A Vegas diary… Terry, Bob, Ellen and Richard on tour in 2004
8 days in Vegas… days one and two


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Three: Las Vegas.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on December 30, 2004. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Something strange happened when Tigg and I went to Vegas this month. I was planning on reviews and reports and all sorts of new and original stuff.

A “best of” column? Please.

I was going to do better than that. I was going to write more than one essay about this trip.

As I said though... something strange happened.

Maybe Richard is a good place to start…

Some of the best stories involve Ellen’s husband, Richard. (And to be fair, having traveled often with Ellen and Richard, he seems to be at the heart of many great stories for every trip.)

Early on, he was trying to convince us that he was a crazy old bastard. Fine. At the time, we were thinking about whether or not to use nicknames for my columns. He’s a great guy, so once in a while we let him live the illusion and offer our support to his fantasy world. Saves money on medication and therapy. Crazy old bastard though? When Ellen turned $5 in nickels into about $10 on a video poker machine one night, and he tried to get her to give the money to him since he gave her the $5 she started with… well… a suggestion was made to alter the name slightly, with cheap being used as the first word.

If you read this entire diary you will find that Richard is an incredibly good sport about things. How he tolerates the three of us for any extended periods of time I will never, ever understand.

Sharing some of those stories led to the idea of truly diving into the trips… with diaries and opinions and all sorts of coverage.

Ok… that offered… on to the trip…

Day one, Friday, December 10, 2004

We picked up Ellen and Richard at about 7:30am on our way to T.F. Green airport. I hate to ruin it for any disillusioned travelers, but Green is located in Warwick, Rhode Island… not Providence. (I don’t know why, but it feels great to write that… it’s not Providence… it’s not Providence… it’s… not… Providence!) The first leg of our trip is to Cleveland. (Or… at least what the airlines call Cleveland… I never checked to find out if they lied about that too).

We’re on one of those small, almost a puddle-jumper planes… the flight itinerary calls it an “Embraer EMB-145” and I have no way to verify that because I never checked the seat pocket for my emergency information sheet. As a kid I used to collect those safety folders from all the different planes I flew on. I have no clue why I stopped, especially when today I evidently could have one for an Embraer EMB-145.

The major issue here is seat assignments. See, I’m sitting alone, on the single-seat side of the row, two rows in front of everyone else. Tigg is sitting alone as well, but only one row in front of Ellen and Richard, who are across the aisle from each other. Tigg responds to the information about single-seats by asking: “Who is my single-seat next to?” This prompts a round of “am I sitting alone or by myself?” comments.

Overall there isn’t much to say about our flights. Pretty standard. But if you’ve never been to Sin City, it is a bit of a shock to walk off of the plane in Las Vegas and into a bank of slot machines. A bit of a shock, which suddenly seems appropriate. No question that you have arrived.

We get to our hotel… The Fairfield Grand Desert Resort. And, I don’t know if I’ve ever before felt so strongly about recommending to people that they stay away from a place. But now is not the time to discuss the fires. (Yes… fires… more than one.) Right now I want to mention the flyswatter.

First things first, it was a nice property in general. I’m being a bit difficult by saying that if asked I would probably tell people to avoid it. It was built as a time-share development, and I’ve stayed in a few and experienced others over the years. And, overall, the Not-much-better-than-averagefield is what it is… suite-type set-ups with a small kitchen, washer and dryer, and so on. And, they have a decent shuttle route into the center of the main Vegas strip, which then heads over to the Rio. But if you haven’t learned it already around the In My Backpack web site, I have a very low-threshold for stupidity. I guess you could say don’t suffer fools gladly. The reality is likely far more accurately stated as I get upset at times with people that do know better are oblivious to their own stupidity. (Not “could know better” -- DO know better.)

As this diary continues, you will find that the Fairweather Resort, in my opinion, was a ship of fools. You’ll also see that there were plenty of other places where I wasn’t too patient about things.

People. Wow. Frustrating. Annoying.

