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Vegas Baby, Vegas!

STATE 11 - NEVADA

sunny 70 °F

I'm gonna be rich! I'm gonna be famous! I'm gonna have the time of my life, I'm going to Vegas!

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Frank Sinatra once said "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day." What does that have to do with my trip to Vegas? Nothing directly, I guess. But I feel the only way to start to start talking about Vegas is to quote Frank Sinatra. Megan convinced me to start a western road trip in Sin City, so I got out my finest suit, polished my fanciest shoes, and prepared to accept a bunch of free drinks while throwing money away.

Our flight landed just as night began to fall over Las Vegas, so Megan and I quickly dropped off our bags and headed to the strip. I have never been to Las Vegas, but I thought I was prepared for all the lights, crowds, and gambling. I had seen the movies. My friends can get pretty crazy. But the extravagance and overindulgence was beyond my expectations. Arriving on the strip, you can't help but look at the enormous hotels and casinos piled on top of each other. Each is fighting for your attention by trying to be the biggest, brightest, or most richly decorated. 19 of the 25 largest hotels in the world are located here. Looking one direction, the spotlight of the Luxor loomed overhead. In the other direction, neon lights, thousands of people walking up and down the street, and the potential for an amazing night laid ahead.

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I didn't take a picture of every casino, I'm sure you can find professional photos of every casino in Las Vegas online. I will highlight some of my favorites though. We started to walk from the southern end of the strip northward. We walked past the Luxor (a pyramid with a light emitting from the top) and the New York New York (looks like a city skyline), two of the cooler looking casinos.

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As we crossed the street, I had my first experience with another famed Las Vegas tradition—prostitution. Now, there are no girls walking the streets, but some of the greasiest, grungiest guys you have ever seen are there in their place.

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So instead of actually seeing the product before you buy, rough looking guys stand on every street corner and try to hand you cards with a girl's picture on it. The approach doesn't quite seem logical to me. A middle-aged man, wearing a neon colored t-shirt, who doesn't even look like he speaks English, is supposed to attract me to call his service? These guys have a strategy though. They constantly slap the stack of cards they hand out on their wrists, I guess so you say to yourself, "What is that sound? It sounds enticing, perhaps I should take this dirty little card that is being shoved in my face and seriously consider buying sex from this man". The only people grabbing these cards were a couple of thirteen year old boys ogling the almost nude pictures of girls, while everyone else seemingly turned their noses up in disgust. However, I did start to notice people subtly grab the cards as they walked by, kind of like how the drug swap happens on TV crime dramas. I guess the strategy works for the intended market.

I was going to make a joke about how I even saw Megan subtly take a couple of the cards, but then thought better of it. I can feel her glaring at me before she even reads this. So let me say this plainly, Megan never took ANY of the cards.

...that I saw.

So anyways, as we walked down the strip, each hotel and casino seemed to be just as extravagant as the last. We passed the MGM Grande and the Cosmopolitan and arrived at one of the most famous spots in Las Vegas, the fountain in front of the Bellagio.

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Every 15 minutes geysers, fountains, and lights shoot up from the lake synchronized to music. It was mesmerizing. The water doesn't just shoot straight up, but in every direction. The show we watched started by creating a fog over the whole lake and then did a real dramatic, rapid firing sequence. Here is a video of another show (filmed by someone else).

We continued moving up the strip, but there is no direct path. For one, as I already mentioned, you have to sidestep dirty old men handing out prostitution advertisements. You also have to crisscross over the road every other block. I assume the crosswalks were built to keep people out of the intersections, but the casinos use this to force you inside the extravagant shopping complexes they have built around the casinos. In one such case, Megan and I decided to take a detour through the hotel and casino. Unsurprisingly, we got lost.

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Luckily we got lost in Caesar's Palace, which was fabulously designed on the inside (the whole place seemed covered in marble). Megan posed in front of one of the fountains for a picture, we meandered through zigzagging corridor of shops, but never really being sure how far we had walked or what time it actually was. Even though it was night time outside, the inside of the mall was painted to look like twilight. Fake clouds were painted on the round ceiling, all the shops decorated to make it look like we were outside, and each section of hallway was only about 50 yards long before it angled away out of sight. Eventually I broke down and consulted a map, and we were able to find our way outside. On our way out, we looked around a collectibles store filled with celebrity owned guitars and clothing, but the coolest object was sitting right out in front.

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Caesar's palace was even more impressive from the outside.

