Tag Archives: travel

How To Prepare for a Trip


Step 1: Panic.

You’re going to be away for upwards of three days! What will you do if you come home and all the stuff you haven’t managed to sort out over the last 2 – 12 months isn’t done? I know. It’s unthinkable. Fortunately, the few days before you leave for your trip is the window you’ve been waiting for to finish all of those things!

Some suggestions:

  1. Maybe you’re being overcharged for your cable package. Check.
  2. What is up with that one friend who never emails back anymore? Definitely sort that out.
  3. Remember to make appointments with your dentist, optometrist, chiropractor, mechanic, couples counselor, dog walker, personal trainer, local wino, grocery bagger and that homeless guy who lives on the corner.
  4. Send thank you cards for last Christmas’ gifts. Send thank you cards for the Christmas before last while you’re at it.
  5. Have a look at your calendar. Isn’t someone’s birthday coming up in a couple of months? Think about what restaurant would be the best for dinner that night.
  6. Remember that corner of paper placemat where you wrote down the email address of your fourth grade teacher when you ran into that friend at that restaurant six months ago? I wonder where that is.

Step 2: Compound your panic.

Now that you’ve tapped your basic anxiety package, it’s time to take it up a notch.

Some questions to get you started:

  1. Do you like your job? Really? Are you sure?
  2. What about your haircut?
  3. Your weight?
  4. Your friends?
  5. Your therapist?
  6. Your apartment?
  7. Your laptop?

If you hesitated on a firm “yes” to any of these, now is the time to come up with a complex, multi-month plan to sort that out. Use a spreadsheet as necessary.

Step 3: Sit down with your calendar.

Now that you have a comprehensive list of all the perfectly reasonable things you want to accomplish before you get on the plane, you need to make sure you have time to address each and every one of them.

You have five days before you go and, if you have a day job that leaves about four hours max per day to take care of your list. That comes out to roughly 24 hours if you add in a little extra effort on the weekend.

Keep in mind that 20 of those hours will be spent prepping for the actual trip – packing, picking up snacks, calling a cab, taking sedatives – so if you have 72 things on your list, that breaks out to 18 things per hour, or 3 things every 10 minutes.

Remember to group like things together for maximum efficiency. E.g. find a new therapist, find new orange juice glasses and find a new paradigm would be a great, do-able 10-minute combo block.

Step 4: Thank me.

It’s OK. You don’t have to. I’m here to help. Don’t you feel so much more relaxed about your trip?

For the love of…


Over the course of your average day with me, there’s a better than average chance that two things will come up: I love cheese and I am inappropriately competitive.

Turns out I could be putting those features to good use: Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake is an annual race near Gloucester, England, where half-witted people chase an eight-pound round of Double Gloucester cheese down what appears to be a double black diamond, straight up and down slope. If they win – and don’t die (what’s with that word “wake” at the end of the event title?) – they get that eight-pound cheese. Sounds reasonable.

The Big Picture documented this year’s event.

Washington, D.C.: Haphazard Write-Up and Recs


Let me say up front that I made an uncharacteristically half-assed tourist in Washington. One of my former – and, in a stroke of good timing, laid-off – roommates lives there, so I did zero planning and rode his coattails to an odd assortment of destinations around the capital. Worked out pretty well for me, I gotta say.

Here’s my random assortment of recommendations beyond the usual political buildings and the Smithsonian.

  • Mount Vernon. The presence of baby goats almost made up for the fact that it was 137 degrees outside. Ah, the south.

    Thomas Jefferson had better taste than George Washington, but still, nice work George. Beautiful position above the river and lots of places to wander. The visitor’s center is skewed towards school children, but that’s probably OK. One thing not to miss: the disconcerting, de-aged portrait of Martha Washington. You know that technology they’re always pulling up with on CSI/Law & Order/Without a Trace that shows how someone will look when they’re 20 years older? They applied it in reverse to the famous portrait of Martha and voilà: George’s hottie.

  • The Hirshhorn Gallery has a Louise Bourgeois exhibit up until Sunday and if you’re in the area, you should go. I’d never heard of her (shame!) but read about the exhibit and realized I did know her work. You probably do too: giant spider ring a bell? Drove by the one that was on the Embarcadero on my way to work for a year. She’s 98 years old and still working. I want that, no doubt. I can’t stand Florida or golf + I love my work. What else am I going to do with the rest of my life?

    Aside from the sheer volume of her output, there’s the work itself. The Arch of Hysteria is worth a visit all on its own as are the cells. There are works on paper, in bronze, in wood, in marble, paintings, installation pieces. You name it, she’s done it.

