How we spent our late-winter vacation

For the last couple of years, Jeffrey’s school has started taking the
week of Presidents’ Day off, along with many other schools in the area.
It’s unofficially known as
“Ski Week”, but we’re not very big on skiing (certainly not
downhill!), so we do something else. Two years ago, we put
Jeffrey into the daylong childcare program at the Y, but they don’t
operate on Presidents’ Day itself, and it seemed a shame to use up a vacation day near home.

Last year, we got rained on at Disneyland; Jeffrey would have been happy to go back, but I didn’t want to get near the place so soon after the new California Adventure park opened.

This year, we
considered many choices, none of which
really appealed, and then I suggested, half-jokingly, Las Vegas (I’d
been there once, during Comdex, and thought it was an interesting
place). Much
to my surprise, Diane and Jeffrey thought it was a good idea, so that’s
where we spent last week.

LV Trip map: Courtesy Microsoft Streets and Trips.

Sunday

We left Sunday morning, bright and early by our standards (10am); we had
hotel reservations in Las Vegas beginning Monday, so we were in no great
hurry. The drive was uneventful, and traffic was light; we had lunch at
Harris Ranch near Coalinga. I
recommend the Tri-Tip — beef is their speciality, and they do a nice
job of it. Jeffrey and Diane had chicken and were not particularly
impressed. We reached Bakersfield at about 3:30 and decided it was too
early to call it a day; the next obvious stopping point was Barstow,
about 130 miles away, so we used the AAA book to pick out a hotel there,
the
Best
Western Desert Villa Inn
, gave them a call, and made reservations.
We arrived about 6:10, and, after some confusion, got checked into our
room. Our noisy room.

I didn’t do enough research before choosing the hotel; this was one of
the two three-diamond hotels in Barstow, and the price seemed
reasonable, so I went for it.

Barstow map: Courtesy Microsoft Streets and TripsI should have checked their location more
carefully. The AAA book said they were a half-mile from
an exit from I-15, which was true and useful for navigation — what the
book didn’t say was that the hotel was conveniently located between an
uphill grade on I-40 and some very active freight tracks, so that there
was a veritable symphony of engine noises just outside the window.
Fortunately, the room also boasted a noisy heating system, and that
provided a steady roar which masked the sounds from outside. But I was
glad we only were planning to spend one night there.

We found a nice Chinese restaurant nearby, the China Gourmet, and had a
pleasant dinner. Then back to the room, and to bed. And, eventually,
to sleep.

Monday

The next morning, we had the continental breakfast (also not
outstanding) and took off at about 9:30. Again, the drive was
uneventful; traffic was heavy coming the other way, as people were
leaving Las Vegas to go home for work on Tuesday. We stopped at the
Nevada Welcome Center in Jean at about 11 and picked up some brochures
and coupons for two free buffets at the nearby Gold Strike
Casino
; we were ready to eat, so the buffet seemed like a good idea.
Of course, since there were three of us, we had to pay for one meal, but
that still seemed cheap. It was, but Jeffrey couldn’t find anything to eat, and we wound up feeding
him at Burger King (he got the best meal, too!).

Then we continued onward, visiting the Ethel M Chocolate Factory and
Cactus Garden. I have no pictures of the Chocolate Factory (the tour is
brief; the candy is yummy!), but the Cactus Garden is another story.

Jeffrey at Ethel M: Here’s Jeffrey in the garden.

Teddy Bear Cholla: Unlike teddy bears or challah, this is <b>not</b> something you want to get close to!This stuff (Teddy Bear Cholla) looks tame compared to Jumping Cholla —
I didn’t want to get close enough to the latter to get a picture!

Beaver Tail: We see cacti that look similar to this (Beaver Tail) near us. I don’t
know if it’s the same variety or not; I do know that Prickly Pear
thrives as near as our next-door neighbor’s house.

Boxing Glove: And last, this is a picture of Boxing Glove cacti.

By this time, it was nearly 3, so we went to our hotel, the
St. Tropez All Suite
Hotel
, to check in and unpack. We’d picked this hotel because it
wasn’t too far from the Strip, had mini-suites with a foldout couch in
the living room for Jeffrey, and didn’t have a casino. Of course,
staying in a non-casino hotel costs more! The room was nice enough,
though the air conditioner in the bedroom didn’t seem to work right, and
they could have used significantly more sound insulation between suites
(we had neighbors on Jeffrey’s side one night; they watched TV until
well after 11, and it was loud enough that he couldn’t sleep in his
room). But it was far better than the hotel in Barstow.

MGM Grand: Our car was usually parked here.  Well, in the parking garage, a short fifteen-minute walk away.We drove down to the MGM Grand and parked, ready to go exploring. We
never quite made it into the hotel; instead, we took the monorail to
Bally’s, got out to the Strip, and started wandering. We had a list of
free shows from the Welcome Center; the closest was the musical
fountains at Bellagio, so we walked over there and were enthralled (and
only slightly dampened). Then, to the Mirage, where we admired the statuary

Buddah Mirage: This is at the Mirage.  I think.White Tiger: After a quick trip
to Treasure Island, we came back to the Mirage for dinner at California
Pizza Kitchen, overlooking the sports book; we spent most of dinner
trying to explain horse racing to Jeffrey, since that’s what they had up
on the big screen.

Falling Pirate: Smoke on the Water: Fire and Water: Then, to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace
to see the Fountain Show, buy some shoelaces, and go on our first
motion simulator ride of the trip, Race
for Atlantis
, which I thought was only OK — the 3-D effect was
blurry, the story made no sense, and I didn’t feel at all caught up in
the action.

