Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Battista's Hole In The Wall - Review

Battista's Hole In The Wall is almost literally that - a hole in the wall.

Situated on Audrie Street right off of East Flamingo Road, this restaurant is easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for. The entrance is fairly non-descript, and it is part of a small strip mall directly behind The Flamingo and Bill's Gambling Hall and Casino. Walk inside, though, and you are transported to "Old Vegas" - black and white photos of celebrities line the walls, and red leather booths and tabletop candles in red votive holders dominate the space. You feel as though this could have been an Italian restaurant for the mob in Vegas had it been around in the 50's.

The menu is everywhere around you. The walls are literally covered with the selections offered for dinner here: pasta, spaghetti, and ziti dishes, chicken and veal dishes, steaks, and fresh fish of the day. Each dinner is served with your choice of either Minestrone soup or a salad with Italian dressing, garlic bread, a pasta side dish, and a homemade cappuccino that is served at the end of the meal. Free red or white house wine is also included in the price of your meal, and when your selection is made, a carafe of wine is placed on your table to allow you to take as much - or as little - as you'd like. If you don't drink wine, soft drinks and other options are available for an additional cost.

Five of us dined together on a weekday night. The dishes we tried - and shared - were Cheese Ravioli, Eggplant Parmigiana, Veal Marsala, and Linguine with Chopped Clams. My dish was the linguine, and it was perfectly seasoned and the clams were not overpowering at all as they can sometimes be. One person got the Minestrone soup which they said was okay, and the rest of us opted for the Italian salad, which had a perfect amount of dressing (not too much and not too little) and was just the right size for an appetizer. We actually had two carafes on wine on our table - one red and one white - and we took sips out of each with our little old-fashioned glasses that made me think of restaurant scenes from The Godfather. At the end of the meal, only three of us opted for the cappuccino, which I felt was a little more like hot chocolate than a cappuccino, but it had a good flavor to it and was nice and warm when served in its tiny cup.

This is such an informal restaurant with an old-Vegas feel, I was not at all surprised when an accordion player came around to take requests from the diners as he strolled around in his tuxedo. For a $5 tip he played and sang a song I can't remember now, thanked us profusely with a wink and a little nod of his head, then moved on to the next group of diners. He certainly added to the authentic feeling of the dinner.

With five of us dining by candlelight and reminiscing, we had a nice, relaxing meal on a Tuesday night. On a scale of 1 to 10, I rate our experience at Battista's as a 8.5. The ambiance definitely played a role in that rating, too, and I look forward to visiting again with friends.

Entree prices start at $20.95 for the various pasta dishes and head into the mid-$30 range for steaks. Still, the price is not bad considering that it includes soup or salad, bread, cappuccino and house wine in each meal.

Battista's does recommend reservations for weekends and holidays, or for the prime dinner hours of 7:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. Dinner is served daily from 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m., with cocktails available starting at 4:30 p.m.

Visit their website here for more information:

The Las Vegas video poker run continues...

Over at LasVegas4Ever, the legend continues to grow...

Our friend in Las Vegas, NMchop, is still on his incredible video poker run.

After 11 days in Vegas, he's still holding his own and has posted more of his adventures - with pictures - in two new threads there:

We know he'll be in Vegas for at least 5 more days, because he has a comped room at the Flamingo later this week for five nights. Simply amazing.

Go check out his reports if you get the chance.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mon Ami Gabi restaurant at Paris - lunch/dinner review

Mon Ami Gabi restaurant at The Paris Hotel & Casino is one of my favorite chain eateries in Las Vegas.

The only restaurant on the Strip offering both an outdoor patio and a view of The Bellagio fountain show, Mon Ami Gabi is a great place to have lunch, dinner, or just drinks, appetizers and dessert.

The restaurant opened at the same time the hotel and casino did, and it has become a must do for me on every trip since. The restaurant has its critics, but I love it because it's about as high-priced as I'm willing to go for restaurant dining - even in Vegas - in order not to break my dining budget. For years the restaurant has offered only lunch and dinner seating, but they recently added breakfast hours, too. I have only dined there for lunch and dinner as of this writing, but I'll be trying breakfast during my July trip.

It is a Parisian-style cafe' that serves classic French dishes, including soups, salads, meat and fish dishes, and signature desserts. A rolling wine cart will help you make your wine selection for any occasion, but the house wines listed on the drink menu are more affordable (and in my price range) than those offered on the cart.

The appetizers make it hard to choose just one: classic French Onion soup, sea scallops, oysters, and gratins are available every day, and different options are available seasonally. They even have a vegetarian sampler that will satisfy your craving to try different things if you can't choose just one.

Two of my favorite dishes are the Steak Classique served with herbed butter and pommes frites, and Gabi's Fish and Frites, served with homemade tartar sauce. These are two dishes that have not let me down yet, and if I can't make up my mind on what to have, I fall back on one of these. When dining with my mom and cousin (who are also frequent Vegas visitors), we often get the steak and the fish, plus a third entree, and split the three of them between us for our own little tasting menu. The waitstaff is always accommodating when we do this and will bring us extra plates or silverware if we ask, although it's usually not needed.

For dessert, I am partial to the Flourless Chocolate Cake or the gelato of the day, but I will not turn my nose up at a chance to have the Bananas Foster Crepes or the profiteroles with ice cream any time. If you try the Bananas Foster Crepes, please be aware that they are filled with vanilla ice cream and the order is very large, so sharing is advised unless you have plenty of room.

Prices for entree items such as the Steak Classique start at $23.95. A meal for two people with a glass of wine, dinner, and dessert each usually runs about $100 before tax and tip. If you have a Harrah's slot card, you can now redeem your Rewards Points for a certificate in any amount you choose prior to dining at the restaurant (as long as you have enough points available to use), and the amount will be deducted from your bill at the end of the meal.

Everyone from the hostesses to the waitstaff and bussers are always very nice and helpful, and the restaurant is always very crisp-looking and clean. Tables are cleaned immediately after guests depart, and plates and glasses are removed or replaced without anyone ever having to be asked to do so. The atmosphere is inviting and intimate, yet upbeat and fun at the same time. It's a great place for birthday parties, anniversary dinners, or just a relaxing bite to eat.

