All quiet on the Vegas front

So, I spent the weekend in Vegas.

The Virgin America jet from San Francisco to Vegas was stuffed to the rafters with techie types all buzzing about the excitement of CES, a big-deal Technological Conference. Those around me were chatting excitedly about the shows they would see, the tables they would play, and how they barely planned to see the insides of their hotel rooms. I just plugged in my headset and watched TV. I was heading to Vegas for a family wedding, and I knew there was little chance I would be seeing The Strip at all.

I was right.

You see, people – real, normal, ‘I have a 9 to 5 job’ people – live and work in Vegas. In fact, once you get beyond Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip) and the few streets that run parallel, you are pretty much in the ‘burbs. The streets in Vegas are wide, mostly 6 lanes, and there are apartment complexes, and housing communities and mini malls.
Wiiiiiiide Streets

So, how DID I spend my time? My cousin Mary’s daughter got married on Saturday, and she found a quirky and cool hotel to host the event. The Artisan is just off The Strip, and when we first stepped inside it took a while for our eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Gothic Lobby

The lobby is home to a baby grand piano, a fountain, and dozens of paintings on the walls and ceiling – yes, the ceiling.
The Artisan

I couldn’t resist a dramatic shot like this one:
Creating Drama
It was just that kind of place.

In fact, just when I started to get used to the dark interior we were ushered outside for the ceremony.

Bride and Groom

Yes, outside in the middle of January – but I will come back to that later.

The reception was held in the hotel’s dining room, where we were served by an eastern European waitress with a thick accent and black hair to her waist. “Where did you think she is from?” my uncle asked the next day. I went with my first impression, “Transylvania.” I wasn’t kidding.

And what is a wedding without cake? The cake, in the wedding colors of black and purple, was so good I had two cupcakes – but don’t tell the bride.
Quirky Theme

We drove home at sunset, as it was an intimate lunchtime affair. As I sat in the backseat, I looked across all the dazzling lights of The Strip to the mountains beyond, and watched as the sun crawled behind them. The silhouette of the mountain ridge was beautiful. For all that Vegas in known for, it is rarely its natural beauty that gets a mention.

The next afternoon, just before sunset, I went for a run down to the local park. The park is encircled by a running track, and was full of families and teens enjoying the last moments of the weekend. I ran the track five times as I watched the goings on around me. I was completely thrilled to be running outside in the middle of winter, without gloves, a hat or even a long sleeved sweatshirt. I also had the pleasure of seeing watching another sunset under a clear sky.

Suburban Sunset

Las Vegas is not just a city of decadence and glamor. It is also a where families play in the park on Sunday afternoons. But perhaps my favorite thing about Las Vegas its natural backdrop. The mountains are truly spectacular –
Foot of the mountain

– especially when it snows!
Snow in Vegas
[With thanks to my mother for this shot.]

Yes, it is possible to spend a quiet weekend in Vegas. A bit of shopping, a trip to the cinema, chilling out with family, and getting out in the fresh air…that’s Vegas, Baby!

Glitter, gambling, glamour. It can only be Vegas.

Las Vegas. An oasis of guilty pleasures in the middle of the desert. Glitter, gambling and glamour. Right? Well, sort of.

Last year the call went out. My mother wished for nothing more than to return to her homeland, and wanted my sister and I to join her for an American Christmas – in Las Vegas. This is where mum’s sister and her family have lived for the better part of three decades. For Aunt Joanne and Uncle Tom, and their children, and their children’s children, Las Vegas is home; it is where they live, work, go to school, buy groceries, do chores and play.

I hadn’t been there since before I was of legal drinking age (I was 19), so I was looking forward to reconnecting with my family, as well as discovering what all the fuss about Vegas was about. I was not disappointed on either front.

I was delighted to meet (again) my beautiful Aunt Joanne, who has the wisest and kindest eyes I have ever had look upon me, and my Uncle Tom, whose wit is drier than the desert he lives in. I laughed a lot with my cousin, Mary, and loved meeting her daughter, who I had nursed on my lap, now a young woman with a sharp wit of her own. What an ease there was between us, even when time and distance had separated us for 20 years.

My sister flew in from London, Ben flew in from Minnesota, Cousin Cathy flew in from Phoenix, and my mother was overjoyed to have us all there to celebrate Christmas together.