  • A couple of other Smithsonian favorites: the cafe in the basement of the East Building of the National Gallery (gelato, espresso and a cascading fountain) and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden which runs the gamut from a cast of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais to a wishing tree by Yoko Ono. (That tree is intended to be poignant and is. Sort of. People leave wishes on bits of paper attached to the branches. It’s less poignant if you find a note saying, “I wish you hadn’t broken up The Beatles. – Ringo” on your way down the stairs into the garden.)
  • The Newseum is a recent and unique addition to Washington’s huge museum circuit and is worth a visit (after you’ve been to the key galleries of the Smithsonian), but fair warning that it might also be unexpectedly upsetting. It was for me.

    If you are discouraged by your daily newspaper’s incessant bad news, this place is not for you. Decades of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, most of them featuring children dying or dead, soldiers injured, people in moments of massive crisis, and graphic coverage of every war and disaster of the last century. A permanent 9/11 exhibit I couldn’t handle even from a distance. An exhibit on press repression around the world featuring a bullet-riddled truck, bloody clothing, and detritus of destroyed lives. It’s a lot to take.

    As its name suggests, the museum is focused on the history and present of the news and its outlets. The place is multimedia on steroids, which is simultaneously appropriate – newsmedia is, after all, media – and offputting: standard expectations of galleries and some quiet are disappointed and there’s not a lot to hang onto in exhibits built around video.

    That focus on interactive and multimedia exhibits is certainly forward-thinking, but a stronger curatorial hand would be welcome. A number of the exhibits feel – much as news often does – like a lot of information tossed together without a complete context. “Yeah, that seems bad,” was the extent of my reaction to the exhibit on press censorship and the Lincoln assassination coverage was frustratingly incomplete. (Who the hell is that chick that’s listed as Wilkes Booth’s accomplice? For God’s sake, tell me already!) Also, there’s a ton of empty space (room to grow?), which undermines a sense of flow or identity for the place as a whole.

    I get that the museum’s mission is to cover the news, but when that news is covering almost entirely bad news, it makes for a depressing morning.

  • For a happier outing, head to Domku Cafe for your weekend brunch. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you drive by Seafood & Things at the end of the block. Checking the picture below the sign, by “Things” they mean “pizza.” This is not swank brunch. If you want that, stay closer to downtown: Domku’s cozy and eclectic, not trendy.

    They say they’re Slavic as well as Scandinavian, but the brunch menu is heavy on the Scandinavian plus I’m Swedish, so I’m blind to anything that doesn’t include herring or carbohydrates. We ordered a ludicrous amount of food, and everything but the hash was more than worth what was kind of a long wait. (They’re small and get crowded.) The Norwegian pancakes are huge, flat crepes with the bacon cooked right into the pancake (yum!), the Swedish waffle with its heart-shaped sections is small and sweet and recommended for sharing, the scones are perfect, the egg in the grits bake is tastily baked into the center of the casserole, and the noodle kugel might as well have been made by your grandmother. Layer on the fact that they have tiny, fake birds on branch wreaths hanging over your table and excellent coffees and you should be all set.

  • Oddity: the only outpost of the California fromagerie Cowgirl Creamery is in downtown Washington. Like, right downtown. Not near a gourmet market or in a residential neighborhood. Might be on your way home though and they give out samples willingly. Never turn down free cheese.
  • I’d recommend the variety of pub quizzes in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, but you’d have to get a team together and be there on a Tuesday, which might be tough if you’re on the road negotiating some kind of climate treaty. But if you can swing it, by all means do.

New York: The Theater Season of Spring 2009

It’s spring theater season in New York. I know, for most of you, this is a thrilling time. You break out your best dresses and can hardly sleep for the excitement. You planned for it six months ago, you have your seats booked for planes and in the orchestra (recession be damned!), and you can’t wait to get to Times Square to rub shoulders with all the sophisticates from around the world.

No? Really? You didn’t? You have no plans?? You don’t know what to see or who’s in it?? You’re not getting on a plane to New York just to catch a show? What?? You are not one of the eight people outside New York who watch the Tony Awards? Not possible! Are you being honest with me or are you putting me on??

Huh. Well, that hurts me a little. It pains me, I won’t deny it. But I’m here to help. Really. I saw everything. Nearly everything anyway. And I have things to say about even the things I didn’t see (naturally), so let me help.

Let’s get one thing clear right up front: I loathe musicals. I see them because R’s brother is an actor, a successful one and a good one, and he is sometimes in musicals and we love him, so I go. (See here, for Manoel’s latest.) Some of the voices are amazing. I can appreciate that. But all the stopping and dancing and singing about feelings gets in the way of the narrative and drives me batty. Which is to say that I didn’t see anything musical in New York, so if you’re looking for my thoughts on Shrek: The Musical or 9 to 5 (even though it does star Allison Janney), you’re out of luck.

