be in line with the rest of the Vegas crowd (read: drunken pretenders). If I were you, I’d get my club fix in LA or New York and focus on comp’d drinks in the casinos.
  • Speaking of the casino, the Palms’ is more than usually depressing. The crowd is a worst-of-both-worlds combo of frat boys and oldsters, and my soul shriveled for a moment every time I walked through.

Wynn Las Vegas

The Wynn Las Vegas is next in in line. It’s new and Vegas does new well. It’s also, um, what’s the word? Adult, I guess. Vegas version. Meaning no giant plastic cups of frozen drinks or dealers who look like they’re out on parole . I hear the rooms are good, albeit not the lap of luxury, and Nora Ephron at least is a fan of the breakfast buffet, so that must mean something. The food at the Wynn has a stellar reputation. Daniel Boulud is on-site and the Wynn has a wider than usual range of high-end dining options, so if you’re a foodie, the Wynn might be your first choice after all.

(If you’re following the links to the Wynn site, back me up here: doesn’t Steve Wynn’s voice sound a little like the guy from Men’s Wearhouse? “You’re gonna like the way you look.” Right?)

The water theme has followed Wynn from the Bellagio (which he built and used to own). Cirque du Soleil’s Le Rêve is in residence and the Wynn’s answer to the Bellagio fountains can be found outside the Parasol Down bar: a series of 12 multimedia shows projected on a wall of water and into a pool every half hour in the evenings. Rounding out the entertainment options at the Wynn is Danny Gans. I know: I’ve never heard of him either. He’s listed as, “the epitome of Las Vegas entertainment” and the write-up pegs him as a modern-day Rich Little. Which sounds annoying. Unless you’re 93. Which maybe you are. In which case, enjoy.

Overall, I was disappointed in the Wynn. Judging by the gold exterior and Steve Wynn‘s reputation, I was hoping for someplace sleek, someplace a step up from the Bellagio even. No such luck. Same garish flavor, albeit more expensive garish, as most of the places on The Strip, but its still a cut above as a whole package.


The Mirage rounds out the list and barely made the cut. It won me over with it’s baby dolphin + baby leopard combo. I’m not kidding: they have both. At once. Sadly, they’re not housed in the same enclosure, but they’re within 20 yards of each other and we can live in hope, can’t we?

The Mirage is home to The Secret Garden, where the tiger that ate half of Siegfried and Roy lives. It’s a dolphin research facility / big cat habitat. Don’t ask me what those two have to do with each other, besides tickle the plastic-surgery-addled imaginations of Señors Siegfried and Roy, but somehow it worked out. Both zoo-y attractions are straightforward and appealing and well worth visiting. It’s just dolphins and cats. And a couple of very shaggy, dim-looking llamas who have the look of mice kept next to the python tank.

The Mirage’s thing is being jungle-y, so there are plants and waterfalls and the like all over the place, including around the pool. It’s a little claustrophobic at times, but plants are not made of plastic or plaster, like everything else in Vegas, so I’m fine with feeling a little cramped by them. Behind the reception desk in the lobby is a massive tropical fish tank that is just waiting for a villiain with a machine gun to come by but until then, you can stand and stare.

You don’t need to make a special trip for it, but if you’re at the Mirage, you should swing by the high-limit lounge and baccarat tables at the back edge of the casino and check out more Chihuly glass. Make sure you go in and have a look at the trippy ceiling above the bar but, word to the wise: avoid hallucinogenic drugs before your visit.

The evening entertainment options at the Mirage aren’t outstanding. They’ve got the required Cirque du Soliel act, but it’s Love, a musical show based on Beatles songs, so don’t get your circus-y hopes up. On the other hand, if you’re a Beatles fanatic and not looking for bendy wonders, this might be your bag. The other title act is another sanitized one for the kids and elders: Terry Fator, the ventriloquist and winner of America’s Got Talent. If you can’t trust Jerry Springer and David Hasselfoff‘s opinions, whose can you trust?

