The 2005 Holiday Season

Pre-Christmas Las Vegas Surprise

The reason we celebrated Christmas in Boston quite so early was that Robert and I were flying out to Las Vegas at 9:30 Wednesday morning for three days and two nights of a relaxing pre-Christmas vacation, just the two of us. This was a surprise to Robert, however, who thought that we were flying straight to New York to spend a week with my family; when I explained his Christmas surprise late Tuesday night, on our seventh-and-a-halfth anniversary, he seemed quite shocked. It wasn’t until we were two hours away from Boston the next morning that he seemed to really understand what had happened. He began many unfinished sentences, such as, “So that’s why you packed my suitcase. . .,” and, “But you must have been planning this for awhile. . .,” and, “So your parents must have known too. . . .” Eventually he relaxed, to the point of napping on the plane, and when our Boston-Vegas flight got in almost an hour early, he was completely out of the work mindset of the last few months and utterly in the spirit of the vacation.

For future reference, Las Vegas is quite cheap the week before Christmas—we got a $70 a night room at MGM Grand, with a $35 dining credit at any of their restaurants, and the flights in and out were good deals as well. We were able to check into our room right at the airport, and then take a cab to the hotel and just go straight up to our room, even though it was barely 1:00 when we got in. The weather was beautiful: 65-70 degrees everyday, and sunny and bright, so much so that upon exiting the hotel we felt like moles or vampires or other pale creatures ever unused to the sun. It was strange to realize that we ever had spent Christmas in a warm place (Los Angeles); the Christmas decorations in palm trees and casinos just added to Las Vegas’s already surreal quality, but we were quite happy.

We immediately went back out and investigated walking to the In and Out that looked quite close to the Strip but appeared to be unreachable by foot; instead, we went to the NY, NY casino and had a progressive lunch of a Schrafft’s coffee ice cream soda and a Nathan’s cheese fries. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge during New York’s 60-hour transit strike—compare our picture to the real thing—and then walked up to the Bellagio to inspect their indoor botanical gardens, which included carnation polar bears, fake snow, and animatronic penguins. We continued walking up and across the Strip, through Bally’s to Paris, where we had a crepe Suzette to cap off our lunch. Walking outside as much as possible—no indoor passageways for us, unlike on our other, 90+ degree visits to Vegas—we detoured inside into the Aladdin Desert Passage mall, where we saw their rainstorm. Robert observed how odd it was that we were inside a mall in a desert area watching a fake rainstorm and watching tourists photograph—and videotape—the rainstorm. We circled back to our hotel and rested and changed before our 8:15 dinner reservations.

Dinner was at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, where we sat at the counter, and where Robert ordered the tasting menu and I ordered two small plates and one main course (and a dessert, of course). It was a wonderful, two-plus hour experience. My king crab stick with avocado was wonderful, but the langostine fritter was not as exciting; my main course of veal carpaccio with tuna sauce was light, cool, and delicious, and it was accompanied by the most perfectly seasoned romaine salad; my dessert, which Robert had to talk me into getting because at this point—with the time difference—I was practically falling asleep, was the tart assortment: five beautiful, classic and creamy tarts, with the best being the truly intense coffee tart and the incredibly tart (way too sour for Robert) lemon tart. The highlights of the tasting menu included the fruity, fluffy dessert (there were two dessert courses—one was a little too chocolatey for Robert), the “egg” course (poached eggs, mushroom mousse, in a martini glass—airy, creamy, savory, and one of the best bites I’ve ever had), and the tomato mousse with avocado cream (which the chef also sent out a complimentary portion of for me, so I could begin the tasting menu along with Robert).

Thursday morning we again walked over to New York, NY and had hot pretzels for breakfast—a cinnamon and a jalapeno—which we then complemented with a terrible, terribly expensive coffee from the Bellagio coffee shop, after our now-familiar outdoor walk up the Strip. We went to the Bellagio salon, where Robert had a shave and a facial from a vigorous Russian woman named Luda, and where we both then had manicures and pedicures while sitting in facing chairs. Robert was in his element—he had long heard from my father about the benefits of a “real” (i.e., non-electric) shave, and he had long wanted a manicure and pedicure. I’d never had a professional one of either, so I braved the perils of strangers touching my hands, arms, feet, and legs to participate along with Robert. Robert had people listening to him, laughing at his jokes, and massaging his arms and legs, and his nails were buffed to the most amazing shine, such that three days later he was still showing them off to my family. I got gold glittery polish on my toes, after the mango aromatherapy scrub and lotion, and a very pale, shiny pink—just paler than natural, actually—on my fingers. It was quite the experience—I would consider trying another salon and/or spa appointment another time, especially along with Robert.

After our appointments, we went to the Bellagio buffet for lunch, since we had such fond memories of it from the first time we were in Vegas, now over six years ago. The buffet didn’t disappoint—the shrimp were huge, juicy, and perfectly cooked (not at all overdone), and the desserts (especially the chocolate-covered strawberries and the raspberry-lime tarts) were wonderful.

