stories from the road
stories from the road
stories from the road
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are you  game? a pop quiz
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Elaine, the Road Sage

Around the World in...Las Vegas

(Filed from San Francisco, California at 4:40 p.m. on August 28, 2000

It's been four years since I've been to Las Vegas.  Fen hasn't been in ten.  In our absence, the world has come to Las Vegas, in more ways than one.  The desert gaming oasis has become the most popular tourist destination in the U.S., even bigger than Disney World.  It's also the place to visit if you're looking for a world tour but only have a weekend to spare.  In the new Las Vegas you can visit Paris, Venice, New York, the South Pacific and Monte Carlo in one fell swoop.  A stylized version of Lake Como, too.  Our ronde du globe goes something like this...

We arrive in Las Vegas on Friday morning and check into the Treasure Island, that pirate's den which invites you to shake you booty and leave your booty behind.  The TI is our choice thanks to their unbeatable weekend rates.  Our room is spacious and done in soothing earth tones, the better to cure any gambling blues.

Hungry, we head downstairs to the breakfast buffet.  Fen hands me three dimes from his pocket and invites me to take my chances on the slot machines while he holds our place in the chow line.  I canvas the large, brightly-lit casino but can't find any dime slots, so I inquire of one of the women who strolls around with a change cart.

"There are no dime slots," she tells me.  "We don't take dimes."

"Well, can I change my dimes for nickels or quarters?" I ask.

"Not with me," says the change woman.  "There's only one change window for dimes but it doesn't open till 11 a.m."

I head back to the buffet and tell Fen that dimes are coin non grata here.

"I bet I know why," Fen says.  "Dimes are too small and light and it takes a lot of them just to fill up one of those change buckets they give you.  They simply don't weigh enough."

"Aah," I reply, "dimes won't give the illusion of prosperity."

"Yep," Fen continues, "bad marketing in Las Vegas."

Having solved that mystery, we proceed to a huge breakfast for a mere $6.99.

Needing to walk off our largesse, we cross the street to The Venetian, a spanking-new hotel/casino which evokes -- you guessed it -- Venice.  Strolling across a replica of St. Mark's Square, we find our way to the Grand Canal Shoppes, a grandiose shopping mall with (faux) blue skies overhead and canals and gondoliers snuggled in between.  "O Sole Mio" wafts through the air, and in this case it's not faux -- the gondoliers are actually singing.  We purchase tickets and queue up for our gondola ride, a first for both Fen and me.  While Fen has never been to Venice, I was there ten years earlier but missed out on a grand canal tour.

Our gondolier, Santino, is a smiling fellow who hails from Genoa.  He's never been on a gondola in Venice, either.  Santino has been in the U.S. for nine years and is living the American dream -- sort of.

"You know how much teasing I get from back home for doing this job?" he asks us.

Santino manages to block out the teasing for a few minutes while he belts out an Italian tune.  The hoards of shoppers lining the canal clap wildly when he's done.  So do we.

Leaving Venice via the casino, we head for ancient Rome, specifically the Forum Shops at Caesars.  There's a faux blue sky here, too, and statues of Roman emperors.  The statues speak.  It takes us all of two minutes to bump into Elvis, who's crooning a tune of his own at a toy store. Fen reaches for his camera in order to take a picture of Elvis in action.

"Don't do it," I say.  "I bet it costs money to take pictures of Elvis."  No sooner are the words out of my mouth than an elderly woman makes a beeline over to where we stand.

"No, it doesn't cost money," she tells us.  "It's just two dollars to take a picture."  Fen and I look at each other.

"Oh, that's okay," I tell her.

"No, really!" the woman implores.  "It doesn't cost anything, it's just a dollar."

Baffled by Vegas math, we wave to Elvis and walk away.

The Bellagio is next on our list, anxious as we are to check out hotelier Steve Wynn's latest creation.  This mega-resort cum pleasure palace is said to evoke the charms of Lake Como, although I'm quite sure there are no palazzos this big surrounding the northern Italian lake.  And no placid lake this -- come nightfall, the Bellagio's waterway comes alive with fountains and strobe lights doing the kind of can-can that would make a Vegas showgirl wince.  Since it's still daylight, however, we head inside.

The first thing you notice when walking into the Bellagio's lobby is the stained glass overhead.  Millions of dollars (seven? ten? fifteen million?  everyone has a different guess) were spent on mammoth blown-glass flowers in the colors of the rainbow.  The canopy of flowers sparkles and shines and appears to be winking right at you.  It's lovely.  A botanical garden filled with an assortment of trees and flowers is directly ahead of us, also sparkling thanks to the skylight straight above it.  People stroll along the garden's paths, speaking softly and pausing now and again to examine a flower or inhale its fragrance.  We choose to stroll through the casino on our way to the Bellagio's pools. 

At the Bellagio, bigger is definitely better but thankfully, taste is always in style.  We find six pools at the Bellagio's aqua palace, making it hard to settle on one.  Finally, we park ourselves at a small pool which has a large fountain smack in the middle of it.  I jump into the pool and start swimming to my left in order to circumnavigate the fountain.  Fen heads right and appears to be doing the same thing.  We meet halfway and kiss.  I finish my loop and then move closer to the fountain so that some of its bountiful water can spill on the top of my head.  Fen does the same.  Once hunger strikes, we make our way over to the poolside cafe, where we enjoy a delicious lunch.

"Do people still come here to gamble?" I ask Fen.  He shrugs.  I find it hard to believe, since the Bellagio is starting to look like the perfect resort destination to me.

A freak thunderstorm chases us out of our poolside oasis and back inside, where we make our way over to the gelateria for a double scoop of chocolate truffle gelato.  It's as good as the gelato in Rome.  Strolling back through the casino, I find that this particular gambling den has a softer edge to it than most of the others.  Maybe it's because there are paisley canopies hanging over the gaming tables and groupings of slot machines.  The canopies are a bright yellow and orange and fringed with soft pom-poms in yellow, red and green.  The walls are also striped in bold swaths of yellow, red and gold.  This all reminds me of the colors of the Palio, that Italian jousting match which is as much about winning as it is about looking good.  I think the folks at the Bellagio have the same idea.

Before long, we've made our way over to the Via Bellagio, Mr. Wynn's version of a shopping mall.  Here the players are decidedly upscale:  Gucci, Armani, Chanel and Prada all compete for valuable shelf space and the shopper's eye.  Catching my eye is Tiffany & Co., so I pull Fen in.  I fall in love with a two-carat rock and manage to find a salesman who is willing to give us a clinic in the 4 C's.  Fen sweats.  It's all an A+ for me.

Our evening treat is a performance of Cirque du Soleil's "O" show at the Bellagio.  This time, the French Canadian acrobats have taken their show to the water, and what an aquatic spectacle it is.  Mermaid-style water play is only the beginning here -- think short boys and girls, all of them more pliable than Gumby, twisting and twirling and tumbling and jumping from all parts of the stage.  The stage itself rises and falls from the huge pool of water that is center stage.

"Notice what happens when they go down into the water," Fen whispers to me.  "You don't see any bubbles.  They must have some really sophisticated breathing apparatus down there."

I'm busy looking up, however, where the many acrobats fly in on strings that scream "George of the Jungle" or dangle and flit from one trapeze to the next.  Suddenly, the elfin tricksters appear on a high dive board and perform unbelievable twists and turns on their way down to the water, waaay down.  Three Asian women come out and contort their bodies in even more unbelievable ways.  Everyone in the show is beautifully and colorfully dressed and never stops smiling.  The music builds to a fantastical crescendo.  I nudge Fen.

"This is one can-you -top-this moment after another!  I can hardly believe it."

And so it goes with "O".

We make our way back to Treasure Island via Paris.  The French capital is, to us, a bit underwhelming on this visit.  No matter, it's been one heck of a day.

*     *     *     *     *

"I've got it!" I say to Fen as I wake up on Saturday morning.  "'Eau' is French for water and 'eau' sounds just like 'O' so that's why they named it that.  The Cirque folks are French Canadian so it makes sense."  I feel brilliant.

Breakfast this morning is at the Mirage, a short tram ride from Treasure Island.  Many properties on the Strip are now connected via a tram, the better to keep visitors away from the harsh desert heat.  Since it's Saturday, the Mirage has morphed its daily buffet into a weekend brunch, which means even more food items to choose from.  It's nearly overwhelming, but delicious.

