LA to Chicago Road Trip

In June 2022 Dani and I flew to LA and rented and SUV to bring some keepsakes from Grandma Marjorie’s house back to Chicago. We wanted to take our time and visit interesting attractions over a two-week drive. The original idea was to follow Route 66, but using Roadtrippers I found there were lots more interesting stops if we made our own route.

After loading two wooden trunks of china and a few boxes of antique curios into the car we headed for our first overnight stay, in San Bernardino, at one of the two surviving Wigwam motels. The room was actually a lot nice than we were expecting, and it was, indeed, neat to sleep in a teepee. Most of the rest of our accommodations would be Airbnbs, and all were really nice.

We made a quick stop to admire some dinosaurs in Cabazon.

Then we made the long drive across the desert to Phoenix, arriving early enough that we had time to spend the 106-degree afternoon at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium.

On the way to Sedona we stopped at a couple of wineries and followed the recommendation of the pourer at Chateau Tumbleweed to visit the cute mountainside town of Jerome. Sedona is a pretty setting, but the town is just a tourist trap.

About twenty miles outside of Flagstaff you’ll find Twin Arrows… if you hurry. They’re already down to one arrow.

Continuing across the desert we stopped at the spectacular Meteor Crater, which I remember being impressed by in my childhood.

Then it was time for lunch and a photo op on the corner in Winslow Arizona made famous in the Eagle’s Takin’ It Easy.

We drove through the petrified forest, and on to Albequerque. We’d hoped to stop at a lava tube ice cave(!) but forgot about the time change.

The next day we spent quite a bit of time in the excellent National Museum of Nuclear Science & History and then took the Sandia Peak Tramway up to 10,300 feet, and a panoramic view of very flat Albequerque. That may sound high, but it’s worth noting that much of this trip was at six to seven thousand feet. It’s easy to forget how high the high desert is.

Maybe 2% of the stuff you’ll find at Tinkertown

We took the scenic route to Santa Fe, stopping at the fascinating Tinkertown, one man’s life’s work of building miniature dioramas and collecting… well, just about everything imaginable. He has passed away, but his wife continues to run the place, and I highly recommend it as a fun and funky stop.

Santa Fe wasn’t terribly interesting, but we happened to be there during their Pride Festival, which was fun to walk through. I had intended to visit the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, but hadn’t made reservations, and didn’t want to wait, so we headed for Taos by scenic backroads.

We spent two nights at Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa in Taos. After all the driving, I figured it would give us a chance to relax, and that was indeed the case, although in a somewhat unexpected way. Our two-bedroom suite was beautiful, spacious, and decorated in a Japanese style. It was the perfect place to hang out when it started to monsoon for both days!

Unfortunately, its perfection didn’t extend to the roof, and I was awakened early in the morning by water dripping onto my head. I don’t think rain is that unusual this time of year in Taos, but the roof was leaking like a sieve. I called maintenance, and a very young kid said they couldn’t fix it, handed me two buckets, and left.

So that’s how we moved to Texas. The Texas-themed room, I mean. Which was identical except for Texan decor (I use antlers in all of my decorating) instead of Japanese, and the absence of a hole in the roof. Despite the steady rain, our stay was quite pleasant. We enjoyed relaxing in the room and grazing in the bar.

Now a week into our trip, we turned North and headed for Colorado Springs, stopping at the bizarre Bishop’s Castle on the way. The work of one crazy, antisocial guy, this very-not-OSHA-approved flight of fancy is still under construction. It’s definitely Colorado’s most unique roadside attraction, and well worth taking the scenic route to explore it.

I’ve always wanted to visit Michael Garman’s Magic Town, and the northern trajectory of our trip was designed specifically for this. Dani and I missed it on our previous Colorado road trip, and it’s definitely something you don’t want to miss.

It represents over forty years of the artist’s life, with intricate and evocative carved people, detailed buildings, and great use of mirrors and Pepper’s Ghost effects to create an entire walkthrough miniature town. It’s hard to convey just how neat this is.

Kansas has more cool attractions than I would have guessed. The Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City is one of the best I’ve been to. It features a large new building with great use of audio/video displays to present historic figures telling their stories in period settings. Then you have a chance to walk through a street of interconnected shops filled with historical displays and costumed performers acting as shopkeepers, bartenders, and other characters.

It’s also worth spending the night in quaint Hutchinson Kansas to afford plenty of time to see the Kansas Underground Salt Museum (STRATACA). You descend 650 feet into a working salt mine to see the process and explore its history. There’s an informative tram tour and a train that runs on the original tracks. The mine is also used for records and artifacts storage of Hollywood films and props, so there are exhibits devoted to that as well.

We had more stops planned for St. Louis and in Iowa, but Dani was getting a sore throat, so we decided to catch those later, and made a 733-mile beeline from Kansas to Chicago, arriving three days early. We’ll go back and pick up the rest of those stops on some future mini-road trip.

Total distance traveled: 2660 miles in 10 days. Here’s our complete itinerary including our stays and restaurants:

Road Trip: Pacific Northwest

This was a delightful 12-day trip around Washington State and part of Oregon. Dani and I initially planned it, but I was able to talk Linda into going, too. It was so much fun to have the whole family traveling together!

I’ve embedded the best travel photos, but for photos of the meals and wineries, click on the links to my Yelp reviews.