We left lunch, walked across the street to Bally’s, and bought unlimited use 24-hour monorail passes. Our first ride took us to the Hilton, where we had pre-purchased, online discounted tickets for Star Trek: The Experience waiting for us. We wandered through the museum, comparing it to the changes that had taken place since we were last here three years ago, and then went on the rides: first the new one, the Borg experience, and then the older one, the Klingon encounter. It’s hard to say which is better, really—certainly any Star Trek fan would love both, and the ticket includes unlimited rides for one day on both; the Klingon one had more motion; the Borg one had more complications; but I think all in all it’s the classic Klingon one that still has my heart. With that, we went to have our picture taken with a Klingon. “Don’t cut off his head,” someone warned as Robert zoomed in for the shot; a valid warning, considering that the first time we were here, that’s exactly what he did! Immediately after this, Robert bought me one of my most-loved and nerdiest tee shirts, a “Klingons [Heart] Me” shirt. I threw it on and tried to find the same Klingon again, but he was nowhere to be seen. We wandered around waiting for awhile, approached a slow-moving Borg instead, talked to a nerdy guy, and then gave up and headed out to the monorail home, where we discovered a Ferengi going off of work. The Ferengi was, typically enough, cranky. “Can I take your picture?” Robert asked politely. “Why not? You’re here, I’m here, the camera’s here,” he muttered, and posed. He also commented on my shirt, which made me very happy.

I changed out of the shirt before dinner, though, which was back up on the monorail to the Wynn (annoyingly in between two stops, though that may change when the new casino next to it is finally finished) at Okada. The Wynn had gorgeous grounds, with huge cliffs and waterfalls and lakes, and the lakes have funny colored light shows and statues and something about a frog appearing out of it; inside, it’s clearly trying to out-Bellagio the Bellagio, with even more vibrant and lovely mosaic floors, holiday-decorated gardens, and flowers in the reception area. Okada was very attractive, with a nice view of a small waterfall, and we had a lovely, friendly, knowledgeable waitress. We had a hamachi sashimi and a salmon temaki to start; both were very good, but they simply weren’t the best raw fish we’d ever had, even at some cheaper places in Boston, NY, etc. Then we had the robata pork short rib and the robata seabass, both excellent—wonderfully carmelized and charred, with the pork in a perfect sauce, falling off the bone: it was truly a chopstickable pork rib. Next we had two cold plates: a trio of tartares, each served in a tiny taro taco shell, and which were delicious, and a perfect plate of raw oysters (wellfleet and baby kumamoto) served with two different gingery-vinegary sauces. I think I could live on kumamoto oysters (and chocolate, of course). We then finished the savory portion of our meal with two hot plates: a crab and rock shrimp spring roll and a nasu dengaku topped with a rock shrimp and vegetable salad. The nasu was probably my absolute favorite thing after the oysters. For dessert, Robert had a coffee-tea mousse dish, which was really his kind of dessert—flavorful, unchocolatey, light, and fluffy. I had the more traditional hot red bean soup with freshly made mochi (the chef has a mochi maker like ours and makes his own, and the waitress said she always tries to duck into the kitchen when he’s making it to steal some pieces. I confided in her that it’s great when fresh and hot, dipped into—“yes, I know, sugar or cinnamon sugar,” she said. “No,” I said, “maybe that too, but I meant hot fudge sauce, like a chocolate fondue.” She found that idea quite intriguing.)—the warm, hearty, comforting and starchy dessert that is really right up my alley.

After dessert we walked across the street to try to see the former pirate show at the former Treasure Island—now the siren show at “TI.” Sadly, the sirens were on vacation until the next night, so we weren’t going to get to see them after this. This is extra funny, and extra sad, because Robert had missed the old pirate show no fewer than four or five times—there was always something, a scheduling change, a wind delay, a weather problem, a holiday, etc., that prevented him from seeing them, and tonight was no different. We hopped on the monorail back to our hotel and called it a night, sans pirates (or sirens).

On Friday morning we got up and made our way down to Witchcraft in the MGM Studiowalk shopping area, where we had a terrible eggnog chai latte from Starbucks and a really nice breakfast sandwich of fried eggs, greens, bacon, and blue cheese on a great Italian roll. We wandered out to look at the pool and then down to look at the children’s arcade. Back up at the room, we changed into bathing suits and returned to the pool area, with me carrying nothing and with Robert responsible for—as I impressed upon him multiple times—his watch and a room key. The pool, though heated, was a little chilly in the almost 70-degree air temperature, and so only a few children were in it. We bypassed the pool and headed over to the completely deserted hot tub, which was large enough for Robert to swim across it while I sat on the steps (I am not a water lover). After we’d been there for awhile, and were just starting to dry off and get ready to leave, a father and two boys came over. I mention this only because, as we were leaving, I located Robert’s watch to check the time but couldn’t find the room key. “Oh yeah,” Robert said, “it might have fallen out of my pocket in the pool.” I flipped out, since he’d only had two things to keep trackc of, and the room key could clearly have been put with the watch inside his shoe. I didn’t relish the idea of walking moistly through the large, air-conditioned hotel hallways and lobbies in my bathing suit and cover up in order to get a replacement key, so I was quite relieved when the two little boys, diving down again and again to the bottom of the pool, found our key for us.

