After our rich, diverse and exhausting LA trip we retreated to the quiet charm of San Clemente for a night en route to stay with friends near San Diego. We pulled off Highway 1 into this surfers paradise and immediately found a motel, The Boutique Ocean Motel, run by a delightful couple who had left Iran when the Shah fell from power in 1981. It was a short walk to the beach and Fred and I dove into the surf whilst Dean took a stroll around the pier taking photos. We played beach tennis, built sandcastles, and swam until sunset, enjoying the atmosphere of families chilling our around fire pits provided by the town.
A steep walk back up to the motel gave us a bit more much needed exercise before I headed off to get dinner from a grocery store. After a good night’s sleep Dean picked up some take out coffees and breakfast that we enjoyed on the sidewalk terrace of the motel. As we weren't due at our friends till mid afternoon, and I was very behind on my blogging, so we stayed there until 1pm when we set off for Carlsbad and another beautiful coastal journey.
Our friends from Flaine, in France, hosted us for a wonderful 3 nights. In a quiet and peaceful neighbourhood, we enjoyed the communal pool, visited beaches for breakfast and sunsets, and had an abortive trip to San Diego. Traffic got the better of us, and on the outskirts we turned around and headed back. I guess that San Diego will have to have its own trip, people rave about it, so we'll save it for another time. It was lovely to enjoy the company of friends not strangers for a while, you don't realise until you do it that you have missed not having conversations with people who share your culture. Of course we talked British, European, and US politics. It was interesting to get more of an insight into America from Brits that split their time 50/50 between France and America, and who have set up and continue to run a really successful business. They shared their experience of the US healthcare system, the very real impact on Brexit to their business, and it was good to have fact based conversations about issues we only graze the surface of as we travel through as visitors.
With clean clothes, full stomachs, and rested heads we took their advice on the route to Las Vegas. They had proposed a trip over the mountains and through canyons to Palm Springs, and then onto Vegas. What a trip it turned out to be. We left the suburbs and soon came to the countryside we all recognise from cowboy movies. Searing mountains with flat desert valleys covered in cacti and scrubby bushes. The temperature quickly rose from the late 80s to over 100F. We came across a metalwork artist that our friends had told us to look out for. On the roadside in the middle of nowhere we spotted a full sized wagon with horses at full gallop, that had been beaten out in metal. We pulled into the lot to be greeted by a football pitch sized gallery of his work. Although we had parked in the shade, when we got out the scorching heat hit us. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for the frontiersmen and women; no air con to retreat to, no stocks of bottled chilled water, no rest stops to take a break in……. not a landscape for the feint hearted.
Beaten by the heat after 15 minutes, but with amazing pictures, we set off for Palm Springs the home of plastic surgery, and retirement city of choice for the old Hollywood stars. Having ascended to 2000ft, we were greeted by a stunning view of the verdant Coachella Valley into which Palm Springs nestles. As we dropped down into the city we watched the thermometer rise, higher, higher, higher, and higher, until we topped out at 116F. We had thought we might have a night in Palm Springs, but having made good time, and with the scorching heat we decided not to. Instead we decided we’d press on to Vegas and get there a night earlier. With a stop at Starbucks for an iced drink and free wifi access we managed to extend our booking at the Flamingo and book an extra night.
Our journey took us through the Mojave Desert and it was incredible. Dean said the best road trip of our travels so far. The highway had been built alongside the old railroad that had opened up this part of the US, consequently we were treated to not only the amazing geography, but also the sight of ghost towns that now lay abandoned. Our drive took us 7 hours from Carlsbad to Vegas, but it was anything but a chore and I’d recommend it to everyone who gets the chance.
It was dark when we got to Las Vegas, but the sky was lit up by the gaudy, glorious, lightshow that this night time skyline is known for. Fred had cued up ‘Global DJs The Las Vegas Sessions (2014)’ for our entry, so Dean and Fred both shot video of our entry to the city to the full volume ‘Where we Belong’ by Fredde Le Grand playing full blast.
