Thursday, July 03, 2014

The "Anti-Vegas" Las Vegas Journey

My in-laws, in their element, in Vegas.
How could I not want to make them happy?
What do you do in Las Vegas if you are the type of person who has never had any desire whatsoever to go to Sin City?  Let's be clear - there are no prudes here, just a humble woman who wanted to please her in-laws by going to the one place they like to vacation every year.  When I was a kid rumbling around Chicago and getting caught up in its nightlife scene, what I loved about it was that it was always an adventure.  I never had to go to the same places, I never knew what to expect, and nothing ever felt cliche'.  One night you could end up having a midnight swim on a high-rise rooftop, another night you could find yourself listening to an orchestra belt out some Beethoven, and on yet another night you could find yourself dancing on top of a bar with old ladies who spoke a language you did not know.  It is this type of excitement I get from New York City, where I live, too.  How could I go from my amazing life to places like Miami Beach or Las Vegas for spring break, like my college friends, and be expected to enjoy watching lugheads drink themselves silly and engage in acts that would land them on a reality show?  I had no interest in it then.  I have no interest now.

But being the adventurer that I am, I was determined, now at the ripe age of 42, to find a Vegas that I would like, darn it!  I knew it would make my in-laws happy and there had to be something there I would like, right?  So, here is a recap of my anti-Vegas trip.  I've seen a couple of other "anti-Vegas" posts out there, but none are as comprehensive as this one.  I hope this helps those of you out there who love a good drink - genuine gin martini, anyone? - but totally recoil at the idea of wasting good alcohol by engaging in the can't-taste-it-except-when-I-end-up-puking-it-up practice of beer bongs and beer pong.  I hope it helps those of you who want to use your imagination, instead of stunt it by getting in fights on the strip (yeah, lots of those exist so why be there?).  I hope it helps those of you who would rather spend your cash on a real, tangible thing rather than on the hope of getting a return at the slots - hope is priceless, in the end.


Day One:

Vincent, my husband, and I singed ourselves at the pool with the in-laws but left quickly before the sun sucked every drop of water from our bodies like a H20 vampire, cleaned up, and then went for lunch and good coffee (a rare thing in the land of Starbucks) at Emergency Arts.  In the way-cool arts complex, there is Beat Coffeehouse and Records, which has yummy food that is vegetarian friendly and French press coffee.  In addition to the funky collection of old records, which range from Vegas acts to jazz to '70s rock, there is a maze of galleries with excellent artwork.  There is also a chapbook library where you can leave your own poetry chapbook for all the visitors to see - there are hundreds of chapbooks there that we definitely took a minute to look at.  We spent the rest of the day exploring the downtown area and enjoying the excitement
Here I am picking a ripe doll part from the
dead doll tree outside of one of the Emergency
Art galleries!
around the World Cup.  I have to say, Vegas is the perfect place to enjoy the World Cup because everyone is full of cheers and enthusiasm.

Then, after a very Vegas buffet dinner with the in-laws, we got back on our anti-Vegas track and went to The Neon Museum.  Granted, the museum is obviously about Vegas, so it's not exactly anti-Vegas, but it is anti-cliche' Vegas.  Case-in-point, we never met anyone who had been to the museum on their trip to Vegas.  People gamble and shop, but learning about the history of the place isn't first on their list.  It was on ours!

The night tour, that takes you through a winding path of old signs, is guided by a tour guide that has a waterfall of information.  The folks at the museum were extremely knowledgeable about all Vegas history and, specifically, the history behind the facades of the hotels and bars.  Who would've thought that I would learn about women's history in Vegas?  Turns out many important women designed those world-famous neon marquees.  Who would've thought that I would learn African American history in Vegas?  Turns out the very first integrated nightclub in the United States was in Vegas!  I won't give you the names and facts so that you can experience the museum the way I did.  I strongly recommend this tour.  They have day  tours, but I can't imagine that being as magical as the night tour.

The Neon Museum sign incorporates elements from
various signs used on the strip throughout its history.

This is my favorite old sign - it's huge!  But there are so many more - I took
most of my pictures on the trip at this site.

