Brooklyn Bridge (New York) – 12th Nov 2011

After settling in to our new hotel we took our first stroll around Manhattan, heading for Brooklyn Bridge late afternoon.  We walked south east through Chinatown, past City Hall and the imposing court houses and onto the pedestrian walkway across Brooklyn Bridge.  It was a crisp clear day and hundreds of sightseers; tourists and locals alike, had had the same idea as us – all out for a bit of exercise and fresh air.

There was an air of laid back enjoyment as throngs of people walked the wooden gangplanking in the early evening dusk whilst enjoying the sights on offer.  It was the weekend which meant no commuters rushing about, just people enjoying a stroll without a timetable to keep.  The Empire State Building and Chrysler Building were clearly visible uptown and the massive skyscrapers of the Financial District towered above us while Manhattan Bridge carried a stream of traffic across the river to our north.  The last weak rays of a waning sun added just enough colour to offset the wash of greys and silvers of the Lower Manhattan skyline.

The thermometer dropped sharply as the sun disappeared early behind the giant western backdrop of skyscrapers, giving us a good excuse to head back into the shelter of the city to warm ourselves up over a cup of coffee – it’s going to take some acclimatisation before we can handle any length of time in these temperatures!  

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A Day In Queens Then Off To Manhattan (New York) – 11th and 12th Nov 2011

Zero sleep and we’re out of our motel at 4:30 in the morning waiting for the (complimentary) shuttle to LAX.  Best we enjoy our final balmy morning of the whole trip – it’s off to much colder climes now!  It’s a long haul to New York when you need to change planes at Milwaukee and the Fonz isn’t home.  Our connecting flight was delayed and by the time we landed at La Guardia it was way past our bedtime.  We had a great view of the Manhattan skyline as we came in to land though, luckily we were seated on the left hand side of the plane as we coasted up the East River on a totally clear night with the skyscrapers at not far below our eye level.

Tip for anyone when arriving here – research the location of where you’re staying as your taxi driver more than likely won’t have a clue!  By the time we reached our one night digs in Queens we were shattered and just fell into bed.  Next morning we were out and about, eager for our first taste of New York life.  Queens is a residential neighbourhood to the east of Manhattan that has probably seen better days, although it looks a little rough round the edges the people are friendly and welcoming.  A mainly immigrant population, you’re just as likely to hear the Spanish language as English but it is an enjoyable place to wander around for a few hours – and you won’t need a second mortgage to buy a coffee or breakfast.

Later in the afternoon we took a car to our Manhattan hotel, The Best Western Bowery smack on the border between Chinatown and Little Italy, a real melting pot of cultures and cuisines – an ideal (and just about affordable) spot to tour the city from.  

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Leaving Las Vegas – 10th Nov 2011

Time to leave Las Vegas and head on back to LA and return our hire car.  It should have been a simple route but we didn’t reckon on Madge, our sat nav sending us in just about every direction but the right one.  We had made sure she was set to “quickest route” but started to feel a little uneasy when she sent us straight past the freeway signposted Los Angeles and took us through Red Rock Canyon instead.  A lovely picturesque route but not one to choose when you have a deadline to meet!

We were sure there was something up when we actually joined the self same freeway 92 miles outside Las Vegas – only problem was we had already driven 162 (?).  In a strange country and without a map, we were loath to ignore our hired expert, but when she directed us off the freeway again we were totally puzzled.  We were sure this was wrong but again went along with it.  We were certainly having a scenic drive but when we started climbing uphill quickly we knew we’d taken the wrong choice.  In no time at all we were in the snow of the mountains way above LA, having been in the desert close to Death Valley just an hour previously.  It was fun at first, this being our first snow since Darjeeling six months earlier, but as the sun went down and the snow got thicker to the point where we could see snow plough tracks it didn’t seem so funny any more!

To this day we can’t work out why we were pointed in this direction.  Hours were added on to the time of the journey and when we eventually wound our way down the mountainside into LA we were way behind schedule.  It was at this point when we decided to have a serious chat about what to do next.  We were supposed to be flying on to New Orleans, taking a trip up to Memphis and Nashville, before taking another flight to Key West and finally hopping up to New York for some Xmas shopping before heading back home to the UK.  Maybe we had cut things a little close to the holiday season, considering we didn’t have anywhere to live, time to make a decision – cut the trip short and head straight to New York?  Give ourselves chance to be settled in our own place before Christmas?  Sounded good to us – so the trip would come to a slightly premature end but we had had a wonderful time and this way the wonderful time could continue on in the UK.

We booked into a motel at LA airport, sorted tickets to New York La Guardia for the next day (via Milwaukee) and handed our trusty hire car back.  No rest for the wicked, the rest of the night was spent trying to find affordable digs in New York before it was off before dawn  to the airport to catch our flight.  So we have eight days of our trip left after cutting it short by four weeks.  This still means we will have circumnavigated the globe and been away for nine and a half months – not bad for our first attempt at backpacking!  Time to enjoy our final destination on the road – New York!  

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Downtown At Fremont Street (Las Vegas) – 9th Nov 2011

You get a much more intimate feel to “Sin City” downtown at Fremont Street.  Things are tightly packed together and the streets have been covered to make it pleasant to stroll around.  There are bright lights everywhere but nothing seems to tower above you like on the strip.  They’ve really tried to regenerate this, the oldest part of Las Vegas, and have succeeded in making it a fun place to visit.  Shows are broadcast across the roof above your heads every thirty minutes, bands play live sets on the permanent stage and the iconic signs of the famous names of Vegas past are aplenty.

Being enclosed, everything seems much closer and brighter and we had a great time wandering the covered streets while being entertained.  The Golden Nugget Casino is in a class of it’s own here and inside it is very swanky and would rival some of the top names on Las Vegas Boulevard.  Binnions, the birthplace of poker’s ‘World Series’ shines out a beacon for card players everywhere, while The Four Queens and Fremont St casinos compete over who has the most iconic street corner sign.  The competition for the title of “most iconic of all signs” is probably played out between ‘The Lucky Strike Cowboy’ and ‘The Girls of Glitter Gulch’ – take your pick as to who comes out on top!

For sure, a visit to Las Vegas isn’t complete without spending some time Down Town.  It’s glitzy, it’s fun and a lot of the entertainment is free.  Seemingly the slot machines pay out a much higher percentage than on The Strip but it’s still a minimum of £3+ to play a hand of blackjack or place a chip on the outside of a roulette table.  Pretty costly for a single spin and maybe they’re losing out on those just wanting a little fun at the tables.  A lot of the casino floors we visited were at least half empty all across Vegas so perhaps people are being priced out of having a gamble?  Smacks of killing the goose that laid the golden egg to us!

This was our last night in “Bright Lights City” and our feelings are very mixed about it.  There are some classy places and some dives, a lot of it seems to be aiming very much at the down market client, and up market is eye-wateringly expensive.  The bright lights are just like Blackpool really but this place has the added bonus of virtually all year round good weather.  We’re glad we came, we’re sad we didn’t hit the jackpot; will we return – unlikely.

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Another Dinner Date At The Venetian (Las Vegas) – 8th Nov 2011

As mentioned in the previous post, we had both enjoyed eating at the Venetian so much we booked again for more of the same.  We parked the car up at the Palazzo and had a wander around the casino for a while.  We got the usual end result – a loss:  good thing is we limit ourselves strictly on the gambling side so even when we lose it’s only a small loss which goes a long way towards keeping it fun.  We have won on the odd occasion but not much either so at the moment things probably balance out at us being about $60 down (I’ll take that in Vegas says Dave!)

After our little loss in the casino we wandered through the immaculate streets of make believe Venice before arriving at Canaleto for our dinner reservation.  This time we were seated outside in the piazza and all was set for a lovely romantic dinner for two.  A good bottle of red and some quality live music from the band opposite settled us in just nicely, our starters were first class and the main course simply divine.  Virtually stuffed to the limit, dessert became a one bowl of ice cream with two spoons affair, in keeping with the romantic ambience!  All in all we had a fabulous experience here and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it if you’re ever in these parts.  Yes, the surroundings are a copy of something that cannot truly be copied; but they’ve done their best, there are absolutely NO chavs around (elsewhere in Vegas they are common place), the food is delicious, the service second to none and the ambience scores very high on the romance scale.  

