“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.

Vegas.

Arizona

It’s unlikely that Arizona ever would have been at the top of our travel priority list. However, since I was invited to speak at a conference last week, we decided we’d make a short trip out of it and booked Nellie a plane ticket.

Friday

Watching a new movie (Chronicle), an old familiar favourite (Almost Famous) and a few episodes of New Girl killed our YYZ-PHX flight pretty easily. Walking out of the Phoenix airport we would learn a truth that would prove itself out over the next few days: Arizona is hot as balls. After a pretty large pain in the ass picking up our car from Hertz we drove away in a pretty badass Chevy Camaro SS convertible. We tried retracting the top but starting cooking within minutes. We put the top back up, and good thing too…within a few minutes of getting on the highway we saw a number of dust devils north of Phoenix and actually drove right through one.

A couple hours later we were in the town of Sedona. Which is beautiful, by the way. We had some time before we could check into our room, so we picked up some supplies (read: #50 sunblock) and grabbed a beer and some gourmet hot dogs at the Oak Creek Brewpub. Oh, and a hat. I realized that driving a convertible in Arizona without one would be epidermal suicide.

Now just feeling the need to relax, unpack and maybe change, we checked into our hotel: the Adobe Grand Villas. It took us all of about six seconds to love it there. We got a little tour, admired the pool, and were shown into our room. I remarked that it smelled like fresh bread in the room; our host explained that, in fact, they had just made fresh bread in the room. For reals; breadmakers in every room, set to finish at 3PM. Amazing! We settled in, unpacked, took pictures of our giant room for Tripadvisor, and then went down to the main building where Nellie had a dip in the pool and I availed myself of the best bruschetta and lemonade I’ve ever had while chatting with three giant German bikers and admiring the mountain view. This vacation was off to a pretty good start.

We’d decided to splurge on our first night in town, booking in at L’Auberge, the consensus pick for top (or at least fanciest) restaurant in Sedona. The restaurant is set right next to Oak Creek itself and And mein gott, what a meal. We started off with lots of lobster (bisque for her; salad for me) and then got into the meat (filet mignon for her; honey roasted duck breast for me; all paired with an outstanding bottle of Sea Smoke “Ten” Pinot Noir) before ordering dessert (tarte tatin with salted caramel gelato for her; some kind of chocolate amazingness for me that I don’t quite recall) and being surprised when the server brought us an extra dessert — a salted caramel pot de crème, which we certainly did not need but went crazy for — simply because Nellie had asked about it earlier.

Damn fine way to end a first day of vacation. By the way, if you ever find yourself in Sedona, get your hotel to call Steve at Swift Rides for you. He’s just a nice dude who’ll drive you anywhere in town for $12 in his luxury car, so you’re free to drink as much Sea Smoke Pinot Noir as you’d like.

Saturday

Our sole plan for day 2 was to visit the Grand Canyon. We’d read on the interwebs that the thing to do was bring a lunch with you and eat it at a rest stop, so we grabbed provisions and a greasydelicious croissant-BLT at the Heartline market and took off north. And by “took off” I mean weaved slowly around cyclists and up switchbacks at 40mph as we traveled up the Oak Creek Canyon. We were rewarded with a pretty sweet view at the top though. Really, the geography of the whole state — at least, the fraction we saw — was very impressive, and impressively varied: desert, green hills, rocky badlands, plateaus, lush canyons, snow-capped mountains and, of course, canyons.

After stopping for gas in Flagstaff and then a long drive north, we turned west to enter the less popular east gate of Grand Canyon National Park. First, though, we stopped at a Little Colorado River Canyon park rest stop to snap some pictures, use the washrooms and eat our lunch. We saw hawks swooping and diving and hovering on thermals as we ate, and admired our surrounding.

A little further west we entered the park itself, and made our first stop along the rim at a point called Desert View…

…then drove further west to Lipan Point…

…and then Grandview Point…

…and finally to the main visitor center from which people view the Grand Canyon. They even had a golden eagle on display there.

Of course, none of these pictures could do the slightest bit of justice to the Grand Canyon. It’s immense. It’s this gorgeous scar on the surface of the earth that you can see from space and still amazes in spite of the hundreds of French tourists standing in the way of it or of all the idiots who lean out over the edge or the asshole who leaves their Starbucks cup next to it. It’s somehow just beyond all of that.