Day Two:

We probably had a drink at the hotel bar the night before but turned in early because of jet lag, had a cheap bagel breakfast on day two and then set off for Skin Design Tattoo.  This tattoo parlor is not on the strip.  No one got inebriated and decided to get a horrible tattoo in questionable circumstances.  No, I planned the tattoo well in advance, researched the facility, and contacted Skin Design months before I was ever in Vegas.  The idea was to get a wonderful work of art by a world-renowned group of artists.  Robert Pho, who opened the space, is known for his photo-realistic work.  Vic Vivid is an excellent color artist who has trained under Pho.  I spent hours in Skin Design and by the end of the session, I was dizzy because I hadn't eaten lunch.  It was all worth it.  Vic, who is extremely kind and professional, is actually Colombian, like me, so we chatted about that.  But the best part of the experience was the art.  Here is Vic's interpretation of an artwork by Camille Rose Garcia:

Amazing, right?  Vic Vivid does beautiful work!

Vincent picked me up and we were off to Lotus of Siam to meet his parents for dinner.  They raved about this off-the-path place and they were right to.  This Thai restaurant is not on the strip but it can get very crowded.  It has an impressive photo collection of all the famous people who have dined there.  It doesn't look like much from the outside - it is in a strip mall - and while you'll recognize the pad thai and massaman curry, most of the dishes are not anything you've heard of before.  It is an EXCELLENT meal and very anti-Vegas.  The restaurant is casual and the atmosphere is lots of fun.  You also get to choose the heat of your meal - if you are used to eating real Mexican food in Chicago, L.A., or the South, you can do a five or a six, and if you are used to real Indian food, you can go higher.  Everyone else should stick to three or lower.

Day Three and Four:

We were at the Grand Canyon for two days.  Totally anti-Vegas.  'Nuff said.

I had to keep my arm covered because of the healing tattoo - luckily there
was a breeze!

If you're looking for an excellent place to eat at the Grand Canyon, go for the place with the view of the Canyon: The Arizona Room. You can get good meat, poultry, and fish dishes, many which are specified as "sustainable," and there are a couple of vegetarian options.  Their local wines are great, too.  The restaurant isn't fancy looking - which is great for folks who have been on their feet all day - and the service is given with a sweet smile.

We drove back on Day Four, late in the day, so that we could sleep in and nab more pics on the way back to Vegas.  That night the plan was to see my old friend Nicole, from Chicago.  She saw from a post that I was in town and even though she had plans to leave for Paris in the next 48 hours, she made time to have dinner with us and meet my better half.  Meeting and hanging with old friends and sharing our lives?  Yep, that's kind of anti-Vegas, I think.  It was a gracious moment within all the hullabaloo.

Can you recognize Nicole?  Here's a hint: she and her hubby
help bar owners in the red.  ;)  Isn't she gorgeous??

Vincent's parents joined us at the end of dinner, met Nicole, who is unbelievably charming and witty, then Nicole said her good-byes and the rest of us went exploring.  We saw someone dressed up as a KISS member in a wheelchair (couldn't get a good pic), we heard many awful street bands, and because it wasn't yet the official weekend, we thankfully avoided much mayhem.  The strip was busy but calm and it gave us all a chance to laugh with each other.  Family getting closer?  Not sure if that's anti-Vegas, but it was definitely wonderful.

Vincent's dad took this one!

Day Five:

At this point I was tired!  Where was I going to get energy??  Luckily, Vincent's mom, Kathy, treated me to a spa massage.  She and her sister, JoAnn, like to do it and they were kind enough to make me one of the girls.  I've had trouble in the past with such things - I don't like strangers to touch me - so imagine my panic when I saw that the person who was going to massage me was a young man, from Long Island, no less!  Despite my modesty, the massage was incredible and boy did I need it after all the walking for the past four days.  The young man was totally professional and, thanks to Kathy, I felt rejuvenated for the rest of the trip.  This isn't exactly anti-Vegas, but it does counteract the damage Vegas may have done.