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We passed about some other incredible hotels. The Paris hotel has a replica of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe out in front, and is one of the brightest spots on the strip at night. The Venetian is also one of the most extravagantly decorated hotels as well. It has canals circling the hotel replicating the canals of Venice. Both were spectacular.

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It was nearing one in the morning, which was really 4am Raleigh time. We had walked a large portion of the strip, and it was time to head back to our hotel and get some sleep. We were staying in an area called the South Strip, but honestly, our hotel looked like the only one in the area. We were staying at the Southpoint Hotel, which was humongous as well, but didn't have any grandiose outside theme.

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The hotel did have a very comfortable bed, which was more important to me than decorations at the time.

The next morning we took the shuttle back to the strip. We purchased discount tickets to V: The Variety Show. The discounted tickets had to be redeemed in person, so we had to walk all the way back down the strip to the Planet Hollywood hotel and casino. We took our time and went into some of the casinos that we didn't go into the night before. Around lunch time, we took a detour and headed off the strip to eat lunch at the largest buffet in the world—the Carnival World Buffet. I convinced Megan to walk there so that we could get some exercise before we gorged ourselves. Approaching Rio (the casino where the buffet was located), I saw a giant ad for Chippendales, and became suddenly skeptical of Megan's interest in this particular buffet. Upon arriving at the casino (and much to my relief), a scantily clad female walked past delivering drinks, and not a single bare-chested man was in sight.

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The buffet was enormous, it reminded me of the new Golden Corral back home in Raleigh. Mexican, sushi, Italian, Chinese, pizza, burgers, sandwiches, it was all there and more (for $30 a plate, they better have just about everything). The food was very nice, and I tried to only get a tiny bit of everything to save room for repeat trips.

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Here is where the "overindulgence" part of Vegas is personified. Megan and I made several trips, but I think we did a good job restraining ourselves from eating too much. That wasn't the case for most of the other people in the restaurant. People had plates and plates of food, stuffing as much as they could into their mouths. We took our time eating, so we were there for a decent amount of time. The people sitting on either side of us had looked like they had been there a while when we arrived, and they were still going strong when we left. Only in Vegas can you convince yourself that it is OK to overindulge continuously on your whole trip.

Feeling quite full, our walk back to the strip took a little longer after lunch. Thankfully Planet Hollywood and the Miracle Mile shops were just a couple blocks away. Just like the other hotels, Planet Hollywood is gigantic. It is so large that the ring of shops circling underneath the hotel forms a loop 1.5 miles long, hence the name Miracle Mile. Of course the Theater we were heading to was in the very back, which required walking past the shops that circled the casino in the center. Just like Caesar's Palace, clouds are painted on the ceiling to make it feel like you are outside, and the row of shops curves away so you never see more than 10 or 15 shops at a time. After going to 3 different theaters, we finally found the V Theater.

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After picking up our show tickets for that evening, we made our way back outside. Having already walked the length of the strip twice in 24 hours, and having walked off the strip for lunch, we decided to take a break. I noticed Megan had been eyeballing the "yard of margarita" glasses that people had been carrying around the mall, so we stopped at a bar that specialized in the tall drinks. In true Megan fashion, she had the bartender mix mango and strawberry flavored daiquiri in alternating layers. The afternoon beer special was $2 anything, so I was happy to stay there as long as it took her to finish her drink. We found a nice spot in the shade overlooking the strip to people watch. In fact, we got so comfortable, we stayed there all afternoon, almost right up until the time for the show. We rushed back to the theater, were some of the last people in, but still got the best seats in the house (not sure how that worked out).

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V: The Variety Show is just as is it sounds, a variety of acts including juggling, contortion, acrobatics, and multiple comedy acts. Each act was about 10 minutes long, and they were all excellent. Half way through the show, I was already glad we didn't shell out $100 a piece to see Ray Romano and had picked this show instead. The host of the show is Fast Wally Eastwood, the self proclaimed fastest juggler in the world. Juggling doesn't sound too exciting, but he was able to jazz it up with a lot of humor and was actually very entertaining. His final act, playing the piano with juggling balls, was the perfect finale to the show. Here is a clip of Fast Wally doing his juggling routines.

We left the show, and still feeling a little full from lunch, we decided to walk around a few more of the casinos. Off in the distance, the Stratosphere towered the horizon in the distance. I was intrigued to go up to the top, and potentially convince Megan to do one of the rides. Taxis can only stop in front of hotels on the strip, and the taxi line was at least 200 people deep. The tower only looked a few blocks away, so we decided to walk.

