Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Bear Seal Of Approval

Day 63

I'm a Catholic, get me outta here!

I woke up and went for a really long run. 54 minutes to be exact. And I suffered. The whole way. Partly because I was tired and partly because I was dehydrated but mostly just because I am not training very much and every time I go out it is a bit of a shock to my system.

I met Paulo back at the gaff, checked out and we went to do our laundry.

Then it was time for lunch, so we went to the only place you should go in St George, Utah - the Bear Paw Cafe!

Don't get me wrong, the sambos were great, the service was good and the coffee was brilliant but we should have known that the bitterness would follow. And it did.

We got back on to 15 and continued north, hoping to make it past SLC and into Ogden for the night. We drove for several hours and stopped at Applebees to eat as it was the most healthy option.

Now, I am used to being carded a lot over here, especially in restaurants. And I understand why they do it. But in Applebees in Utah, you get carded twice. Yes, twice. We sat down, I asked for a run down of the beers and ordered one. The guy asked me for my ID. No bother. He goes off to get the drinks and a girl comes up to the table and asks for our IDs. I told her that we already ordered and that the waiter had checked my ID. It didn't matter. She had to check it again - the auld 'double card'. I couldn't let that go and had to ask her what the f*ck was going on. It seems that Applebees in Utah have had a lot of problems with under age drinking and a few of them even lost their liquor licenses so now you get carded twice. What a ridiculous state.

We managed to eat and get back on 15N (not a second too soon) and drove some more. The sun set and we kept driving. We past SLC and were about 40 miles from Ogden when we hit something with the car. Something big. Really big. And it made a really loud noise, scaring the bejaysus out of both of us. I was pretty sure there were no deer on I-15 so I figured that it must have been a flat tire. We pulled over immediately to check it out. All the tires were fine. We walked around to the front of the car and saw that the plastic tray under the engine had almost been ripped off completely and the bumper was cracked. WTF!? Two other cars had pulled over in front of us and then two more pulled over behind us. We were baffled. What the hell was going on? Then the police arrived. It turns out that some douchebag had two mountain bikes on a bike rack on his car and the rack snapped. The bikes fell onto the motorway and we (along with about six others) ran over them. Pity too, because I later heard that they were both worth about 2000 dollars. And just to add insult to injury (literally) the owner had wrapped one of them around a tree earlier in the day.

Fortunately, we were both totally fine. But we were a bit shaken up. Paulo got on to Dollar straight away and we had to drive the car another mile to the nearest petrol station to fill out a police report. Long story, short - more hassle with Dollar. But in the end Paulo managed to get through to someone with some intelligence and some authority who told us that a new car would be sent to us tomorrow. She also agreed to have Dollar foot the bill for our hotel room for the night. While we would have both loved to large it up and stay in a palace, we weren't in the form. So we settled for a Best Western.

One of the police officers gave me a mini Rambo knife and I cut the rest of the under tray off and threw it into the back seat. We drove there very slowly to the hotel and checked in for the night. We were both exhausted and fell asleep almost straight away.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Day 62

Today was a 'grand' day.

We woke up, had breakie, bought some provisions, fuelled up the Avenger and set off for the Grand Canyon. Leaving from St George, we were much closer to the North Rim, which offers very different views than the more popular South Rim. The North Rim offers three viewpoints including Cape Royal, Point Imperial and Bright Angel Point. The walls of the North Rim are more eroded than the South Rim, making the Colorado River visible from some of the overlooks. It is also a much higher elevation - an average of 8000 feet with a maximum of 8803 feet at Point Imperial. The higher elevation and cooler temperatures have enabled large sections of forest to flourish. It's a lot more remote and less visited than the South Rim. And I'm glad it is the one that we chose to see.

The Grand Canyon is obviously big but I couldn't fathom just how big it is until I saw it with my own eyes. I still found it hard to comprehend. The crevice that runs through it is over 275 miles long. The entire park is more than 1,200,000 acres and can be ten miles wide in some sections. The canyon itself (as it appears today) is about six million years old and consists of buttes, plateaus and mesas. But these all cover igneous and metamorphic rock that is almost two billion years old!