I dropped Fred, Dean, all our bags, and some supplies we’d picked up in Carlsbad, in the stifling heat at the door and went to park up and found what was nearly the last space in the hotels multi story. It was 9pm but still over a 100F, so it was a relief to step into the lobby of the hotel’s ice cold air con. The Flamingo was everything we hoped for, full on Vegas kitsch bang in the heart of ‘The Strip’. It was of the first hotels to go up in what we now know as Las Vegas. From the moment you enter it’s all about getting you to part with your money. Access to anything is via the Casino floor, which is vast, and staff are there in droves working for their tips. Our room was great but we quickly established there was no fridge or microwave, or anything that would allow you to easily avoid buying food and drink from The Flamingo. The price list in the room was extortionate; a delivered bottle of Jack Daniels (which we don’t drink!) would be $127, a coffee $9. With no fridge, but food and wine to keep chilled we set to. Bins were emptied and Dean made a fridge for food with plastic bags full of ice from the ice machine, whilst I made up an ice bucket for the white wine, bubbly and water. For full details, including video, see below!
Not having eaten, we left the Flamingo at 10pm and crossed the Strip to Caesar’s Palace. We love ‘The Hangover’ and it was great to see it buzzing with night time activity as we walked into, and through, it to Cesar’s Forum. This vast shopping mall is full of all the major designers housed in a Vegas take on the Sistine Chapel, replete with the Treviso Fountain and other nods to the great Renaissance artists. Very kitsch but very impressive. We settled on The Cheesecake Factory for dinner and had the most fabulous food and service for $80 (cheap for Vegas), unfortunately for Fred, Penny from The Big Bang Theory didn’t appear…. Instead we had the perkiest of waitresses from Maine serve us. Absolutely shattered we made our way back, and although it was now midnight it must still have been in the high 90sF. Fred had had an amazing few hours and was fully in love with this city already.
Fred and I found the pool in the morning whilst Dean went to drop our car at the airport, we’d figured we didn’t need a car in Vegas when we’d planned the trip. The pool was stunning. One side was for the over 21 party animals, and as we approached we heard the music pumping out from the DJ booth. The family area was right next door and Fred couldn’t believe the waterfall slides, fountains, and rapids that made up the area. We found a shady area next to a speaker to give us the party atmosphere Fred was looking for and Fred headed off to throw himself down the rapids. Free water (amazing!) kept us hydrated in the heat, and much to our joy we managed to avoid spending anything.
As you would expect of Vegas, The Flamingo did indeed have real Flamingo’s in its grounds. In addition, there was an array of other birds, including parrots, and amphibian’s. With Fred now a full on animal rights activist we confirmed that all the creatures at the hotel were, as he thought, rescued. If he had thought otherwise it would have ruined his stay, I hope when he does read this when he’s older he forgives me for this. I’m pretty sure that the Flamingos et al were in good physical and mental health, however I do have an issue with the parrots kept outside, performing tricks and posed on tourists heads for photos whilst doing ‘high fives’……
Our very big treat on this trip was taking a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon, including Lake Mead and The Hoover Dam. We left it until arriving in Vegas to book and managed to secure a decent reduction which we were pretty pleased with. After a morning by the pool, we were picked up and driven to the airport where we were weighed and processed. I was pretty pleased that the burgers had not taken too much of a toll, a surprising loss of 6lb since I’d left the UK.
Robert, our pilot, greeted us and 5 other passengers. A towering man, he and his family had exchanged the harsh cold of Alaska for the dry desert of Nevada, and he provided us with brilliant entertainment and an informative commentary for the entire flight. It was Fred’s first helicopter trip and Robert kindly sat him next to him giving Fred the full flying experience. Being a small helicopter, it felt surprisingly vulnerable as it wobbled into the air, and as Robert pulled back the joystick (not sure this is the technically accurate term!) we started a roller coaster ride climb up over Vegas. Fred’s face was a picture of joy, excitement and amazement, you really felt like you were flying yourself.
The flight took us over the Mojave Desert first. Small roads and animal tracks crisscrossed below us, interspersed with tiny settlements of gold prospectors living in tents, caravans and tin huts. It’s a region still rich in gold but only those with, hard to secure, permits can mine and pan the landscape. It wasn’t long before we came upon the fabulous sight of Lake Mead. The original lake is fed from the melted snow that has made its way down from Colorado. The construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, completed in 4 years, taking 2 years less than planned and under budget, doubled the size of the original Lake. This is the water source for Las Vegas and surrounding area. The colour of the lake was magnificent, a stunning aquamarine lapping white sand beaches. A rain squall appeared and we flew into and through it, cue joke from Robert about looking for the windscreen wipers! Out of the squall we came upon the Hoover Dam, the largest man made structure of its kind. It was so impressive to fly over it and get a sense of the size and achievement of its construction.