Things You Should Do

Cirque du Soleil. I know tickets are pricey, but shop around a bit and get to at least one of the shows: seeing them in a theater built for the purpose is very different from seeing them on tour. Mystère at Treasure Island (or TI as they prefer to be known) and are at the top of the pure circus list and “O” is right there behind them for spectacle. (Love and Zumanity can be missed.)

The Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat are great. The place isn’t huge, but the environments are visitor-friendly and it’s worth an hour and a half to check out the cats and dolphins and go home with a snowglobe. The trainers working with the dolphins and keeping the baby leopard company are the only show, but it was satisfying to see actual engagement with the animals rather than the performances you see elsewhere. If you get reservations, they have a “dolphin trainer for a day” program.

The Liberace Museum. This is an awesome thing. Go. If you don’t have a car, they have a shuttle. The museum’s two buildings bookend a mostly empty strip mall. One has the cars and pianos, the other has the outfits and accessories, and you have to go to both. Even if you’re not into Liberace or his brand of schtick, you have to be impressed by a Rolls Royce covered in tiny mirrors and pants with actual 14-karat gold braid. Also impressive: that a completely gay entertainer could be such a massive hit in red, spangled hot pants before anyone was out. Be warned: the staff loves this guy, so no smart alecky remarks.

The Bellagio fountains. Shows are every half hour from noon (on the weekends, 3PM weekdays) and are very, very worth it. They last about five minutes. Just head over to the front of the Bellagio on The Strip and wait. The music (waltzes, not techno) alone is an oasis in your day of knock-offs and liquor, and the fountains themselves are beautiful.

The Bellagio art galleries. As with any small museum, it all depends on your interest in their focus, but real art is a welcome change from the artificiality of everything else surrounding you.

The Chihuly ceiling in the Bellagio lobby and the adjacent Bellagio Botanical Gardens. Actual art. Actual nature. Both amazing and lovely.

Things You Could Do

Eat. If you’re a foodie, you’re going to love Vegas. You will also put on several pounds, but twil not be seen in you there, trust me. Pick your chef of choice, confirm his cuisine of choice in Vegas (Lagasse, for instance, runs a steakhouse here, not a New Orleans joint) and have at it.

Be warned that the smaller, “cheaper” restaurants scattered throughout the resorts are often overpriced and equally often not very good. You can end up spending a lot of money eating mediocre food, so plan ahead. My recommendation? Bite the bullet on really good dinners at a pretty high price and eat granola bars and fruit the rest of the day. Except on Sunday, when you should spring for brunch too. If you have a car, hit Blueberry Hill diners for the pancakes to start your day.

Shopping. Bellagio is the least obnxious but also most expensive. The Forum Shops at Caesars are a nightmare. The Venetian shops are in the middle. Vegas shopping is mostly chain stores, so if you live near a city, you’re not going to see anything new here. If you live in the middle of nowhere, go wild.

Places You Could Stay

Four of my ten targets are on the “OK” list. You won’t be unhappy at any of these places, but their charms are restricted to specifics.

MGM Grand

The MGM is fine, but it’s huge. Seriously huge. Bring your walking shoes huge. The average rooms are not memorable in either direction. Same for the casino. They do have a (free) lion habitat – MGM, get it? – that has bad-ass lions who roam around instead of lying around, they have , which is one of the two Cirque shows on The Strip that you should see, and they have Joel Robuchon as their requisite celebrity chef. Ultimately though, the place is too damn big to feel like anything but a strip mall melted onto a casino.