For all my dining experiences, I rate Mon Ami Gabi as a solid 9.75 on a scale of 1 to 10.

If you wish to dine on the patio, please be aware that you need to allow time for that seating request, as they do not hold patio tables as part of any reservation. Reservations are also encouraged on busy holidays and weekends, but dining earlier is an option to avoid the "usual" crowds at 12:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m.

Bon appetit!

Restaurant hours:

Breakfast: 7:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m. daily
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. Mon. - Fri.; 11:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. Sat. & Sun.
Dinner: 4:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m. Mon. - Fri.; 4:00 p.m. - 12 a.m. Sat. & Sun.
Weekend Brunch: 11:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. Sat. & Sun.

Full menus available here:

Tipping taxicab drivers in Las Vegas

In every city that has taxicabs in service, there are certain rules for how customers tip for service - or whether they even tip at all. As everyone in Las Vegas seems to expect to receive tips, it's no wonder that the cab drivers are always trying to get you to tip them, and some of them will do almost anything to try and get a better tip out of you.

I personally have my own set of rules for tipping taxi drivers in Vegas, and not everyone will agree with me on my method or reasoning for determining a tip. They shouldn't, either; a tip is a thank you for good service, and it is obviously going to vary from person to person depending on what good service means to them. So, use this as a guide or ignore it altogether, but I try to be fair and not go broke at the same time.

I start a kind of calculator in my head when I first see my cab pulling up to the curb at the airport. By the time I get to my hotel, I have been adding or deducting depending on how things went and will pay the cab driver accordingly.

Arriving in Vegas - If my cab driver places my bags in the car at the airport and takes them out at the hotel, they are definitely the recipient of an extra 50 cents at this point. Usually the skycap will load the bags into the cab at the airport, or I may even do it myself. My tip counter starts here when I see how the cab driver does when I'm getting into the cab.

Traveling to the hotel - On the way to the hotel, I have several things I look for:
Is the cab driver trying to kill me by dodging in and out of traffic repeatedly?
Are they cursing and/or sharing their extreme religious (or racist) beliefs with me?
Are they blasting me out of the car with their loud music, smoking, or too much air conditioning (or none at all)?
Did they follow my instructions for getting to my destination (if I asked)?
If they're nice and they have avoided these issues, a $1-$2 tip is added into the total in my head.

Arriving at the hotel - If the cab driver has been polite and provided what I feel is good service up to this point, I just wait to see how they do when they take the bags out of the cab. I've had a couple who haven't even gotten out of the cab to take the bags out for me, and it's usually because they've been pretty surly on the trip to the hotel and they know they're not getting much of a tip, so they no longer make an effort to even be civil. If they get out and take the bags out for me, I mentally add another 50 cents in.

For a good ride where the cabbie was civil and helpful, the total tip is now $2 - $3 on top of the fare, depending on how happy I am with the ride. If I were carrying an extra-heavy bag or got some good info on a restaurant or something from the driver, it'd be $3 - $4 on top of the fare, but that's me.

If the ride was crappy, the driver unpleasant, and my life or health was in danger in any way, I simply round up the fare to the next dollar, say "thank you", and take my bags. I may get dirty looks or get cussed out, but I'm not tipping someone who thinks they are automatically deserving of any tip. Sorry, that's just me.

Returning to the airport - Just reverse the order above. Same rules apply.

Driving anywhere in Las Vegas - I generally walk anywhere in Las Vegas that I wish to go, or I take the monorail from one end of the Strip to the other, but if I'm traveling with my mom or someone else who isn't used to all the walking in Las Vegas, I might take a cab. In this instance, I follow the "traveling to the hotel" set of questions to make sure I wasn't almost killed, I didn't suffer damage to my hearing or my lungs, and when I asked the driver to take a certain route he actually followed my directions. If the report is good in all those instances, I will add $2 - $3 to the top of the fare, depending on the length of the trip.

I have had a couple of occasions where I have given the driver less than the fare, though, and I think it's something that should be addressed here.

On a trip from the airport to the hotel, a cab driver took the tunnel route (along I-15) instead of the route along Koval Road that I had asked him to at the airport, and I called him on it. After much arguing - and a $23 fare from McCarran Airport to Harrah's - he told me to pay what I thought the trip fare should have been, so I gave him $14. It was the average amount of my previous fares on the route that I have traveled many times. He didn't argue with me, but he wasn't pleased, either.

On another occasion, my mother and I took a taxi from Wynn to Luxor because of her inability to walk the distance. The taxi driver went across Las Vegas Boulevard to I-15 and took the highway (with rush hour traffic) to the backside of Luxor, then wouldn't drive under the portico to queue up with the taxi line like he was supposed to do. I advised him of the issues I had as soon as he crossed over to the highway, and he pretended not to hear me during the entire trip. The fare would've been $16 for that trip, and I advised him I wouldn't pay it and had a good mind to report him. He, too, advised me to pay what I thought the trip was worth, and I gave him $7 (even though I should have given him $6 or less), and walked away. He yelled a few obscenities at my back, but I stood my ground and advised the valet attendant to watch out for him. I' can't be mistaken for a shrinking violet, can I?

If you feel that the cab driver has "long-hauled" you, you should speak up and tell them so. There are strict rules that cab drivers must follow when transporting passengers around Las Vegas, and they are aware that their passengers have a right to report them to the Taxicab Authority if they feel they are cheated. Taxi drivers do not want to be given a warning by the TA, because they could very well lose their job over a couple of bad reports.

In the end, use your instincts and tip what you think a taxicab driver deserves, not what they expect. The two things are not always the same.

Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum - Review (updated 5/1/10)

Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum is located at the front of The Venetian Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, right next to Sephora and directly across from The Mirage volcano.

The museum features an assortment of wax figures from current-day celebrities and historical figures to Las Vegas legends. Each of the figures is presented in it's own area with plenty of space around it. This allows visitors to get up close (and sometimes very personal) with each of them; it's an opportunity that is usually verboten in most wax museums. You are encouraged to kiss George Clooney, get into bed with Hugh Hefner, or strike a pose with Madonna, just to name a few.