Of course the best had been saved until last, up ahead the Grand Canyon became visible. We tend to set our expectations low to avoid disappointment, however I’d challenge our flight through the Grand Canyon to disappoint anyone. We soared over the West Rim and the whole Canyon opened up to us. Much to our surprise and delight, Robert then banked at a steep angle, leaving our stomachs on the ceiling, and we swept down into the Canyon itself. It was truly the most incredible experience of my life and everyone in the helicopter gasped at this great wonder of the world. I even shed a tear. We flew up the Canyon, over the ‘Skywalk’ which is run by the Mojave Indians who ‘own’ this land, and then into some of off shoots of the main Canyon. I’ll leave the pictures below to describe the colours and geology, suffice to say if you ever get a chance to do this trip, seize it with both hands.
In need of fuel we left the Canyon to fly back over Lake Mead to a refuelling station. This caused much amusement and a cue for jokes about how much cash we had in our wallets. It tickled me to see, in the midst of desert, a helicopter ‘petrol station’ that is exactly like a forecourt for cars. Robert landed next to an empty lane and we decamped into the boiling heat, whilst he literally got the pump attached to a fuel dump, and started to fill up. A courteous group, we switched seats for the flight back so everyone got a go in the front. By the time we landed back in Vegas we had not only enjoyed one of the great wonders of the world, but also learnt an enormous amount about the start and growth of Vegas, Lake Mead, The Hoover Dam, and the people who inhabit this sparse and harsh landscape.
After landing back, and saying our goodbyes, we took the transport into town and decided to brave the heat and walk The Strip from South to North where the Flamingo sits. We started off in Luxor, walked through New York, Paris and London. We had lunch in a ‘Rainforest’ to the chorus of animatronic gorillas, elephants, lions and snakes, probably the kitschiest thing we’ve ever done and an absolute contrast to the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon. We were just in time for the fountain show in front of The Bellagio which was truly impressive and we preferred it to any firework display we’d seen. As we walked back to our hotel we were treated to a dozen ‘Alan’s’ from ‘The Hangover’ plying their trade, baby dolls dangling from their baby carriers. Dean felt right at home. The bizarre and the crazy entertained us all the way back.
On our last day we took the High Roller at sunset which gave us magnificent views of the lit up Las Vegas skyline. Dean made friends with a Vietnam Vet who had also served in the UK and was smitten with England. He also sported a Ronald Regan badge that read “when America had a great President”. Fred had another treat to come. Dean had found a newly opened virtual reality store where you could experience the latest technology, headset goggles, body sensors and hand controls. He opted to ‘Fly over Vegas’ and was taken through his paces by the staff who familiarised him with the equipment and sensations of stepping into the virtual world. As we waited for Fred to start his flight a woman wobbled out, shaking and in tears. She had just done the same trip as Fred and had been terrified by it, it was so realistic. Fred on the other hand found it amazing, and the experience was a tie with the Grand Canyon for first place.
Dinner was outdoors on a terrace overlooking the live filming of Las Vegas own TV channel, for their weekend show. Numerous celebrities were promised (Vegas celebrities!) topped by Oliva Newton-John who is doing a Las Vegas residency. Whilst we ate Lookalikes appeared with scantily clad Vegas showgirls. Much to Fred’s annoyance he got grabbed by ‘Trump’ for a photo. For the record his smile in the photo does not register his support of Trump!! He was more happy about his photo with Flavour Flav from Public Enemy which he thought was pretty cool. We were entertained through dinner by the filming and various appearances, however much more fun was people watching the Vegas big wigs who were sat next to us. We had the mayor, a retired ambassadress (the most elegant and glitzy 87 year old I’ve ever seen), one of the big hotel owners, plus the ‘celebrities’ who were appearing on the show, with their bodyguards. The men got smashed and the waiflike women sipped their water, no carbs or water retaining alcohol for them. Somehow we had stumbled into the midst of the great and good of Vegas.
Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, and The Flamingo had given us everything we could ask for and more. Would we go back? Dean and I wouldn’t, we’ve done everything we would want to in Vegas. Fred on the other hand is chomping at the bit for his 21st, to be in the party pool, see Tiesto (or whoever is the biggest DJ at that time) play Caesars cavernous nightclub, and have a little flutter. On second thoughts I might just sneak back with him…….
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx