"Isn't that our hotel?" my daughter asked.
"No, Megan. That's the Mirage." Her friend Maggie sounded exasperated in the back seat.
I can't blame Megan for mistaking the Mirage for Mandalay Bay - both are huge buildings covered in gold-tinted windows. I'm pretty sure Las Vegas has more gold-tinted windows than any other city in North America.
It was Megan's first visit to the adult playground that is Vegas, and it may as well have been mine. I made a point of gathering up all the quarters sitting in our "Coinstar Box" -- only to discover that today's slots only take bills and credit cards. I'll never repeat the experience of dropping 75 cents into a slot to kill some time -- and ending up with a $150 jackpot. When you use spare change, it doesn't feel like gambling. But sliding a $20 or a credit card into a machine is a commitment; one I am not equipped to make.
So it's a good thing our traveling companions are not the high rolling types, either. This whole shebang was Mary Ellen's idea: She saw a window of opportunity between the time our girls got out of school and next week, when their 30-hour-a-week summer gymnastics program kicks in.
"We can get a cheap room by going Monday through Wednesday," she said. "And it's even cheaper if we share."
As I was feeling a little bit sorry for myself that my husband was visiting his family in Wales without me (a decision we made mutually because of the devalued dollar), this seemed like a great idea. I was in.
Mary Ellen found a deal at the fabulous Mandalay Bay resort. We also decided to take our girls with us to see "Spamalot." Not quite as cheap as our original plan, but it was still a lot less han just one round-trip ticket to England, and we were also getting a cabana rental.
The first thing I noticed about Mandalay Bay is that it smells...
...NICE. Even out in the driveway (even mixed with the odor of car exhaust), you can detect a faint whiff of sandalwood, and the scent becomes nice and strong when you enter the lobby.
Unfortunately, you eventually get used to the nice smell, and it's not strong enough to mask the clouds of tobacco smoke in the casino. I suppose that's part of the gambling ambience; What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas is just an acknowledgment that this is the town where you can feel free to do all those things that are bad for you: gambling, gluttony, drunkenness, sex, smoking... when you're here, it's all OK.
Unless you are traveling with kids. Then, your Vegas trip consists of swimming, shopping and sightseeing. And we did it all.
The first thing we noticed about Las Vegas is that the nation's sour economy seems to have skipped it. The city was booming. There appears to be no limit to the number of hotel rooms the Strip can support and there's a gargantuan new hotel/condo/office/shopping complex being constructed right now. There was a crowd of people waiting to check in ahead of us, and elevators at key times were crammed with other guests. Maybe the lure of cheaper midweek rooms and the expense of traveling farther is helping Vegas, or maybe it's the dream of winning big during hard times. I wonder how the city will solve its water and energy issues (the City Centre complex advertises that it will be completely sustainable and is being built to LEED specifications).
But after five hours in a car and about 40 minutes to check into our hotel, our little natives were restless. The lure of Mandalay's famous pools (including the simulated beach and wave pool) was irresistible. It was nearly 5:00 and over 100 degrees. The kids got wet, while Mary Ellen and I wet our whistles. After all the dieting I've done in the last year, my idea of Vegas decadence was having a waiter bring me a pina colada while I lounged poolside on a deck chair. And it was good.
The folks at the Wynn advised us to pick up our tickets ahead of time, and since we wanted to get our money's worth from the next day's cabana rental, we decided to head out there that night, before the box office closed. We thought we'd hit some of the other hotels on the strip first, but by the time we went through the Mandalay Place shopping center and Luxor, we realized it wasn't going to work. We only had 15 minutes to get to the Wynn, so we hopped a cab and enjoyed the ride through the streets behind the Strip.
The Wynn reminds me of Bellagio (no surprise, as that hotel was also a Steve Wynn production). It's big and elegant, with beautiful mosaic tiling on the floor, echoing the carpet in the casino. There are tons of restaurants; each one more fabulous than the other.
Our own hotel, Mandalay Bay, also boasts an incredible number of gorgeous spots for fine dining; you could stay there two weeks and not have dinner in the same place twice.
Speaking of dinner, it was about time we had some. We had a world of choices: We could return to the southeast Asian ambiance of our own hotel... or we could dine amid the splendor of Italian cities like Venice (the Venetian), Lake Como (Bellagio), ancient Rome (Caesar's Palace)... the South Pacific (Mirage), Manhattan (New York, New York), Monte Carlo ... or ancient Egypt (Luxor). We could transport ourselves to Treasure Island's pirate ship, or dine in Camelot (Excalibur).
We opted for Paris, the hotel that dominates its place on the Strip with a neon "hot air balloon" and half-scale Eiffel Tower. You can enjoy a fine dinner in the Tower, but since we did that a few years ago in the REAL Paris, we were happy just to seek out a place that would serve some simple food that our kids would enjoy.
The first thing that strikes one about Paris Las Vegas is that its interior is light and bright; forever simulating the city at dusk. The faux Tower dominates the casino, which has been designed to look like the Paris as envisioned in old MGM musicals.
We settled in at Le Cafe, which was a reproduction of the kind of sidewalk cafes my family and I enjoyed at the real Paris. Mary Ellen and I both ordered the French onion soup and split a French dip sandwich (there was a kind of theme to the menu). The soup was reminiscent of the one I had at a bistro across the street from the Louvre, although I found it a bit on the salty side. (Then again, since my weight loss regimen, I've become more sensitive to salt, as well as sweetness.)
The sandwich was perfect: lean roast beef on a baguette that had a perfect crunchy crust and chewy exterior. (Although my dieting experience might make my sense of bread suspect as well; I have had to curb my carb intake and so I find myself rhapsodizing over every slice of bread I risk tasting.)
It was nearly 10:00 p.m. by the time we'd finished dinner and the kids were tired -- and they let us moms know when we insisted that we all cross the street to look at the fountain at Bellagio.
"I don't want to see a stupid fountain," was how my daughter put it.
"Yes, you want to see this one," I told her.
The fountain at Bellagio was the one thing I HAD to see before I left Las Vegas. It had been ten years since I last blew into town -- around midnight; stuck in strip traffic en route to Caesar's Palace. My husband and I ended up stopped right in front of the Bellagio, and caught the tail end of the fountain show, as the jets and the music crescendoed into a magnificent orgasm of water and Andrea Bocelli. The hotel had just opened and it had not yet cameo'd as the climax of "Ocean's Eleven," so it was all new -- very new, and the crowd gathered on the sidewalk applauded the fountain.
"This is just like the one at the Grove," my jaded little girl said.
And then the jets really got going. By the end of the show, the kids were enthralled -- and so were the adults, who applauded just as heartily as the ones who viewed the spectacle for the first time a decade ago.
The one thing my daughter wanted to do on this trip was ride the roller coaster at New York, New York. So we trudged through the City Center construction, past people handing out ads for girlie shows, which were littering the walkway and giving pause to our girls, who had never seen so many pictures of naked women with big boobies overtly displayed. I probably should have warned Megan about this aspect of Vegas. It made her uncomfortable and it definitely shocked Mary Ellen's 8-year-old.
We got to the hotel and wandered through its New York streets (resembling another old movie set) until we got to the roller coaster - and discovered that it cost $14 for one ride ($25 for unlimited rides). I was relieved when the girls decided to pass. I am definitely getting old. The thought of careening around a big hotel on a corkscrew roller coaster no longer sounds like fun to me, and I wasn't really excited at the prospect of Megan doing it without me.
We grabbed a cab and headed back to our own hotel.
(Tomorrow: Poolside at Mandalay Bay and Spamalot).