Saturday, December 27, 2014

San Francisco -- the City in a Park



From Presidio National Park

Most cities have parks inside them.  But San Francisco is a city inside a park.   And an 80,000-acre national park at that.  Along the coast, in the bay, on the other side of the bay, and even right through the heart of the city, San Francisco is surrounded and cut by a series of national parks and monuments that have preserved the beauty and history of the area.

Today, you can see an island prison that was once home to the gangsters Al “Scarface” Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly.  You stroll the wooden deck of a century old sailing ship, or cling to the outside of a cable car as it rattles up and down roller coaster hills – and always be part of the national park system.  There are walks along sheer cliffs or on wide beaches.  You can even stroll through a silent, 1,000 year old forest of redwoods and still be only a few minutes from panoramic views of San Francisco’s skyscrapers.

Best of all, you can walk from one national park to another across the most famous bridge in the world.

The Marina from the national park pathway along the bay.
Here’s some of the best national parks surrounding (and inside) San Francisco.



The Famous Cable Cars
It’s hard to miss these iconic cars with their bright yellow and maroon colors, clanging bells, and strange rattling noise as they are pulled along by underground cables.  At one point, there were 600 of these cable cars (never call them trolleys!) whipping up and down the hills of San Francisco.  Today, only 40 survive, but each of the 15,000-pound cars is a national monument – the only moving national monuments in the national park system.

The giant wheels that spin the underground cables.
The best way to understand how the cars work is to visit the free Cable Car Museum.  Here you can actually see the gigantic wheels that rotate, pulling huge steel cables in miles long circles underground.  A “Gripman” on board the cable car squeezes a lever that grips the cable and drags the car forward at a stead 9.5 miles an hour.  To stop the car, the gripman releases the cable and pulls a brake.  It’s no easy job.  It takes amazing upper body strength and coordination, and any Gripman is a true hero in San Francisco.

The cars can’t go backwards, so when they reach the end of the line, they are turned, by hand, on a roundtable to go back the same way they came.

The best moving national monument in the country.
This Victorian transportation system started in 1873 when a Scottsman, Andrew Hallidie, witnessed a horrible accident.  Horses pulling a wagon up one of San Francisco’s infamous hills started slipping on the cobblestones and fell, dragging the wagon and horses down the hill into a dreadful heap.  Hallidie had seen cable cars pull gold ore and was convinced they could pull humans too, but when it came time to test the first car downhill, the hired brakeman lost his nerve.  Hallidie hopped on board and guided the car down safely. 

Today on a ride, the hills still give the biggest thrills.   The 40 cable cars are as safe as they can be, but that’s not very safe.  They hold 29-34 people sitting, but another 20-40 are allowed to stand on the running board holding onto a leather strap.  There are no seatbelts, and the cars rattle right down the center of the street, barely missing automobiles, other cable cars, and pedestrians.

The cars go from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf
They are generally crowded.  You can wait 30-40 minutes to catch one at the roundtables, but better, just walk a few blocks along the track and look for trolley boarding signs. There are no true stations.  The cable car stops every few blocks and you simply jump on board, quickly, and grab a seat or a leather strap.  And hold on!  You can buy tickets ($7 each way) on board, but a better deal is City Pass (which includes tickets to all of San Francisco’s top attractions and offers unlimited rides on the car for 7 days). 

The cable cars hit most of the famous sights in the city, from Nob Hill and Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf.  Of the three lines, the Powell Hyde is the most thrilling, and the California Street line the least crowded.

The Rock

This guard tower is fake, added for a movie.
The solid rock island sitting 1.25 miles off the shore of San Francisco has been a fort and a lighthouse, but is best remembered as the most infamous prison in U.S. history – Alcatraz.  From 1934 to 1963, it was the nation’s toughest maximum-security prison – the place they sent the worst criminals or those who had caused trouble in other prisons. 