The amazing thing is that the entire formation was created by water. I read that the goal of every raindrop, rock and grain of sand is to return to sea. Water draining off the Rocky Mountains and across the Colorado Plateau carried sand, gravel and rocks and over millions of years cut and eroded the layers of the canyon. Water freezing in cracks of rocks also forced them apart, causing erosion and eventually collapse of large sections of earth.

The drive to the canyon through Fredonia was quite scenic and surprisingly green just before we reached the Canyon.

We stopped at a patch of forest and learned that fires are sometimes started purposely and allowed to burn for the benefit of resources. Patterns are created by the fires that allow for a greater diversity in wildlife.

The first place we stopped to view the Canyon was Roosevelt Point named after the 26th president Teddy and his efforts to preserve the Grand Canyon. In 1903 he called the Canyon "one great sight which every American should see."

The next stop was Walhalla Overlook, which offers more dramatic views and a path to Angels Window.

Angels Window refers to a hole in a rock that provides views of the Colorado River from the Walhalla Plateau. During the uplift of the plateau, stress caused the rock to fracture forming joints that intersect the planes. Water activity (rain, freezing and thawing) along the joints and planes created a hole and time has enlarged it to a 'window'.

We walked out to the edge of the rock to have a look around (and down).

The next viewpoint that we went to was Cape Royal. This vantage point provides amazing views down and across the canyon. Most of the places that we stopped are better for viewing the unbelievable expanse of the canyon as opposed to the depth which is more apparent from the South Rim.

The last place we went to was Point Imperial, the highest point on the North Rim at 8,803 feet. This viewpoint is unusual for several reasons. First, the South Rim drops abruptly to the Colorado River directly opposite and is only 3/4 of a mile away. Whereas, the North Rim at this point is over ten miles away. Secondly, the canyon begins to transform and the narrow walls start to open up dramatically, creating a layered effect and offering a stark contrast to the layers of red rocks. The large rock in the forefront of this view is called Mt Hayden. Since it was late afternoon and some clouds had formed it was even more atmospheric. I can only imagine how amazing it must be at sunset.

Unfortunately, we had to leave and make our way back to the hotel. I ended up driving home because Paulo had gotten sun burned, actually more like scorched and he was exhausted. The sun was starting to set and the views of the forested area leaving the canyon were excellent.

There were a few thunderstorms along the way but it was a brilliant drive back as the scenery and landscapes were unbelievable the entire way.

Back at the hotel, Paulo hit the scratcher straight away. I went to Goodbye for a bite to eat. Ruby Tuesday on a Monday night - there was nahbody there. It was so quiet that it was a bit creepy. I kept my head down, ate my salad and legged it as quick as I could.

I drove back to the hotel and went straight to bed as well, thinking about a truly amazing day.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Leaving Las Vegas

Day 61

This morning started with a coffee and a pain au chocolate from Starbucks. Then we checked out and collected our next car (number six for those of you who are counting) - a Subaru Forester. I waited with the bags out front while Paulo went to pick it up in the garage. It was a great car. Except for one thing - it didn't have a license plate! After a half hour discussion with the Dollar guy, he drove us up to the carpark and gave us a different car (number seven). Another Dodge! But this time it was an Avenger.

We threw all of our gear into the car and drove up the Strip to the mall across from Wynn. We had a look around and a bite to eat in Subway before setting off again.

We got back onto 15 and drove north to St George, Utah. I found a Days Inn with a decent rate so we booked in for two nights.

We went to Chilis for a bite to eat. I drank a 3.2% ABV Corona and got carded when I ordered it. There probably would have been more alcohol in a spring water, if I had ordered that.

As most of you probably know, Utah is a conservative state. Very conservative. It is the Morman capital of the world. Mormans are a bit fanatical (to say the least) and they tend to believe every single word in the Bible. They don't interpret it like most Catholics do, they think every word written is (pardon the pun) the God honest truth. They enjoy their temples, worshiping and going door to door trying to collect money from people, while telling them how much they have sinned in their lives but that Jesus can save them.