Monday, August 2, 2021 — Seattle

Linda and I flew in to Seattle from Orlando, and Dani flew in from Chicago. First class makes the 6-hour non-stop trip on Delta much more pleasant. Covid meant the fares were cheaper, but it also meant that first class service consisted of a box of junk food!

We picked up our SUV from Alamo at SEATAC. Since we wanted to bring back wine, we had a couple of wine case pieces of luggage, so we needed a pretty good sized vehicle. When they offered us an upgrade I took it, but we were a bit startled at the massive size when we saw it. One thing’s for sure, we never had any trouble fitting in our luggage!

Since it was just past noon we had some time to kill before check-in, so we drove north of downtown to Sisi Kay Thai Eatery & Bar, where we had a delightful lunch, dining all by ourselves. A few blocks away was our first tourist stop, the bizarreness that is Archie McPhee!

Because our itinerary happened to take us to the major cities of this trip (Seattle and Portland) on Mondays and Tuesdays when lots of places are closed, it was a little tricky getting into some of the restaurants I was most interested in. The pandemic has also created some irregular operating times and staffing challenges for them.

But we were lucky and the new Loupe Lounge at Seattle’s Space Needle was open, and I’d managed to book a table. This was a fantastic experience involving lots of liquid nitrogen cocktail making, a whiskey flight, and endless pours of Taittanger Comte Rose Champagne, along with plentiful bites of gourmet foods to accompany everything. For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip.

Next stop was our condo on the waterfront just north of downtown Seattle. This was our first of four Airbnb stays on this trip, and all were lovely in their own ways. This one was a two bedroom condo on the 16th floor with a view of the bay and Puget Sound.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

We walked back to the area around the Space Needle (which is on the World’s Fair grounds from 1962), stopping at the Artisan Cafe for excellent Bahn Mi sandwiches, which we ate on park benches. Then we visited the Museum of Pop Culture. This used to be The Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame started by Microsoft’s Paul Allen, but its theme has been broadened. I was a bit disappointed that there was more pop culture in the gift shop than in the somewhat limited exhibit spaces, although there was a good LGBT history exhibit, and a few interesting bios in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

We took the monorail back to downtown (a two minute ride!) and sampled some just okay tacos off the Solamente Pastor taco truck. Later, for dinner, we walked to Wann Japanese Izakaya, probably Linda’s favorite meal of the trip.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Dani and I got biscuits for breakfast overlooking the waterfront at Honest Biscuits. My shoes were falling apart, so we walked to Nordstom’s Rack and I got some new loafers. Then we rode motorized scooters back! Great fun, but we should have ridden them UP the hills to Nordstrom’s, too!

For lunch we walked downtown for sandwiches at Cherry Street Coffee House, then went next door and down Beneath the Streets for a tour and history of Seattle’s past. I highly recommend this, as you can see how the city was built up and elevated a full story after being destroyed by fire.

I really wanted to see the spectacular new tiki bar Inside Passage, and this was our only time slot when it was open. You enter through a hidden door from the adjacent bar, Rumba (I think this space was previously a speakeasy theme). This was the only place on our trip where we were asked to show proof of vaccination. Bravo!

Inside Passage did not disappoint! I wish we’d had more time to spend there. Had I known how much food they offered I would not have made a dinner reservation elsewhere. The space is absolutely spectacular, with wonderful nautical decor, a beautiful bar, and cozy booths. But the most spectacular aspect is the giant octopus that looms overhead!

Dinner was a tasting menu at Art of the Table. It was very good, but we were still talking about Inside Passage.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

We checked out and headed for wine country. Dani wisely suggested we take a detour over the mountains, which was a great plan, since much of the road to Walla Walla is pretty desolate. A scenic drive took us to Snoqualamie Falls and then Leavenworth, Washington, a Bavarian themed tourist town that reminded us of Salvang, California.

We had German food at Colchuck’s and then continued south to Gard Vintners Wine Tasting Room in Ellensburg. I was familiar with Gard from wines I’d purchased on Casemates, so I wanted to try their other offerings. This was the first of many wine clubs I joined along our route!

We arrived in Walla Walla after 8pm, so dining options were limited. We had okay Mexican food at the incredibly brightly lit El Sombrero. Then we checked into our Airbnb, a cute two bedroom home built in the 1920s, and right across the street from Pioneer Park, with its lovely lawns and big trees.

Friday, August 6, 2021 — Walla Walla

Our Walla Wala Airbnb had chickens in the back yard, so Dani and I had fresh eggs every morning!

Friday was our big day for Walla Walla wine tasting. We followed recommendations from the wine club director we met the previous day at Gard Vintners. Our first stop was at L’Ecole No. 41, housed in a gorgeous historic schoolhouse. The wines were good, but not something we wanted more of, so we actually bought a bottle of something we hadn’t tasted.

At some wineries there is a tasting fee, so if we don’t like the wine we don’t feel obligated to buy. Other times the fee is waived for a certain purchase, or if you join their club. But if there is no fee, we always buy a bottle of something as a thank you.

Our next stop was Woodward Canyon, a nice facility, where we had a relaxing outdoor tasting. The wines were good if not spectacular.

Our best discovery was Reininger, where we tasted their wines under a big shade tree on their lawn. We loved the way they served the wines all at once, in essentially shot glasses, along with big wine glasses, making it easy to share and to compare. We joined their club, which gives us the flexibility of picking our wines each quarter.