Generally, about 260 inmates lived here in cold, windowless, tiny 5x9 foot cells.  There were three guards for every prisoner, six guard towers with machine guns and miles of barbed wire, while the surrounding water was freezing with strong currents.

Still, the human spirit being what it is, 34 inmates tried to escape in 14 different attempts.  Many were machine gunned or recaptured, while others drowned in the bay.  But five inmates were never seen again, and though presumed dead by drowning, who knows?

Everyone is glad to leave Alcatraz.
Today the prison is run as a museum by the National Park Service.  It still exudes a feeling of loneliness and cold damp misery, especially in D Block, the dreaded solitary confinement cells where inmates spent 23 hours alone each day.  On New Year’s Eve, the prisoners could hear big band music drifting across the water from parties in San Francisco.

An extremely well done audio tour narrated by former guards and prisoners walks you through the cell blocks, with special attention on the escape attempts, including the last possible successful escape in 1962 in which three inmates made dummy heads to fool the guards that they were sleeping in their bunks.  The actual cells they escaped from are made to look exactly as they would have to the guards, even the dummy heads have been preserved in exhibits and photos.  The tour is fascinating couple of hours, but when it’s over, no one is sorry to leave Alcatraz.
  
The Golden Gate

Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands
At close to 80,000 acres, Golden Gate National Recreation Area begins on the beaches and rocky shoreline where the Pacific Ocean pounds into the San Francisco coast, and extends inland to encompass forts, mountains, rolling grasslands and ancient fog-shrouded forests. 

The newest addition is ironically San Francisco’s oldest historic site – the Presidio. It was here in 1776, at the same time that Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence back east, that the Spanish established their first fort.  Parts of the old adobe walls are still visible in the newly opened information center and museum.  For 218 years, the Presidio remained an important military base, changing over the years from being defended by cannons to becoming a control center for Nike missiles.  Then in 1994, the U.S. Army closed the base and gave it to the National Park Service.  Today, there are 20 miles of hiking and biking trails, incredibly stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and some of the city’s most spectacular beaches. 

the Palace of Fine Arts, adjacent to the Presidio
The old army buildings are being repurposed as everything from a new upscale restaurant “The Officers Club,” to an entertaining museum detailing the life of Walt Disney.   Strange mixture?  Why not?  The Presidio was the fictional headquarters on earth for Starfleet Command in Star Trek, and today the real George Lucas has his office here.

From the Presidio, you can walk, bike or drive over the 9,000-foot long Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands, the often foggy rolling hills that slide down in sheer cliffs to the crashing Pacific Ocean below.  At Rodeo Beach you can see 300 species of birds or hike along the booming surf to the Point Bonita Lighthouse.

The Pelican Inn
Further north, drive to Muir Beach and stop for a pint of ale in the completely authentic English pub, the Pelican Inn.  From its half-timbered dining rooms to its snug little wood paneled bar, this is the place to warm up by a fire after a brisk beach walk in the fog.  Further north, Stinson Beach is another adorably village, but mind how many pints of ale you enjoy before the drive.  The road there is filled with hairpin curves and sharp cliffs.

A near flat path follows Redwood Creek for several miles.
Another torturous and twisting road leads inland to a high, flat,  
mountain valley where a pretty creek is lined with thousands of the tallest living species on earth --
the coastal redwood. Redwood trees covered much of the  Northern Hemisphere 150 million years ago.
 
Today, only a very few groves survive.  The ones here, Muir Woods, were preserved as a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.  Some of the trees in this ancient forest are 1,000 years old.  Redwood trees can grow to be 300 feet tall and require a foggy climate to get enough moisture.  At their base, it is always cool and dark with just a few shafts of light drifting through the upper branches.  The forest does not support much wildlife, so it is always strangely silent here.  National Park signs ask people to be quiet as you walk through the tallest trees at Cathedral Grove.  It’s hard to believe, as you listen to the creek and walk past these venerable and silent evergreens, that bustling San Francisco is just 12 miles away.

For more information go to:  www.sanfrancisco.travel.



