“If you have a weakness, Las Vegas will punish you.”

Poor Nellie had never been to Vegas. I’d only been twice (which was enough) but she felt like she wanted to visit, so when I was invited to speak at a conference we decided she should just join me after it ended.

I flew down on Sunday for the conference, checking in quite late at the Signature at the MGM Grand. After a little hiccup with the check-in process I was in my room, an oversized suite, and scarfing some late night room service. The conference itself went fine: my brief portion was uneventful and I got to see Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan and Anna Gunn. Then again, I accidentally slept through the Elvis Costello concert, so it was a mixed bag.

Despite being virtually enclosed in the MGM Grand complex, I managed to locate some decent craft beer in my spare time at Michael Mina Pub 1842 and the lounge in my hotel. Before I knew it, though, it was time to check out and take a cab down the street to the Vdara.

Since Nellie had never been to Vegas I wanted a cool new hotel, and Vdara fit the bill. While it’s attached to the Aria, it’s just a hotel with a simple bar and café…no casino, no stores, no massive restaurants. I was given a room on the 52nd (!) floor with an impressive view south, shaky camera and thick glass notwithstanding.

Nellie finally arrived late in the evening, with just enough time to grab a drink downstairs at the lobby bar and then crash. Like, sleep until 10 the next morning crash. After we finally got up we grabbed some lunch next door at Five50, a pizza place just off the Aria casino floor which also happened to have a solid craft beer selection. Damn good pizza, actually.

The big event we’d booked in for that day was a helicopter tour with Maverick. They picked us up from the Aria and from then on ran everything like a machine: dropped us off, checked us in, weighed us (seriously), and introduced us to our pilot and co-passengers (two Canadians, one Aussie). And man…the tour was fantastic. Just lifting off in a helicopter for the first time in our lives was pretty cool, but then ascending above Las Vegas and flying over the surprisingly striking Nevada landscape to the east was killer. Then we crested a hill and the Grand Canyon spread out in front of us and we were hooked. We flew along the canyon for a while, then did a 180 and landed inside the canyon. We got out and had some champagne, enjoying the quiet sunset just above the Colorado River. After a while we flew back, stopping over the Hoover Dam and then downtown Vegas, sidling down the strip at dusk when the lights of the city took over. We disembarked the helicopter feeling like it had been a fantastic adventure indeed.

Our day wasn’t done though: Nellie had asked me to buy tickets for a show called Zombie Burlesque, which was…pretty much what it sounds like. Hey, she likes zombies, and I was pretty sure I’d like burlesque, so…yeah. I bought those tickets. Bought ’em up. There was some brutal line confusion at the theatre just before showtime, but we got in, got a drink, and took our seats. We were braced for something terribly cheesy, but it was actually really fun and funny. Clever, even. Plus, you know, barely-dressed super-hot women. One of them was an excellent singer, and did a rendition of Bjork‘s “It’s Oh So Quiet”, a difficult song to sing even when one is not dressed in lingerie and dancing with male zombies. Not for everyone, but it was pretty cool.

We walked home along the Las Vegas strip amidst the other zombies (see what I did there?) and, when considering where to eat dinner, decided we had a lot more beer to tackle back at Five50. We had a nice little charcuterie board before splitting another pizza, this one with some kick, and a few more tasty beers. After that we didn’t have much left in us but to waddle back to the hotel and fall asleep.

And then…yet another lie-in, spurred on by the rainy (!) weather. ‘Round noon we got ourselves up to find some food, this time at the Todd English P.U.B., tucked between the Aria and the fancy-pants shops of the Crystals at City Center. We, being brave Canadians, sat on the patio despite the cool weather and rain. We ate duck buns and pretzels and a pastrami sandwich and drank excellent beer while beside us people slipped and fell on the wet sidewalk. Among them was one rather well-lubricated gentleman, carrying lord-knows-what in a novelty plastic boot cup; as he slipped near our table he looked up, raised his cup to us and said in what sounded like a Texan accent, “Y’all want some boot?” We declined.

By the way, we stayed dry because of the overhang of the Crystal structure above us. The building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, who Torontonians might recognize as the architect responsible for the addition of the Michael Lee-Chin crystal to the Royal Ontario Museum in 2007. This one seemed better-executed than the ROM’s jagged burst blister. After lunch we made our lone visit to a casino, inhaling more cigarette smoke then we’d normally experience in a year and promptly losing a few hundred dollars on roulette, then walked back to our hotel to get cleaned up for the evening.

While we’ve seen our fair share of Cirque du Soleil shows, we’re not the biggest “show” enthusiasts. Still, we felt it was part of the Vegas experience, so a little poking around some review sites led us to purchase tickets for Le Rêve. And, uh…holy shit. No really, holy shit. We took our seats a few rows back from the pool (it’s all water-based) and waited for it to get going, still not sure what to expect. But man…after the first big sequence I was speechless. Then it just kept going. At least half a dozen times I yelled — yelled — “WHAT?!!?” as one performer or another did something ridiculous or spectacular or both. By the end I was spent. Le Rêve broke my brain. BROKE IT.

So, yeesh. How to recover from that?

Actually, Nellie recovered by discovering the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Palazzo next door (where we had dinner booked) and I had to drag her out of Christian Louboutin and Coach. Between you and me I think the exchange rate is the only thing that averted disaster. We walked back downstairs to our dinner reservation at Carnevino, Mario Batali’s Italian steakhouse.

Now I’ve long contended that Jacobs & Co. right here in Toronto is the best steakhouse I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a few. But our experience at Carnevino might be right up there among the best. After a 3-cheese amuse we inhaled the octopus starter (along with a surprising Pinot Grigio), followed by the lobster anolini (with a glass of Chard/Sauv blend), and then tucked into our steaks: New York strip for me, bone-in Filet Mignon for Nellie. It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had…no sauces for me, just meat prepared perfectly. Nellie’s cut, while obviously not as flavourable as my own, was almost impossibly tender. We paired these beasts with a 2004 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo – not the varietal we’d normally choose, but when in Rome (or a cheesy facsimile of Venice) you go with the flow. We listened to the White Stripes and Black Keys and ate ourselves stupid, and pencilled the night in among our very favourite meals. Broken, yet again. This time in the stomach. And the wallet; this was officially the most expensive meal we’d ever eaten. Stupid exchange rate.

We asked our cabbie to drop us at the Bellagio because Nellie wanted to see the fountains. Sadly, after waiting there for five minutes, a voice announced there would be no further show that evening. Dejected (not really) we walked home and poured ourselves into bed. We crashed. We were broken.

The next day was a long slog from the bed to packing, interrupted briefly by a truly excellent room service breakfast, to the airport, to one last (terrible) beer in the airport, to the plane, back to Toronto. Correction: back to a snowstorm in Toronto. We got home late, and pretty much died.


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