Mandalay Bay

I know it’s tricky to build a huge place that doesn’t feel like a cavern, and I wish Mandalay Bay had learned that trick. Since they didn’t, you might want to stay elsewhere. Unless you’re going to spend most of your time at the pool, in which case, maybe this is the place for you. Their pool complex is truly impressive and a see/be seen must if you’ve got the body for it. They even have a stage anchored in the middle of one fo the wading pools, which made the Go-Go’s concert I went to there much more suspensful than it would’ve been otherwise. Risk of electrocution definitely amps up the vibe. Chef Alan Ducasse runs Mix, if you need a culinary fix, and if you’re into Disney, their headline show is The Lion King.

Skip the Shark Reef Aquarium (dark, badly designed aquarium) and go to The Secret Garden at the Mirage instead.

The House of Blues has a private club/restaurant called The Foundation Room that is posh and amazing. If you can get in. There are ways to get around the members-only policy, especially if you’re staying at the resort. Give it a shot: it’s worth it for the views and the Buddha Bar-meets-opium den decor.

The Venetian

Maybe the recession isn’t the time to a visit a place that prides itself on its indoor shopping mall. I was OK with the Venetian the last time I was in Vegas, but on closer inspection it feels like a knock-off of the Bellagio. It’s trying but it’s not quite there. And that indoor canal thing is creepy. I spent the entire time thinking, “Why don’t these people just go to Venice already if they want it so bad?” Of course I know why they don’t all just go to Venice – money, the language, American imperialism, yada yada yada. Unfortunately, the effort to import it left me with a slimy, amusement park taste in my mouth that’s not compatible with the luxury feel they were going for at The Venetian.

Also not in keeping with the classy vibe are their current headliners, David Spade and Wayne Brady (who can be forgiven for that talk show because he killed on Whose Line Is It Anyway?). But I’m OK with those guys because they can compete outside the city limits, which can’t be said about a lot of the performers here. Blue Man Group is their resident theater troupe.

If you’re into celebrity dining, The Venetian takes the cake for sheer volume: they’ve got frozen foods (Wolfgang Puck) to French Laundry (Thomas Keller) with a steakhouse (Emeril Lagasse) and an Iron Chef (Mario Batali) in the middle. They’ve also cornered the celebrity spa market by opening a branch of Canyon Ranch on the fourth floor that’s open to non-guests.

Planet Hollywood

Planet Hollywood was my wild card, replacing New York, New York on the original itinerary and the only non-resort on the list. It stood out as having a uniformly younger clientele and an edgier (read: stripper) focus, as evidenced by the the pole dancers in the casino’s Pleasure Pit, their hosting of the Miss USA pageant, and their “sophisticated, ultra-hot” nightclub show with Mel B (the Spice Girl). PH has a few restaurants and a pool, but is primarily a hotel-casino and doesn’t bill itself as a full resort. I wouldn’t mind staying there just because it’s a little more normal and younger, but it’s not going to be the full-on Vegas resort experience.

By the way, did you know that Miss USA is the one who goes to the Miss Universe pageant, not Miss America? Huh. I have nowhere to file that information, but adding to the global store of my knowledge is always a good thing, don’t you think?

Places Not to Stay

Caesar’s Palace

Holy God. If there was one place we went where I almost had an attack I hated it so much, it was Caesar’s. Celine Dion, Bette Midler and Cher? Kill me now. The dealers wear gold chains over open shirt collars, for Pete’s sake. The ceilings are low, the décor looks like gigantism caught up with Party City and the much-touted Forum Shops at Caesar’s made me physically uncomfortable. (I’m not saying they don’t have Dior and Harry Winston and all the other high-end stores they list on their site. They do. But all the stores in between are Whores ‘R Us. Basically you’re in a mini Mall of America and you won’t be able to forget it. If you want diamonds and Chanel, go to the Bellagio. Otherwise, shop at your local mall before you go and you’ll be all set.)


I seriously do not know why anyone would ever go here. I think they might’ve been trying to corner the guy market with their brown carpets and black pyramid, but the place is godawful. If you were even considering it, keep in mind that Carrot Top and Criss Angel are their idea of a rocking good time. I’m getting a little bit nauseated just thinking back on being there, so let’s move on.

Lower-end places. “Low-end” in Vegas is not good. Trust me. You’ll want to drink yourself to death. (A bartender told me that suicides in Las Vegas are common and kept under tight wraps by the tourism board.)

  • In the words of one of our bartenders, “Circus Circus is a dump.” I don’t like anyone tarnishing the reputation of the circus, but I wouldn’t stake my money and my weekend on that objection.
  • New York, New York has a rollercoaster and it is, er, New York (ish), but by all acounts there’s not a lot to do there. Plus, I don’t like people ripping off New York.
  • Rio. We stayed there a while ago and ick. Just a big Motel 6, if memory serves.

Things You Shouldn’t Do

  • Hoover Dam. Just don’t. Unless you have to drive that route anyway or you’re an engineer, in which case, be my guest. It should be no more than a little over an hour to get out to the dam, have a look and get back on the road to Vegas, but, in reality, it took us two and a half hours to get there, an hour and a half of which was spent on the last 8-mile stretch before the dam in single-lane traffic. Profoundly frustrating and not worth it.

  • Set foot in Caesar’s or The Luxor.
  • The Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. I’m an aquarium person. I love them and I give them a lot of latitude if they throw me a seahorse or two, but this one is not worth the $17 entrance fee or the 150-mile schlep from the entrance. There was no visible effort put into the design and it feels like the kind of thing they tacked on to make the casino kid-friendly. It’s dark. There’s no curation: barely any descriptions of what you’re looking at. The maze of tunnels keeps bringing you back to the same tanks. The diversity and density in the tanks is poor. It’s not educational for kids and it’s not interesting for adults. The thrill of having a 3-foot shark swim above you in a tunnel wears off after a minute – when you realize you were hoping for a 10-foot shark – and you’ll be ready to leave. Hit The Secret Garden (at The Mirage) instead, or even the Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand.

Getting Around

Things are not close together. What you need is a bike, but that’s not going to happen since a.) you will never find one, and b.) in the impossible event that you do find one, you will be instantly killed in traffic.

If you’re considering walking from the Wynn (north end of The Strip) to Mandalay Bay (south end) to see the sites, you will not be fit for human contact at the end of your day. If you’re on foot, assume that you’ll last for about four hours and call it a day by settling onto a stool at a table, a game or a bar. It’s hot, it’s dry and there are a lot of people, all of which try the patience of your normal, sober person. If you’re not sober, you have a better shot, but in that case, you may as well limit your itinerary anyway ’cause you won’t be able to see straight.

Your options are cabs, shuttles or your feet, all of which will cost either your wallet or your patience. If you’re going for an event, staying at the place where the event’s taking place and only plan on one outing for a show, you’re fine.

If you’ll be there for a day or two and you’re a do-er not content with spending your day hungover in bed (like me), just bite the bullet and rent a car. Parking is free at all the resorts, you’ll be able to skip the massive taxi queue at the airport and, most importantly, you’ll feel like you’re not trapped on The Strip and can make multiple round trips to the Liberace Museum. Or the grocery store for snacks, fruit and water at normal prices. Or a diner where lunch is half-decent and doesn’t cost $50.

Las Vegas: The Outcome


“So what happened to the 10-in-10 plan,” you’re asking, right?

The plan, for those of you who don’t remember, was to hit 10 casinos for 10 minutes each. The plan was to get into the lobby, get through the casino, catalog the highlights and get out.

“What were you thinking?” you’re asking. “That’s not possible.”

You’re right, but, for the record, here’s what I was thinking:

  • I’ve been to Vegas and the place left me cold, ’cause I don’t gamble and my kitsch-appreciation ducts get clogged. (Is it really true kitsch if it cost a hundred million dollars? Isn’t that just bad taste?)
  • Maybe forcing myself to hang out there was part of my problem. I’m from New York. I’ve got a need for speed. Hanging out is not my thing. Maybe if I tear through everything, I won’t want to crawl out of my skin by hour five.
  • Most of the hotel/casinos are pretty similar, so wouldn’t 10 minutes and a look at the carpeting give you a pretty good read on what the place was like and if you’d ever want to stay there?
  • There have gotta be other people like me who could use some guidance when they end up there.