Sunday, November 16, 2014

Around Northern Italy by Train


Varenna has train service.  From here you have to take a ferry to Bellagio.


The Italians are many wonderful things – but slow, safe and sane drivers, they are not.  Italian highways resemble race tracks more than roads, and cars can be expensive and a hassle in the country’s ancient, pedestrian-oriented cities.

The solution is to tour Italy by train.  All the grand stops of Northern Italy are 2-3 hours apart by rail.  Italian train cars are efficient and comfortable and many seats come with tables and power outlets so you can catch up on emails as you zip through the countryside.  You can even bring your own bottle of wine on board and enjoy a glass.   There’s no need for a Eurail pass; it’s far cheaper to just buy tickets as you go.  Ticket machines are in English and easy to understand.

Milan station.  Train ticket machines are easy and in English.
Italian rail stations are always near the center of the city and surrounded by hotels – usually the best bargain hotels too.  Travel light and you can easily roll bags from the station to the hotel, traveling for instance from Venice to Florence in three hours, hotel door to hotel door, with maybe even a nap on the train in between.

The country is set up ideally to tour clockwise, spending two nights in each of the classic stops of Lake Como, the Dolomites (Italian Alps), Venice, Florence, Cinque Terra, and Milan.

So here then is the grand tour of classic Northern Italy by train, arriving and departing from Milan.

Bellagio & Lake Como    

Bellagio Harbor as you arrive by ferry.
If it’s good enough for resident George Clooney and to be used as a location for the James Bond film Casino Royal, then Bellagio, the “Pearl of the Lake,” is a perfect first stop in Italy.  You’ll have to take a train from the airport to Milan central station, and then catch a second train to Varenna, a picturesque lakeside village with tree-shaded cafes.  It’s a relaxing place to sip a glass of wine while you wait for the ferry and the 30 minute sail across Lake Como to Bellagio.

Arriving by water into Bellagio’s harbor is one of the great romantic moments of Italy.  The harborside is lined with cafes, manicured trees, shaded walks, and Old World elegant hotels, while the lakeshore in all directions is rimmed by far off mountains.

Bellagio waterside cafes.
The town is small, but ritzy, and filled with covered arcades housing expensive and exclusive boutiques and upscale restaurants, mixed in with the usual tourist shops and pizza places. 

On your free day in Bellagio, take the “slow” boat up the lake, stopping at villages along the way for a lakeside lunch and stroll, or a tour one of the famed historic villas like Villa Carlotta or the 18th Century Villa del Balbianello, used as a film set in Star Wars: Episode II, of all things.

Bolzano, The Dolomites and The Italian Alps    

The Dolomites
You’ll have to ferry from Bellagio back to Varenna or sail south on the lake to Lecco and catch an hour train back to Milan.  From here, it’s an easy train ride to Bolzano, the gateway to the jagged and dramatic rock mountains that make up the Italian Alps. These are possibly the most beautiful and photographed mountains in Europe.  Entering Bolzano is like leaving Italy and entering Germany; the small city is completely German in appearance, language and food.  Indeed it was part of Austria before World War I.

This is the one spot you may consider renting a car for a day to drive the high twisting roads through mountain passes, though it is just as easy and cheaper to take a 40-minute public bus ride to the cable-car at Siusi.  Here, you are whisked up high above the trees into the mountains to Alpe di Siusi – Europe’s largest high-alpine meadow. 
Hiking trails through the Dolomites.

This is calendar country, filled with grass-covered rolling hills dotted with farmer’s huts and tranquil cows with bells.  The horizon in all directions is a rocky panorama of snow covered mountains.  You can do easy, level hikes across the meadows, or take chair lifts even higher to access trails that cut literally through the mountains.  Get a good map at the information center. The trails are well marked, and all trails heading downhill will eventually take you to an outdoor café with delicious ice-cold German beers on tap.  Still, you are in a high mountain meadow accessible only by cable car, so you don’t want to miss the last ride down.