(Umm. Where was I? Oh yeah… the flyswatter.)

There is a checklist in the room. It goes over kitchen items… pots, pans, knives… and then on to other things in the suite. And in the middle of the list is -- quantity 1, flyswatter.

At first I was too busy making notes to think much about the flyswatter… “no lids with mixing bowls”… “no ashtray, there are non-smoking signs in room”… “missing remote for stereo.” I’m taking this assignment quite seriously. But after pausing for a moment following the scribbling of something about having a different size juice container than what was described, I began thinking about the flyswatter.

What was a resort doing with a flyswatter?

Was I going to need it? Were the flies a big problem?

Perhaps more strangely… my thoughts weren’t because it seemed inappropriate. Given some past experience, potentially it didn’t seem to be that out of line as an item. When I was a kid we traveled to Florida one year. 1979. First trip to Disney World. We went in September, and as my faded memories recall, it was love-bug season. Screens over the grills of the cars. Bugs all over the place. I have seen needs beyond what a flyswatter could provide assistance for. So, a flyswatter in Las Vegas, even if no one told me when I might need it, didn’t seem so wrong. I was just curious. You know, in a maybe-I-should-carry-this-around-everywhere preparedness kind of way.

Anyway… fly swatter… seemed ok. Just curious.

Until I went to check the view from our room’s windows.

They didn’t open. At all. No screens. Just windows.


Exactly how do these flies become a checklist-priority-worthy problem necessitating a flyswatter? Are they gathering in swarms during some month of the year, using the resort elevators, and in such large numbers advancing into the rooms that a flyswatter in every location is necessary?

I don’t know… never found out. But it was there -- quantity 1, flyswatter.

We decide to take it easy on the first night. Our resort is a short walk down East Harmon Avenue from the Hard Rock complex. Even though we arrived around 2:30pm Vegas time, by the time we had checked in and settled into our rooms it was after 5pm and we had already been moving for about 14-hours that day. And that’s when the first mistake took place, courtesy of yours truly.

Earlier this year the Food Network had aired a series of specials called Iron Chef America. One of the guest judges was a chef, Kerry Simon. I thought he did a fantastic job. While looking through some of the materials we had in the room, I noticed that he had a restaurant at the Hard Rock, called Simon Kitchen and Bar. I wanted to try it. And, with a listing of two dollar signs… which the book noted as meaning an average entrée price of $10 to $15… we all were in agreement that this sounded perfect for a first night, we’re tired and just want to kick back meal.


We arrived a few minutes before the restaurant opened, went into the casino to waste some time, and then returned to be seated… all without ever peeking at the menu. So, when we opened it up and found that most of the entrees were at or well above $20, we were a bit shocked. I’m not saying this to express the idea that I thought it was overpriced or out of line or in any way inappropriate or shocking on its own. Instead, understand that on our first night in Vegas we hadn’t been looking to eat in what I think you would be fair in calling a slightly pricey restaurant. Clearing $100 for four people without appetizers, drinks or tip included ranks above one or two dollar signs. However, there was Kerry Simon mingling with some people at the bar, and I had wanted to try it, so we stayed.

Something for you to consider… up until this point I have never been too impressed when I’ve eaten in restaurants named after, run by, or associated with some of the notable chefs in the world. It’s probably me… perhaps I’m pretty tame or basic in my tastes (which if you know me isn’t really that accurate, and it’s also not too inaccurate)… but usually I find that such establishments don’t have something on the menu for everyone. Instead, they often seem to me to be trying to impress people with style and appearance and using some spice or wood chips or whatever in a different way than everyone else does. (And not because it’s good… just because it’s different.) It’s showing how impressive it can look or how fancy ingredients the average person doesn’t have access to are in this chef’s kitchen, instead of just showing a clean presentation of something that tastes good. So what normally seems to happen is that I kick around some options, usually settle on a fairly basic dish, and find that it’s alright but nothing that knocks me off my chair. (I’m probably being stereotypical and unfair, but I think you get the point. And since this trip, I have been to some great restaurants that do show noteworthy names can deliver outstanding meals.)