Utah became the 45th state in 1896 but it wasn't easy for the Mormans. The US bought (what is now) Utah from the Mexicans and all the Mormans wanted to have their own state. But there was one problem - they liked polygamy and that was outlawed by the government. So, after a lot of petitioning and arguments, the Mormans finally agreed to give up the idea of several wives and Utah was made a state.

Today it is really conservative. You can drink beer in the state and you can buy beer in the state. But it is watered down and you can't just walk into a bar and start drinking. You have to become a 'temporary member' of a 'private club' (ie bar) or be sponsored by someone who is a 'member' and that costs five bucks for two weeks. You can also buy beer in shops and restaurants but you will be carded not matter how old you look.

After dins, we chilled in the room (without beers) and watched the final stage of the Tour de Farce on TV.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Post Script For Zed

Day 60

I woke up today with a very sore stomach this morning so I skipped the fry up with the lads and opted for a Guatemalan coffee and blueberry scone from Starbucks instead. Then I hit the pool for a while to soak up some rays and have a few dips.

After about 45 minutes though, it was way too hot so I went back to the room to chill. The lads were all playing poker and seemed like they weren't going to be moving for a while.

Eventually Paulo appeared back in the room looking a bit haggard and worse for wear. We hung out in the room until we were both bored senseless. Downstairs, we checked on the lads - still playing poker. We decided to go for a bit of a stroll and look for an internet cafe as we had to print the voucher for our next car.

The heat was unbelievable. We were literally melting walking down the Strip. The only bit of breeze that was blowing was from the dudes who stand at every corner and hand out flyers for strip joints. They do this really annoying thing where they smack them together so that you look over at them, then they fan them in front of you or shove them in your face.

We finally made it to the internet cafe and printed the voucher. It was a seriously dodgy place. Apparently, these dudes stand on the corner outside of it and stop couples walking down the street. If they are married, about to be or want to be they wisk them inside and promise them large discounts on hotels and tickets to free shows. That is if they can survive the hours of rhubarb they have to go through. The crowd are actually trying to sell time shares but, of
course, they don't say that up front. I heard a woman talking to two separate couples and I couldn't understand how the couples didn't have a clue about what was going on. Anyway, I digress...

We went back outside into the oven and just couldn't take the heat so we ducked into the first place we saw - the Miracle Mile Shops in front of Planet Hollywood casino. I think the place stretches in a U-shape for a mile with shops on both sides the entire way around. We stopped in Sbarro for some pizza to keep us going. We walked the entire stretch, looking in several shops and stopping in the magic shop which was interesting.

Back outside we walked down the strip to the Mirage to meet the lads. They ducked into the all-you-can-eat buffet while Paulo and I went for a drink in Revolution.

The lads joined us and we would have stayed - the tunes were good. But at 7:00pm on a Saturday evening we were the only ones there!

We left Revolution and walked down the Strip to O'Sheas casino. Yes, it is an Irish place but that is not why we went there. We had tickets to a show that Aido scored for only 35 bucks each. A comedian named Vinnie Favorito (note - may not be his real name) was doing a show at 9:30. The tickets Aido got were even VIP so we sat center stage in the second row. Prime targets.

When you go to see Vinnie, he does a few lines and a couple of bits at the beginning. Then he spends 70 minutes just ripping the piss out of nearly every single person in the audience. He asks your name and then just starts on you. And he is good. Really funny and really witty and so fucking quick with the remarks. The thing is that you feel under pressure and either give a really stupid answer or a totally honest one. Either way, he catches you out and then he is off. I said that I didn't know why I moved to Ireland when he asked me. When of course I know exactly why I did. He took the piss out of some Mexicans in the front row and a black guy in our row for the entire show. And he went bananas when he got some woman in our row to admit that she was married with a kid but the guy sitting next to her was not her husband! He really gave her a seriously hard time. So, if you can check your ego and self consciousness at the door then it is a great show. Otherwise, you are going to be insulted at some point, get pissed off and possibly walk out. Although no one did. As he said at the the end, "We live in a fucked up world and this is a chance to get people from all walks of life together in one room, find their weaknesses and exploit them!" Pure comic genius.