But, I couldn’t shake the question running through my head at a rate of knots: “What is Christmas in Vegas going to be like?” I mean it was LAS VEGAS and I was there to celebrate one of the holiest events on the Christian calendar – not that this is why Christmas is my favourite holiday – but that is beside the point. I was just fascinated by the irony!

I would soon discover that Las Vegas is a city of contrasts, where the beauty of the landscape far outweighs that of the ‘beautiful people’, and much of the fun happens well off The Strip. And Christmas in Vegas? Well, that was all about contrasts too.

We watched White Christmas; we fired handguns. We drove around looking at Christmas lights, and saw a topless review. We spent part of Christmas Day people-watching along The Strip, and the rest hanging out at ‘home’ and consuming an enormous Christmas feast with the family. Oh yes, we squeezed every ounce of goodness out of this particular holiday.

We did fire handguns – Ben, Vic and I. A few days before Christmas we walked through the doors of a gun shop and shooting range on the outskirts of the city. We were greeted exuberantly by a man called John, a gentle bear with no backside to speak of, so his jeans hung dangerously low.

Now, my sister and I had never shot a hand gun before – we were gun virgins – whereas Ben has handled firearms (responsibly) since he was a boy on hunting trips with grandpa and at target practice with dad. The process that day was pretty straightforward. We filled in photocopied forms with basic information, and between the three of us, we produced exactly 0 pieces of identification. Ben opted for the high end stuff; he shot a 50 calibre Desert Eagle and an MP5, which is an automatic. Vic and I were given a .22 and a Glock (.38), respectively.

The shooting range was just a small room with cinderblock walls, partitions and a simple pulley system for flying the targets to the other end of the room. When we walked in, the semi-automatic shotgun one man was firing tore through the sound-proofing of our ear protection. The ‘boom’, ‘boom’, ‘boom’ was felt right through our bodies too. My sister started shaking and spent most of our session in the safety of the gun shop. I stuck it out in the range to watch Ben fire high powered weapons, his back muscles straining against his T-shirt (sigh). Then it was my turn.

I was guided to the end partition, and John helped me load the clip into my gun. It was like it is in the movies. Gun in one hand, clip held in the palm of the other hand, and the two coming together with that ‘ratchet’ sound. Marvelous. I thought back to 15 minutes earlier when I had received my not-so-extensive instruction: right foot back, right arm nearly straight, left arm bent, lean into the gun, left hand cupping right, squeezing palms together to keep the gun steady and gently squeezing the trigger. “Pop”. Not quite the ‘boom’ of the semi-auto shot gun, or the short bursts from the MP5, but a satisfying feeling. I squinted down the room to my target. “Did I hit it?” I wondered. I squeezed the trigger a second time.

Now I voiced my thought aloud, “Did I hit it?” John informed me that I was firing high and just clipping the top of the target. “You need to follow through, just like as in tennis. Although with firing a gun, the ‘follow through’ means that you must keep the gun level and steady, even after you have fired it. This will keep the bullet on target.” Good to know. I tried it again and this time hit somewhere in the midsection of my target. I turned to John with glee on my face. “I did it!” I exclaimed. It was so gratifying.

I continued through the rest of the clip, aiming as best as I could for each shot. This particular gun will fire off round after round quickly, but I was purposefully aiming. At the end of the clip, I felt ‘done’. I still had another clip to go, but I didn’t want to shoot it, so Ben did. Inexplicably, I just didn’t want to shoot anymore. I had achieved what I wanted to achieve: I can now say that I have shot a hand gun. It is a peculiar feeling having that much power in my hands. I came away feeling contented, and with sore biceps.

I had already been out to see Vic and talk her into having a go, but she was teary and adamant that she was not going to. I went back into the range to collect my things, and John said he would talk to her. I thought he had no chance, until a moment later, there was my little sister (all 5’1” of her) geared up and firing a .22 – with a silencer.The silencer was the key. She was good too – a far better aim than me, and she seemed pleased that she had gone through with it.

How odd – and oddly rewarding – an experience. And no I.D. required! Days later I would need photo I.D. to enter Ben’s health club in St Paul as a guest, but I could fire a deadly weapon in the state of Nevada with nothing more than my signature on a photocopied form.

We commemorated the occasion with photographs of us holding automatic weapons, and with our rolled up targets in hand, we bid the boys at the gun shop and shooting range farewell. As we left I noticed the tinsel decorating the shop door. Oh yes, it was Christmas! I was so caught up in the incredibly cool thing I had just done, I had almost forgotten. “Happy Holidays,” I called out as we left.