Here, I ordered a curry chicken that was served with white rice and almonds. The plate arrived, with the rice in one of those containers for Chinese take-out food. The chicken was in a separate bowl. Nice plating. Looked really different and impressive. But I had no clue what to do next. Would I be breaking all sorts of table manners by pouring out the rice and then placing the chicken over it? Would people laugh at me? Would Kerry come running out of the kitchen and take my plate away from me? Overall the food was fine. It wasn’t a bad meal, but it wasn’t even close to one of the best we had either.

We never managed to meet Kerry Simon. I didn’t want to just shout to him, and it seemed just a tad bit wishy-washy to ask the waiter if he’d call him over. Oh well… someday. I still think he did a great job on Iron Chef America and would like to try his creations again.

Back to the casino and a tremendous find for the time-wasting segments of the trip… 25-cent video blackjack. Ah yes… not quite the investment needed to actually sit at a table and play for $5, $10 or more a hand. More fun to me than video poker. Tigg and I managed to get about $20 ahead on the machines and headed back to the Fairview feeling pretty good.

Along the way, Richard… I think it was Richard… pointed to a fence at the side of the road. I am notorious for my scrapbook efforts. I’m not one of those scrapbooking-people with special scissors, little stickers with quotes in balloons or stuff like that. However, if it’s a matchbook, ticket stub, property map, coaster or anything else that might someday bring back interesting memories or start a good conversation while flipping through a book, I’m all over it.

Richard had spotted some cards, stuck in the chain-link fence like playing cards in the spokes of a bicycle. They were just about the size of a baseball card too. Ah, but these were cards featuring women… these were dirty cards! He wanted to know if I’d be collecting them for my scrapbook from Vegas.

At the time I shook my head, looked at Tigg for a response she didn’t provide and said no. (Ah, but this is Vegas… so remember this moment.)

Day two, Saturday, December 11, 2004

Apparently Ellen and Richard had an interesting night. The phone in their room rang at about 3am. It was someone from the resort calling to tell them that the door to their room was open. When the phone first rang, they thought there was something wrong with one of us and we were calling them. Evidently they got up, closed the door, and didn’t sleep much the rest of the night.

Ellen and Richard have been to Vegas before, but have never really looked completely around at a lot of the properties. I earned the nickname “Tour Guide Bob” back in 1999 when we traveled off to Orlando as a group. For this journey, we made a decision to stay in Las Vegas and not rent a car or head off to such sites as the Hoover Dam.

The Reasonablefield Grand Desert Resort runs a shuttle service to Harrah’s and on to the Rio. This morning we get ready and head off to Harrah’s to start our first full day of exploration. Two quick things about the Vegas casino properties…

Number one: They aren’t even remotely located where I thought they were. Having read about the mega-resorts being added all the time, I figured that the area was expanding and expanding and expanding. You know... back and out, back and out, like a sprawling city. It may very well be expanding, but many properties have been placed right in the middle of it all. Duh... right along the strip. Probably should have seen that coming all along. But in my defense, when you’ve never been there and see a map, enough properties are labeled off the main roads that until you actually see the properties it isn’t all that crazy to think they have grass and golf courses and such. Nope. Concrete, buildings, and main entrances. (Wander the back roads at your own peril.)

Number two: A friend had warned me about walking. He said that distances could be deceiving, and to keep that in mind before venturing off anywhere.

Off the shuttle and into Harrah’s we went… and out of Harrah’s we came. We registered for the player’s club there, and quickly turned our attention to breakfast. After deciding Harrah’s wasn’t where we wanted to eat, we went outside and saw the entrances to the Forum Shop at Caesars Palace and The Mirage. Thinking about it more completely, and realizing that it would probably be close to time for a restaurant to open for lunch once we really settled in, over to The Mirage we went.

