Monday, January 24, 2005

Just flew in from Vegas, and man, is this joke tired

Well, sports fans, KJ and your Uncle Swan have returned from celebrating 20 years of marital bliss (at least, 20 years, in each of which something approaching marital bliss has occasionally transpired) in America’s favorite party town — the City of Neon, Las Vegas, Nevada — and, while I don’t like to brag, we tore the roof off the sucker.

Then again, maybe not.

In fact, it’s safe to say that we are probably the most sedate visitors Las Vegas welcomes, with the possible exception of the endless battalions of slow-moving elderly folks who walk in front of us everywhere we go when we’re there. We don’t drink — not so much as a jigger, however much a jigger is — so all the offers of complimentary libations lay fallow at our feet. We don’t gamble much — KJ played one session of nickel slots amounting to less than twenty bucks, and I played about three hours total of blackjack (the only casino game I play for real money, and then only when I can find a five-dollar minimum table at which no one seated immediately next to me is smoking) and broke even. We don’t visit nightclubs, which you would know was a good thing had you ever seen me attempt postmodern dance. And we don’t parade naked down the Las Vegas Strip, much to the relief of the other tourists.

What do we do, then?

Well, we check out a lot of nifty sights. We eat in a lot of interesting places. We seek out entertaining shows. We stare goggle-eyed at pretty lights. We plaster our noses to the windows of expensive shops, and poke around in the ones where the merchandise is cheap enough that we can actually afford to buy some, and in which the aisles are sufficiently wide to permit me to wander about without fear of breaking delicate items for which I will then have to pay. We ride in taxicabs and enjoy the thrill of putting our lives in the hands of people with limited conversational English skills. We walk. A lot. And come home exhausted but with plenty of fun new stories to tell.

Herewith, the highlights of our week in Neonopolis.

Ted loves you. This was our first occasion to fly Ted, which used to be called United Shuttle before United found itself swimming in red ink and unloaded the extra brand identity, only to spend serious moolah rebooting the whole thing a couple of years later with a new brand, new graphics, and repainted planes. How do I get the contract to manage a deal like this?

The name “Ted,” as the United folks are quick to explain, is “part of UniTED.” Then again, “Nit” is part of United, too, but I’ll be doggoned if I’m climbing aboard something named after lice eggs. “Ite” would also be part of United, but I guess the United people hope folks find the accommodations more than just “ite.” (If that last line makes no sense to you, you need to spend more time listening to interviews with basketball players on ESPN SportsCenter, yo.)

Ted got us to Las Vegas bang on time, and to San Francisco a half-hour early, both with a minimum of nuisance. Ted is The Man. Uncle Swan gives Ted three big tailfeathers.

Got a condo made of stone-ah. We spent the week at the Luxor, in a fifth-floor room in the great glass pyramid, with an exceptional view of the Sphinx’s rump and not much else. You may be interested to know that the Sphinx is not anatomically correct. Assuming, of course, that the anatomy of a mythical creature would be comparable to that of similar, non-mythical creatures. Perhaps mythical creatures do not need to relieve themselves.

This was our first stay at the Luxor, a very cool place to hang out, though more than moderately confusing to navigate. (It is, of course, de rigeur for casino hotels to be laid out in as mind-boggling a manner as possible, so that lost patrons will end up depositing all their cash in slot machines out of sheer desperation.) We will stay there again.

Be warned, however, that Luxor employs the most painfully sluggish check-in methodology ever devised by the hospitality industry. It took an interminable amount of time to get our room, despite the fact that the lines were not inordinately long — only about five parties were queued up in front of me, but it took the desk clerk nearly an hour to disperse them. And this was on a Monday in January. I can well imagine winding up in a sarcophagus waiting to check in at Luxor on a busy holiday weekend.

Uncle Swan gives the Luxor three tailfeathers, but bites one in half because of that darned registration line.

Eat this, tourist. In case you haven’t done the Vegas thing lately and still envision an endless supply of $1.99 steaks and all-you-can-eat lobster, be advised that those deals, while they still exist in the remote corners of the Neon City (mostly in locations frequented by the resident population and shunned by outsiders), they are increasingly few and far between. Dining in today’s Vegas is all about fancy gourmet cuisine dished up in white-linen joints with famous chefs’ names on the marquee (though usually without said chefs personally slinging hash in the kitchen).

