So last week I established why I wanted to see Celine Dion but what I didn’t discuss was why I wanted to go to Las Vegas. Like many of my hopes and dreams I will blame my curiosity on the movies. That’s the problem when you’re a person whose favorite place to be is a multiplex: your sense of reality can get a little distorted by celluloid. From the various portrayals of Danny Ocean to Bugsy, Casino, Leaving Las Vegas, and The Hangover, Sin City has been presented on film as a fusion of glamour, seediness, excitement and cheese that’s both appealing and appalling. All of it adding up to, “Huh? What’s going on there? I want to know.” And just like most instances when fantasy meets reality the truth is a mixture of disappointment and embarrassment.
As we started our descent I was confronted by the first of many surprises. I had no idea that the Las Vegas skyline looks like it was dropped from the heavens intact and set down in the middle of nothingness. I’m not sure why I was taken a back since I know the history of how the place was built, but to see it up close was so jarring. Yet it makes complete sense given the instant gratification that forms the foundation of the city’s culture. And what a welcome: walking through the airport is a bombardment to the senses that was only a hint at what was to come. Blaring music, flashing lights, dinging slot machines and an endless wait for our bags and a cab brought us to the front door of the Mandarin Oriental a little fried and frayed.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the hotel was lovely and made lovelier by the fact that it is both casino- and smoke-free. However, it is so dimly lit that you’re squinting down hallways to find your room or the gym or the café. The woman behind the desk said, “It’s meant to evoke a 1930’s alley in Shanghai!” when my mother told her she couldn’t see. (Not surprising in a city with its own Eiffel Tower, Empire State building and Canal Grande.) And then there’s the wind chime-y music that seems to be demanding, “RELAX RIGHT NOW!” I don’t know about you but I really resent enforced serenity. I was not relaxed. I had been traveling for hours, after a sleepless pre-trip night, and all I wanted to do was take a hot shower. But as part of the soothing hotel plan, the water pressure was so low—as if a nice strong force would be too stressful for the weary traveler—that I got even more stressed out. I will now stop complaining about the Mandarin because I got used to the water and it was a blessed respite from the craziness I was yet to experience.
The biggest thing the movies fail to capture about Vegas is the number of people who visit it. I could not get over the crowds and I come from the city that never sleeps! Excuse me but I was planning on having a moment when taking in the amazing synchronized fountain display in the “lake” in front of the Bellagio. I did not plan on sharing that moment with 1000 other people, and elbowing my way through the huddled masses to get a decent view. Do you want a cab? The line forms over there, behind the 100 drunken gamblers needing to go four blocks but unable to figure out how to get to the sidewalk and well, walk. I hate cabs and really just wanted to use my feet, which was only possible if we were willing to snake through every hotel lobby hoping to find the right door to lead us either outside or to the next hotel nearest our hotel. There is no such thing as “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” in Las Vegas. It is all about walking in circles. It is designed so you’ll get so disoriented you’ll just plunk yourself down in front of that slot machine or go into the fourth Chanel you’ve spotted in a day to drop a lot of money you don’t have. That was the other thing. The stores! Really, does a town need every single hotel to be a mall? Who is walking into Vuitton, Cartier, Van Cleef, Jimmy Choo, and Tom Ford at 11pm? That 400 pound man in the Hawaiian shirt and gym shorts? I felt so sorry for the salespeople, working under what seem like klieg lights with no sense of time or weather conditions. What a nightmare.
I’m not a complete idiot. I do realize the basis of the city is to get its guests to spend their cash but I hate feeling like I’m being taken. (And I really shouldn’t say “I” since I was my mother’s guest and so she was the one who was took.) Why would a cab to one end of the strip cost $20 when the driver took the highway and only $10 when another driver took the local streets? I hate that we didn’t know to say, “Buddy, stay on Las Vegas Boulevard, we’re not suckers!” Why did my breakfast cup of green tea cost $9.00? I could buy 40 sachets of Tazo Om tea for the same price! Ugh, that made me so mad.
You can’t open a magazine now without being told how fabulous the Vegas dining scene is and I had a list of recommendations that would’ve taken us weeks to work through. As a rule I’m not a big fan of “Buona Sera!” white tablecloth fine dining. I like good food but don’t need so much fuss. That proved to be impossible. I guess most people spending too much on their dinner like fuss. We hit Joe’s Stone Crab (yum but we felt rushed and the key lime pie is good but frankly, the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe is just as delicious), Spago for our pre-Celine dinner (my mother was a big fan of the smoked salmon pizza and now I am too) and Bartolotta, an Italian seafood restaurant in the Wynn hotel. Okay, this was the meal that made me nuts. When I first checked it out online it didn’t seem to be outrageous. Oh boy. When I opened my real menu, while we were already seated in the opulent dining room, looking out onto a sparkling “lagoon,” surrounded by bejeweled women on a “girls weekend” and business men on expense accounts, I took one look at the right side of the menu and I almost fell off my chair. (Let me officially apologize to my mother who calmed me down even while her hand shook handing over her credit card.) Then when one of our two waiters announced proudly that their fish was flown in daily from the Mediterranean I felt even worse. I’m no locavore but does my dinner really have to come from 6000 miles away? I don’t enjoy thinking about my carbon footprint while I eat. But why was I surprised? I was in a land where gardens grow inside casinos, Venetian canals flow through the “Piazza San Marco” shopping mall and verdant golf courses dot the desert. And here’s where I feel even guiltier: I ate the best piece of fish I have ever had in my life.
The morning of our departure my mother was very ready to go home. I was still curious. Did I see everything? Did I miss anything? Well, yes. When you travel with your mother to a place like Las Vegas you have a very different experience than if you were to go with a group of friends. (Just like the time my sister and I attempted to escape our broken hearts by spending a week in Paris, it wasn’t the ideal scenario for enjoying the City of Lights. Still fun, but different.) We had breakfast in our room, finished packing and for the third day in a row I enjoyed the most delicious bowl of $15 muesli, cold and sweet, fruity and creamy. Mom asked, “How does it feel to be leaving a place you know you won’t ever visit again?” I said, “Don’t be so sure. I may not be done.” I plan on renting Oceans 11 and enjoying the Bellagio fountain show with George Clooney in peace. And in New York.
What Happens with Mom in Vegas Fruity Muesli
Adapted from Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa, Miami Beach/Bon Appétit, January 2010
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1 1/4 cups quick-cooking oats
2 Tablespoons wheat germ
2 Tablespoons ground flax seed
2/3 cup milk (obviously skim is the healthiest choice)
2/3 cup plain yogurt (as above, no fat is, no fat)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup honey
1 1/2 cups grated peeled pears or apples
1 cup chopped nut of choice (I went with raw hazelnuts and almonds)
3 cups chopped fresh fruit (I chose strawberries, blueberries and pineapple)
Mix first 6 ingredients in large bowl. Let stand 5 minutes to soften oats. Whisk orange juice and honey in medium bowl. Stir in grated pears or apples and almonds, then 3 cups chopped fruit. Stir fruit mixture into oat mixture. Cover and chill overnight.
Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with some granola or nuts for crunch or a dollop of yogurt or just as is.
Yield: 6 servings