The pool du jour on this day is back on Treasure Island, our weekend home.  The TI's pool is a serpentine stretch of pale blue water, mobbed with children and weekend visitors from L.A.  It seems that at least half the people in Las Vegas are visiting from L.A.  The other half are here for a bachelor party.  Fen and I manage to snag a couple of lounge chairs and sip lemonade as we bake in the desert sun.  I head to the bar periodically to see if Tiger Woods is winning another golf tournament (he is).  After a few hours of shaking and baking, we head to the South Pacific, hereabouts known as Mandalay Bay.

The Mandalay Bay is a golden tower (seriously -- there's gold on them thar windows) at the opposite end of the strip from Treasure Island.  Lush plants and thick foliage fill the Mandalay's lobby, as does a huge tropical fish tank and a gigantic birdcage filled with exotic (and wildly colorful) birds.  Dazzling, gargantuan chandeliers cast a bright light on the proceedings.  Oh, did I say everything is big here?  Fen and I take our small selves through the casino and past the mega-restaurant row on our way to the Border Grill, a chi-chi Mexican restaurant adjacent to the Mandalay beach and pool.  Oh yeah, the pool is big too:  think wave pool (more like tidal wave pool), river rafting run and football-field-size swimming pool.

Luckily, our margaritas at the Border Grill are regular-size.  They're also delicious.  We feast on creamy guacamole, a perky ceviche and a luscious tortilla soup as we watch the denizens of the beach sun and swim and raft out and in.  The golden tower behind us glitters in the afternoon sun.  As we leave the Border and walk back through the casino, I mention something to Fen that has been on my mind.

"You know, I don't understand why all these guys keep talking into their shirts."

We had first noticed this at The Venetian, where the gondoliers kept talking into little microphones on the collars of their shirts.  Here at the Mandalay, all the table stewards and assorted other security-types are also talking into their chest.  I can't help but think that this will all result in a huge chink in the neck.

"Yeah, you're right," Fen tells me.  "It would be so much easier if they just got one of those microphones that swings out of an earpiece."

"And how about those stockings ," I continue, seizing on something else that's been bothering me.  "All the waitresses wear those bullet-proof-looking hose."

I've also noticed that the waitresses at the various casinos all seem to be sporting hose which look so heavy and thick that I fear their legs are being suffocated.  Even so, there's something sexy about these hose -- they're super-shimmery and do make a gal's legs look trim.  I just can't imagine that they're comfortable.

"Yeah," Fen laughs.  "Those stockings look like Kevlar."

Our after-dark adventure on this night is dinner at Picasso at the Bellagio.  Picasso is the baby of chef Julian Serrano, who left the vaunted Masa's in San Francisco to come play in Steve Wynn's sandbox.  Make that jewel box, since this cozy dining room is done in soft hues and low lights and filled with paintings by the master.  Picasso, that is -- although Serrano is a master in his own right.

The food at Picasso has a Spanish/French flair which is evident in Fen's first dish, a bowl of bright red gazpacho.  This cherry-poppin' daddy is silky smooth and tastes (and smells) of Spain.  My starter is a foursome of poached oysters, each presented to me in its shell and bathed in a lemony broth, specks of caviar glistening on the dewy skin.  The rest of our meal only gets better, ending with a molten chocolate cake paired with a scoop of intense chocolate ice cream.  Fen and I fight for the last bite.

We exit Picasso and turn left, finding our way onto Picasso's Terrace.  This outdoor space is the place to watch Bellagio's dancing fountains, which do their thing every fifteen minutes.  It takes Fen and I about five minutes to work our way to the best table.  The show soon begins.  Spouts of water shoot high into the air while other aqua-bursts curl and curve and actually do seem to dance.  The fountains go through their wet paces to the accompaniment of a well-known tune, everything from Frank Sinatra to the Commodores and Luciano.  It's Frankie on our first visit, and the fountain is spurting and shimmying to the showtime beat.  Hordes of onlookers have gathered, most of them on the sidewalk at the far side of Bellagio Lake.  The show lasts about five minutes, after which time the crowd breaks out in riotous applause.