That’s how I got the plan.

Naturally, the plan went out the window after ten minutes in the first place. You can’t get through one of these places in ten minutes. They’re too big and too confusing (all roads lead to the casino floor/labyrinth). Plus, you will definitely need to drink regularly. I don’t know if it’s the artificiality or latent tendencies towards alcoholism or just the profusion on bars, but liquor is the bride of Vegas and there’s no avoiding it.

Enter the revised plan. Cardinal Rule stays: Move as fast as possible.

  • Get to the lobby.
  • Get a map.
  • Take a look at the carpeting + get a book of matches. (Packaging can tell you a lot about a place.)
  • Canvas the events, restaurants and whatever features they want to highlight.
  • Get a drink, as needed.
  • Get out.

I tacked on a gambling plan – $10 per place – but that had to be axed too because I kept choosing games that cost, like, $1 but played in 10-cent increments, and that was the end of 10 minutes right there. (I won $5.50 – see photo of high roller.) I know I could’ve easily lost $10 in 2 seconds flat at a table, but my sense of personal responsibility – which I should’ve checked at the door – wouldn’t let me play games I had no idea how to play. Even in Vegas, I have a little bit of pride. I know: crazy, right?

So what follows is the result of the revised plan with a bunch of additional advice. Enjoy!

Paris: Totally Subjective and Incomplete List

Some friends of mine were in Paris in the fall – both for the first time – and I put together a list of things to do / things not to do on a first pass through the French capital. Another set of friends is headed there next month, so instead of continuing to mail this around, I thought I’d clean it up and post it for general consumption. Bon voyage tout le monde!!

First thing you do, go to any kiosk, newstand or little shop and buy a copy of Paris Practique. It’s a little booklet – 4.5″ x 7″ – with a navy cover. It’s a comprehensive, easy to read map of all the arrondissements (districts or regions) of Paris. It is the only map you will need and it is essential for getting around. Has all the metro stops, major landmarks, etc.

General advice: don’t try to do everything. You won’t get to it and you’ll exhaust yourself trying.

Also, pack your most streamlined and elegant clothing. Take cashmere. Take scarves. Wear beautiful shoes. Do not take fanny packs. (Actually, that’s good advice for all destinations. Come to think of it, take this opportunity to throw away anything you own that resembles a fanny pack.) Do not take trendy American clothes. Do not plan for complicated hairstyles. Do not rush while you are there and, if you do, pretend you do not perspire. It is likely that even if you follow this advice you will feel frumpy. Settle into it, buy clothes like their clothes and accessories like theirs and console yourself that once you’re back stateside you will definitely look better than everyone else here.


If you are booking a room with a double/full/queen bed, it’s worth it to confirm that it is actually a double bed and not two single beds locked together. The latter is extremely common in Europe and can make for uncomfortable nights if you’re sleeping with someone.

Also, for summer visitors, confirm that they have air-conditioning if you’re not happy in the heat. Paris can be New York-level stifling in mid-summer and a lot of boutique hotels have no AC.

When we are in Paris, we stay at Hotel Sainte Beuve in the 6th. It is small, on a quiet street, the breakfasts are ungodly good and the rooms actually have some character. Most importantly, it is near everything…well, the things we like anyway. And it’s not ludicrously expensive. It’s blocks from the Jardin du Luxembourg  and pretty much right behind St. Sulpice. You can walk to the river and its bridges and excellent people-watching intersections and the neighborhood is interesting and eclectic.

They have a sister hotel which is a little lower on the scale and a tiny bit weirder but we’ve stayed there too and been perfectly happy – Hotel le Saint Gregoire also in the 6th.