Back in downtown Walla Walla, Kontos had a spacious tasting room but few customers, and the wines were not inspiring. We had a wonderful French lunch at Brasserie Four. It was so good we considered going back for dinner!

Our final tasting stop for the day was at The House of Smith, a barn-like facility in downtown Walla Walla where you can try all of crazy man Charles Smith’s wines, including our favorite offerings from K Vintners. Again, the wines were served in flights. We joined this club, too.

Dinner was at The Kitchen at Abeja. This restaurant, located in the tasting facility of Abeja Winery, had only been open three weeks, but they served an ambitious tasting menu under the direction of a young chef who interned at two Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Her food definitely shows promise, and it will be interesting to see how this restaurant evolves.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Saturday we went for a walk in the park across the street. They have a very large aviary with many birds, especially various types of pheasant. It’s a great town-supported feature.

Our final Walla Walla wine tasting stop was at Alton Wines. It’s a gorgeous new facility with a stunningly modern tasting room. I’d guess it is a rich entrepreneurs passion project. It was a bit odd, because they were out of most of their wines, and their club is on a waiting list because they have only limited wines. The only wine we really liked was a Sangiovese which—you guessed it—they were out of. They were only planning on being open one more weekend this season, and I can see why!

We went to lunch at the historic Ice-Burg Drive-In, which was very slow, and more historic than good.

Dinner was far more successful. We ate upstairs in the loft a TMACS in downtown Walla Walla. Our waiter, Caleb, was one of the best we have ever had, and this was one of the best meals of the trip. The restaurant was dimly lit (upstairs, anyway) and quiet enough for good conversation—an oasis from the lively bar directly below.

We were surprised, in retrospect, by Walla Walla wines. My expectation was that the Syrahs would be the best, since I’m most familiar with Charles Smith’s fruit bombs such as BOOM BOOM Syrah, and Troublemaker. But he has sold those brands off, and his focus (and that of all the other wineries we visited) is on a much wider range of varietals. Overall, I think it was the Bordeaux blends that most impressed us.

Walla Walla is actually split by the Washington/Oregon border, and there are different micro climes in different areas. It’s also worth noting that many of the best wines we had from Walla Walla wineries were actually made with grapes from the Columbia Valley.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

The drive along the Columbia River is not particularly scenic until you get close to Portland. Multnomah Falls is really the first photo op. I reminded us of Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, but that might be because of the drought the whole Pacific Northwest has been experiencing. We were lucky that none of the resulting fires affected our trip much, although we often smelled smoke.

We picnicked along the river, watching the hundreds of kiteboarders taking advantage of the constant, strong winds that blow up the valley.

The one thing Portland is known for that was a must for Dani: a stop at Voodoo Doughnuts! They were as good as they look, although I must say that Chicago has become quite a donut town, and I think you could find their equal there, with a little work.

Since we were early, we drove on past our accommodations and visited Carlton Winemaker’s Studio. This is a neat concept that offers tastings of the wines of fifteen different wineries. We had a lovely afternoon sitting on the patio tasting wines and munching on charcuterie from their charcuterie vending machine(!)

In the evening we checked into our beautiful Airbnb in Dundee, about 20 miles west of Portland, and in the middle of Willamette Valley wine country. This home was gorgeous, two stories, with three bedrooms and a professional decor. Dinner was just down the hill at Tina’s, a charming restaurant where Linda ordered the winning dishes.

Monday, August 9, 2021 — Willamette Valley

Our winery day in the Willamette Valley was somewhat limited by it being a Monday, and we had to plan ahead because nearly all the wineries here require 24 hour advance reservations. But we made good choices. We started at Archery Summit, with a tasting on the patio overlooking the vineyards. While a few different wines are produced in this area, pretty much everything that impressed us was Pinot Noir. That ws the case here, and we joined their club, which allows you to custom select your wines.

Our next stop was Domaine Serene, easily the most beautiful winery I’ve ever visited. Looking more like a Four Seasons Hotel, it’s perched high above the Willamette Valley, with expansive views in all directions. In addition to Oregon wines, they also own two properties in Burgundy, so they offer both an Oregon and a Burgundy club. We ended up joining both! They also serve food, so we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon of wine, charcuterie, cheese, and bread. I’d never heard of this winery, but it was clearly the highlight of our wine tour.

Linda had hit the wall, so we dropped her off at our Airbnb and then Dani and I continued on to Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton. They produce a myriad of pinot noirs, but they seemed clumsy after the wines at Domaine Serene, and they weren’t particularly cheap. Linda made the right call.

On the way back to the Airbnb, Dani and I detoured to Honey Pie to pick up pizzas. They were good, and also provided useful leftovers for later picnics.

I’ve never thought Oregon pinot noirs lived up to the hype from the 80s and 90s. As a Burgundy fan, they have always struck me as lacking the New World fruit of California pinot, yet rarely developing the earthy complexity of true Burgundy. But perhaps the problem has been that I’ve been unwilling to pay enough for them. At Domaine Serene, where we tasted $90 Oregon pinots against $90 Burgundies, they were quite comparable. Of course, these are wines made under the same management. Still, it will be interesting to see what Oregon pinots show up this year from the clubs we joined. Perhaps a reassessment is in order.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021 — Oregon Coast

You can’t go to Oregon without experiencing the dramatic Oregon coast, so we headed out on a big circle, taking us from the vineyards through the forests to the rocky coast, and then back again.