Obviously, one can eat only so many meals in a week. Therefore, if you’re looking for a comprehensive evaluation of the gustatory opportunities in Las Vegas, hie yourself over to the Las Vegas Advisor site or Cheapo Vegas and get the full 411. But if you’re willing to settle for a few random tips based on my experience and impeccable taste, read on.
  • Have you tried the buffet? The Bellagio, hands down. If you can’t find plenty to tempt your taste buds in this place, you’re angling for charter membership in the Mary-Kate Olsen Fan Club. It’s big-time pricey, but it’s worth every simoleon. I’d heard good things about Cravings, the buffet at the Mirage, many of which were true, but it’s a distant second to the Bellagio, which rates the full four tailfeathers from Uncle Swan.

  • Have you avoided the buffet? The Fremont, downtown. I’m sure there are worse buffets in Vegas — the horror stories about the spread at Circus Circus are legendary — but the Fremont offered the only subpar meal we ate all week. We chose it for no better reason than that we had a two-for-one coupon from the Las Vegas Advisor, which serves us right, I suppose. We ate here on Friday night, when seafood is the specialty of the evening. If an inveterate seafood lover such as your Uncle Swan can’t get behind this, you know it’s bad. One and a half tailfeathers, mostly for price and volume.

  • Dining, with a view of the city lights: VooDoo Café, on the 50th floor of the Rio. We had our anniversary dinner here, and it was spectacular. Great ambience, if you dig the whole New Orleans santeria vibe (neither of us ordered chicken, but I’m sure it wasn’t served live), and the vista outside the window can’t be beat. Fine service, too. If you go on a night when Tomi Sue is the photographer on duty, let her take your picture and give her a nice tip. Uncle Swan gives VooDoo four fluffy tailfeathers.

  • Dining, with a view of the inside of a casino: Samba, the Brazilian steakhouse at the Mirage. The specialty of the house is a rodizio-style barbecue, which means servers keep sidling up with massive skewers loaded with nine varieties of grilled meats, and will keep slicing the char-grilled goodness onto your plate until you plead with them to stop. I recommend the garlic-soy flank steak and the pork tenderloin with pineapple. I think they called this place Samba because they were concerned that "Carnivorgasm" would be too hard for gamblers to say after a few rounds of free cocktails. Whatever you call it, it rates four tailfeathers from your Uncle Swan.

  • Dining, with a view of a Brobdingnagian hunk o’ beef: Sir Galahad’s Prime Rib House at Excalibur. A traditional fave — the otherwise Morris-finicky KJ loves prime rib, so we eat here at least once whenever we’re in town and are yet to be disappointed. Vegans not invited. Uncle Swan gives Sir G three tailfeathers and a huzzah!

  • Dining, with a south-of-the-border flair: Gonzalez y Gonzalez at New York New York. Alleged by some sources to be the tastiest Mexican fare in town, and I’ll not dispute it. Try the nachos and the Gulf shrimp fajitas. Uncle Swan gives the G-men three tailfeathers and an olé!
The lights are much brighter there — sundry thoughts and observations about the City of Glitter:
  • Wanna draw back a stump? To paraphrase Barnard Hughes in The Lost Boys, “If there’s one thing I hate about Las Vegas, it’s all the [expletive deleted] vampires.” In Vegas, the bloodsuckers take the form of people who are paid (not very well, I’d guess) to assault your physical space everywhere you walk. Inside the casinos, it’s the folks from the time-share joints who want to lure you into a sales presentation with the proffer of allegedly gratis show tickets and meal comps. Outside on the Strip, these same leeches are joined by innumerable hosts of pamphleteers trying to slap ads for in-room strippers and escort services into your hand as you plow through on your way to the next hotel.

    Look, you maggots — and I say that with love and respect — I don’t have any problem with the time-share rental of vacation property, and whatever activities one indulges in the privacy of his or her hotel room are between them, whomever they invite in, and their mutual Maker. But if I wanted condos or hookers while I’m in town, I’d pick up the colossal Las Vegas Yellow Pages so thoughtfully provided by the hotel, look up your number, and call you.