Once again, we work our way through the casino in order to get back outside.  This is par for the course in Las Vegas -- all roads go through the casino, the better to tempt you into a game of craps or a spin of roulette.  Fen and I are small-time gamblers so we don't take the bait.  After two days, we're only down twenty bucks -- at the casinos, that is.

*     *     *     *     *

Day three starts with breakfast in bed.  We haven't spent nearly enough time in our room, although it has a fabulous view of the Strip and enough creature comforts to make you want to hang out.  We shake our booty in-room.

First stop, after check-out, is the Bellagio spa.  Las Vegas has quickly become Spa Town U.S.A., the kind of statistic which must make places like San Diego and Scottsdale cringe.  At the Bellagio's marble-encrusted, gold-tinged spa, a mere "visit" (no extra treatments, such as massage or facial, booked) allows you to enjoy the eucalyptus steam room, redwood sauna, three whirlpools and cold plunge.  You can also lounge about, watch TV and read magazines.  I do all of the above plus drink two smoothies and eat way too many cashews.  Two hours later, I meet Fen and compare notes:  he skipped the smoothies.

"You know, I really like the Bellagio," I tell Fen.  "It's like a grown-up version of Disney World.  I think I could live here."

For a moment I fancy myself a latter-day Eloise, ensconced at the Bellagio with no way, or desire, to get out.

Staying in, we amble over to the Petrossian caviar bar, right off the lobby.  Petrossian serves plenty of caviar but it also serves high tea, which is why Fen has brought me over here -- he knows that doing tea is one of my favorite things.  My guy and I sink into stately wing chairs and nibble on finger sandwiches and plump scones while a pianist serenades.  We even order a plate of caviar and smoked fish.  Our Darjeeling tea is delightfully soothing.

"Wow, we don't have much time left," I say to Fen as I look at my watch.  Our plane is set to leave in two hours and we've still got a few things left on our Las Vegas agenda.  Fen agrees.

"Okay," he says.  "Let's go!"

We take the tram from the Bellagio to Monte Carlo in order to get to New York (New York).  This whirlwind tour allows us to take a peek at the casino which would be Gotham, save for the many rats which seem to have taken over the Big Apple.  There are no rats here that I can see, but there is a Big Apple the size of a compact car hanging overhead.  There's also a New York Slot Exchange and bathrooms dubbed "Guys" and "Dolls."

New York New York is too dark for our fancy so we head back outside, although it's already twilight.  Perfect for us, though, since the volcano at the Mirage only pops off after dark.  We hike the considerable distance back to the Mirage (which starts to seem like a mirage -- nothing is close by on the Strip) and wait, along with what seems like a thousand other gawkers, for the top to pop.  After about thirty minutes, the rumbling starts.  Soon smoke is floating out of the top of the volcano.  Then we see fire, and finally a big, bright orange flame shoots out of the popped top and lights up the nighttime sky.  The crowd oohs and aahs as the show is done.

"Cool!" Fen says.  I have to agree.

"If we hurry up," Fen continues, "we can make it over to the pirate battle at Treasure Island before we have to leave."

"Sounds good," I say, and I immediately realize that we weren't the only ones with this bright idea.  The entire volcano mob is heading over to Treasure Island.  Fen and I turn it into high gear and pretty much sprint over to the TI in order to catch the epic battle between our boys and the Brits.  Rumor has it that our guys always win the pirate battle, which leads me to think that the Brits are overdue.

In short order, the battle is enjoined, with the Brits sailing across the "seas" and daring the Americans to take them on.  No problem there -- the home team fires a few shots, and then a really big one across the Brits' bow.  More fireworks ensue, and soon both sides are in the midst of a rousing, rollicking battle.  And then it happens:  a huge cannon blast into the side of the H.M.S. Brittania.  The Brits start to sink.  But this baby won't go down alone, no sir -- the British captain actually stays on board his sinking ship and goes down, standing.  It's quite the final flourish.

"That was great!" Fen proclaims.  Once again, I have to agree.

In three short days, I've been reminded yet again that Las Vegas is a singular experience, expansive in scope and endless in pleasure.  So what if it's a bit over the top?  That's half the fun.


2000 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California

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