Back into explorer mode!  When Vincent and I regrouped, we decided to take some architecture in.  We chose to take a look at the Frank Gehry designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.  Yeah, that's on NO ONE's Vegas bucket list, but it was on ours!  Here's how cool it is:

Is it just melting under the Nevada sun?

Then, we decided to look at Vegas from its highest point, The Stratosphere.  UNLIKE civilized places in the world, such as The John Hancock Center in Chicago, The Stratosphere charges money to go up to the tower.  That is VERY Vegas.  Still, the view, especially during the day, is not.  There are few people, which means there aren't drunk people trying to hog up the view.  And, what did we do when we were up there?  We read poetry.  By Maria Negroni.  Yes, the few people who were there were probably traumatized.  We had a low-key dinner later with the family and tried to plan the rest of the weekend over the meal.

A close-up of the lovely view at The Stratosphere.

That night, it being the official weekend and all, we decided to hit a few bars off the strip.  The first was Downtown Cocktail Room, which is dark, cool, and red.  We got there around 9 p.m. and it was still quite mellow, with couples chatting and sitting on overstuffed chairs and lounge music playing.  Vincent and I probably own at least 50% of the playlist, so we were happy.  The drink menu is interesting in that it rates the drinks according to "sense of adventure."  A drink rated a "1" will be something most people can enjoy safely, while a "4" is for people who want to experience new ideas and flavors.  We loved it!  And our server was great: she complimented my new tattoo and assumed we were locals.

The next bar was Commonwealth, just around the corner.  This is a gorgeous, spacious, two-story facility with a 1920's vibe.  All the fixtures and decor are antiques, or at least resemble them, and the drinks are refreshing and spirited.  The music here was livelier than the previous locale and the patrons were a bit younger, but there wasn't any of the desperation one might see down the street at the Fremont Experience.  These folks were fun and polite.  In addition, our server was charming and thoughtful and also assumed we were locals.  I was now starting to wonder what about me made me seem Vegas, when I was on an anti-Vegas trip.  Eh, I just went with it.

The lovely wallpaper and old-timey decor at Commonwealth.

Even though it was now past midnight, we still weren't tired - refreshing drinks, indeed - so we decided to head over to Container Park, which our friend Rachel suggested.  Rachel is a unique person with a delightful enthusiasm for life, so I knew it would be interesting.  There is a big, fiery, praying mantis beckoning people to enter the park and on the weekends they have live bands, so we walked a couple blocks to see what was up.  The multi-story, outdoor facility, which is made of old truck containers, has many shops (which were closed at the hour we went) and lots of restaurants and bars, many of which were open.  Vincent had very good coffee at The Beatnik there.  In the center, there was a huge jungle gym and that's what we went for.  We were NOT the only adults playing with bridges and slides.  Container Park is definitely anti-Vegas!  Loved it!

Then, as is often the case with me, I began to crave ice cream.  Alas, Container Park did not have this.  We knew we would have to brave the strip on a Friday - ugh!  Somehow, we ended up in Paris, and I was pleasantly surprised.  We found our gelato in a bakery on a charming walkway in Paris, and then we came across a statue that summed up what we really honor in Vegas: the folks who have to clean up after our asses.  The service in Vegas is beyond what I've normally experienced anywhere else in the world and all I could think about all week was how humbled I am at the folks who have to serve so many people all week long.  They deserve sainthood!  Well, here is the statue that commemorates their work (I wish it were Vegas-sized, actually):

Don't forget to tip and say "please" and "thank you."

Day Six:

It's not over yet??  No.  In fact, maybe our long stay is why people have been confusing us for locals.  The in-laws like to stay a nice long time, whereas most folks do a three-day, spitfire trip.  We have been getting to know Vegas, intimately.  And our eyes and noses are burning as a result - golly, the air is dry out here!

On this day, we slept until noon.  I think Vincent got up for breakfast.  I did not.  A lady needs her beauty rest, 'kay?  He was right back in bed after eating, though.  We weren't out of the room until about 1:30 p.m.  Then we headed for what we like to call "linner" - a bad portmanteau of "lunch" and "dinner" - at yet another off-the-strip eatery called Lola's Louisiana Kitchen.  You cannot get a table at this tiny restaurant for dinner; the wait will be at least two hours.  You can, however, walk in for lunch and have an unhurried meal.  It WILL be decadent, so plan for it.  This was, for the most part, my only meal that day.  The banana pudding for desert is heaven.

