Friday, 14 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 9 (Fri, 14 Mar)

Itinerary: Friday, 14th March: Grand Canyon.
Flight Departure Time: 10:00am
Pick up Time & Location: 8:50am at the Tour & Travel Bus Area.
Shuttle Operator: Grand Canyon Helicopters Limousine Las Vegas.
Ground Service Highlights:
Round trip limousine transportation from hotel to hotel. Convenient departures from the Atlantic Terminal at McCarran International Airport. VIP check-in service. VIP passenger lounge complete with an array of seasonal snacks, and refreshments.
Air Service Highlights:
Platinum service utilizes the EC-130 EcoStar exclusively. Professionally trained tour pilots. All forward facing, theater style seating. Stereo aviation headsets with voice activated passenger to passenger and passenger to pilot intercom. Tour narration available in 11 languages, 12 including English. Approximately 75 minute flight time. Return along the Las Vegas Strip.
Grand Canyon Ground Service Highlights:
Private landing site 500 feet from the Colorado River. Stunning up-close views of the Grand Canyon. Three gourmet platters. Sparkling champagne. Ample time for pictures and reflection.

The aircraft landed at Las Vegas around 11.45 p.m., but it was after midnight before we had taxied to the gate. There was then a long walk through the terminal, until we got to a railway station with the usual airport-style automatic train. From what I could see, the terminal we'd arrived at is marooned in the middle of the airport and the train dives down under the runways and taxiways to deliver you to what they call the 'Main Terminal'. Here things became quite busy as we were joined by streams of passengers off other arrivals. It was also noisy, partly because all the passengers appeared to be vacationers in good but loud humour, partly because of large television screens everywhere advertising various Vegas attractions with a loud sound track. Getting to Baggage Carousel 13 turned out to involve another long walk and there was a further wait of about ten minutes before the baggage started to appear. Eventually, my bag appeared safely so I went outside to look for a taxi. Barriers had been erected and there was a 'line' (queue) snaking up and down about four times with hundreds of people. I was getting a bit tired and bad-tempered by then but just gritted my teeth. Admittedly, the taxis were coming thick and fast so I was on my way in ten minutes or so. It's not a long drive to 'The Strip'. In fact, Las Vegas looks more like an airport with a town built round it.

I checked in and was not surprised to have to lug my stuff to the room on my own (as well as find the room from the map I'd been given) but I was not expecting to have to negotiate two huge gaming rooms to get to the elevators (lifts). Also, at 1.15 in the morning I didn't expect the place to be full of people but it was - lots of people arriving and thousands playing the 'slots' or the gaming tables. By contrast, the huge tower block with the Resort Rooms (I'm on floor 53) was deserted. The room is fairly large and quite well appointed, but decorated with execrable taste, falling uneasily and unsuccesfully between 'classic' and 'modern' - but definitely pretentious. On the 'Road To Mandalay' (that already seems such a long time ago) there was an American Human Resources lady currently workng in Hong Kong. She said she'd been on another cruise with the woman who did the interior design of the Wynn and, based on her assessment of the woman, didn't think the decor woud be very nice. Well, I think she was right. But the room has one wall completely glazed with views of the Wynn's golf course, part of the city and the distant mountains so I approve of that (it's a 'Panoramic View' room).

The bed's comfortable so I was soon asleep, but I had to get up fairly early for the 8.50 a.m. pick-up. It was odd to come down to a now-deserted casino with all the one-arm bandits flashing away but no players I could see. The 'Drug Store Cafe' was crowded, though. I really can't be doing with this American 'coffee and bagels' idea of breakfast so I settled for just an orange juice. I was picked up by a black stretch limo driven by a charming black guy. I had the car to myself until the Bally (another famous Casino/Hotel I hadn't heard of), where he picked up another six passengers. It was then only a few minutes drive to the General Aviation terminal at the airport. We were ticketed, weighed, briefed by video and then had to hang around a while. But they gave us snacks and beverages whilst we waited. The lady running the ramp worked out who sat where and then we were bussed across the apron to where a number of helicopters were loading. We had a cheerful but very professional young Spanish lady pilot.

I hadn't realised the distances involved. It took us about 20 minutes to fly to the Grand Canyon, looking at Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on the way, with the pilot giving an excellent commentary. We then went part way up the Grand Canyon before descending to a small plateau on the West bank almost at water level. There was one helicopter already there when we arrived - by the time we left another five helicopters had landed. This site has been set-up with agreement of the Indians who own the land and a simple picnic area has been set up. Each helicopter had brought picnic lunch for the passengers - a rather nice Californian champagne served in plastic flutes, a filled croissant, cheese and biscuits, salad, soft drinks and bottled water. All the rubbish was carefully collected and carried back when we left. On the way back, we stopped at the small airfield near the canyon rim to re-fuel before returning by a different route. We were presented with a certificate and photograph and offered more refreshments whilst they arranged return transport. It was the same driver and limousine, reversing the pick-up process. All-in-all, a very well-run trip and very good value for money.

Incidentally, there seems to be no dignified way to get in and out of a stretch limo - the headroom inside is reduced and you can't stand up inside. You either have to assume a 'Quasimodo' position or slide along the bench seat inside. None of the passengers I was with had a very successful method of getting between the sidewalk (pavement) and the seat nearest the door.

So my initial rather adverse view of Las Vegas had been softened by the helicopter experience. I decided to walk around the area a little. There's a large, modern designer shopping area directly opposite the hotel - the Fashion Show Mall. Needless to say, it didn't appeal to me. Heading North, I then looked at the Treasure Island Casino. Although the Wynn appalled me, it's more modern and less dark inside than some of the now-shabbier places that were built earlier. You should be clear that each of the bigger places is a casino with bedrooms attached, not the other way round. The public are encouraged to come in and there are plenty of eating opportunites inside, the cheaper ones Macdonalds's-style with plenty of waiting-in-line when busy. I thought the British were supposed to be the nation of queuing people. Anyhow, I had a vanilla 'frozen custard', which is the rather more truthful term they apply to what we call ice cream.

The one advantage I can see with so many casinos is that a Rest Room is never too far away. But nothing else appeals to me. The gaming rooms are normally quite dark, illuminated mainly by the flashing lights of the 'slots'. Smoking is allowed, so a not-very-inviting mustiness pervades the places and loud music and flickering video screens is usually an essential accompaniment to the hubbub created by the patrons. I also find some of the attempts to create a distinctive theme banal, if not downright childish, although I recognise the money and ingenuity that's been applied.

But I also recognise that I'm very much in the minority. Las Vegas appeals not just to Americans but to countless people who fly in from all over the world. The desire to win money seems to be almost universal but, personally, I don't like the odds involved. These are places clinically devoted to removing your money. Casinos have always been linked to the Mafia and to criminal activity and I'm sure the connection is real. I also find distasteful the titillation (or maybe pornography) associated with casino operations through, for instance, the advertising for some of the shows and through related operations like topless bars. But that's just me. If people want this kind of entertainment and if people don't get hurt, what's the problem? I wish I could believe people don't get hurt.

Enough of the pontificating, back to the reporting. On a sunny Friday afternoon, the 'Strip' was thronged with pedestrians but I decided to try 'The Deuce'. This is what they call the fleet of modern double-decker buses which ply the 'Strip Route'. This is fine, except that the amount of ordinary traffic sharing the route is increasing so that, at times, you can walk faster than you can ride. I decided to head South and baled out at the Chrysler Building. Huh? New York New York is a casino/hotel modified to look like the New York skyline. Why? I hear you ask. I have no idea. Most of it isn't very convincing. There's Chrysler Building, Empire State and places I don't even recognise. There's a rather feeble Brooklyn Bridge out front. But the Statue of Libery is spendid.

Next I took in 'Excalibur'. This strange creation looks like a Disney castle on the outside and the set for a Doug Fairbanks medieval film on the inside (plus the endless rows of slots and tables, of course). I was intrigued by the reference to a 'Tram Station', so checked it out. It's a airport-style railway with very modern-looking trainsets and rubber wheels, platform edge doors and driverless. Despite the curving route, I was surprised to find it was a cable railway and it seems to work well. I found the makers plate - Doppelmeyer Cable Car Gmbh. We went straight past a huge black pyramid (Luxor - see below) and soon arrived at Mandalay Bay.

This is huge, quite near the airport and is very visible when you're taxiing around. My recent visit to Mandalay and Myanmar can be crudely summarised by my oft-repeated maxim 'Jan looks at a load of old temples'. So I suppose my visit to Mandalay Bay and Las Vegas can be summarised as 'Jan looks at a load of old temples of Mammon'. I couldn't discern much similarity between the two Mandalays, except they were both noisy and full of people.

Next, I went back to Luxor, on a parallel tram track that makes an intermediate stop. Apart from the huge black glass-covered pyramid (which projects a searchlight from its apex vertically into the sky at night, making me think of 'Stargate'), there is an obelisk covered with heiroglyphs and massive Egyptian-style statues. Inside the pyramid, the huge gaming hall, instead of being low-ceilinged, is an open atrium. As far as I could see (it's fairly dark inside, so you're not distracted too much from the serious business of gaming) there are a series of square corridors, getting smaller as you get higher in the pyramid, which presumably access guest rooms facing out through the dark glass cladding. Certainly an imaginative arrangement.

The tram took me back to 'Excalibur' and I crossed the intersection to the massive green bulk which is the MGM Grand. What do you know? Inside there was a massive gaming hall (you quickly run out of superlatives for 'big' in Las Vegas). I think I might suffer from agoraphobia, because as soon as I get in these gaming rooms, I have to fight an almost overwheming desire to flee. I followed the signs to the Monorail. It took about ten minutes and some false turns to get to the station (I suspect the signage cunningly takes you a route past every type of gaming temptation on offer in the hope that you'll give up and gamble).

The monorail system is modern (and is still suffering some reliability problems). It is elevated, double-track and runs behind the casino/hotels on the East side of the strip, twisting and turning to try to find a way through the various obstructions. The line makes a massive deviation behind the Wynn, because the backyard of the Wynn is an 18-hole golf course. We experienced some techncal delays but eventually arrived at the present (and I think temporary) Northern terminal called 'Las Vegas Monorail Station' which is near the Northern end of the Strip and the 'Sahara'. I didn't check out inside the Sahara but it has a scary-looking steel roller coaster outside which ends in a vertical dead-end. I was getting tired by now so I crossed the road, caught the 'Deuce' and made my way back to the Wynn.

Later in the evening, I made another foray by the 'Deuce' up North to downtown Las Vegas. This is noticeably run down but part of the old centre, around the 'Golden Nugget' on Fremont Street has been fairly successfully modernised by pedestrianising and adding a roof. This is now 'The Fremont Experience'. It was crowded but good-humoured. In one part, there's a stage and a group were performing. A block later, there was a jazz saxophonist, quite good, with his amplifers on the back of a pick-up and a couple of helpers selling his CDs. Another block and there was a troupe of acrobats who were quite impressive. I found a couple of railway coaches preserved (or should I say 'railroad cars'?). As used by various celebrities in the past, apparently. Quite nice but looking a little sorry in a fenced compound. This was at Union Plaza but I decided it was too dark in this part of town to go hunting for a remainng railroad so I caught the 'Deuce' back to the hotel.


The Wynn, Las Vegas.
Las Vegas.
Grand Canyon.