The contrasts didn’t end there. Ben and I have had really different Christmases throughout our lives. We would be blending our own traditions to have our first together. Now, obviously, Christmas in Australia is hot. My family starts the day with a breakfast of champagne and cold seafood – prawns and crayfish (shrimp and lobster for my North American readers). The champagne was not much of a hard sell, but in our hotel room just off The Strip (The very lovely ‘Renaissance’) we opted for ripe red pears with our champagne, instead of seafood. We sipped the champagne while we opened our presents – mine to Ben a stocking stuffed with lots of smaller gifts (a Barker family thing), and his to me a stunning Sapphire bracelet (I am not sure if this is a family tradition, but it certainly took my breath away). Then we made our way downstairs for a full cooked breakfast, with coffee, which was more Ben’s style.

And the topless review? It was one of my gifts to Ben. Front row, baby! And it was spectacular. Sexy, sassy, a little cheesy, and a lot of fun. The women were every type of gorgeous, from natural fresh-faced beauties to heavily made up bombshells. Did it set feminism back 20 years? No. It celebrated the power of feminine beauty, and was a brilliant night out.
We also saw Cirque du Soleil’s Mystique – tickets were a gift from Joanne and Tom – and as a child of the theatre, it absolutely delighted me. I did not know where to look as the spectacle was all around us and above us. The stage transformed several times, and the journey we were taken on, a gift in the realm of surrealism. It was very easy to get lost in it.

We did gamble a few times, and we wandered The Strip, watching the people – a collection of folks from everywhere you can imagine. We went to M&M World, a merchandise playground for those with an obsession for M&M’s (um, me). My sister and I tried to out ‘cute’ each other with each successive thing we pulled off the shelf. I am such a sucker for that stuff. I found that I absolutely could not live without a Green M&M ruler, and matching keyring. They see us coming for miles, I am sure. They do not give out samples, which is a crime against humanity.

Yes, Las Vegas at Christmas time is a little unusual. The sun is shining and there are no clouds in the sky, yet it is cold, but not cold like it is in Minnesota that time of year. So, perhaps it was the perfect place for Ben and I to spend our first Christmas together – he got his cold weather and I got my blue skies.

And the real reason I love Christmas, is because it is a time when family and loved ones come together. I missed my dad, my step-mum and the rest of my family and loved ones back in Australia, but I am so glad I had my wonderful, bizarre, and love-filled Christmas in Vegas.

Off the Beaten Track

‘Off the beaten track’ is a state of mind as well as a way to travel.  Many of my travels have been on well worn roads, but my approach allows me to have experiences far beyond the brochures.   

In the past decade travelling has taken me to incredible parts of the world, where I have met people who have influenced my life, and done things I had never considered.  I have greatly embraced the surprises that travel brings, even on ‘well-planned’ trips, and especially when those surprises could have been considered disastrous.   

One of the best days of my life started with a head cold and a scooter ride through torrential rain, but on a Greek Island in the Cyclades, this was the beginning of an incredible adventure and the forging of an important friendship.   My mindset is what takes me ‘off the beaten track’, which is why my Blog carries this name.  

My passionate affair with travel took hold when I was given a life-changing job with Contiki Europe as a Tour Manager in 1997.  With Contiki I travelled Europe extensively and even though our tours stuck mostly to well worn paths, my experiences during that time marked an incredible change in my view of travel.I ran organised tours, yet I saw a diverse range of clients, from tourists who saw Europe through the lens of a video camera, to travellers who sought out their own adventures.   

Armed with these powerful observations, I vowed from then on to always be a ‘traveller’.  Mostly, I have succeeded.  This does not mean that I enjoy five-star luxury travel any less, just that a backpackers’ hostel in New Zealand, serving free soup at 6pm, can bring me as much joy.  The diversity of my experiences is what keeps me addicted to my drug of choice: travelling.    

My focus for this Blog, and the accompanying photographs will be the travel I have done most recently.  In the past 15 months I have been sailing through the Cyclades Islands of Greece, traversed Peru by plane, train and motor cycle, had adventures in Hawaii, New Zealand and Canada, and discovered treasures in the cities of Las Vegas, London, Seattle, Christchurch, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Denver and my home town of Sydney. 

Where next?  This is a lengthy list peppered with must-returns and must-sees. 

I invite you to read, comment on and contribute to “Off the Beaten Track”.