While the presentation of the figures in this sort of setting is ideal for those who've always wanted to touch, feel, and grope their favorite celebrities, I had a germaphobe moment and didn't want to touch any of them because of what I'd witnessed some of the other visitors doing. Also, while this is a unique setting and the opportunity to pose for photos with your favorites is great and could lead to some very funny souvenir photos, the total number of figures in the museum was pretty low for the price of admission. Coming from a city with a large Tussaud's museum, I was disappointed that more people were not represented in the collection. Still, some of the figures are rotated out seasonally, so the exhibit is never quite the same.

Another factor of my disappointment was that they did not allow me to pay for a half price admission as a solo visitor. I had a 2-for-1 coupon and was on a solo trip, so even though a 2-for-1 would've given the same admission price for two people as for one at half price, they wouldn't budge, and I was a little put out.

That's not to say that the figures are not incredible. Truly, they are very good reproductions of the real people, and they had no shortage of guests on the day I visited, so people are visiting the attraction and keeping it busy. The figures are all represented very well and their displays are really nice and have a lot of detail. I did have to stop and wait for some people to take their posed photos with certain celebrities, and after awhile it got a little annoying...probably because I was by myself.

I would take a friend and use a coupon in order to get a good value for your tourist dollar, but personally I don't think I'll be visiting again. Given that I have a far superior wax museum in my home town and all coupons or special entrance rates are honored for its visitors, it's not worth it to me to go back to this one.

As a Las Vegas attraction, I rate the wax museum as a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Tickets are $22.95 each for adults, and 2-for-1 coupons can be found in the 24/7 magazine (available in your hotel room or in taxis around Las Vegas).

Update: May 1, 2010 - I experienced the museum again with Hayley during our March trip, and it was definitely much, much more entertaining with someone else. Plus she had some great ideas for poses with the characters, and I spent almost as much time laughing at her as taking photos. Be sure to take someone along for maximum enjoyment.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat - Review

For an entertaining diversion that will keep you away from the casinos for awhile, taking a trip to see the animals at The Mirage is a great way to spend a couple of hours of a day - or even a full afternoon. Losing track of time is easy to do while you're a visitor at the habitat.

Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat is completely contained on The Mirage's Strip property. Nestled in a tranquil and quiet area just off the Strip, you will find yourself completely immersed in a world of land and sea mammals that seems a hundred miles away from anywhere. No outside traffic noises invade the habitat, and you can forget that you're only a couple hundred yards away from a bustling casino and pool area, too.

The cost of admission to the habitat is not overly expensive, and guests are welcome to come in and tour the dolphin pools and animal enclosures at their own pace. After paying the price of admission, guests follow a winding path past The Mirage pool area to the habitat entrance. Once inside, a brief introduction is given, along with some safety tips regarding the animals, and everyone is encouraged to meander about the areas at their own pace.

Guests are left on their own at the dolphin pools, and it's a great starting point for a tour of the habitat. At different times during the day, trainers are with the dolphins in the pools, and it is entertaining and relaxing to watch. While there is no "show", the trainers take the dolphins through several learned tricks at different times during the day. The times vary so that the dolphins don't find themselves "performing" for the public, and the result is an impromptu experience that's never the same. Occasionally, someone who has purchased a "trainer for a day" pass will also be in the water with the dolphins, and the trainers will assist them with 'teaching' the dolphins how to do certain tricks. There are benches and picnic tables all around the area, and I spent quite awhile just sitting and watching the unscheduled 'performance' before I moved on to see the rest of the animals.

Meandering through a virtual rain forest of vegetation, you come upon Siegfried & Roy's famous white tigers, llamas, Sumatran tigers, clouded leopards, lions, and exotic birds, just to name some of the animals in the habitat. They are at turns lounging, eating, playing, cleaning themselves, or staring straight back at you. Because they are behind fencing that's only a few feet away, it's probably the closest most people will ever get to these incredible and magnificent creatures, and photo ops abound. As with the dolphins, you can take your time and even sit on a bench and relax while you watch the big cats and their friends at play (or just watch them sleep). It's an inviting area, and the tree cover offers a lot of shade during the majority of the day.

There is the inevitable souvenir shop near the exit of the habitat, but this one is slightly different; if a white tiger cub is available, photos of you with the white tiger are available for purchase for about $25 each. A very unusual souvenir for your trip if you are so inclined.

I visited the habitat in March, and the weather was beautiful and perfect: partly cloudy skies, and temperatures in the mid 80's. I spent over four hours there, going back and forth between the dolphins and the other mammals, watching them all and enjoying this oasis in Sin City. It was a truly enjoyable afternoon.

Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 for Vegas attractions, I give Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat a 9.5.

The habitat is open 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. on weekends.

Admission is $15 for adults, and $10 for children ages 4-10 (kids under 3 are free with an adult admission). Discount coupons can be found in various Las Vegas magazines (ones that are provided free in your hotel room and taxis), so check for coupons before you head to the habitat.
Group tours and birthday parties are available, as well.

Trainer for a day passes can be purchased separately at The Mirage and are available on a limited basis. More information is available here: http://www.miragehabitat.com/pages/dolphin_tfad.asp

Wynn - The Buffet - Review

The Buffet at Wynn is one of the better high-end buffets in Las Vegas. While it is a little more expensive than The Buffet at Bellagio, the quality and selection are not quite as good as Bellagio's, but it is a very good buffet in its own right.

The buffet has plenty of fresh offerings - different types of hot and cold soups and salads, international cuisine, limited sushi selections, peel and eat shrimp, split King Crab legs, fresh breads and fruit, and a separate room filled with desserts that include sugar-free selections.

Selections are placed out in smaller portions and replenished often. Dinner service includes several additional carving stations for prime rib and turkey.

I have eaten at The Buffet many times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In my opinion, I found the dinner service to be a little overpriced and lacking in its selection for the price. My favorite is the breakfast buffet, when several different international versions of Eggs Benedict are offered in addition to dozens of other breakfast foods that are both common and uncommon. They serve a chicken and apple sausage that is absolutely delicious and spicy, and I've never had anything quite like it anywhere. Also, their Kobe meatballs are delicious, and their white pizza is fresh and crisp and a popular choice. Other things I've tried here and found nowhere else on a breakfast buffet (and that I'd love to try again): Taso Ham Benedict, Seafood Frittata, and hashbrown balls.