Suitably awed, we began the long drive back to Sedona. We arrived tired from driving and hot from the sun. We went for a dip in the hotel’s pool, had a slider prepared by their amazing chef, chilled in the room for a bit and eventually went for some beer and grub at the other Oak Creek location in town, a somewhat fancier grill. We tried all seven of their beers; the nut brown was my favourite.

Sunday

There was naught to do Sunday morning except treat ourselves to chef Michael’s breakfast (hot cinnamon twist and waffle w/ berry compote: unreal) and get on the road back to Phoenix. It’s only a two hour drive, but it was 25 degrees hotter back down on the desert floor than it was in Sedona.

We checked into the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass resort where my conference was to be held and got in our last few hours of relaxation. We hung out by the pool, availed ourselves of shade and the cooling mist, drank mojitos and local craft beer, and marveled at how willing some people are to cook themselves. We even got to see an annular solar eclipse that night.

Considering how much we felt like we’d seen and done, it was hard to believe we’d landed in Arizona barely 48 hours before. We hadn’t been looking for this trip, but felt very lucky that it had landed in our laps.

Day 10: Leap et canyon

Our B&B did a very good &B, giving us full bellies as we prepared for a day of hiking. We began the long walk along Govett’s Leap Road to the lookoff, and were rewarded with some spectacular views. The Blue Mountains aren’t really mountains;  they’re a plateau with valleys that were carved out over millennia.


We decided to follow the trail along (roughly) the edge of the valley, heading up and down hills to occasionally emerge at a number of superb lookoffs, eventually reaching Evan’s Lookout.


Interesting note: nearly everyone we encountered on the trail was French. Not sure why that was, but my brother said it was much the same when he visited the Blue Mountains. Even one of the two couples at our B&B was French. Weird. Anyway…having completed a supposedly 90-minute hike in 60 minutes, we were feeling confident that we could do the moderately difficult “grand canyon” hike. The only elements which gave us pause were Nellie’s knees — the perils of short legs — and the probably-insufficient water we carried with us. Still, we thought we’d give it a shot, and descended into the canyon. We knew it would be one of the few opportunities we’d ever have to descend from the top of the canyon wall down to the floor and back out again.

We were hot at first — it was the first hot, sunny day we’d had in/around Sydney since arriving — but cooled down as we got to the valley floor. We began criss-crossing the stream, climbing over slippery rocks and fallen trees. We walked through a tunnel in the rock, ate lunch in front of a waterfall and then hiked behind it, looked up and saw innumerable streams of water dripping over the canyon walls and onto our faces.


Finally, after nearly two hours, we began the long ascent out of the canyon. Something strange happened on the way up, something we were barely witnesses to and so have trouble describing. As we walked we heard a number of birds sing strange songs. Urgent songs, we realized later, because suddenly — just above our heads — we heard an incredible rustling. We looked up and saw a small tree being shaken violently. I saw a reptilian head extending from a rock outcropping and into a huge bird’s nest; Nellie saw a tail. It took us a few seconds to register than we were watching a very large lizard eat a bird, or perhaps a bird’s egg. I did see more tail feathers peek out from a neighbouring nest, in what seemed like a defensive position, but no further action occurred. Of course, it happened so quickly that neither of us got a camera out and up, but a little googling later on led us to believe that we’d seen a goanna attack the nest. Excitin’!

We spent the next half hour or so ascending, getting warmer, and getting thirstier. We emerged in a cark park well south of Blackheath, thinking it would be a short walk back. We drained our water and started hiking. After half an hour we were still nowhere near our B&B and were considering hitchiking. Suddenly an SUV pulled up and asked if we needed a lift. A very, very, very nice Scottish lady named Mary gave us a ride into Blackheath, telling us we weren’t the first poor souls she’d rescued after hiking the canyon. At least we didn’t knock on her door asking for water or to us the toilet, as many others had! So, three cheers for Scottish Mary. We raised a glass to her that night.

Our dinner was pizza and pasta made at a place around the corner, along with the truly excellent Cabernet Sauvignon we’d gotten from Knee Deep the previous weekend. Then home we did go, to rest our weary bones.