After that, it was back to the room for Jeffrey and Diane, while I found
a grocery store to buy some fruit. And then another grocery store,
because the first one had no cantalope. And back to the room, and to
bed.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, then drove to the MGM
Grand and parked. This time, we hiked the quarter-mile from the parking
lot to the Strip (with a detour to see if the theme park was open — it
wasn’t; I had expected it to be inside, like everything else in Las
Vegas, but it’s outside, and so it was closed for the winter) and looked
around.

Skyline with Roller Coaster: New York, New York beckoned, just across the street — and Jeffrey was
most interested in riding the Manhattan
Express
. He was just barely tall enough (54 inches) to do so;
neither
Diane nor I wanted to join him, so we waved farewell and sent him on his
way. Like many rollercoasters, they take pictures and try to sell
them
to you — we were a little unsettled when the pictures from his ride
came up on the monitors and he wasn’t visible…instead, there was a
picture of what looked like an empty seat! But that was just an optical
illusion; he returned, happy, a few minutes later, and we set out in
search of lunch. There are many restaurants in New York; the casino
didn’t have quite as many, but it still took us a while to find one we
could all agree on — America (the coffee shop).

After lunch, we took the elevated path to Excalibur, where Jeffrey and I
rode
Space
Race
, one of Merlin’s Magic Motion Machines (yes, a motion
simulator). We both liked
this one, although the story was pretty weak. Then we took the moving
walkways to Luxor and all saw
In
Search of the Obelisk
, their IMAX Ridefilm — yet another motion
simulator. This was the best show we’d seen yet — the story made some
sense, the preshow was engaging, and the guides helped get us into the
mood. Great fun, highly recommended.

After that, we went back to the MGM Grand and saw the lions,
picked up our car, and drove to the Las Vegas Hilton for
Star Trek: The Experience.
And it was quite an experience — we were there for several hours.
First, we checked out the History of the Future Museum (a Star Trek
timeline and paraphenalia), and then we rode the ride. Three times, in
fact; one nice thing here is that you’re allowed to ride as many times
as you’d like for one admission fee (AAA members get a $5 discount,
by the way). This was my favorite ride — it was yet another motion
simulator (of course) — but it was very well done, the pre-show is
very good, and the cast members really interact with the participants.
Riding it three times let me look at a lot of the details; I don’t want
to spoil the ride for anyone who hasn’t been on it yet, but I would
advise paying very close attention to the labels on panels once you’re
on your way…there are many inside jokes to be spotted and enjoyed.

Before we left, we had dinner in Quark’s Bar and Grill and bought some
stuff at the Deep Space Nine Promenade; we also had a family portrait taken with some of our more distant relatives.

Star Trek Family Portrait: Us with some members of our <b>very</b> extended family.

Wednesday

By this time, we were tired of free continental breakfasts, so we drove
to the MGM Grand and enjoyed their Grand Buffet. I’m glad I don’t eat
like that very often, though.

After breakfast, we went to M&M World and took in their 3-D movie,
“I Lost My M in Las Vegas”, featuring Red and Yellow; we pocketed the
free bag of M&M’s that they gave us afterwards (breakfast had been
quite filling!), and headed North along the Strip. Some time later, we
got to the Desert Passage shopping center, part of the new Aladdin
complex, and went exploring. It was yet another mostly high-end
shopping mall, featuring a food court whose restaurants were named only
after the cuisine they offered. Jeffrey ate at Chinese; Diane and I
decided to wait for something better.

Etoile (Vegas): Note the lack of traffic!Paris offered us that something better — we ate in JJ’s Boulangerie and
followed up with gelato and sorbet at Le Nôtre. Then we strolled the
shopping street inside the hotel (which was just like the real Paris, if
you ignored the lack of dog poop on the floor), and eventually came out
at Bally’s, where we found the monorail back to the MGM and our car.

Then we drove to Circus Circus and watched two acts; in between, we
finally succumbed to the lure of the machines and dropped a buck on
pinball and a bit more on the Spiderman video game. Then, back to the
car and down to Excalibur for the
Tournament
of Kings
dinner show. The show was great fun, and the food was OK,
too, even if the dessert was chocolate-less. Then we went back to
Luxor, rode In Search of the Obelisk again, and made up for the lack of
chocolate at dinner. Then back to our hotel and to bed.

Thursday

Thursday, we drove home. 538 miles, roughly, counting stops and detours
for food. When we left, I wasn’t sure we’d do it all in one day, but we
were really ready for our own beds, and the traffic and weather
cooperated to
make it an easy trip. We did have bad timing on dinner — we were
in enough of a hurry to make fast food the right option, but the Burger
King near Coalinga was busy hosting two Greyhound buses when we pulled
up, so we continued on to Santa Nella before finding a place we wanted
to eat. And the rain didn’t start until we were off the
“Special Driving Zone — Double Fines” on Pacheco Pass Road above
Gilroy — it was wet the rest of the way home, but that was only 35
miles or so, all freeway, and all flat.

Summing Up

We all enjoyed the trip; it would be nice if they issued gas masks for
the walks through the casinos (Nevada is California’s smoking section),
though!

I’m not sure I’d stay at the St. Tropez again — even though we’d
deliberately selected a non-casino hotel, I felt like I was missing
part of the Las Vegas experience by being there. I definitely
would not stay at the Best Western Desert Villa in Barstow again, at
least not without industrial-strength earplugs.

I wish we’d tried to make arrangements to
see
Hal while we were in Las Vegas
(especially since
Susan was also in town
at the same time); I do appreciate the advice he gave us when we were
planning our trip. And next time, we’ll probably see more than casinos
— but as first-timers to Las Vegas (Comdex doesn’t really count), the
casinos provided a lot of entertainment in a short time.

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