Venice    

Riding a vaporetto up the Grand Canal at night is one of the premiere experiences in Venice.
With a change in Verona, it’s just three hours by train from Bolzano to Venice.  Exiting the train station, your first view of Venice is a magnificent scene of chaos overlooking the Grand Canal where every type of watercraft can be seen sailing by.  Everything in Venice moves by water -- police boats, ambulance boats, and garbage boats float along as do expensive yachts and barges filled with everything from beer and food to construction materials. 

You’ll move by water too, on vaporettos, the sleek, cool black ferries that ply the canals and connect the many islands of Venice. Buy a daily pass so you never have to hesitate whether to hop on board. 

The nearby island of Murano is filled with colorful houses.
Venice can be crowded beyond imagination, especially when cruise ships are in. It’s hot, dirty, expensive, exhausting and confusing.  It’s also quite possibly the most wonderful city on the planet.

There are a hundred guidebooks to the sights, but truly, the most amazing experience in Venice is just to wander and get lost in the maze of ancient twisting streets, alleys and canals. 

At night, when the cruise ships depart, the back streets of Venice are almost deserted.  The most romantic ride in the city is the hour long “slow” vaporetto, which sails up the Grand Canal, pulling into every stop while all the lights of the city reflect in the water.  Most people heading back to the train station board the night vaporettos at Piazza San Marco, at which point the ferries can become hopelessly crowded.  To avoid the crowds, just walk east along the waterfront two stops and board the ferry here.  At this point, you’ll have the vaporetto to yourself and can get the choice seats in the bow. Bring your own bottle of wine and glasses and you can have a drink on the one hour ride up the canal.

Florence
View from the top of the 423 step summit of the Duomo

The loveliest Renaissance city in the world is just three hours by train from Venice.  Almost all the major sites are within a twenty minute walk of the train station.  Make your first stop the central Visitor Information Center and ask what museums are free that day.  Several times a week, a different museum remains open at night with free admission.  The day we visited, there was an hour wait and $12 charge to see Michelangelo’s famous sculpture David during normal hours, but it was free that evening and we walked right up to it alone at 9 p.m.

View from Piazzle Michelangelo
Florence is another city to stroll – and climb.  It’s 463 steps to the top of the Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, but worth it for the central view over the red rooftops of the city.  Likewise, it’s a long climb to Piazzle Michelangelo, a pleasant park on top of a hill on the other side of the river, but in late afternoon, the view from the café over the entire city and countryside is stunning.
While the city is filled with museums, there are also dozens of free sites to explore, from Ponte Vecchio, the city’s most famous bridge, which is lined with gold and silver shops, to the popular and picturesque markets of San Lorenzo and Mercato Centrale.  It’s free to enter the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio, a palace dating to 1540, and every street in the city is lined with statues, art and history.  Make sure you bring an extra camera battery.

The Cinque Terre
 
Vernazza on the Cinqe Terra with other towns in view in the distance.
The last stop, a few hours by train from Florence, has no museums or famous historic sites. It is just an untouched, car-free, section of the Italian Riviera.  The rugged, hilly coastline is a mixture of rock cliffs and vineyards and is dotted with five incredibly beautiful and remote seaside villages. The towns are connected only by ferry, by train or by hiking paths.   Hiking from village to village is one of the principal pastimes, always rewarded on arrival by a café stop for a glass of wine or a local beer.  There are beaches and sun, wildflowers and cliffs, and wondrous coastal views, many of them
Portovenere is a 40 minute ferry ride from Cinque Terra
from brightly colored cafes perched on rocky promontories overlooking the harbor. Ferries can take you south around the coast on a scenic 40 minute trip to perhaps the most gorgeous town of all, Portovenere, this one capped by an ancient fortress.