Drinks are included in the price of this buffet, and alcoholic drinks can be ordered at your table for an additional cost. Your waiter or waitress will take the payment at the time the drink is delivered.

The lines for this buffet are sometimes long, especially at 12 p.m. and 8 p.m., which seem to be the 'traditional' meal times in Vegas. I like to go to this particular buffet at about 10 a.m. so I can take advantage of the changeover from breakfast to lunch for the breakfast price. I prefer to take smaller portions of many different dishes because I enjoy sampling the offerings, and I always go by the mantra that you can always get more, not less.

If you sign up for the Wynn Red Card through their player's club, new members are able to earn from 50 to 250 points (depending on their current promotion) and receive two free buffets that can be used for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If you earn the buffets and choose to redeem them, please note that both buffets must be used within 24 hours or they will be forfeited.

The layout of the buffet is a long, single line with caps at both ends for the seafood and soups and salads. The food is divided into stations by international offerings: Italian, Asian, etc., and signs overhead help guide you to the stations. The dessert room is located at the midpoint of the buffet, nearer to the main seating area.

The seating areas are divided into rooms for a more intimate feel. It is easy to get turned around and head for the wrong area, but it is a beautiful dining space and has an open and airy feel.

The waitstaff provides carafes of coffee, tea, or orange juice at your table and refills the carafes as needed. Watching the bussers, tables are cleaned quickly after patrons leave, but at busier times of the day they seem to get a little overwhelmed and could probably use more help.

Overall, I rate this buffet as a 9.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. It is another wonderful Las Vegas buffet, and while it is one of the most expensive, it is worth the price.

Current buffet hours and prices from their website:
Breakfast: 8 a.m. - 10:30 a.m. $17.95
Lunch: 11 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. $21.95
Dinner: 4 p.m. - 10 p.m. $33.95
Fri. and Sat. Dinner: 4 p.m. - 10:30 p.m. $37.95
Sat. and Sun. Brunch: 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. $28.95 ($34.95 with champagne)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Buffet at Bellagio - Review

As far as Las Vegas buffets go, The Buffet at Bellagio rates as my favorite one at the moment. It's not the cheapest buffet in town, but it's certainly worth the price you pay for what you get.

I love buffets because I am able to take smaller portions of food that I would normally not try - or would not select because a full order would be too much of a particular type of food I don't necessarily want to eat a lot of - and I am not as likely to waste any of the selections I try. My thought is that you can always take more, but not less. Being a buffet, I can do this with ease and not feel guilty or overdo it.

I've eaten at The Buffet at Bellagio four times so far - twice for lunch, and twice for dinner - and I have always been struck by the absolutely fantastic selection of fresh and properly heated or cooled foods available to diners, no matter what time of day it is. When I've had lunch there, it has been earlier in the day and I have not encountered any lines, and offerings have always been replenished quickly so that everyone gets a chance to try everything. For my dinner visits, one was a little earlier in the evening (5:00 p.m.) and the other was around prime Vegas dinner time (8:00 p.m.), and the line was out into the casino but moved pretty quickly. Again, the selections were fresh and kept properly heated or cooled and replenished quickly. I have never waited because a dish was empty on the buffet line.

The selections are extensive: numerous soups, vegetable salads, pasta salads, hot and cold meat and vegetarian entrees, vegetables, King Crab legs, peel and eat shrimp, fresh breads and pastries, a full sushi bar, pizza, fresh fruit and dozens of desserts - including sugar-free options - are always available. In addition, the buffet offers hot and cold plates so that your meals are kept heated or cooled as needed.

Some of my favorite selections on this buffet include: Shrimp Louie, Beef Wellington, herbed polenta, Pesto Rock Shrimp Pizza, Rigatoni Bolagnese, Pasta Putanesca, Singapore style noodles, California rolls, vegetable spring rolls, and bread pudding with rum sauce. Still, the selections change day-to-day and visit-to-visit, so I'm always looking forward to trying new offerings. I'm looking forward to finally trying the breakfast buffet during my July trip.

The wait staff has always been prompt and attentive; drink glasses are refilled quickly, and dirty dishes are removed immediately. Looking around the buffet, I've noticed that tables are quickly cleaned and readied for the next patrons, no matter if there's a line of people waiting to get in or not. Employees are constantly cleaning, but you don't notice them unless you're looking for them (I am always looking!), and they are very unobtrusive. The buffet is pretty and well laid out, with a bar in the center of the main buffet area and the buffet surrounding it in a semi-circle. No tables are too far from any area of the buffet, so you feel like you can easily get up and navigate the area and return to your seat without getting lost in the process.

If you get a chance to experience this buffet, try it! I don't think you'll be disappointed. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate it a 9.75.

Current buffet hours and prices on their website:
Breakfast: 7 a.m. - 11 a.m. $14.95

Lunch: 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. $19.95
Dinner: 4 p.m. - 10 p.m. $27.95
Brunch: Sat. and Sun. 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. $23.95 without champagne, $28.95 with champagne
Gourmet dinner: Fri. and Sat. 4 p.m. - 10 p.m. $35.95

Vegas in two weeks! I'm ready to meet some friends!

I'm headed back to Vegas exactly two weeks from today.

This should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me, and I'm sure it's not. I know my husband and daughter are yawning at the prospect as I type this. They'll get to eat takeout while I'm gone, so they consider it a win-win situation.

On this trip, I'll finally be meeting up with some of my online friends - all members of the LasVegas4Ever forum - for a big meet at Harrah's. I'm excited about finally meeting some of the people I chat with everyday and putting faces to the names I've come to know so well for the past couple of years, but at the same time I'm nervous. It's one thing to chat with someone online, but the thought of actually meeting them in person is a bit...daunting. Still, I'm very excited at the prospect of meeting so many people I've thought of as friends and getting to know them better. It promises to be a fun time.

We have a few things planned for the meet, but I'm not going to discuss them here now because a few of them are surprises for the members - and they could be reading this entry before the meet and won't be surprised! I will definitely have some pictures to post after the meet so that everyone who was unable to make it can see exactly what they missed. Hee hee!