We then went back upstairs, changed, packed, and checked out by 1:00. After storing our bags at the bell desk, we took another free monorail ride up just one stop to Bally’s, where we crossed the Strip to the Bellagio and wandered in to check out a special dim sum buffet at Jasmine, one of their fancy, high-end Chinese places. Usually non-buffet, and dinner-only, Jasmine decided to have a dim sum buffet from 11:00 to 3:00 just for four days around the Christmas weekend, and today was their first day. There was really no information available about it, and no advertising whatsoever beyond two or three signs in the Bellagio lobby which were only posted the day before. Still, we had high hopes for the buffet, and they were realized. The restaurant was beautiful, high-ceilinged and airy and bright, and we had a table near the windows looking out onto the man-made lake. There was an extensive soup area, where a chef would plate up noodles for you with different broths, and where you could choose from many garnishes. There was a wonderful raw bar, with mussels, clams, and oysters; I must have eaten a dozen of the oysters, small New England Wellfleets, perfectly shucked and unsandy, with a nice vinegar-red onion sauce drizzled over them. There was sushi (mainly pickle rolls and spicy tuna rolls), as well as a selection of cold Chinese salads, including one delicious spicy-sweet dried shrimp salad. Among the large selection of hot dishes and dim sum, every individual dim sum item was delicately prepared, nearly grease-free, and perfectly hot and fresh. The dessert section had many lovely looking cakes and tarts, but we didn’t try those; I stuck to the huge, ripe, chocolate-covered strawberries and the bowls of ripe cherries and clementines. Robert sampled nearly everything at the buffet, and he loved the nice rare lamb, the roast duck, the pork deep-fried rice balls, and the soup. I stuck mainly to oysters, clementines, cherries, and chocolate-covered strawberries, with only a few other items thrown in for a slight amount of diversification. We spent about two hours there, enjoying some of the absolute best service we’ve ever had at a buffet, as well as some excellent jasmine tea, and near the end of our stay we got to see the Bellagio water fountains do their first show of the day, dancing up and down like crazy water Rockette legs to Italian opera songs.

After dim sum, full and happy, we wandered out into the bright sun and walked down the strip. We stopped briefly in at the M&M store, where Robert got me a Star Wars M&M tee shirt, and then we went back to MGM Grand. Once there, we headed straight to the Star Wars slot machines--they’re penny slots, but they only take bills, so we planned on putting in a single dollar bill and choosing a penny bet. Annoyingly, the machine wouldn’t accept anything smaller than a $5 bill, so we planned on getting a lot of cash back. Just for the record, we’re fully aware that we don’t really understand slot machines--why they’re fun, or how sometimes you win with weird diagonals and jagged line-to-line things and sometimes you don’t--so we hit the button and realized with a shock that we’d bet 30 lines at a penny apiece: in other words, we had just wasted thirty whole cents. We had our second shock when it turned out that we won with one of those weird cross-line bits, so we hurriedly cashed out, getting over $7 back. Wow--what a profit! Clearly, after this heady round of excitement, there was nothing else to do but get our luggage, and take a quick cab to the airport.

At this point in our slightly over forty-eight hours in Las Vegas, I ended my holiday sweater spotting contest. I had spotted thirty-one separate holiday sweaters (most obviously Christmas, but I included a few non-denominational “winter” sweaters with snowmen and snowflakes). Many of them were three-dimensional, with ribbons or bows or buttons and things. Many had decorations on the back as well. Of the thirty-one, two were sweater vests and another two were identical sweaters worn by white-haired old lady sisters (twins?). Not included in this count were a holiday denim shirt (worn over a holiday turtleneck by a middle-aged woman) and a long-sleeved green tee shirt with “This is my holiday sweater” printed on it, worn by a teenage boy. Sometimes, they really came thick and fast, with multiple ones walking at us along the Strip at a time. Robert thought that the sheer numbers were remarkable, especially given that it wasn’t even particularly sweater weather.

In the airport, comfortably ensconced in seats facing the windows and near the outlets, we not only got to see the sunset over the mountains and the casinos, but also my high school friend Sal Desiano, who was flying from San Francisco to New York with a change of planes in Las Vegas. We talked happily until they started calling for boarding, and then Sal said, well, he didn’t board until Group 6—he was all the way in Row 10. “That’s funny,” Robert said, “because we’re group 3, and also Row 10.” It turned out that, despite the bizarre numbering of the groups (I was actually 3 and Robert 4, when we were right next to each other, and how you go straight from Group 3 to Group 6 I don’t know at all), Robert, Sal, and I all sat next to each other on the plane, purely by chance. It was a fun, talkative flight, with no delays, landing in JFK around 1:30. So, fully relaxed, well-fed, and happy after three days of Las Vegas fun, we hopped in a cab and were lying in bed at my parents’ house by ten after 2:00, early in the morning of Christmas Eve.

next-- Christmas (really) with Christina's family in NY

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Created: 01/19/06. Last Modified: 01/19/06.