Each of the five towns has its own personality…and fans.  For me, Vernazza was the most dramatically situated and offered the best feel of a real Italian town.  No mistake, the Cinque Terre is not undiscovered, and by day it can be packed with tourists and hikers.  But hotels are limited (most people make arrangements to stay in private houses through booking services).  In the evening, Vernazza and the other towns revert to small Italian villages.  Laundry hangs from the windows, residents chit-chat on the streets, dogs run along the small harbor, and everyone sips a glass of wine to celebrate and toast the setting sun.
Toasting the sunset above Vernazza.

From Vernazza, it’s just three hours by train to Milan.

If you go:   As with any trip to Europe, the best guide is www.ricksteves.com.   His books are worth the investment in money (and the weight of carrying them around).

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A European Weekend in the Desert of Las Vegas




The dancing fountains of Bellagio.
It was winter and I’d had enough of America.  Too much snow, too much cold, too many chain stores and too much traffic.  I needed a summer in Europe.  I needed to walk in twilight past splashing fountains, to linger over a good meal at an outdoor cafe, to feel the sun and the rustle of green tree branches overhead, to see flowers and statuary and history and art, all placed around me, for no reason except for their beauty.  I needed to experience the joy de vie, the wines and the haute cuisine of the French and Italians.

And so I went to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is the most European of all American cities.  Oh certainly, it’s in a desert, surround by stark treeless mountains.  The city has 15 miles of neon lights and from space, Las Vegas is the brightest spot on Earth.  For sheer tackiness, there’s nothing in the world that can touch it.  Or touch parts of it.

Because for every street of neon and lights and fast food, there is another in Las Vegas where you can walk around an Italian lake, stare at a fresco painted ceiling the size of a battleship, ride a gondola under canal bridges, or admire what appears to be centuries old architecture. 

Paris Las Vegas from Lago de Bellagio.
And food?  The grand master chefs of Europe are all here.  Chefs Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy of France, Gordon Ramsay from the U.K., Costas Spiliadis from Greece, and Jose Andres from Spain are creating menus in Las Vegas for elaborate new visions of their original restaurants – places of such sheer abundance, they could never be imagined in the old country.

The Shops at the Forum of Caesar's Palace
It’s all an illusion, of course.  Everything in Las Vegas is fake.  A mixture of cement and plastic formed into a visible homage to recreate a fantasy version of Europe’s “greatest hits.” 

And why not?  In recent years, dining, shopping and shows in Las Vegas are booming, while there are 13,000 fewer slot machines.  Every designer of Europe has come to The Strip with stores that almost match their countermarks on Champs de Elysee in Paris and Via Condotti in Rome.   Cartier, Versace, Oscar de la Renta, Gucci, Hermes, Dior, Channel, Louis Vuitton, Piaget, Yves Saint Laurent….they are all here, and what’s more, they’re all close together, on the easily walkable Strip.

Wines?  Le Cirque has 900 French wines.  The restaurant Aureole features an incredible wine tower that is four-stories high with 50,000 bottles.  Acrobatic women in harnesses float from the ceiling to hover up and down the wine tower retrieving bottles. 

The Eiffel Tower at Paris
If Las Vegas has created a homage to Europe, what a homage it is!   And joy de vie?  Nearly every hotel has a pool for “European” (i.e., topless) sunbathing.  Is there anyplace else in America with the same European relaxed adult attitude toward drinking, nudity and fun?

No, Las Vegas seems mesmerized by Europe (or at least a fantasy version of it) and as a result, there are some easy ways to have a quick European weekend in the middle of the desert. 

Here’s a start:

No place on the Strip captures the ambiance of Europe better than this 2,600-room hotel.  From dining al fresco at the authentic looking café Mon Ami Gabi to climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, it’s all a bit touristy, but that’s part of the appeal.  The 541-foot tall Eiffel Tower is a 50 percent replica of its sister in Paris, except that the one here in the desert is made of steel rather than cast iron plates, which actually makes it stronger.  All 2.5 million rivets on the Las Vegas model are fakes, just added to help create the illusion, which is continued with dozens of statues and Disney-quality re-creations of the Arc de Triomphe, Paris Opera House, the famous Hotel de Ville and the Alexandre III Bridge.  The extravagance is so huge, the hotel actually wanted to build a full-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, but it would have interfered with flights on the nearby airport.
One of the many quaint dining rooms in Le Village Buffet

Inside, it is always twilight in a quaint Parisian village setting as you walk down Le Boulevard, a cobblestone street under a painted sky that meanders past authentic looking storefronts selling French soaps and perfume, wines and cheeses, jewelry, art, and of course, French fashions. 