Also, while we’re on the subject, let’s be clear about a couple of other things I can’t stand. Times Square and the tourists who crowd the sidewalks gawking at the things that are not cool about New York, the terrible restaurants up there, people who wear printed T-shirts to the theater, and the new trend of clapping at celebrities’ entrances and exits and speeches and so on as if they’re doing something above and beyond by just showing up.

There. I’m done. Now let’s move on.

Safety First


I’ve been in Washington since Saturday and am climbing the walls. It’s not the incessant swine flu updates, although that is providing a surreal backdrop for a visit to the nation’s capital. It’s not the weather, which has been in the 1000 range. And it’s not the politics. (Although we almost had a beat-down at a pub quiz last night.)

It’s the dreaded Travel Malaise back on the hunt. Too much hotel time + too little time alone + not enough time to write = perfect storm of wall-climbing.

The solution? Segways in the rain, baby! How can an activity that requires a helmet not be fun?

We asked about renting the Segways and doing a DIY tour (like, through the Senate floor), but they said, “No…waivers…liability…blah blah blah,” so we’re on their itinerary. What we’re counting on is that keeping upright in the rain is going to be entertainment enough, monuments (been there, seen that) be damned. Given my history of peculiar injuries, there’s a better than fair chance I’ll be the first one to go down. I’m going to see about some body armor to go with my hard hat.

Perhaps I should have been wearing a helmet all along to prevent the Malaise. Keep the brains in and the pavement out. Specifically, this helmet, don’t you think? If I had this helmet, how could everything not go my way?

Fly Me Away


Are more old people traveling these days or is it just me? I can’t throw a snack pack at an airport without hitting someone over 80. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against mobility among the super-retired, but the fast-paced misery that is modern air travel is not a natural match for the older crowd.

For one, speed is not their hallmark and, God knows, when getting there involves the airlines, we’d all like to get where we’re going as quickly as possible. Especially me. I don’t want to make a fuss, but I’m claustrophobic and it doesn’t take much in an airport to push me over the edge.

The security line this morning was not that bad. Three lanes open. The one with the longest runway and the biggest stack of bins was deserted, so I veered in that direction. Silly rabbit. The reason the belt was empty was because a single cardigan-clad woman of a certain age had set up camp at the head of the tables ahead of the conveyer belt. One rolling blue backpack (small) with a matching blue monkey swinging off its side. One purse. One bin. That’s a 10-second push for me, but not for her. There were things to be done. The purse needs organizing. The purse needs zipping. And re-organizing. And re-zipping. She would not be pressed or passed. It was her turn and by God she was going to take it. All of it.

I know security’s a sonofabitch. I know that. I hate flying; I get flustered. But here’s the thing: preparation is the key to success. You know it’s coming. We’ve all been here before. Dress for success and for God’s sake, now is not the time to realize that your credit cards really shouldn’t be in the same pocket of your purse as your breath mints. Let’s all focus on the task at hand and get through this together.

The security checkpoint was her low point. After it, we caught up to her zipping down the moving sidewalk at a near-jog. But she was replaced by the next hurdle: the gate area.

Flight bags. Jackets. Friends. Canes. Hats. Canned ham. It all needs space. And space they can have: since they arrive ages before I do, the gate area is theirs. While I am tearing downstairs to catch a cab that will barely get me to the check-in before cut-off, the early birds are settling into the gate area with their worms.

They can travel with these oodles of non-travel-friendly stuffs because they have the wheelchair market at their disposal, so if all the half-empty purses and totally impractical stripey bags get away from them, they can just order up some wheels. (I’m a little jealous about that, but I have my 30-something pride.)

Also, they seem to have abandoned any investment in being or appearing streamlined. I am firmly planted in that latter category and not the former, alas, but I’m working on it and by their age I will be a master of the Katherine Hepburn pants and the single Italian bag. I want to look sleek, even – or especially – under stressful conditions. I don’t understand it, but this group has gone the other way. Doesn’t more stuff = more stress? What am I saying?? That’s almost un-American.

On the plane, I can set up my own shop, surrounded by this same herd in their comfortable black shoes that look like they were made out of petroleum products by Germans. They shuttle to and from the bathroom, toilet seat covers attached to their pants, turquoise short-sleeved tops paired with wide black capris and frosted tips, the ladies reflexively tugging their tunic tops down a little over their ample bottoms. The men wear tan passport cases around their necks and shuffle their newspapers over the seat behind me, taking revenge on reclined seats squashing their retired paunches.

On the one hand, I admire their obliviousness to their surroundings’ requirements and inconveniences. Good on them. On the other hand, I’m not clear why, with the wisdom of age, they would bother with any of the mess.