The aptly named Haystack Rock was our first scenic stop, and Dani got a chance to dip her foot into this side of the Pacific Ocean (she’d already done the other side in Australia). The we stopped at Cannon Beach Hardware and Public House (also known as the Screw and Brew) for fish and chips. Yes, it really is a hardware store.

We’d intended to stop at the Tillamook Creamery, but the acres of parking lot were packed and there was a Disney-like line to get in.

Dinner was an elaborate, 20 course affair at Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon. They have the world’s largest cellar of Oregon Pinot Noir, with 800 selections. The food emphasizes mushrooms in most courses, so it perfectly matched a well-aged 2004 pinot from Beaux Freres.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021 — Enchanted Forest

Justin told me I’d like Enchanted Forest, and he was right! It’s a mom and pop theme park located about 50 miles south of Portland. I loved the charming walk-throughs, and the way it engages childrens’ imaginations. This is my favorite kind of theme park. We went early, saw most everything, and were on the road north by lunch time.

Lunch was a quick stop at Republica in Portland. This is an interesting take on Mexican food, with a menu that changes daily. It’s probably more interesting at night, when they have a tasting menu. But with counter service and only two tables inside, it’s a bit hard to imagine how that works.

The drive to Mount Rainier National Park was quite scenic, and we arrived at our Airbnb lodging right on time. It’s called Knot-a-Care-Cabin, and it’s as cute as the name implies, with every little detail decorated in bears and other rustic motif.

A deer welcomed our arrival. The bedroom is a loft, high in the peak of the roof, accessed by a ladder—but Linda and I managed it without incident!

Dinner was the oddest, and in many ways one of the best, of the trip. We ate at one of the only places around, Wildberry Restaurant in Ashford. It is owned by a Himalayan sherpa who holds the record for fastest ascent of Mount Everest, and who has scaled that mountain ten times. The servers are also Himalayan, and our waiter was quite frenetic. He spoke in a high-pitched, almost hysterical voice. But the service was very efficient, even though their tent-covered patio was completely full. It turns out Himalayan food is very similar to Indian food, and it was very tasty.

Thursday, August 12, 2021 — Mount Rainier

Our day of sightseeing in Mount Rainier National Park made us realize how lucky we had been during the rest of our trip, as the smoke from the California, Oregon, and Washington wildfires really settled in. We were glad we had our masks. Still, we hiked a couple of scenic trails, saw some dramatic waterfalls, and circled all the way around Mount Rainier on our way back to Seattle.

We spent the night at the gorgeous Cedarbrook Lodge right next to SEATAC airport. It’s hard to believe you are near the airport in this bucolic setting. Before dinner we had a drink at the bar and the unique bartender introduced us to Amaro Amorino Riserva, made by a local distiller, which we liked very much. Dinner was at their Copperleaf Restaurant. The food and server were very good. And our server owns a timeshare in Orlando, which sort of brought the trip full circle! Then it was time for our early morning wakeup and our Friday the 13th trip back home.

It was a great family trip, and I’m so glad all three of us could do it together. Perhaps next time Trish will be able to join us, too!

Western Roadtrip

Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico in 12 days and 2600 miles

In July 2019 Dani and I set out on a 2600 mile, 12-day road trip of the western states. We had a bucket list of places we wanted to see, including Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Four Corners, and Mesa Verde. We flew from Chicago to Denver and rented a car, and with no further planning set out on the grand, counterclockwise loop.

Here’s our complete itinerary as a pdf:

An app called Roadtrippers proved quite useful for finding accommodations, restaurants, and points of interest, allowing us to plan just a day or so in advance, and change our route on a whim.

Along the way, we recorded videos for some future travel writing classes, and of course, we took many photos. Here are some of my favorites.

Las Vegas Dining

We had a jam packed week of fine dining in Las Vegas. Here are some brief thoughts about the various restaurants.

Verandah at The Four Seasons

This is the coffee shop at the Four Season. The weekend brunch, included in the tour, was pretty spectacular, and I’ve been to some elaborate brunches at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress and the Ritz Carlton. I was trying to be good though, so I just nibbled this and that Saturday morning, and skipped it altogether Sunday.

Taqueria Cañonita at Venetian

Sunday we walked a lot of the casinos on the Strip, starting at the Palazzo, which is part of the Venetian. This canal-side Mexican restaurant used to be a favorite of Linda’s but it seems to have gone downscale. The chips are no longer served with a tower of various salsas, and the food was unremarkable. After lunch we hit the Mirage to see the tigers, and then Caesar’s and the Bellagio.

The Bar at Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse at the Four Seasons

Before our farewell dinner with our tour group on Friday we had killed a half hour in this bar at the entrance to the steakhouse, and we liked it so much we went back the next night for dinner. Their small plates are a steal for Vegas. For example the four cheese plate with accompaniments was $8, and two Kobe sliders were $10. Compare that to $17 for a Caesar side salad in the restaurant. The ambiance is great, and we had the place almost to ourselves, even though the restaurant was packed.

Noodles at Bellagio

We selected this place for lunch before Linda arrived in town because we knew she wouldn’t like it. As it turned out, we didn’t, either. Slimy noodles and lots of dim sum. Very forgettable. Also very crowded with Chinese speakers, so it must be authentic. It was so bad we went to the chocolate place at Bellagio afterward to recover.