I've met two of the members before - their screen names are MikeZona and Doris, and they are a very nice couple from Arizona. They will also be attending this meet, and I'm looking forward to getting to chat with them again. Doris and I have a lot in common: we enjoy some of the same authors, ogling Chippendales dancers...it just goes on and on. And MikeZona and I share a birthday and a love for some of the same multi-line penny slots: Gold Fish and Dancing Dolphins Super Jackpot Party, to be exact. I expect some "fights" over machines (and hot-looking, half-dressed men) could ensue after the meet. Just kidding - we'll all get along just fine...

I am very glad that I'll be able to FINALLY meet our "Webmistress", the great and powerful Blonde4Ever, who created the LasVegas4Ever forum and has so kindly led us for the past year and a half, even though there are times when I'm sure she questions her sanity because of our attempts to overwhelm her with silliness.

Lots of other great friends I'm looking forward to meeting, too: Pumitania, Claired67, iampaul70ca, Mercin...oh, I could go on, but I won't. You'll just have to wait for the pictures.

I am also planning a smaller breakfast meet for some of the board members who will be hanging around on the Monday after the meet. It'll be a more intimate setting, and hopefully we'll get a chance to chat and just relax in our favorite place on Earth.

What a great trip it's going to be! I'm looking forward to this trip more than I've looked forward to any of the ones I've taken in the past.

If you'd like to take a look inside the wonderful world of LasVegas4Ever, check it out here: http://www.blonde4ever.yuku.com/directory.

A wild video poker run in Vegas...

I am the proud member of an incredibly fun-filled Las Vegas message board called LasVegas4Ever. If they had cards, I'd consider myself a card-carrying member.

I spend a lot of time talking to my online friends on the board when I'm not doing family things or updating information here, and I've made some great friends who I'll talk about in another post. Right now, I want to tell you about an incredible run that one of the board members is currently on in Vegas.

His screen name is NMchop, and he left for Vegas last weekend with the intention of staying as long as his money and free room offers would last. He's retired, so he's not too worried about getting back to a job, and it's made for a great story so far. Before he left, he figured he could last at least three weeks with his offers of Free Play and free rooms from various casinos, and a bowling tournament for a diversion somewhere in the middle. The way the story's going right now, he could be there for months.

He checks in with the board every day, telling stories about his gambling wins and experiences from the day before and letting everyone know what his current plan is for his Vegas vacation. He has managed to hit Deuces Wild and four of a kind (4OAK) combinations multiple times on multiple machines, and on multiple days. In addition, he hit a Royal Flush on Thursday which has certainly helped to replenish his bankroll and will help keep him in Vegas for a little while longer. He continues to move around from hotel to hotel, depending on his offers, and I wish him the best of luck for the remainder of his stay.

Here are links to two of the "threads" (online topic conversations) about his incredible luck - with photos included - check them out:
http://www.blonde4ever.yuku.com/topic/9727 and http://www.blonde4ever.yuku.com/topic/9714

I think it's one of the best lucky streaks I've ever heard of for a non-professional player. Amazing.

Friday, June 26, 2009

People-watching in Vegas

One of my favorite pastimes in Vegas is people-watching. It's another free thing to do, and it can be done almost anywhere there are people present. Yes, there are places - even in Vegas - where you might get a funny look and not want to obviously (or secretively) watch someone. So don't pry if it seems too private.

I love watching people interact with one another - or with no one in particular - and human nature just makes me want to see what's going to happen next. From the awe on the faces of first-timers in Vegas to the little old man or woman feeding single dollar bills into the penny machine next to me, I find that Vegas is ripe for people-watching moments. All I need is a comfortable place to sit back and watch humanity unfold before my eyes...and maybe a free drink in my hand.

I've seen fights, a whole lot of public displays of affection (PDA), some sad and touching moments, and things that are just downright funny. You never know when your next Vegas people-watching moment will be upon you, either, so it's not like you can prepare or anything.

Here's a listing of some of my favorite people-watching locations in Vegas:

The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. This is a favorite place of mine because the area is so HUGE! The shops themselves are beautiful to look at, and because of the mix of high-end and regular retailers and restaurants found within its more than 700,000 square feet of space, there's a great deal of people of all classes to watch. One of my favorite places to sit is by the main fountain, as it is a central access point for the shops and also leads to the Forum Casino inside of Caesars Palace, so there are a lot of people passing by on a regular basis. While you're people-watching, you can window shop, too, and watch as the sky overhead changes from dawn to dusk and back again over the course of an hour. Subtle, but pretty cool. Check the mall maps if you get lost, because it's entirely possible.

The patio at Mon Ami Gabi Restaurant - Paris Hotel. If you're doing your people-watching from here, you are probably eating breakfast, lunch or dinner at Mon Ami Gabi - or at least enjoying a glass of wine and an appetizer or dessert. In my opinion it's one of the best places to relax and people-watch in Vegas because you can enjoy a meal, check out the people on the Strip, and watch the fountain shows at the Bellagio all at the same time. It doesn't get much better than that for me in Vegas...

Carnaval Court at Harrah's. Because of it's prime, mid-Strip location and open seating area, the Carnaval Court is a great place to people-watch while you're listening to the bands perform on stage. There are times when an overly drunk girl will attempt to get up on the bar to dance with the flair bartenders, but they are (usually) discouraged and helped down before they can manage to hurt themselves. Also, because of the great music and flowing alcohol, watching the people in the audience dance (or at least attempt to) is a very entertaining diversion.

The Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. There are about 150 shops in this horseshoe-shaped assortment, and it really is a mile from one end of the shops to the other. While these shops are not quite as high-end as the Forum Shops, there is still quite a bit of humanity walking around on a daily basis. Lots of small, informal restaurants and eateries to park yourself at while you watch the world go by, too.

Fremont Street Experience and downtown Las Vegas. Because the casinos are so close together, and because there are lots of bands and street performers there every night of the week, a chance to get downtown to Fremont Street and the surrounding area will net you a lot of interesting people-watching experiences. Being downtown brings the added element of the homeless and down-trodden, so don't be overly obvious while people-watching; you don't want to bring too much attention to yourself and possibly become the watched instead of the watcher.

The poker rooms at Bellagio, Wynn, and The Mansion at MGM. Now that No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em Poker is so popular, you can watch the big boys and girls play, but they are sometimes obscured behind a bit of frosted glass for their privacy - and so you won't have to worry about spilling your free drink on them! These poker rooms are the most popular for the famous gamblers and the not-so-famous who would love to beat them, and they don't seem to mind people watching them play. Some are even gracious enough to give an autograph when they pass by. These are not the only poker rooms in town by any means, but they are some of the best for day-to-day people watching on a grander scale.

The Rio Poker Room. The Rio Poker Room is in a class by itself because of one thing: the World Series of Poker (WSOP). For six to seven weeks out of the year (late May to mid-July), The Rio hosts the 50-some-odd events of the World Series of Poker. During this time, it's not just famous poker players you'll see, but celebrities of all types who come out to watch - and sometimes play in - the most famous poker event around. Expect a crush of people if you go, though; it is such a popular event that they only allow people in for X amount of time, but you can go back and get in line again and again if you really want to see the action on the tables. If you're lucky enough, you might even score one of the coveted seats in the viewing area, which will allow you to stay and watch a little longer.

I hope you find some good people-watching opportunities! Seeing an "only in Vegas" moment makes for a great story to tell your friends and family when you get home.


A few of my favorite "free" things to see and do

When it comes to my personal list of favorite things to see and do in Vegas, a lot of them happen to be free. Yes, I love to gamble, I love to try new and exciting places to eat, and I love to see shows of all kinds, but some of the best things to do are totally FREE.

Sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time to see or do some of these things, but they are definitely worth the time it takes to add them to your Vegas schedule. A few of these favorites are "must do" things for every one of my Vegas trips because I enjoy them so much. They are just fun and entertaining, and they can keep you from spending way too much money gambling or shopping if you're on a tight budget (or your funds are just running low).

Bellagio fountain show - The dancing fountains of Bellagio's Strip-side lake are breath-taking and traffic-stopping at the same time. Beginning at approximately 3 p.m., the water "dances" to popular songs, old show tunes, and classic compositions on an hourly- or half-hourly basis (the schedule changes for holidays). At dusk, the shows are more frequent, beginning every 15 minutes and ending somewhere around midnight. People have been moved to tears by the fountains, and you can bet that people who know what they're waiting for will find a place along the railing just before each show begins, so get there with time to spare if you'd like a front row view.

Bellagio conservatory - To the rear and right of the casino floor (use the entrance on the left side of the Bellagio when facing the building to take a more direct route). Beautiful flowers, shrubs, trees and miscellaneous items are combined into unbelievable displays and objets d' art that must be seen to be believed. This is an indoor, glass-covered conservatory, and it is open to the public every day and night. Please note that there are a few days during the year when the exhibit is closed to change the display for a new season or celebration, and the dates vary each year.

Mirage volcano - The volcano has been newly renovated and, like the Bellagio fountains, has been known to stop traffic on the Strip when it erupts. Currently the volcano is set to erupt every hour on the hour beginning at 8 p.m. (dusk) and ending at midnight, weather permitting. The eruptions are set to a drum beat and musical score, and last for several minutes. If you don't want to stand in a crowd, view it from across the Strip in front of The Venetian. You can also get better photos and videos of the eruption from there.

Big Elvis - Performing at Bill's Gambling Hall and Saloon, Pete Vallee IS "Big Elvis". This man once weighed close to half a ton, but he has been working hard to lose weight the old-fashioned way for the past couple of years. To date he has decreased to almost half his biggest size. Close your eyes when he performs and you will think that Elvis has not left the building quite yet. An assistant takes song requests before each show begins, and audience participation is encouraged. Due to his immense popularity, the seats in the lounge area fill up fast - be prepared to stand if you're not there early. If you just want to listen, take a seat at a nearby slot machine or at the bar to hear this man's fantastic voice. Performances are currently scheduled for 3:00, 5:00, and 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and last approximately 45 minutes each. Stay after the show for photos and autographs with the man himself; he encourages it! His website is http://www.bigelvis.biz/ if you'd like more information.

Carnaval Court at Harrah's - Live bands perform on the outdoor stage daily and nightly, until approximately 3:00 a.m. This is the only outside bar on the Las Vegas Strip, and you DO have to pay for drinks from the bar if you don't bring them with you. The "flair" bartenders are fun to watch; they are high-energy and very entertaining and have been featured on several Travel Channel shows. While the area is very comfortable in the spring and fall, the summer months can be very warm, even with the misters around the perimeter. You can also enjoy the performances from the nearby Ghiradelli's Ice Cream Shop if you'd like - just sit right outside the door and catch the air conditioning while you enjoy some ice cream AND a performance.

MGM Grand Lion Habitat - This is an indoor habitat that is glassed in on all sides and is accessible from the MGM Grand casino floor. From the Strip, it is slightly to the right of the casino floor as you pass the large Centrifuge Bar area. The lions are "up and active" at many different times during the day. All the lions in the habitat are direct descendants of the original MGM movie lions, and factoids about the lions and their lives can be learned from the trainers who are constantly in the exhibit with them. They are rotated from their nearby ranch home every 4-6 hours and are given a bath and a blow-dry before they are brought to the hotel. You can also get your photo taken with a real lion cub (when available) for a fee, but the viewing is free. Open 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m. daily.

Souvenir photo at Imperial Palace - You can get your picture taken with an Elvis impersonator, a showgirl, and a beautiful classic car from the Imperial Palace Classic Auto Collection - right on the Strip! And it's free - no strings attached. Pick up your photo at the slot club desk in the back of the Imperial Palace Casino.

Cabaret entertainment at Paris Las Vegas - Live nightly performances at Le Cabaret near the registration desk. You can purchase cocktails while sitting at tables in Le Cabaret, or you can just enjoy the performances and music and get your drinks for free from the cocktail waitresses while gambling at the nearby slot machines. Times and performers vary.