Now, the next thing we did, I can say is the most anti-Vegas part of our trip.  That night, we saw a 3-D Kraftwerk show at the Chelsea Theater in the Cosmopolitan Hotel.  I guarantee you that 80% of the people visiting Las Vegas do not know who Kraftwerk is (sigh).  That's okay - all the more space for us to enjoy one of the best bands to ever exist.  It was one of the best concerts I've ever been to.  Punto.  I have pictures but they don't do it justice - all the graphics were leaping out over the band members in full 3-D glory.  What Vincent and I really loved was the lyrics that questioned our ties to machines, our ability to be fully human, our ability to have individual thought (in Vegas!!), and the damage we do with our technological knowledge.  Super anti-Vegas!

They also had graphics that questioned technology's role in the bombings
at Fukushima, Hiroshima, and many other places.

Can you believe we did something else after this?  Yep.  We went to The Double Down Saloon, which is Vegas' punk bar.  There is never any cover and they have bands playing many nights of the week.  The people here are definitely locals and they were some of the nicest people we encountered on the weekend.  While it was horrific entering and exiting the strip for the concert on the weekend because of the countless drunken jerks, this off-the-strip bar was totally welcoming.  We stayed for a couple of bands and bopped our heads to the ear-fizzing music, and the bouncer was even kind enough to take our picture, despite being corny tourists.  These guys did NOT confuse us for locals.  They knew we were visitors, but treated us well, just the same.

The Double Down Saloon's motto.

Can you tell Vincent was tired?

No, the night is not over - we met Vincent's parents and discussed our adventures at the hotel.  I don't think we got to bed until 4 a.m. this night, which is typical for Vegas, but somehow we managed to vary it a bit on our trip.  Not every night was a rager for us, which is just fine in my book.  Not raging every night in Vegas and staying healthy in the process - yeah, that's as anti-Vegas as it gets.

Day Seven: 

I think it's safe to say that we are superhuman because we are still able to walk and speak coherently after a week in Vegas.  Yeah!  What's next?  The Mob Museum, which is overpriced but astoundingly thorough.  You get three floors of well-researched and displayed history that covers not just the Vegas mob, but the entire history of the mafia in the United States.  It is a funny, informative, and terrifying collection of information.  We were simply unable, in our exhaustion, to read every bit of information, but we were there for a good two to three hours.  I strongly recommend this high-quality museum.  You won't be disappointed.

Here's a map of the Chicago territories in the early 20th century.

Then, an excellent sushi dinner with the family, more laughs, and we had nice late evening with Vincent's father at Napoleon's Lounge, where we heard the ultimate Vegas lounge act, The Dueling Pianos.  We were expecting jazz, a la anti-Vegas, but it turned out to be more of an updated version of Bill Murray's lounge act on Saturday Night Live.  It was not anti-Vegas, but it was funny.  We heard them play Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby's Got Back" on the pianos.  Other than that, it was a lot of Jimmy Buffet (ugh).  Still, it was great to sit and joke with Vinny and his dad.  It was a nice way to end the trip.

The dark wood of the lounge and the leather seating was very comfy!

Day Eight:

We are leaving!!  And we are ready to leave!  Just get us out of this hectic town!  It has been like being in Times Square for a week!  Enough!  

While waiting for our flight time to arrive, we visited Vdara, which has the tagline, "Do Vegas Differently."  It is the only hotel we stepped in that does not have a casino.  It was a peaceful haven with calming decor - aaaahhhh....  Then, a quick lunch at La Comida before we were off to the airport.  It has good Mexican food and a wide range of tequilas and margaritas - the staff is convivial, too.

But where was I?  I WANT TO LEAVE THIS PLACE!  Home, home, home!  Can't wait to finally leave Vegas?  Well, that's the most anti-Vegas thing of all!  

May you have your own wonderful anti-Vegas trip and if you do, please share what you did in the comments section...not that we ever plan to return.  ;)