We relaxed at a bar in the Paris to wait for Linda’s flight and our room at the Vdara to be ready.

Yellowtail at Bellagio

Linda requested up-scale sushi for her first night in Vegas, and this place came through. It’s trendy and a bit louder than I’d have liked, but conversation was possible. We had the seven-course Omakase, where you put yourself in the chef’s hands, and he didn’t fail us. Standouts were the tuna pizza with truffle oil and the teriyaki kobe beef shortribs, which were really tasty without being too rich.

Picasso at Bellagio

I’d been to this restaurant before and wasn’t that impressed with the food, but this time it was a home run. Linda and I had the Menu Degustation, while Dani had the Prix Fixe. Her snapper, in particular was deliciously seasoned and perfectly cooked. The highlight of the five-course degustation was probably the foie gras, although it was all excellent.

It’s neat being surrounded by a dozen or more Picasso originals that you could reach out and touch (although Dani and I agreed we much preferred the Monets at the museum in the Bellagio that we saw the day before).

Lotus of Siam

This is the greatest wine list in Las Vegas, and the best Thai restaurant I’ve ever been to by a wide margin. Located in a dumpy strip mall off of Sahara Boulevard, it serve astonishingly good Thai food; in fact, the chef won the James Beard award last year! Best of all is an award winning wine list where many of the wines are priced below retail. We met Linda’s high school friend Suzanne, and her friend Diane, here for lunch. We put ourselves in the waiter’s hands, and he delivered eight or ten terrific appetizers and shared entrees, each better than the last. I took the opportunity to pillage the wine list, and although some of my selections couldn’t be found, we ended up with some stunners. Where else can you find an affordable Clos de Tart from a great year? That bottle alone was over $1000 on the list at Picasso, a fifth that here.

Central at Caesar’s

While Linda had dinner at Pinot Brasserie in the Venetian with her friends, Dani and I walked up to Caesars and the Michel Richard Bistro. Well, it isn’t really a bistro, but more of a burger and salad joint right off the lobby. Delicious Chinese chicken salad, forgettable chicken burger, forgettable tuna burger.

‘wichcraft at MGM Grand

Tom Collicchio of Top Chef fame has a chain of Craft steakhouses. This is his fast food sandwich place, hence the clever name. Excellent chicken salad and roast turkey sandwiches, which we shared.

Jean Georges Steakhouse at Aria

Jean Georges is a favorite restaurant in New York, but I was dubious about yet another top name chef doing a Vegas steakhouse. But everything was great, and as it turned out no one (Linda, Dani, Suzanne, Diane and I) had steak. The highlight was the teriyaki short ribs, which were like candy on the outside. The wine list is expensive, but there are a few hidden gems. We started with a Duval-Leroy Champagne, then a 2005 Corton-Rognet by Dupont-Tisserandot, and ended with a 2010 Mollydooker The Boxer Shiraz.

Sushi Roku at Caesar’s Forum Shops

We had a great meal here last year, so when Linda needed her sushi fix we returned. The trick here is to order appetizers, such as the tuna sashimi with crispy garlic chips, or yellowtail and spicy tuna on crispy rice, not conventional sushi and rolls, which are just so-so. This is a chain, and we found out the hard way that not all locations are equal, as the one is Santa Monica was awful.

l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at MGM Grand

We’ve been to l’Atelier in New York, London and Las Vegas, and it’s one of our favorite restaurants. Designed a bit like a sushi bar, the best tables place you at a counter facing into the kitchen, where a half dozen chef’s efficiently and quietly prepare your meal as you watch. Across the counter from you, your dedicate server acts as a friendly and knowledgeable host. Linda and I had the tasting menu, ten or so small plates with a half dozen matching wines. Dani had a few small plates ala carte. Everything was superb, but the knockouts for me were: all the breads, the little pizza-like thing with a quail egg and bacon on it, and the partially smoked salmon. Linda loved the foie gras parfait amuse bouche. We’ve also been to the more formal Joel Robuchon next door, but it is stuffy and the food seems less interesting than at l’Atelier.

Triple George Grill downtown

After a backstage tour of the Mob Museum, a couple of blocks north of Fremont Street in the somewhat seedy downtown area of Vegas, we walked to the nearby Triple George Grill. It’s a popular lunch stop, and was quite busy. The interior is old school, but the place was built in 2005. The food was fairly typical bar and grill fair, nothing special.

Guy Savoy at Caesar’s

This three star Michelin chef’s restaurant cemented my opinion of Michelin ratings: that they’re a good indicator of price, but not quality. This meal cost more than double the comparable meal at the best restaurant in the US, 11 Madison Park. It also cost almost as much as three years of Linda’s lunches at Taco Bell. Quality: variable. The first three courses (of 13) were solid 9’s, but after that they all, categorically, devolved into less than 5 on a scale of 10. It’s not really worth reporting them here, because they change frequently. But why would you ruin a piece of nice salmon by freezing it on dry ice? The wine paring was top notch, though. This would be a distant last of all the fine dining experiences during this week in Vegas.

The Vdara

Dani and I completed our tour of national parks, finishing with two days at the Four Seasons Las Vegas, which is the top five floors of the Mandalay Bay. Then we moved to my favorite (non-smoking casinoless) hotel in Vegas, the Vdara, where Linda joined us for the week. I love the two-bedroom suites on the top floor of the Vdara, and they’re very affordable. Here’s our 280 degree view, by day and night, and a shot of the hotel from across the Bellagio fountain.