Fremont Street Experience - Self-proclaimed home of "the world's biggest street party", this 5-block area of downtown Las Vegas hosts a nightly performance lineup that is free, ever-changing, and easily accessible on foot from any of the downtown hotels. From 7:00 - 11:00 p.m. nightly, the downtown casinos dim their lights at the top of each hour while a different light and music show plays out on the canopy over Fremont Street. No vehicles are allowed onto Fremont Street under the canopy, so the area directly under the light show is safe and protected from the elements, as well. Street performers and stage bands entertain the crowds when the light shows are not on, and there is a constant stream of diversions for visitors. Unlike the Strip, the downtown casinos are close together and easy to navigate, so the setting is a lot more intimate and relaxed.

September 11th tribute at New York, NY - This tribute was originally added by tourists shortly after the September 11th attacks as a way to pay their respects to those who lost their lives that day, but was changed to a permanent display by the New York, NY hotel and casino. Tribute items left behind by police officers, firefighters, and other tourists from around the world have been permanently placed at the base of the Statue of Liberty in a granite monument. The display includes t-shirts, hats, patches, poems, and other items signed by people from around the world. Quotes from celebrities and everyday John Does alike are included on plaques at the site. The tribute area is accented by background music that makes you feel very patriotic.

These are not the only free things to see and do in Vegas by any means, but they're things that I enjoy doing - and will certainly do again.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vegas Lingo

Ever wonder what some of those words you hear in Vegas mean? Do you think I'm making these things up? Here are some common Vegas words and phrases I hear all over Vegas - and some that I'm sure to use here at some time.

Comps - A "comp" or "complimentary" is a freebie or deal you earn through your gambling. It could be a free buffet, tickets to a show, cash back from the casino (since you lost so much!), or a free room. Using your slot card at all the machines and table games gets you "rated" with the casino. That way, if they feel you are gambling enough and they want more of your money - I mean, your business - they can invite you back and entice you to come stay with them and gamble because of the comps they are offering you. Some casinos are very generous with their comps, but some are very stingy and do not reward anything for less that $1,000 gambling money through their machines or across their table felt. For example, at Wynn you can earn two free buffets for anywhere from 50 to 250 points (depending on their current promotion), but after that you have to earn a lot of points to get another freebie or a really good room offer. And the buffet comp is a one-time deal for new card members at Wynn; it's an enticement to play. But the buffet is worth it if you want to try it out and are going to be gambling at their casino, anyway.

Slot club/player's club and slot card/player's card - The "card" you get for joining this "club" can be obtained at most Las Vegas casinos. In exchange for some personal information that puts you on a mailing list, you get a card that looks very much like a credit card for that particular casino or group of casinos. The card is called a "slot card" or "player's card" because you stick the 'card' in a 'slot' on a video poker or slot machine to track your play.

Tokes - You may hear a dealer use this term, and it means a "tip". A toke is a tip and a tip is a toke.

Color up - No, you're not embarrassed. You're turning in your smaller denomination chips (like $5 or $25 chips) at a table game like blackjack or craps for larger denomination chips (like $100 or $500 chips). The dealers like to keep the smaller chips on the tables, so when you're ready to leave the table and go elsewhere, you'll want to 'color up' your chips. After you've done that, you'll need to take your larger denomination chips to the casino cashier cage to redeem for cash. At a roulette table, you get a different type of chips to gamble with so that each player at the table has a different color to use for their individual bets. That way, no one can say you're using their chips instead of your own. When you're ready to color up and leave the table, you will get the highest denomination chips for your special roulette chips, which are also redeemed at the casino cashier cage for real money.

Money plays/checks plays - This one you will hear at some table games if a person walks up and just wants to bet one hand/one spin/one roll of the dice. They put down their money and state their bet; some know to say "money play", and then the dealer/croupier will repeat the bet so that the pit boss hears it: "Money plays!" The pit boss will usually come over and watch that hand/spin/roll. It's usually just a random $5-$25 bet someone was told to make for a friend or co-worker, or from someone who wants to see if the table is "hot" before they sit down and commit a few other bills to the play. You will definitely will see tenser moments when you hear "Checks play", which is a large denomination being played on that hand/spin/roll (usually $100 or more, with a large denomination bill). The pit boss is a lot more attentive to the table then...

Pit boss, or "pit critter" - This is the man or woman who "rates the play" of the players at the table games. They watch for cheating on either side of the table (dealer or player), give out buffet comps and the like, and generally walk around thinking they're funny - but they usually look pretty serious. I've found few are actually funny; they just think they are. They are dressed in suits, and they take your slot card in order to record your name and account number, walking by periodically to see how much you're betting per hand. This way, they can put your betting habits into their computer system (since there's no "slot" for your card at the table), including the time you sat down and started betting and when you left, and they can give you credit for playing the games and help you earn comps faster. "Pit critter" is a term used by Vegas frequenters for a particularly surly or aggravating pit boss. We use it in fun. Really, we do. Sometimes...

Hand pay - This is when you are paid - by a person - for a jackpot or big win on a slot or video poker machine. Usually the machine will pay you with coins or a ticket for your win, but if the amount is very large or it is the top jackpot payout for the machine (the highest amount available to win on a single spin/bet), you will be paid by a Slot Attendant and Floor Personnel.

Cash out - What you should not forget to do before you leave a slot machine or video poker machine! If you have won something, or if you have any credits left and wish to leave the machine, be sure to hit the "CASH OUT" button and collect your money or your ticket before you walk away. Personally, if I'm at a slot machine or video poker machine, I do this out of habit before I get up because I sometimes forget I have a few credits left. Otherwise, the next person to come along will be much happier than you when they cash out and spend your money. You can also tell a blackjack dealer, craps croupier, or roulette croupier that you want to cash out and they will "color up" your stack with larger denomination chips before you leave the table.