We went back down to the casino after the show, watched Aido drop 50 bucks on the craps table and lose it all in only three rolls of the dice. That kind of put a lid on the gambling for the night.

We walked back up the Strip to Mandalay Bay again and caught some more of Stoned Immaculate. Then we retired to the Sports Book for a beer and some chats before heading back to Luxor for a bite in the cafe and a night cap. Then we all pushed off to bed. We were pretty tired and I, for one, had had enough of Vegas.

Friday, July 27, 2007

One For 'Lucky'

Ocean's 3

Day 59

It turns out that the boys (except Paulo) played poker last night and they played and they played and they played...

They played all night and rang us because they were hungry and wanted to meet for breakfast. I woke up still feeling a bit rough but went to meet the lads for breakie in Nine Fine Irish Men. A full Irish and a couple of cups of coffee later and I was feeling like a new man.

The boys needed a kip and Paulo wanted to chill out for a while, so I went down to check out the pool. As you would expect, it was huuuge! The water was great but it was unbelievably hot and I didn't last in the sun for more than about 40 minutes.

Now I was knackered as well, so I went back up to the room to relax and listen to some music.

A few hours passed an now myself and Paulo were both bored so we headed out for another stroll down the strip and to have a bit of a shniff around.

It ended up being a virtual tour of all the newer casinos in Vegas.

We started with the Excalibur, which is right next to Luxor. We were both pecky so we got an over-priced, badly-made sub from Quiznos and then walked through New York New York to the Bellagio.

The Bellagio was built on the grounds where Dunes used to be and opened on October 15, 1998. It has 3,933 rooms, was inspired by the Bellagio resort in Lake Como and is the real fucking deal. It's famous for it's eight acre lake between the building and the Strip, where fountain shows are held every afternoon and evening. A lot of professional poker players use the Bellagio as a base because it has a very high table limit. And of course it is part of the three casinos that were robbed in the film Ocean's Eleven (along with MGM Grand and the Mirage). I'm not sure if the vault featured in the film actually exists but I'm sure that no one from the casino will ever tell if it does or not. Several scenes from the film where shot in the hotel as well.

Walking around the resort, I must say that I was very impressed. Everything was big and posh and the casino floor was well laid out with lots of room to move around. The atmosphere was quite different to Luxor and you could just tell that the people in the place had lots of money (except for me and Paulo of course).

The next stop was Caesar's Palace. Also very nice and quite up scale.

Caesar's is made up of five different towers, contains 3,349 rooms and was opened on August 5, 1966. Construction began in 1962 and cost an unbelievable (at the time) ten million dollars. It was named Caesar's in an effort to reflect royalty and make guests feel like a king when they arrived. Endless amounts of famous people have performed in the resort and it was a mecca of boxing for years. Andy Williams performed there on opening night and in 1967 Evil Knievel tried to jump the hotel's water fountain but did not succeed. In the 1980s, Sugar Ray Leonard fought Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes fought Gerry Cooney and Mike Tyson fought there a number of times. Joe Louis was involved with the hotel and worked as a greeter there until he died.

Next in line was the Mirage, where the Beatles' Love is a permanent show.

The Mirage has 3,044 rooms and was built with junk bonds from Wall Street. It opened on November 22, 1989 and (at the time) was the most expensive casino in history, costing 630 million dollars. It was projected that the casino would need to make one million dollars a day to pay off the construction loan in seven years. Incredibly, the loan was paid off in only 18 months! The late 1980s was a bit of a new beginning for Vegas since it had to compete with Atlantic City
and the Mirage became the standard for all other casinos to follow. It was the first casino to use security cameras full time at all of the table games and contains a volcano, white tiger habitat, dolphin habitat and a secret garden.

The Beatles' Love, performed by Cirque Du Soleil is a permanent show in the Mirage and last December a bar called Revolution was opened. The bar was designed by Cirque Du Soleil and is totally cool. It is very trippy and psychedelic with white plastic tables and chairs and black leather couches.

And the wall at the entrance to the bar contains the titles to a lot of Beatles' songs against a piece of glass that is lit from behind.