Beyond that, I have no accommodations recommendations except to say, it sucks staying in the business districts or by the monuments in the 1st or 3rd. Lots of very expensive shops, lots of grey buildings and street life at a minimum. Stay on the Left Bank if at all possible.

Things Not To Be Missed

The Musee d’Orsay. This is one my favorite museums in the entire world. It is a beautiful space and of course, there’s the contents. Go. Don’t miss it. I’d miss the Louvre before I’d miss d’Orsay.

A recent discovery: the Musee Jacquemart Andre. It’s a private house, so you don’t see it – or I haven’t – in any of the guide books. It rocks. The couple who lived there was wildly rich and were excellent collectors. The house itself is stunning and the collection ranges from paintings to personal items, sculpture to musical instruments. It’s like the Parisian version of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston or The Frick in New York. Plus, when we were there, their rotating gallery had this incredible photography collection from Paris Match of painters, writers, rock stars, film stars and anyone else important they’d taken pictures of in the last 40 years. The place is downright entertaining. Plus, their restaurant is excellent – but don’t plan on getting a seat for lunch at lunchtime. Go early, see the house and eat early. The place is overrun at noon with chic Parisian businesswomen.

The Musee Rodin. Go on a sunny day – the garden is fantastic. I love Rodin and I love this museum. It’s out of the way – annoyingly far really – but worth the trip. It rules. You must go. Have lunch in the garden – bring your own, even, since the cafeteria is small and expensive.

I haven’t been here, so I have no business recommending it, but I mean to go there as soon as possible, so I think that counts. If I’m mistaken, please do correct me after you go.  Sainte Chapelle. Lovely church near Notre Dame (see below). And if you think it has anything to do with the Comedy Central show, don’t bother with a visit.

Other Things To See

The Louvre. Naturally. Long lines, long waits and the Mona Lisa is much smaller than you’d think. That said, it’s the Louvre. Standing on line for museums is the worst part about going. My advice would be to talk to your hotel concierge and get a museum pass – it lets you into all the big ones over a specific period of days and passholders can use accelerated queues at the museums, which is a timesaver worth paying for even if you don’t use the full value of the pass.

The Musee du quai Branly is new and controversial – opened last year to love it/hate it reviews. The building is bad ass and very peculiar. The collection is anthropological Asia/Africa. It’s been a huge source of conversation and the wait may be ungodly but the design is pretty out there. NYTimes review here.

Jardin du Luxembourg. Lovely. Huge. Usually has cool exhibits. Always has aloof French kids and games and lawns, etc. Good place to relax.

The Centre Pompidou is cool to walk by – you should see it, but don’t kill yourselves to get there. It’s weird, ’70’s cool, very benchmark but not a lot to do.

Notre Dame. Chances are you’ll walk over the Ile at some point anyway if you’re staying on the Left Bank. It’s a church and a big one. ‘Nuf said.

Eiffel Tower. I’m on the fence. If you’re there in the winter and they’ve flooded that one floor where you can iceskate, go. You will be super-cool. If not, I was fine with it at a distance unless you’re into looking at feats of engineering up close. It is the Eiffel Tower though…

Arc de Triomphe / Champs Elysee. The Champs Elysee is b*llshit. It’s all Chanel and McDonalds. Don’t bother. If you are set on going to the Arc, go. It’s impressive. Just make note that it is in the middle of a massive traffic circle and can be accessed by tunnels (safe, meant for human use) or by running through the traffic (not safe, nearly deadly, not recommended except for jackasses…like myself.)

Le Grande Arche in La Defense. The modern version of the Arc de Triomphe. If you like that sort of thing. More here. Part of Mitterand’s grand works project. It’s a hike to get there but it is definitely huge, modern and meaningful. The long esplanade running up to it has all kinds of huge artworks on either side as well. Really, the only thing to see in that part of town as far as I could tell. Don’t go on a gray day.