Whale - This is a "high roller", or a very BIG spender, and most of them seem to be men. They spend more than you think (more than you can imagine!), and they are treated very, very well when they go to Vegas. They don't usually gamble with the 'common folk' like us, but are instead led to private salons for their gambling - some of these salons even have very private entrances - so that you don't see them drop $100,000 on a hand of blackjack or $50,000 on a hand of baccarat when they're playing 3 spots at a time at the table. Nope, you don't see baccarat on the regular casino floor, do you? Because it's usually Asians (all ages) and very wealthy men and women who like the game and can afford to lose more money on one hand than I have ever even thought of spending on a new house. The man or woman in the nice suit (hovering around the player continuously) is probably a casino host, hoping that he or she will lose about $1 million or so per day in order to justify the comps they're getting (private jet, mansion access, etc.). And the pit bosses and dealers are always nice to the whales - they could pay their salaries in tips alone. A true whale is a sight to see, and I've only ever seen one myself. I use my own terms for other 'high rollers' or people I think spend more than I ever could: killer whale, dolphin, or even guppy - that's me.

TITO - TITO stands for "Ticket In, Ticket Out", and it is the system that most casinos in Vegas now use on their slot and video poker machines. It means that those machines will take tickets you may have cashed out of another machine, but when you cash out of this one, you will get a ticket instead of coins. Most new slot and video poker machines don't even have a coin acceptor anymore. They will take bills ($1 to $100) and TITO tickets only, and will only give out TITO tickets when you hit the "CASH OUT" button. Don't forget to cash your TITO tickets before you leave the casino, even if the casino is part of a bigger organization (like Harrah's Entertainment, or HET). You can't cash a Harrah's TITO ticket at Paris or Caesars or the like. And they do expire, so if you don't cash them in on your trip, you'd have to send the TITO ticket with someone else going to Vegas within the next 60 days or so (the exact expiration date is on your ticket) - or book another trip yourself! If you forget and leave Vegas with a smaller TITO ticket that you're not too worried about ($5 or $10, for example), there are Vegas charities that will allow you to mail them the tickets, and they will cash them and add the amount to their donations. It counts as a tax-deductible donation on your federal taxes, too!

Match play - This is a coupon that can be used to basically double your bet on certain table games, like blackjack or roulette. For instance, you place a $5 bet on your blackjack hand and place a $5 matchplay coupon on top of it. If you win, you get $10 plus another $5 or $10 (depending on the type of blackjack you're playing). Found in Vegas coupon books and magazines, some casinos limit their players to only one matchplay per gambling session.

So those are just a few of the common terms you may hear around Vegas and on various Vegas websites. I know I haven't covered all of them, but at least these few will help you understand an otherwise foreign language.

Be careful out there! A few basic safety tips for you.

It may sound silly, but be cautious when you're in Vegas. There are people and things that will get you in Vegas if you're not careful!

Keep your money and your ID somewhere other than a back pants pocket. Putting money and other valuables in your back pocket makes it easy for pickpockets to get at and you won't even know it's missing.

Ladies, if you carry a purse...take a smaller one with a strap that goes across your body, or put your money and ID somewhere else on your person. And don't set your purse on the seat (or floor) next to you, for goodness sake!

Watch your chips at table games. Just because someone sitting or standing next to you (or behind you) seems nice, that doesn't mean they are. Craps is an especially vulnerable game because you lean in when you throw the dice, and your chips are sometimes exposed to passersby - or an unscrupulous player at the table.

Watch for distractions. If someone says, "I think you dropped something", don't lean down and pick it up, whatever it is! Instead, ask them if they could pick it up for you. (Be sure to thank them when they do it.) They could be trying to get your purse, your shopping bags, or even cash out your TITO ticket while you're leaning down. It happens all the time, so don't be a Vegas theft statistic.

Drink lots of water. This may sound really silly, but if you're planning on doing a lot of walking, you need to stay hydrated, especially if it's summer. You are in the desert, and there's very little humidity, so you lose water quickly. During July, August and September, temperatures could easily get into the 110's during the daytime hours. If you tend to drink a lot of alcohol, try to drink water after every one or two alcoholic drinks. Otherwise you could find yourself in your room - or the hospital - faster than your bankroll slips away. For this reason, I would suggest less walking during the daylight hours if the temperatures are above 105.

Wear comfortable shoes. Yes, I know those 3-inch heels look really good with that cute little outfit, but I'd really think of something a little more, um, practical for your walk down the Strip. If you're planning to be on your feet all day long, you really might want to consider a comfortable shoe (preferably without a heel) for most of your Vegas adventures. Save the cute heels for dinner at your hotel or a night of club-hopping - or at least spring for a cab if you're going to wear the foot torture. Long-time Vegas goers don't feel sorry for girls walking down the Strip with their shoes in their hands at 3 a.m. They just don't.

Don't forget sunblock! It may sound weird for a year-round warning, but you can get sunburned very quickly...and your lips will dry out super-fast if you don't watch it! The wind and sun can be especially harsh with the lower humidity. I would also recommend taking a nasal spray if you are prone to nosebleeds (that dang dry air again!), and a really good lotion to apply before you leave your hotel room in the morning. I'd even reapply that lotion before you go out at night just to stay comfortable.

Don't jaywalk across the Strip! Just because you think you can make it, or you do it where you live, stay in the crosswalks, please! Make sure you don't cross against the traffic lights, either. It's a good way to get killed, and it's illegal, no matter how many idiots you see doing it. If you get hit and survive, expect a ticket. In 2007, five people were killed trying to cross the Strip, and dozens more were injured in their attempts. Most of the Strip now has elevated bridges that you can access by escalator or elevator, and more are being built every year for your safety.

Basic safety - don't be a statistic in Vegas!

An introductory post

Welcome to my first post!

Welcome to my new blog. I decided to start my own Vegas blog because I love to write, and I love Las Vegas. It's my favorite city in the world!

Hopefully I'll be able to provide some information and insight into Las Vegas fun and entertainment for others who love Las Vegas. Of course, the opinions and reviews provided in my blog are my own, and therefore should be viewed for entertainment purposes only. I'm not trying to be considered a "Vegas expert" by any means, but hope to share my experiences and trip details with those who just can't get enough of Vegas - ever.

Once I get used to this whole new world of blogging, I'm hoping that I'll be able to share a few of my favorite sites with you all. I've made some great friends online, and there are some great Las Vegas forums and groups out there that have TONS of wonderful information.

Please bear with me while I get acquainted with posting - I truly hope this will be a fun experience for everyone!

Viva Las Vegas!