Vdara Window Washer Rescue

We had a bit of excitement outside our hotel yesterday. Firefighters had to be lowered from above our 56th floor suite to rescue three window washers when their basket got stuck and started to slip. TV crews gathered down on the street, and I guess it even made the national news, but we had the best view.


Tour Wrap-up: Blogging in the Sticks

Our Tauck Tour is wrapping up, and we reached our final destination: The Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas. It’s my fourth Tauck Tour, and they just seem to get better. I wouldn’t change a thing about this one. Each activity was well thought out and fun for adult and kids, and having the kids on the trip imparted an energy to the tour that I think I’d miss if I went on a non-Bridges Tauck Tour. Julie has been a marvelous Tour Director, the most involved of all the excellent one who preceded her. She also does Wine Tours in Napa, and regular Tauck Tours in Scotland, so maybe we’ll see her again.

Technology Musings

I like to keep a journal when I travel. I used to post it upon my return. But the ubiquity of the Internet and WordPress now let me post as I go. It’s fun to keep friends up to date on our adventures as they happen. Except for one day, I’ve been able to do that on this trip, and far more economically than on a cruise. But it is interesting how we assume there is cell service of some sort almost everywhere. Not so in the middle of nowhere, and that came as a shock to some of the kids on this trip.

Bryce is almost a no-technology zone, with limited cell phone service and nothing else (even TV, although Dani and I actually didn’t notice, since we don’t use TVs). Otherwise, WIFI has been only slightly limited. Tauck picked up the tab for it at the Four Seasons Scottsdale, and it was free at Lake Powell and Zion.

The data on the ATT cell phones has been almost non-existent. We rarely see 3G, and can have 5-bars and not have Edge. Even when we do have Edge, it’s close to worthless because it’s too slow for even the simplest tasks. However the Verizon iPad has worked almost everywhere, and lets us use it as a hot spot to which the MacBooks and iPhones can connect. Even at Grand Canyon it was fast enough to upload a couple hundred photos. I plan to change to Verizon when I get my next iPhone.

This was one of my favorite Tauck tours, because the Bridges aspect made it so fun. I’ll definitely look for that in the future. Here’s the shot of our group in Kanab, Utah:


If it’s the only park you go to, Zion is incredibly beautiful, with its contrasting red and white peaks. But it’s always seemed a bit of a letdown to me, after going to Grand Canyon (which is far bigger) and Bryce (which is far more complex).

We arrived in the late afternoon, and took advantage of our last cool day to go on a hike to the lower Emerald Pool, since tomorrow it is heating up to be in the 100s.

It’s a pretty hike from our lodge. It’s probably made easier by the fact that we are now at 4000 feet instead of 8000 feet. You start by crossing the river.

There are some interesting hollowed out section in the cliff face along the way.

The pools are just a spot where water runs down the rock and creates a mossy oasis.

In the evening we had dinner at the lodge.

I was impressed with the Xanterra management at the Grand Canyon Lodge and Zion, and the Freedom company that manages Bryce. The rooms are comfortable and clean, and the dining room food and service is above average. It’s certainly working to attract European visitors. I’m certain the French speakers outnumbered English speakers at both Bryce, and, later, Zion. We also hear quite a bit of German. Only at the Grand Canyon were English speakers in the majority, and they were definitely large round American who looked like they stepped off the set of Wall-E.



I’ve always thought Bryce is the most beautiful of all the National Parks.

Our room was at the Bryce Lodge, which is newly refurbished.

The weather was perfect, and the sun was just setting as we arrived to take photos. i was surprised that we weren’t really affected by the 7000 foot elevation at the Grand Canyon, and even more surprised that we weren’t particularly affected by the 8000 foot elevation at Bryce.

After a nice dinner at the lodge we hit the sack. I got up at 4:30 am to look at the stars off our balcony, and could clearly see the Milky Way.

In the morning, Dani went for a two-hour trail ride while I relaxed at the lodge. Then we headed for Zion.


From Dani’s Blog

After lunch we loaded up the bus and headed into Bryce. We passed and Elk farm and a Bison farm along the way, as well as a lot of baby horses. We got dropped off at the Bryce Visitor Center while Julie and Ron went to drop our bags off at the hotel and get our room keys. We watched the orientation video (standard def on an old projector, yeesh) and the scenery was beautiful. After we were back on the bus Dad immediately e-mailed his company to tell them to follow up with the visitor center about upgrading their system.

We got to our hotel and headed out to the Rim of the amphitheater (it is incorrect to call Bryce a canyon because there is not water running through the middle of it, rather it slopes down only on one side merging with the plane below). Dad pointed out that the design of the Bryce lodge is just the way Disney would have done it. The buildings are inset about from the edge of the canyon and are on the lower part of a downward slope. You have to walk up to get to the rim. This means that you don’t get any sneak peaks of the beauty in the amphitheater until you see the whole thing suddenly drop away before you.

And Bryce is breathtaking. The rock spires (called hoodoos) caught the setting sunlight, which made them appear even redder than they really are. We walked along the rim taking in all the different angles of the hoodoos. Some looked like chess pieces, others looked like greek statues… with a little imagination the whole valley appears to be filled with fantastic creations

Eventually we strolled back towards our room. We saw a california ground squirrel (commonly miscalled a chipmunk) and they are tiny! I bet I could comfortably fit three of them in one hand. They have very long tales and are very quick.