Here is where I made my mistake. In Raleigh, if you can see a building, it is usually safe to assume you can walk there. The trees and hills block line of sight to any structure not in the immediate vicinity. However, as I was to learn on this trip out west, that rule does not apply in the open west. While the Stratosphere did only look a couple blocks away, it is the 5th tallest building in the US, and is visible from most of Las Vegas and always looks like it is right around the corner. I realized this mistake halfway there as the Stratosphere never seemed to get any closer. And of course, we were in no man's land as far as cabs were concerned, so we had no choice but to keep walking. At this halfway point, here is a picture looking back at the end of the strip, and how far we still have to go to get to the Stratosphere (see how close it looks, this was only half way!).

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After finally reaching the Stratosphere, we had walked over 3 miles. However, it did make us appreciate the view from the top all that much more.

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When we got to the top, there were 5 guys waiting to jump off. The Stratosphere allows you to pay $100, strap yourself to a steel cable, and then launch yourself from the top of the building. I love adrenaline rushes, but even this was too much for me. Like I said, the Stratosphere is really tall, the 5th tallest building in the US. Megan wouldn't even look over the edge without holding onto one of the support columns.

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We watched the guys jump off the platform, grabbed a couple bottles of water, and sat on one of the couches in the viewing deck. We still hadn't eaten dinner or even gambled yet, but we were both exhausted. We didn't even think about walking back to the strip, we waited in the taxi line and went straight back to our hotel. We got a couple pizzas, tried to stay up through a late night movie, but eventually both passed out.

The next morning, before checking out of the hotel, Megan had one last craving to indulge—the ability to use the bathroom and talk on the phone at the same time.

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For some reason, there was a phone directly next to the crapper. I guess it's there in case you really don't want to wait to order room service. Only in Vegas. A little disappointed we didn't waste any money gambling, Megan took a single dollar, inserted it into the slots, and played until there was no more left. Our time in Vegas was over, but our western road trip was just beginning.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 15:00 Archived in USA Tagged desert leisure Comments (0)

Bula!

sunny 94 °F

Life is tough right now in Australia. The temperature sits in the mid-eighties, clear blue skies, 16 hours of sunshine, beaches around every corner, I just can't take it anymore. Dawn and I decided to escape for a vacation. Our destination, a weekend getaway at the beautiful beaches in Fiji.

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After a 4 hour flight from Sydney we arrived in Nadi at a tiny airport. There were no air bridges to connect to the plane, you walked down a flight of steps from the plane and through the open air into the airport. Coming into the airport, three men were playing music that you'd expect to hear when arriving in Hawaii. Beautiful ladies waited to put bead necklaces around the new arrivals, and we were through customs in about 60 seconds (much different that the typical inquisition when arriving at a new country). We checked in at the resort rep at the airport and waited for the bus to take us to our ferry.

Only a couple weeks before our arrival, heavy rains pounded Fiji causing massive flooding and damage. Australia and New Zealand donated millions of dollars to help the relief effort. People had been isolated on the main island due to the floods. I didn't know what to expect in my first glimpse around Fiji. Would I see the flood damage? Would we be pounded by rain during our trip (since we were coming during the rainy season)? To my relief, Fiji looked like an island paradise. No large buildings, lots of greenery, and very friendly people.

Just like Australia and New Zealand, Captain Cook was the first European to make note of Fiji. Fiji is an island nation comprised of over 300 islands. Only 100 of these islands are inhabited, the rest marked as nature reserves. Two of the islands contain 87% of the population. English is the official language, but the locals also speak Fijian and Hindustani. 40% of Fiji's population are Indian, brought over by the British in the 19th century as indentured servants. The weather was hot and humid, but it felt just like I'd expect a tropical island to feel.

We boarded the bus and made our way to our ferry. The island reminded me very much of various Caribbean islands. The roads weren't in great condition, traffic moved slowly, most people were walking, and the buildings looked like they had been around for a while. A lot of the resorts are off the main island, so you didn't see any touristy buildings (aside from the Hard Rock Cafe). After arriving at the marina, we boarded the catamaran for an hour boat ride to our resort. Traveling between the various islands, we were presented with many pretty views.