The Mirage was easily my favourite place and where I would stay if I ever return to Vegas. The casino floor is a bit smaller but the restaurants look good and the bars are fantastic.

We stopped in another bar called Shadow to check out the Sox and Yankee scores. We didn't have a drink but I would have liked to. There were two big screens showing baseball games and there was a great atmosphere in the place. The bar had great lighting and they were playing some quality house music. I could have easily settled in for a while...

Even the bar in the Sports Book was better than the one in Luxor. Not really my scene but there were loads of TV screens and most of them were playing baseball games.

I decided that I wanted to have an espresso and was even willing to go to Starbucks to get it. Now, normally you are bombarded with Starbucks everywhere in this country. You can't get away from them. Except when you really want one. We searched Harrah's, Casino Royale and Madame Tussauds. Nothing. Not a snizzling... Typical. We walked around for ages and eventually ended up in the Venetian.

The Venetian stands where Sands used to be which, of course, used to be home to the Rat Pack. It has 4,049 suites and when the Palazzo (next door) is completed the two will become the largest resort in the world with over 7000 rooms. It opened on May 3, 1999 and features the Venetian Grand Canal Shoppes - over 500,000 sq feet of stores. It also has a real canal running through it complete with a fake city, blue sky and real gondolas that you can rent and have
someone sing to you while paddling you around the shopping area.

I finally found a coffee shop - Coffee Bean Shop and had a really nice espresso.

We then ventured a bit further down the strip to Wynn to meet the lads. We had a quick seven dollar beer in a posh bar and then went to the Ferrari show in the hotel. We had to pay ten bucks to get in but it was kind of good. There were ten or fifteen cars on display and then another couple of dozen downstairs in a massive show room.

The four of us then jumped into a cab and went to Freemont Street - the oldest part of Vegas. It's very tacky and glitzy but it's something that you have to see when you are there.

Freemont Street holds many firsts in Vegas. It was the site of the first hotel - Hotel Nevada & Hotel Golden Gate both opened in 1906. It was the first paved street in Vegas - 1925. It was home of the first issued gaming license - The Northern Club. It had the first elevator - Apache Hotel in 1932. It saw the first high rise - Freemont Hotel in 1956.

We had a meal at Binion's Horseshoe and then went for a stroll down the street, which is now referred to as the FSE.

The Freemont Street Experience was conceived in the 1990s as a way to try and attract more people to the area. It occupies five blocks and has a 1400 foot LED screen across an enclosure over the street that is lit by over twelve million lamps. The sound system is powered by 220 speakers. The covering is about the size of 20,000 plasma screen televisions.

We went past Four Queens, Golden Nugget, Golden Gate and Vegas Club. These are all famous in their own right but it is the same spot where U2 shot the video for 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' in 1987.

Every hour a show is played across the top of the covering. There are several different ones and the one that we saw is called Area 51, which of course is about aliens. It was pretty cheesy but the cool thing is that all of the lights on the street are shut off - even the casino signs. It is meant to imitate an attack by aliens on Las Vegas. A battle ensues and of course the humans win. The last shot is of an alien gambling in a casino dressed as Elvis.

We took another cab back up to the Bellagio to catch the fountain display. The show takes place every half hour during the afternoon and every fifteen minutes during the night. It was featured at the end of the film Ocean's 11. The pool in front of the hotel is the largest man made pool in the world and has a fountain with over 1000 nozzles. There are three different types - one that swings back and forth to make the water look like it is dancing, another that shoots water straight up in the air and another one that blasts water up into the air almost 250 feet. There are more than 4000 lights that are co-ordinated with music during the show. It is truly amazing.

After the show we walked back to the Luxor. Paulo and Aido got stuck into a poker game, while Ronan and I went next door to Mandalay Bay. It's another really nice resort with some fantastic restaurants. There was a band playing in one section - complete with two pole dancers but they weren't very good. Neither was the band. Another bar had a different, kind of rock band but there was a cover charge into the place. Eventually we found a lounge bar with a jazz band
playing called Stoned Immaculate. They were really good but unfortunately, we arrived at the end of their set and only caught about three or four tunes.

We walked back over to meet the lads and had a night cap before retiring to the scratcher.