Vegas – more than just a gambling mecca!

I was 47-years-old before I made my first trip to Las Vegas. My husband and I wanted to take a 3-week trip to Italy to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, but we just couldn’t make our schedule work to be gone for that long, so we settled for 3 days at the Palazzo at the Venetian in Vegas!

Check-in desk at the Palazzo at the Venetian

Check-in desk at the Palazzo at the Venetian

Having no idea what to expect other than what we had seen on TV or in movies, we tried to keep an open mind. Our anniversary is in the hottest time of the year, July, but we decided to make the 4 hour drive from Phoenix so we could feel the wind in our hair having just bought our first convertible. Unfortunately no amount of wind cooled off temps reaching 110+. So it was top up and the AC cranked high the rest of the drive.

Enroute we stopped at the Hoover Dam to witness the amazing engineering marvel of a dam built back in the 1930’s. The new bridge system spanning the dam had recently opened to traffic, but it blocks the view of the dam from the road, so we made the windy trek down to the top of the dam. Once back up on the highway it was about an hour into Vegas, which sits literally in the middle of a dirt desert. I can see why the original builders of the city were so intent on using bright lights to bring some life to this desolate area.

Hoover Dam, just outside of Las Vegas

Hoover Dam, just outside of Las Vegas

The Strip‘ or main street runs through the heart of the luxury casino hotels which grew in numbers dramatically back in the 1990’s on into the early 2000’s – with hotels like the Bellagio – think water show, Venetian – think Gondola Canal rides, Wynn – think of a $500 round of golf. Las Vegas growth came to a near standstill during the recession – but now, while Atlantic City casinos close down there is renewed life in Vegas.

Grand Canal - along the walkway between the Palazzo and the Venetian

Grand Canal – along the walkway between the Palazzo and the Venetian

Neither my husband or I are big gamblers, so Vegas has never been high on our priority list of places to visit. But at some point we figured you need to experience what Vegas is all about. We played the slots, a little black jack and my husband flirted with the idea of playing poker, but in the end it was just as entertaining to sit back and people watch. The rooms are amazing – a room like the one we stayed at in the Palazzo for about $300 would run you over $1,000 in NYC. And the restaurants are world-class. We took in a concert in a specially designed theater at Caesar’s Palace with highlights such as a hologram visit from Stevie Wonder doing a duo with Celine Dion during her live concert.

It took me 3 years to return to Vegas to experience one of the other reasons a lot of people go to Vegas – no not to get married, or to do things that married people shouldn’t be doing (“…what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas…”), but to attend several conventions. A friend and I attended the Design Home Show at the World Market, housed in three buildings with 10-16 stories each of vendors; then we attended the KBIS (Kitchen & Bath Industry Show) and the Builder’s Show at the Builder’s Convention which was showcased in four humongous warehouses.

With a “surfaces” – i.e. granite, tile convention and a gun show convention, there were an extra 200,000 people milling around this city with a population of roughly 2,000,000. My husband and I are in the middle of building a new home, and this trip was a great opportunity to see everything from plumbing and lighting, to hardware and furniture in one concentrated area. Although there no new ‘wow’ products that we came across, we came across a lot great leads on companies to find what we want to help make our home a house.

A unique vendor showcases their rustic and distressed barn doors and hardware

A unique vendor showcases their rustic and distressed barn doors and hardware

Traveling between the Venetian and Palazzo was like rush hour in LA – a swarm of people so thick you couldn’t pass from one side of the walkway to the other – they need stop and go lights in the casinos during major convention times. Interestingly the slots and tables at the Venetian were packed, the bells ringing, the dealers shouting, the patrons cheering – but the Palazzo was subdued. Most of the tables were empty, every other bank of slot machines would have a single soul pulling at that magic pull bar.

To get to Vegas this time I took the 55-minute flight from Phoenix to Vegas, allowing beautiful views of the western edges of the Grand Canyon and of Lake Mead. The flight was shorter than the taxi line at the Vegas airport. Luckily the city is replete with ample taxis and the line moved fairly consistently but it still took almost 45 minutes to get a taxi. I would highly recommend finding a car service. It’s a few bucks more, but beats standing in line with all your luggage.

Western edge of the Grand Canyon heading towards Las Vegas from Phoenix

Western edge of the Grand Canyon heading towards Las Vegas from Phoenix

Lake Mead just east of Las Vegas

Lake Mead just east of Las Vegas

I’ll expand more about restaurants to check out in next weeks end of the month restaurant reviews, but if you’re into bourbon, the Yardbird makes one of the best Manhattan’s I’ve ever had – and I’ve had a few. A smooth but robust flavor served over an extra-large spherical shaped ice-cube. Great appetizers too – a real true southern flare and my travel partner, a native Atlantan confirmed authenticity of these appies. She was duly impressed!

Vegas may not be everybody’s prime destination, but this little oasis in the dirt desert has something to offer every body. You can’t help get caught up in the energy that is Vegas. I left exhausted, but with a smile on my face.

Las Vegas - an oasis of vibrancy in an otherwise lackluster landscape

Las Vegas – an oasis of vibrancy in an otherwise lackluster landscape

Summer fun – in the desert?

“Are you crazy?” ask my friends from the north.

“Certifiably,” I reply with a wry smile.