I think it was about ten to fifteen years ago. I was driving down to Atlantic City in New Jersey with a friend of mine. Just outside of the casino area, along the expressway, there are a ton of billboards. One of them back then was rather plain and mysterious, with a heading that I recall reading “everything you’ve heard is true.” It was for The Mirage. At first we thought they were building The Mirage in Atlantic City. Nope. Seems like it was an ad for the Vegas property.

I can now officially tell you that everything you’ve heard is in fact true. The trick is, you might not know it at first glance. The property grows on you, and only once you become familiar with it does it truly blossom.

On the surface, when compared to some of the properties around it, The Mirage actually seems pretty straightforward. Nice. Clean. And it has a volcano. But it really isn’t the architecture at Paris, or the fountains at Bellagio.

For me, it was something very specific that triggered the thought of what The Mirage offered that others don’t… and on this trip also was the source of a weird feeling I experienced while there.

Siegfried and Roy.

Most of the casino-resort properties have what I’ll call a major in-house performance. Penn & Teller… Lance Burton… Cirque du Soleil. The Mirage was, to my knowledge, the only property hosting two major shows on long-term runs: Danny Gans and Siegfried & Roy. Both here at The Mirage.

As we make this visit, just about everyone is aware of the fate of the Siegfried & Roy show. But the reminders of what had been are everywhere. The white tiger habitat… the secret garden… the gift shops. The pair is still everyplace you look, almost completely intertwined into the fabric of the resort. And it created a very strange setting, where thoughts drifted to what had happened to them and their show just over a year ago.

We ate lunch at the California Pizza Kitchen at The Mirage, and it was fantastic. One of the most satisfying meals we had on the trip… a menu that offered everybody something they would like, and just a little bit different than you would ever find at home. The staff was good, with people constantly circulating and refilling glasses.

We lost a few dollars playing the slots and video poker/blackjack machines, but left feeling pretty good overall. On to Caesars…

Right up front, two things about Caesars Palace... First, I don’t know why, but Caesars is one of my least favorite casinos in Atlantic City. It just doesn’t feel comfortable to me. A funny thing about that… I’ve actually won money in AC at the Palace. Generally, most people I know tend to favor the first casinos they won money in as the places they love and return to. But Caesars feels stuffy to me. Bear in mind… it is one of the few old-time properties that has not only survived the transition to the new, gigantic-entertainment complexes that have invaded Las Vegas, but it has also grown into a significantly dominant presence as well. A whiff of arrogance wouldn’t be surprising. Second, we were there in part because of a friend. Tigg and I had received several recommendations for this trip… places to see, people to find… stuff like that. One of those people had told us that we had to meet a casino host that he knew at Caesars. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Cheryl, the most incompetent and rude person we encountered in Vegas. She’s a casino host at Caesars, and we’ll be visiting with her a few times as the trip diary continues.

We entered the property through the Forum Shops, and I can tell you they are every bit as stunning and impressive as people build them up to be. The latest section has three levels of stores. The sculptures and statues are gorgeous. The paintings and décor are incredible. Simply beautiful.

Tigg found a house phone when we reached the casino area and tried to contact Cheryl. Turned out it was her day off. She left a message, and we left Caesars Palace.

At this point our thoughts for the day went totally haywire. We had plans for Treasure Island later in the week, so we didn’t want to head that way up the strip. And, we weren’t sure which casinos we wanted to see down the strip.

It’s time to mention the rodeo.

The Thomas & Mack center at UNLV was hosting the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo while we were there. We had been warned by a couple of people that Saturday and Sunday were the last days of the rodeo, and that some places would be a bit busy until it ended. And they were right… cowboy hats and boots and themed special events all over the place. But, once it was over, we were told that we would find ourselves in Vegas during one of the slowest weeks of the year.

We knew we had a lot of gambling planned for the week. Because of that, even though we wanted to place a bet or two in every casino we visited, we had decided to try and stick to low-limit tables as a way of stretching out the money for an hour or two or more in any single place. So… between the rodeo and it being a weekend… we were finding that almost all of the places were pretty crowded and had more expensive table limits. We decided to walk through the Barbary Coast and head toward the Flamingo.