When I am retired, I am going to circumvent all of it by having my own jet that will pick me up in my backyard. This has obvious advantages, except perhaps for the back yard, which will probably sustain some considerable damage at take-off and landing.

If that can’t be arranged, I will live on a canal (never in Florida) and travel by boat. The pace is admittedly slow, but my majordomo will be much nicer than most flight attendants and I will be able to take all my really heavy stuff – like busts and bowling balls – because I won’t have to hoist any of it above my head.

Both of these will be pre-stocked with my canned ham and hats, so there will be no need to pack them separately.

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!

Miami: Disappointing Expectations Since 1566

This is my theory: when Ponce de Leon couldn’t find the fountain of youth, he decided to build the city equivalent of an Arby’s as revenge on southern Florida.

Let me be clear: I hate this town. If I can swing it, I’m never coming back and, unless you’re coming through here on your way to someplace else, I would recommend that you avoid it too. Holy God does this place suck.

Recently, to help me stay on track with with my writing, I’ve been working on adopting some of the useful basic principles of Buddhism. Principle number one? Expectations will get you into trouble. Take things as they come. The more specific your expectations, the greater the chance that you’ll be disappointed, (even if what you have or get is excellent). Since I wasn’t pumped or even prepped to go to Miami in the first place, I would have said I didn’t have any expectations to disappoint. Turns out I was wrong. Apparently, having traveled a fair amount, I did have some basic expectations of how things would go down based on previous experience, and Miami, God love ‘er, disappointed them all.

The $600-a-night hotel

(Mandarin Oriental Miami)

Expectation: I am paying you the equivalent of monthly rent on a studio apartment every single night, so you will give me everything I want, including a puppy. You will not leak.

Miami re-set: No puppy. Does leak. (Which they could’ve seen coming because the shower has no seals. Or consistent water pressure. Or water that gets fully hot.)

My personal bathroom favorite: useless plaza of space in front of the tub instead of any storage or counter space around the sink? Check.

Enormous TV? Yes. Reception on a par with the rabbit ears we had in 1976? Yup. Gratuitous charge for valet parking on top of ridiculous room rate? Absolutely. Make yourself at home kids: you’re in Miami now!

South Beach

Expectation: Clubs. Views of the water. Hotties in skimpy clothing/swimwear. Clubs. Cuban food. Clubs.

Miami re-set: Tourists, chain stores, bad plastic surgery, hos whose clothes look like Marimekko‘s evil neon twin threw up on Forever 21. No cool bars. Clubs that look like New Jersey threw up on Ibiza.

Public transportation

Expectation: Large, low-income population = significant investment in public transportation.

Miami re-set: Completely unventilated and unairconditioned single car monorail running above the urban wasteland of empty lots and freeways, dropping off nowhere useful. Hooray for city planning!

Bayshore neighborhood where concierge sends us for a look at “downtown Miami”

Expectation: Retro pastel architecture. People. Possible tourist crap by the water.

Miami re-set: Utter crap by water. No people.

Coconut Grove

Expectation as set by multiple web sites + a book: “Bohemian” neighborhood, possibly not as bad as downtown. Getting into the swing of Miami, I lower my expectations to maybe finding one bookstore and a hip jewelry store.

Miami re-set: “Bohemian” = The Cheesecake Factory, Johnny Rocket’s, the Gap and endless pawn shops.

Miami International Airport

Expectation: No worse than Newark.

Miami re-set: Much worse than Newark. As if air travel weren’t almost unbearable already, MIA is barely air-conditioned in 80-degree heat, so the place is a huge steam room. The check-in area is a huge mess, the ceilings are low and the water in the water fountains is warm. Mmmm. Tasty, tasty warm.

American Airlines

Expectation: Standard American experience: fairly low rate, mediocre service, sanitized entertainment.

Miami re-set: The check-in kiosk asks R to pay a $799 flight fee (does anyone comply with an $800 request from a kiosk?) for a “flight change” even though he’s on his original flight. The planes out and back are the worst planes I’ve been on in years: the seats are worn into buckets, there are no adjustable headrests and they seat a 10-year-old in the exit row, for that extra boost of confidence. Realizing their error just before take-off, they replace him with a 70-year-old woman in a wheelchair. Well, thank God for that.

The movie? The Day the Earth Stood Still, possibly the worst thing that’s made it into wide release in the last year. Our stewardess shoves R as she blows through security, says, “Goddamit!” distintincly in front of the 10-year-old when she can’t find the right change, drops my drink napkin onto the middle of my keyboard and R’s into the middle of his book, and leaves a trail of ice cubes in the aisle as a sign of disdain for her job. These guys rule – how could I be disappointed? Now I’m just impressed they haven’t knifed anyone.

Expectation removal achieved! Thanks, Miami!