We had dinner at the lodge and created our own surf and turf by sharing blue cornmeal dusted trout and short ribs coated in cinnamon. The cinnamon was a really great idea. I was fading very fast so we went back to the room and I conked out right away. I suppose I could try blaming the altitude for my sleepiness, but I have a feeling it’s just from doing so many wonderful things a day on this tour.


Colorado River Rafting

I’ve been without Internet for one day, and I sure have a lot of updates to do! This trip is definitely keeping us busy, in a fun way.

Wednesday morning we checked out of Lake Powell and drove to Page, Arizona for our first activity of the day, Colorado River rafting. We transferred to a bus to enter the secured government area at the base of Glen Canyon Dam.

To get there you pass though a two mile tunnel bored into the rock at the start of dam construction. Then you wear a hard hat for the walk to the rafts.

The water comes out of the dam cold and fast, but there are no rapids on this trip, as you float between high canyons. It’s very clear, because it’s had 186 miles for the dirt to settle out in Lake Powell.

Our raft pilot, Cory, was extremely knowledgeable and personable, and turned out to be the owner of the company.

At the halfway point the boats stop at a beach.

You can climb up to some petroglyphs.

Then our tour director dared us to take the plunge. Because the lake is 500 feet deep, and the water from the dam comes from the bottom, it is COLD. As in 47 degrees. I had always heard about water so cold that it hurt, but I never really had experienced it until I stood thigh deep in this stuff for a minute. That was far enough.

Dani didn’t get that far.

But lots of others managed to meet the challenge and put their heads under. But as you can see, they didn’t want to linger.

The second half of the trip was sunny so we floated less and motored more, until we reached Lee’s Ferry. This is where the white water rafting trips begin, and our trip ended.

We crossed Navaho bridge, and the high desert above the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and then passed into Utah.

In Kanab we stopped for a western movie themed lunch. Kanab is where lots of western movies and television shows have been filmed, and this restaurant had a collection of movie sets out back. We were assigned roles, given costumes, and then spend about five minutes playing our parts. It sounds corny but was actually a hoot. Dani was an Indian.

I was a playboy (with a violin, for some reason).

Then we had an excellent lunch of salad and roast beef with home made dressings and barbecue sauce. After seeing how well it worked for our boat driver, Dani bought a cowboy hat for tomorrow’s trail ride.

Then we headed for Bryce Canyon.

From Dani’s Blog

This morning we packed up our stuff and headed out to the bottom of the Glen Canyon Dam for our rafting adventure (another “ride or our lives” according to Julie).

The bottom of the Dam is not an easy place to get to. The last two miles are a one-way tunnel bored into the rock. Security is at the same time both tight and lax. Theoretically you’re not allowed to bring any guns/knives/explosives/weapons of mass destruction beyond the security checkpoint, but the river rafting company gets to do its own security checks, which basically involves someone glancing in the general direction of your bag and saying, “yep, that looks fine.”

At any rate we made it to the bottom of the Dam which, amazingly, looks even larger from the bottom. There is about 150 feet of hard hat area when you get off the bus (you’re standing right under the bridge and anything falling from that has 500 feet to pick up speed before hitting you. We walked down to the water on a long causeway that ate the soles of Dad’s water shoes for breakfast. The boats were large twenty-seater pontoons but they were filled less than half full for us. Our river guide, Cory, was very knowledgable about the river, geology, and the history of the region. He told us a couple of yarns though, including a herd of big horn sheep that had been trained to cross the river in a cart suspended by a cable about twenty feet up (reality: geologists use it to get from one side to the other).

The water is a balmy 47 degrees when it comes out of the Dam. Early in the morning when the river is still in shadow it’s a bit cool down there. We saw a couple of brave souls in wadders fishing for trout. Cory recited a bit of Powell’s journal (the passage about beginning their journey “how many ________ lie before us, we know not…”) and we started our own journey.

There was a bag full of cans of lemonade hanging off the side of the boat, keeping them at a crisp 47 degrees for us. We mostly floated for the first part of the journey. The walls are about 700 feet above the river at the mouth of the Dam but by the end of our journey they had soared to more than 1000 feet around Horseshoe bend. It’s very difficult to get any sense of scale when you’re down there though. They’re simply enormous!

At about the halfway point we pulled up onto one of the few sandy beaches (most have been eroded away and aren’t being replenished because the sediment is trapped behind the Dam). We walked a short way up but it was amazing how much hotter it got even a few feet from the River. Cory and I chatted on the way up. He went to the University of Colorado to study Environmental Science. He worked for an oil company for a couple of years and was miserable, so he moved back to Arizona and started running tours on the Colorado River during the summer and is a ski patroller in the winter.

Our destination was a rock wall, covered in black manganese that had petroglyphs carved into it by the Anisazi. There were a few rare depictions of humans, as well as the four steps (one of the only land accessible trails) and long horn sheep.

We retreated back to the relative coolness of the river and the kids on the trip did the polar plunge by rushing into the water and submerging themselves up to their heads. Dad waded in up to his knees, but I stuck one foot in Lake Michigan one time and that was enough (and it’s about ten degrees warmer than the Colorado!).