Things That Can Totally Be Missed

Versailles. It’s far, it’s packed, a lot of it is under construction and the rest of it has been mostly stripped of everything that’s not actually attached to the building – sold off to pay to keep the place open, so you don’t get the full impact of the place even if you do go. You’re basically looking at walls and ceilings with 9000 other people.

If you insist on going, go absolutely, totally without fail first thing
in the morning on a weekday. And allow for 15 minutes’ walk after the
train arrival time to actually get to the gate. Be at the gate first. No dawdling over your croissants that morning. Also, make sure you sort out the fountain schedule – it’s impressive to see them up and running but they only do it a few times a day. And I’d recommend visiting the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s fake farm. It’s a distance from the palace, so plan accordingly. But seriously, allow me to say again, it’s not worth it. I know people say it is, but they’re wrong. (R totally disagrees with me on this, as does my father, so take it with a grain of salt. If you’re determined to go, save it for a trip when you can go for the whole day, pack a large suitcase of patience, and plan only relaxing things for that evening. Also make sure I am not with you.)

Unless you’re a Jim Morrison fan or a Balzac fanatic, Pere Lachaise can be skipped. It’s cool as cemeteries go, but seriously: it’s a cemetery. You’re on vacation. Pull yourself together.

Sacre Coeur.  I shouldn’t say this, but I think you can strike this unless you’re in the neighborhood already or want to hang out in the bohemian ‘hood. It’s beautiful and it’s a hike of a walk if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s far to get there from a central hotel and unless you’re interested in checking out the surrounding neighborhood, it’s one schlep too many. (If you’re in town for a while, do go – it’s just far for a brief visit.)

Les Halles. Total, total waste. I don’t know why any guide writes about this. It’s basically a really nasty underground mall. It was a unique idea when they did it but it’s a bomb. Don’t bother.


If you buy anything big (over 175 euros total – doesn’t have to be on a single item), make sure you get your tax-free documents with your receipts. You’ll need to have your passport with you to get them. Worth it: 14% back or some such. The process seems daunting but isn’t. The store will give you the paperwork, you fill it out (or they will – budget an extra 5 minutes at checkout). When you get to the airport or train station, find the customs window – the check-in desk can point you in the right direction. You submit your forms and receipts, show them your passport, they stamp various things and they’ll usually just credit your account within a month. Fifteen minutes for substantial refund if you’re a shopper. General explanation/restrictions here.

Herve Chapelier. My first shopping stop in Paris. Their flagship is in the 6th at 1 bis rue du Vieux Colombier. (All Paris locations here.) The prices are literally half of what they are in the US because of import taxes and the bags are lightweight and virtually indestructible. I have everything from a pencil case up to a huge heavy canvas carry-on and I love them all. Buy buy buy!!! If you were to bring me a gift for all my excellent advice, this is where you should get it!

Gilbert Jeune in Place St. Michel is my favorite, favorite, favorite paper store in the entire world. I buy tablets there by the dozens. If you want French books or stationery supplies, this place is your place.

Muji. I love me some Muji. The first one I went to was in Paris even though they’re a Japanese chain. They only have neutral colors and they make everything out of them. Cashmere, T-shirts, bookbags, armchairs, pencils and the most satisfying Type A travel containers you could ever hope for. There are two separate stores on the same street by St. Sulpice – one has clothes, the other stationery. (Muji recently opened an outpost in New York, but the one in Paris is still bigger and better. Not that I don’t appreciate the effort. The one in SoHo is nice too. Don’t get offended.)

The sheltered arcades have been on my list for a while. Cool and photo-worthy. I haven’t made it there yet, but I will.

E. Dehillerin. Arguably, the best cooking supply store in the world. The inspiration for my current employer’s (Williams-Sonoma) founder. Remember the measuring items are metric. A good write-up (and a good food blog) here.