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Dinner Date At The Venetian Then A Show At The Palazzo (Las Vegas) – 7th Nov 2011

A quick wash and brush up then it was time to set off for dinner and a show.  Dave drove down to the Palazzo and parked up in the indoor car park without any hassle.  Tip for Vegas – if you’ve got a hire car all the big hotels and casinos have free parking – use it if you’re off shopping or sightseeing – and the car is safe!

We walked through the Palazzo and into the Venetian which joins it.  Everything very plush and clean on the ground floor casino area, then took the escalator up.  We didn’t have a clue what to expect but when we took the route towards the “Grand Canal Shops” we were literally gobsmacked.  First of all, at the top of the escalator, the roof and walls are painted as an exact replica of the Doge’s Palace – impressive.  Then you hit a mini indoor Venice. The ceiling has a bright blue sky projected on it, there are canals with singing gondoliers on them and the attention to detail is remarkable.  Everything is immaculate and the shops in this area are expensive and glitzy.

As we followed the canals and shops we were brought into a huge square lined with restaurants.  It really felt like we were outdoors, even the sky was changing colour as the time passed.  We chose a little Italian restaurant called ‘Canaleto’ and ate just inside, there being no places available to eat out on the plaza.  The service was impeccable, the food excellent and we had a lovely intimate dinner for two.  In fact we enjoyed it so much we made reservations to come back the following evening and eat on the square.

Yes, we fully understand that this is all make believe and fairyland, but the Venetian really has made the effort to get things just right, it has a good feeling to it and it’s fun and quite relaxing to wander through – nowhere near the madness and brashness of some other joints.  Venice is our favourite city and we thought we would hate Las Vegas’ pretend version; but actually we quite enjoyed it.

Time to head off and see our show, we walked back along to the Palazzo where quite a queue had formed to see Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.  By the time everyone was seated the show started a couple of minutes late, but the performance made up for that.  The kid who played the lead role sounded just like the originals and we were treated to a very good show – both being amazed at how many hits this group actually had.  At the end of the show we stopped at the bar outside the theatre and had a beer while listening to “The Duelling Pianos” show – more excellent entertainment. After all the theatre crowds had dispersed one or two of the cast came out through the casino and we were able to give our congratulations to them on such a good show – all of them very friendly and happy to stop and chat or shake hands.

Time to head off back after a great night – The Venetian….if you can afford it, stay here!  If you can’t – just do what we did!  

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Las Vegas Boulevard, “The Strip” – By Day ‘n’ Night – 7th Nov 2011

We decided to see the sights of “The Strip” the best way possible in our view, so set off on foot mid afternoon on another lovely sunny day.  Our hotel was positioned right at one end of the 7 mile long street of fantasy, so off we went on a very different kind of hike to that which we had completed in the Grand Canyon so recently.  First landmark we passed was the Sahara, one of the oldest gambling dens on this street; all shut down and locked up but the sign still clearly visible during the day at least.  Next it was on to the twin metallic curves of the Wynn and Encore, glowing a burnished bronze in the afternoon sun.

Treasure Island and the Fashion Show shopping complex followed before we hit the Palazzo and the Venetian, with their remarkable remakes of Venice landmarks such as the Rialto Bridge, Campanile etc.  As the sun started to set famous names continued to assault us with their brash bright lights:  Harrahs, Flamingo, Planet Hollywood, Circus Circus, Riviera, Caesars Palace and the Mirage all trying to outdo each other but none coming close to the Bellagio with it’s great fountain of lights display.  We stood and watched with a crowd of onlookers as the choreographed water jets danced in tune to Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be A Lady” – surely one of the best free shows Vegas has to offer.

We still had quite a way to go; the Luxor, MGM Grand and more waiting further down the street – but we had a dinner date at the Venetian followed by Jersey Boys lined up so turned back and retraced our route in the dark to be sure of being ready in time.  The lights lit up the dark sky and it was a pretty mesmerising journey all the way back – we’re just glad we don’t have to pay the electric bill!  

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