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We arrived at the resort, checked in at the reception desk, and were shown to our room. Dawn had reserved a beach front bure (a standalone cabin right on the water). It was perfect. The bure was very open with exposed timbers serving as rafters in the high ceiling. A small kitchen and sitting area sat at the front of the bure, while the bed sat in a larger room with an additional couch. We had air conditioning, but we wouldn't need it as the windows wrapped the entire building and allowed the cool night breeze to come through. After the long flight and boat ride, we settled in for the night. Rain began to fall, creating a soft symphony on the roof to lead us to sleep.

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After a quick breakfast, we made our way to the beach. To my surprise, we were the ONLY people on the entire beach. Apparently the resort was next to empty, but I wasn't complaining. The sun was hot, really hot. After about an hour sitting in the sun, we promptly moved to the shade. Dawn became mesmerized by the abundance of hermit crabs and spent an hour hunting them down the beach. I dove into my book and enjoyed not having to do anything. Already this trip was entirely different than our tour of New Zealand. New Zealand was a whirlwind trip, an attempt to see as much as possible, driving 300 miles a day. Fiji was very relaxing, made even more so by the accompaniment of a cold beer (creatively named Fiji Bitter, to go along with the Victoria Bitter, Melbourne Bitter, and Tasman Bitter also made by Fosters).

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I had read that Fijians were very friendly people, which I took to believe that all the Fijians looking to suck money out of the tourists would do anything to get you to open your wallets. However, throughout our trip, I realized that most of the people were genuinely friendly. Our bus driver, the airport security agent, the maintenance men at the resort, everyone we ran into were very nice. Very rarely did you pass someone without being greeted "Bula!" (Fijian for hello). Most Fijians choose to live in rural villages than in the city. I read that people are very giving and will invite people into their villages. It is customary to take your shoes off before entering any building. People are encouraged to stop and enjoy their time in Fiji. When we ordered a beer or frozen drink, the ladies refused to make me carry it back to our spot on the beach. However, since everything is on "island time", it sometime took 20 minutes to fill a bucket with ice and throw some beers into it.

That night Dawn and I decided to walk around the island (the island was 5 miles in circumference, about a 2 hour walk). We left late in the afternoon, taking our time strolling down the beach. Dawn had to stop every 100 feet to pick up another hermit crab. We reached some lava rocks, sat down, took in the view of the next island, and a hermit crab finally stood up to Dawn and pinched her. We eventually made our way back to the resort and headed to the "floating" bar (it wasn't really floating, just stuck out in the middle of the cove). Of course we were the only two out there, the two of us and the poor bartender that had to sit around just to hand out two new beers every 20 minutes. It got late and it was time for sleep.

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After another morning of lounging in the sun, we headed out in the afternoon for some snorkeling on the reef. It was the best snorkeling I've ever done. Thousands of fish were everywhere, so many that they would often run into you. Fish hiding in the coral, big colorful fish swimming above the coral, we even found Nemo hiding in an anemone. Sea horses and squid, little sword fish, bold fish that would swim out of the coral and right up to your mask (as if to say, get out of here, this is my spot in the coral, apparently these fish would bite Dawn as she passed). After a couple hours, we got back in the boat and headed to shore. Another stroll down the beach, some posed pictures in the hammock, and another good night's rest.

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After a full body massage in the morning, it was time to fly home. Instead of taking the ferry back into town, we boarded a tiny, tiny plane for a 10 minute journey. The pilot helped us into the plane and started up the engines. To my horror, I realized the propeller was only a foot away from my head. The pilot practically sat in Dawn's lap. We bumped down slowly to the end of the runway and turned around. Putting the throttle all the way up, we took off down the runway. The pilot seemed to have had a rough night. He wiped his face with his hands and yawned widely (in the midst of taking off). Once we left the ground, he opened his window and stuck his hand out to redirect the air onto his face. I began my Hail Marys and prayed we'd make it back to Nadi. After a not so graceful landing, I jumped out of the plane and kissed the sweet ground of the tarmac. A guy came out to grab our bags in a golf cart (despite my plea that I could carry the small bag) and told us to go to the baggage claim. We walked 10 yards into the airport, the guy called our flight, and put our bag on the tiny carousel. The guy probably waited all day to put bags on the carousel, and he was going to follow procedure no matter how ridiculous it was. After narrowly making our flight (Dawn had to fill out postcards), we made our way back to Sydney.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 01:18 Archived in Fiji Tagged beach snorkeling leisure Comments (2)

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