August has been my family’s go to month to vacation in the southwest for over a decade. We love heading down there mid-August for a couple of weeks or however long everybody’s schedule allows.

“Isn’t it like 110 degrees down there this time of year?” they continue.

“Absolutely,” I reply holding strong with my smile.

These friends, who have never been to the hot southwest, are incredulous as to why we would vacation, or as my Canadian friends say, “holiday,” in such hot locales, when there are so many cool(er) weather destinations to check out.

There certainly is some weight to that argument. We bought our first vacation home in Arizona in December of 2003, and no one said “boo” about that decision based on the time of year. Heading to the great southwest, from any of the heavily wintered Canadian provinces or U.S. states when it’s well below freezing with several inches of snow on the ground for a good thaw out in the hot desert is almost a must to survive the rest of the winter spent in the frozen tundra.

“What can you even do in that kind of heat?” their questions continue.

“Everything!” I reply and go on a sales-pitch rant.

These people live in areas where it can get to 30-40 below, for weeks on end, and they say I’m crazy for doing the same, just at the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. You can get frostbite in a matter of minutes at those kind of cold temps. And you can sunburn in a matter of minutes in temps of 110+. Cars can freeze up, wheels break, electronic systems shut down in freezing temps. Cars can overheat, asphalt streets get soft, you can singe your hands and legs on hot steering wheels and seats in intensely hot temps.

But my family and I have found August is a very enjoyable time of year to be in the desert. The pool temperatures are absolutely perfect. The heat of the sun, and the overnight warm temps, keep the pool at a comfortable 90 degrees – naturally – no heater needed. Just cool enough for an overheated body. Floating on a partially submerged floatie, with a cool-beverage in hand, and life is pretty darn good. Take a quick dip to cool down the whole body, and if a little breeze comes over the pool you can actually feel chilled in 115 degree temps.

The boys bake in the August Arizona sun, while the girls chill at the pool bar wondering where that Cabana boy is.

The boys bake in the August Arizona sun, while the girls chill at the pool bar wondering where that Cabana boy is.













Even the pups need to stay cool!

Even the pups need to stay cool!

Or stand tall and get a free body scrub compliments of a summertime haboob!

Or you can stand tall and get a free body scrub compliments of a summertime haboob!

Because there are not enough hardy souls that head to the southwest in the dead of summer it’s a great time to take advantage of  empty golf courses at greatly reduced prices. A foursome who doesn’t dawdle too much can easily finish in well under 4 hours. With a beverage cart driving by every few holes and a cooler on the cart with multiple ice-cold bottles of water as well as towels doused in ice-cold water to wrap around your neck, playing golf can be a very enjoyable activity in the heat of the summer.

But if weathering the great outdoors is just too much to ask, then jump in your air-conditioned car and head to one of the many air-conditioned malls – i.e. Fashion Square, Scottsdale Quarter, Kierland Commons, Desert Ridge, Tempe Marketplace. Or to one of the many movie theaters with stadium seating, comfy leather reclining seats, bar and food service – i.e. iPic Theaters, Studio Movie Grill, Ultra Cinemas. Or how about the interesting and interactive Musical Instrument Museum.

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and have extra time on your hands, rent a fun little sports car and hit the road. A four-hour drive will have you in Vegas – make a quick pit stop at the Hoover Dam. Spend several hours in the mega air-conditioned casinos, take in a show, or feast at some of the best restaurants in the country.

Road trip to Vegas, pit stop at the Hoover Dam

Road trip to Vegas, pit stop at the Hoover Dam

Or make the 2 1/2 drive to Williams, AZ, just west of Flagstaff, to jump on an air-conditioned train into the Grand Canyon. A 2 1/2 train ride in; several hours to wander around the canyon; and a 2 1/2 hour train ride back.

After you have worked up a good appetite, it’s time to settle into one of the many great eating experiences in the valley. No matter where you are staying, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Fountain Hills, Mesa…there are multiple options for great food within a very short drive. Mexican is obviously a favorite food in the southwest, but the demands of even the most picky tastebuds will be fully satisfied. Some of our favorites include:

Los Dos Molinos – authentic Mexican eats; try any of the pork dishes, slow roasted all day long. Very spicy. $$ South Phoenix

My friend Vicki enjoying her pork dish at Los Dos Molinos

My friend enjoying her pork dish at Los Dos Molinos

Mastro’s Steakhouse – fine dining w/live music; best steaks in town (in my family’s humble opinion). $$$$ N. Scottsdale

Father and son...

Father and son and…

the fellas enjoying surf and turf at Mastro's Steakhouse

the fellas enjoying surf and turf at Mastro’s Steakhouse














Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn –  fine dining – great outdoor seating; a little bit of everything food wise. $$$$ Paradise Valley

True Food Kitchen – good food that’s good for you. $$ Scottsdale

Sofrita – spanish tapas $$Alchemy – contemporary American $$$$Sapori or Arrivederci – Italian $$$. Fountain Hills

Blue Adobe Grill – American Mexican; great flavors. $$$ Mesa & Scottsdale

Casa Mia – authentic Italian with homemade pastas. $$$ Scottsdale

T. Cooks at Royal Palms – fine, dining – fresh and flavorful American cuisine. $$$ Phoenix

Pure Sushi – fresh sushi and flavorful Asian dishes. $$$ N. Scottsdale