    Put up all the billboards you wish. Take out ads atop cabs or on bus benches. Hire mimes, or pneumatic babes in thong bikinis, to stand on street corners wearing sandwich boards announcing your wares. But all you gain by having people get in my face is one angry tourist with social anxiety disorder and an itchy right cross.

  • From the If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Mess With It Department: The new free outdoor show at Treasure Island, entitled Sirens of TI, sucks swamp water. I miss the pirates. If I want to look at bimbos in lingerie, I’ll buy a ticket to the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana, or stand outside Victoria’s Secret. (Treasure Island, which now apparently prefers to be addressed simply as TI, has eradicated most of its former pirate theme in favor of...well...I can’t tell what exactly. It looks like just an expansion of the pseudotropical garb from the Mirage next door.)

  • Super Trouper Award: Mac King, the comic magician who performs afternoons at Harrah’s. Mac was struggling with a severe bout of laryngitis the day we saw him, and his voice cracked and wheezed to the point that he was sometimes barely audible. I’m sure he must have felt dreadful, but he gave his all for the audience who paid their money to see him.

  • Funniest Comic Alive: George Wallace, performing nightly at Bugsy Siegel’s old haunt, the Flamingo. If you’re in Vegas anytime in the next two years (he just signed a new deal with the hotel) and don’t go see George Wallace, you’ve done yourself a disservice. George uses some “adult language,” but his act isn’t “blue” in the sense that that word is normally used. As good an observational comedian as there is in show business, and he never does the same set twice.

  • Expensive, and Earning It: Penn and Teller at the Rio. Seeing them on our anniversary night was the highlight of KJ’s trip. Penn Jillette (the tall, blustery one) actually provides the pre-show entertainment, playing standup bass alongside a virtuoso pianist named Mike Jones for nearly an hour before taking the stage with his ever-silent partner, Teller. After the show, the guys sign autographs (KJ had them sign the envelope our photos from VooDoo came in) and pose for pictures with their adoring public. You won’t see a more entertaining show anywhere in Vegas. Maybe anywhere, period.

  • Overrated, and Looking It: Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo. I love magic acts — witness the fact that we saw three such performances in Vegas this trip — and Burton is as talented an illusionist as they come. But compared with the unbridled, boisterous energy of Penn and Teller, Lance seems stagey and stiff, and he comes off as far less charismatic live than he does in television appearances. He also needs to ease up on the plastic surgery, before he starts looking like Wayne Newton’s skinnier brother. Lance apparently had some dental work done recently, as he spoke through clenched teeth all evening.
Things I’m glad I saw on this trip to Vegas:
  • The Eiffel Tower and faux Montgolfier Brothers balloon outside Paris Las Vegas. Tres magnifique.

  • The upgraded light show on Fremont Street downtown.

  • An ad for a musical act called G. Love and Special Sauce, appearing at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. I’d cross a wide intersection to hear a band called G. Love and Special Sauce, even without knowing what kind of music they perform.

  • The Desert Passage Mall at the Aladdin Hotel. Now that Planet Hollywood has bought the place, they’re going to re-theme it and do away with all of the gorgeous desert décor. I understand why, but it’s still a shame to see all that design work go to waste.

  • A cute woman standing barefoot in front of the CVS Pharmacy on the South Strip. She was probably in her late 30s, wearing a plain floral dress, pleasantly plump, and had a smile that could persuade Siegfried and Roy to reconsider. I'd have taken her picture if I'd thought my wife wouldn't club me. (It wasn't like that, mind you — she just had this blissful composure amid all the cacophony, and I'd have liked to have learned why.)

  • The “living statues” that grace several of the themed shopping areas. Those people share an amazing talent, and a tough job.

  • The dancing fountains at the Bellagio, and the volcano at the Mirage. Every human being should see both at least once.

  • The back end of the Sphinx. Every human being should see a mythical creature's butt at least once.

  • Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum at the Venetian. I’ve seen a lot of waxworks displays, but this is by far the best. The likeness of the late Princess Diana was so lifelike it literally brought tears to my eyes.

  • The beaming grin on KJ’s face after she met and got autographs from Penn and Teller. Priceless.

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Welcome back. And you were quite busy!

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