But first… the Bellagio Fountains were going off. We saw two shows, and they were quite impressive. Wrong time though, since the sun was just perfectly placed over the side of the building and blinding the view.

I’d tell you more about the Barbary Coast, but we walked in and out of it in less than four minutes. Looked fine, but it was packed.

Over to the Flamingo.

As a property, the Flamingo is what it is… an aging casino (but still with a decent and recognizable name) in a fabulous location. It’s across the street from Caesars Palace, and very close to The Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio and Paris. The Flamingo was good to Richard, who had some fun there, but the rest of us lost money.

On to Paris.

There was no other casino-resort property in Las Vegas that unexpectedly impressed me as much as Paris did. Just a tremendous job incorporating the Eiffel Tower motif into the entire facility. Sure, other elements of Paris and France, such as a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, are part of the facility. But it is the Eiffel Tower that dominates, and rightly so.

At 50 stories in height… about 460 feet… the Vegas tower is roughly half the size of the actual Eiffel Tower. Evidently there were plans to create a full-size version, but the location of McCarran Airport made that impossible. If you travel to Las Vegas, do whatever you can to get to Paris and go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The view is spectacular… day or night. Paris is directly across the street from Bellagio, making the tower a wonderful place to watch the water fountains from. Tigg and I went up there around sunset, and over the course of about twenty to thirty minutes, watching Vegas go from day to night was breathtaking.

Another note about Paris… the waitresses as a whole are the best in Vegas. I didn’t get a single drink at Paris. I was just… umm… looking.

Welcome to Aladdin! About the best thing I can say about it was the discovery of a 5-cent video blackjack machine. We found nickel machines all over the place in Las Vegas, but this was a first for blackjack during our travels. We also got two coffee mugs for joining the player’s club. And... well... that’s enough. (Actually, it’s significantly more than enough about the Aladdin.)

Continuing a day of tremendous casual food, we decided to eat at the Harley Davidson Café. Great menu. Great meal. Just about every casino property in several ways is exactly like the others… different types of restaurants, gaming, and shows... but if one place has something successful, everyone else has something similar. On the other hand... the Harley Davidson Café stands on its own, at 3725 Las Vegas Boulevard South. Adam took care of us here, and he was pretty good. Motorcycles hang from the ceiling, circling the restaurant on a track. Very impressive.

Our night continued with a trip over to the Monte Carlo. We were supposed to have tickets to a show here, but the reservations were messed up. Tigg chalked it up to a misunderstanding, and we decided it was probably for the best. Ellen took off for the video poker machines that had become her game of choice while Richard, Tigg and I sat down at a blackjack table.

Biljana and Simon were our dealers at the table. Biljana was fantastic… pleasant overall and a good conversationalist. She was knowledgeable about the game, but in a way that frequent players will understand and appreciate, didn’t force her understanding of the game onto the players. She hails from Yugoslavia. We also managed to have a great table, with a couple from Illinois joining us for almost all of the time we played. Tigg and I both won, combining to leave with enough to put us up about $100 for the day.

It was about midnight now, and we were ready to call it a night. But I had one last thing to take care of… a sports book. Once we left for the night I wasn’t certain if I would make it back again in time for the start of Sunday’s football games. I needed to place a couple of bets before we went back to our rooms. We crossed the street and finished the day at the MGM Grand… just long enough to place some wagers and not for a true visit.

The night wraps up with us stopping at a grocery store to pick up some juice and such for our hotel room. We’ve pretty much decided that we plan on eating a quick breakfast in our rooms… English muffins, donuts… before heading out each day. And it’s time to stock up.

We get back to the room close to 1am and watch television for about an hour before heading to bed. With my NFL bets placed and no plans until the evening, we’ve decided to just call whenever we feel like getting started.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com