You can dine outside at Mon Ami Gabi, or with a 360-degree view from the top of the tower.  One of the best buffets in Las Vegas is Le Village Buffet, which offers traditional dishes from five French provinces, all in a wonderful French village setting.  Live-action stations offer Brittany crepes made to order, tender rotisserie chicken from Burgundy, sauerkraut and sausages of Alsace or penne a la putanesca from Provence.   From seafood bouillabaisse to braised pork belly and apples, it is all French (with some sushi thrown in for an appetizer). Dine “outside” in a re-created town square, or inside near a fireplace in a cottage.  All the rooms are decorated to mimic each of the regions.  For desert? Try the macaroons, fruit tarts, chocolate éclair or the acclaimed vanilla bean crème brulee.  It is the only buffet in Las Vegas listed on OpenTable, which allows you to make reservations and avoid lines – a common problem at popular restaurants.
Architectural detail in Paris

And of course, you must go to the top of the tower for the outdoor viewing deck.  A good tip – go up at twilight so that you can watch all the lights of Las Vegas come on, and have a perfect view of the next stop – the dancing waters of Bellagio. 

Inspired by the village of Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como in Northern Italy, this elegant $1.6 billion resort has 4,000 rooms – more rooms than there are residents in the real town of Bellagio.  The highlight is a green-blue, 8-acre lake lined with a grand promenade of cypress, olive trees and pines.  Marble circular viewpoints along the terrace are the perfect spot to watch the free evening spectacle of 1,200 fountains of water. Choreographed to music, the dancing waters shoot hundreds of feet into the air.  Perhaps it’s best not to know that the 27 million gallon Lago di Bellagio is actually filled with “gray water,” recycled water from the hotel’s sinks, bathtubs and showers.  No matter.  With the lights on, and the far side of the lake lined with yellow Tuscan buildings, you could easily be in Italy’s Lake District.

The pool at Bellagio
On the lovely grounds of Bellagio can be found an 8.5-acre Mediterranean-style garden filled with citrus trees and flowers and splashing hand-carved fountains.  The marble-columned Via Bellagio is a one of the ritziest pedestrian shopping malls in town with Prada, Armani and Fendi.

Next door to Bellagio, Caesars opened in 1966 and through continued refurbishments has become the most opulent of the Euro-themed casinos.  It is an over-the-top, indoor and outdoor monument to Ancient Rome.  And to decadence.  On the grounds, there are gorgeous fountains, manicured trees and hedges, tall Corinthian columns, and outdoor cafes sitting beneath a wall of Roman statues. 

The Shops of the Forum in Caesars Palace
Inside, the Forum Shops have 160 stores and restaurants along a maze of winding Italian streets that open into dramatic piazzas filled with fountains and 20-foot high statues of Neptune, winged stallions, Venus, Apollo, and of course, Bacchus.  

Every inch is designed to take your breath away.  The three-story entrance has unique circular elevators that climb up past columns and statues of 30-foot women, all rising out of turquoise pools of water.  Painted circular ceilings simulate a sky that changes from deep blue flecked with white clouds to a tranquil twilight of magentas and pinks. At every turn, there are grand archways, huge domes and marble pillars.  It’s easy to get lost, and even easier to be overwhelmed.  Even more fun, watch the Roman statues closely.  Many of them move.  