Le Bon Marche. Ultra-hip, beautiful store. Gorgeous. Expensive. They sell EVERYTHING, including chocolates.

Galeries Lafayette. If you want French clothes and don’t want to pay Bon Marche prices, go to Lafayette. It’s like Bloomingdales. I generally come home with something cool and angular. The one on Hausmann is the mother ship with the largest selection but it’s also the most crowded, so avoid lunchtime and post-5PM when the locals flood in.

The markets: flea, food and otherwise. This page is your friend.


Best sorbet in the entire world: Berthillon. I kid you not. The main shop is on the Ile Saint Louis (the other island in the Seine that doesn’t have Notre Dame on it). You should go and walk around the Ile anyway: it is some of the most expensive real estate in the world and it is completely charming and wonderful. And then have some more sorbet. It is obscenely expensive and worth it. It’s on the menu at a lot of restaurants in the city, but the flagship is the one with ALL the flavors.

Best bakery. Ever. Get the almond croissants. J. C. Gaulupeau, 12 Rue Mabillon in the 6th. (This place and Herve’s flagship are both among the tiny streets in Paris Practique grid L17 on the 6th pages.)

Laduree macaroons. I thought for years that macaroons were those coconut blob cookies. I am a stupid American in some respects. But I am justly punished by having missed out on the French version for most of my life. Make up for it here.

NYTimes rates the best steaks frites in Paris.

Any crepe place. I have limited recommendations because we eat wherever we end up and it’s usually good. Enjoy the carbs – they’re worth it. And the ham. And the yogurt.

Photo from DK Travel.

How’s Christmas Treating You?

sad_guy.jpgLong-time pal and sometime roommate Lyndsey joined us on our galivant across Costa Rica. She brought with her Mike, a Londoner and general man-about-town. The two of them took a cab, as you do, from the airport to the hotel and had a conversation with their driver which stuck with us.

L&M: Pleasant, conversational. Is Christmas very big down here?
Cab driver: Not for me.

I feel like a tiny jerk about it, but I find this hilarious. I don’t know if it was the too-much-information factor or the solemn portent of Mike’s tone as he said, “Not for me,” with his chin down, his eyebrows up and a British downbeat on the last word as if promising worse, but there it is. It also turns out that, “Not for me,” is a surprisingly versatile punchline in conversation. It lends that extra something to a chat, that little suffering-as-lifestyle-choice, don’t-ask quality that is so attractive in strangers.

To get back to the issue at hand though, “Why?” you might ask, “What was his issue? Why does this poor hilarious man have such a glum take on our happy holiday?” Good question. Let’s continue.

L&M: Why?
Cab driver: My lady left.
L: For where?
Cab driver: For another person.

I can’t help it. I find it additionally hilarious that a.) he was left for a “person,” gender unspecified, formality and mystery implied, and b.) Lyndsey completely missed his meaning.

I want to find this man, write down everything he says for as long as I can take it – probably in the range of ten minutes – go get a drink and use his material forever.

Costa Rica: Back

Well, I’m back. And I forgot my towel. Can you believe it? After that last entry, I actually forgot to pack my towel. We had to buy towels in Costa Rica. They are so terrible, they will burn your eyes. They feature wildly offensive colors and warped fonts and fishes. Fortunately, they do not feature dolphins copulating in mid-air, as the wall hanging at our first hotel did. Small mercies, gratitude, etc..

I’m posting the trip notes on the dates to which they apply, so you can either read backwards or visit the December page, scroll to the bottom and read up. I know backdating is frowned upon and bad, but I can’t see how else to organize it and know that you will forgive me and have forgotten all about it when you come back in a few months to plan your own trip and want all the entries in some kind of order.

Enjoy the warm weather vicariously. I’ve only been back for a couple of days but I’m rapidly forgetting what early sunrises, warm ocean water and sandy beaches feel like. It is Christmas though, so I’m trying to amp up my bad weather reveling skills and get down with the rain/snow thing.