The full scale St. Mark's Campanile at the Venetian
The Roman theme is carried over to the pools, where waitresses dressed in togas serve frozen grapes in the Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis, while European-style topless sunbathing is the attraction in the adults-only Venus Pool Club.

Across the street from Caesars, the Italian fantasy continues with a re-creation of Venice, complete with a full size replica of St. Mark’s Campanile (bell tower) surrounded by canals filled with gondolas, piazzas, bridges, a faux Doge’s Palace and a mini-replica of the Rialto Bridge.  There’s nothing small about the gigantic Sistine Chapel-like fresco that fills the entire ceiling as you enter, or the labyrinth of indoor cobblestone streets that wind along canals to the “outdoor” cafes of Piazza San Marco.  Here, you can watch gondoliers in black-striped shirts and straw hats sing romantic Italian songs as they ferry lovers down the canals.  Cheesy?  Of course.  Until you see the two-story waterfall and marble columns of Palazzo with Manolo Blahnik for shoes, Canali for fashionable 
 Italian apparel, and direct from London, Thomas Pink.

Piazza San Marco in the Venetian
If the illusion is still not working for you, have another drink. The relaxed attitude of Las Vegas means you can take any drink with you.  Any drink. From a can of beer purchased at a liquor store, to a 20-year old glass of wine from an elegant café, it’s completely legal to go in or out of any resort or walk on any street carrying your drink with you.  Even Europe is not that liberal!

If you go:  Another tip:  Las Vegas also allows gambling.  For complete information on the what to see, do, eat, and where to sleep (or at least store your luggage) go to:  www.vegas.com  


The entrance to the Shops in the Forum
Booking your hotel:   Not everyone can win all the time, including Las Vegas hotels.  Seventeen of the top 20 largest hotels in the United States are located here, many of them with more than 4,000 rooms.  With that many rooms and conventions coming and going, every hotel experiences “dark” days where they have huge vacancies.  When that happens, they “dump” the rooms on Expedia and other sites for exceptionally low prices.

The challenge?  The “dark” days usually only last one day.  When I tried to book a Wed., Thurs., Fri. at the hotel Paris for this trip, I found the Wed.  night was $200, the Thurs. night $60 and the Fri. night $130.   So an average of $130 a night – not bad for the center of the Strip.  But why not just book the Thurs. night for $60?  Five minutes of looking through Expedia, I discovered Wed. was a “dark” night for Luxor, with rooms that night at just $70, while Fri. night at Treasure Island was just $65.  To get back and forth, I would need a car, but cars were available at Fox Rent a Car for just $14 a night.

The Freemont Street Experience
By doing staying in three hotels, I saved $160, and got an essentially free car rental for three days.

Changing rooms every night is not for everyone.  But it can definitely add to the Las Vegas experience.  The Strip is four miles long.  If you stay at the Luxor on one end, you’re not likely to see much of the Wynn on the other – and vice versa.  Move your hotel around, and over three days you will get to know the Strip with a minimum of walking.  You can stay in the hotel until noon, and check into the next one at 3, so if you’re traveling light, it’s really not much of an inconvenience and can add considerable to the trip.  Every night is a new trip.

Parking is free and easy. Every casino has thousands of free parking spots.

Caesar's Palace dates to 1966, ancient by Las Vegas standards
Cruising the Strip by car is fun – especially at dusk -- and having a car makes it easy to get to the Hoover Dam, about 40 minutes away, on a day trip that is definitely worth doing.

A car also makes it easy to get to the Fremont Street Experience and the new and truly excellent Mob Museum.  This three floor museum explores the history of the mob in America, detailing the more than 1,000 hits that have taken place.  They even have a piece of the actual wall where Al Capone carried out the St. Valentine’s Massacre, machine gunning down seven gangsters at one time.  You can still see the machine gun slugs in the wall.  There are exhibits, artifacts, videos and interactive exhibits of everything from an electric chair to the barber chair where a mobster was shot down.

Great fun, and very illuminating about the early history of Las Vegas and how it was at one time controlled by the mob.