We hopped back on the boat and continued on to Lee’s Ferry, which is mile 0 of the Grand Canyon. White water rafting trips put in at Lee’s Ferry, but we got out.

Those of us who were soggy changed and got back on the bus to head for Bryce. We crossed into Utah and lost an hour so our late lunch was very late. It was at a Western Movie Museum. It was a little kitschy but all in good fun. We were seated at long tables but before the dinner bell was rung we were all drafted into the filming of our very own Western. I was an Indian, but Dad got to be the playboy (meaning the fiddler, of course).  We were costumed, choreographed, and then played out our movie. After than we had our Tauk group photo taken. I have to say it will be the most unique group photo ever taken on a Tauk tour…

We went back inside and had a really tasty barbecue lunch. There was salad, corn-meal dusted biscuits, roasted potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and beef with homemade barbecue sauce. Everybody chowed down.

After lunch, there was (predictably) one enormous gift shop to go through. I ended up purchasing a straw cowboy hat. Out here you can really use the extra sun protection. I can see why they invented them! Also it will look dashing on tomorrow’s trail ride…


Monument Valley

I’ve always wanted to visit Monument Valley, but it’s not the easiest place in the world to get to. Even though as a kid I vacationed all over the Southwest, I don’t recall ever passing through. So today we did it by plane. We took off from the airport in Page, Arizona. There were four of us and two pilots in the eight passenger Cessna Caravan.

We passed over Glen Canyon Dam, the Lake Powell Resort and then flew up the lake about 30 miles to Rainbow Bridge. Then we headed east to Monument Valley, arriving about 45 minutes after takeoff.

We connected with nine others from our group who arrived in a separate plane, and headed out by air-conditioned van, stopping for Navaho craft demonstrations, scenic viewpoints, and native jewelry stalls. The scenery was beyond spectacular. And the dirt road provided a thrill ride.

Monument Valley is within the Navaho Reservation, and it was interesting to learn about modern Navaho life. Because the roads are impassible in winter, many of the schools are boarding schools. The Navaho people are rich in energy resources, with a coal fired power plant that provides more power than Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams combined. Ironically, most Navaho homes don’t have electricity. Little of this wealth seems to trickle down to the people, so I wonder where it goes. The jewelry and crafts sold at the vendors’ stalls seemed, frankly, very inexpensive, with necklaces starting at $3. Of course the solid silver and turquoise is more, but anything that was labor intensive seemed very low priced.

After about two hours we re-boarded our plane, and were back at the resort by 1pm.

In the afternoon we took a boat ride to Antelope Canyon, a “slot” canyon whose sinuous course the lake has filled nearly to the brim.


From Dani’s Blog

This morning we took a scenic flight out over Lake Powell in a little Cessna Caravan, an eight-seater prop plane. We took off at about 8:30am and looped over the lake, circling around the impressive Rainbow Bridge. The water is so low in the reservoir right now that the only way to get to Rainbow Bridge is to hike or to fly. After that we turned towards the Navajo reservation and headed out over monument valley. We landed at an even smaller air strip on the reservation and were picked up by a Navajo guide.

Our first stop on the tour was only about 150 feet from the landing strip and it was a hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling constructed of cedar logs, a layer of insulating bark, and then lots of mud. There was an older Navajo woman in the hut demonstrating traditional arts, crafts, and Navajo homemaking. She spun wool into yarn, had beautiful weavings she was working on, and ground corn into meal.

After that demonstration we headed out for the valley proper…

Our flight over the lake was perfectly smooth. Things got a little bumpier once we were over the warmer plains air, but those bumps were nothing compared to the bumps we felt on the unpaved “road” through the monuments! It was a roller coaster out there!

We had several stops along the road to get out and take pictures of monuments. Amazingly there were Navajo “strip malls” tables or plywood shacks at every stop! Imagine that. I bought a $10 necklace and Dad browsed through the interesting stones they had for sale.

The best thing I bought however was a $2 picture sitting on top of a mustang! It was the most patient horse I have ever met. We were right next to the Three Sisters formation, a location that has been scouted by Hollywood for decades, and everyday this Navajo man brings his horse, decked out in traditional western gear, to stand and have inexperienced people of all shapes and sizes sit on him and get photographed. He was so well behaved for all of that though! The guy helped you mount up, then basically just backed away and the horse didn’t move or do anything at all, except stand there, presenting his best angle. Oh, and he was really fuzzy too.

Dad and I both took lots of pictures of the monuments. It was amazing and beautiful country. Looking out at the sweeping desert definitely made you want to saddle up and ride into the sunset. The temperature discouraged such activities though. It could have been much worse, I’ll admit. It probably was only in the mid 90s today because the rain cooled things off a bit, but it was still too hot to be out for long. Despite our early start and layers of sunscreen Dad and I both got a little bit of color.

We headed back to the air strip and took off for our return flight to Lake Powell where we were met by Julie and Ron, who spent all day playing musical passengers. Today there were several activities and combinations of activities you could choose from, and most involved Tauk transportation which must have been a scheduling ordeal for poor Julie.

We opted for the Monument Valley tour and a boat excursion onto Lake Powell to see Antelope Canyon.

We had a little down-time between our return from the airport and our boat tour. We had lunch with a man and his son, who had also been out to Monument Valley with us. It turned out he was a radiologist and he gave me some comforting news about medical school: it’s easier than undergrad! Thank goodness! He also suggested some other medical schools I might consider applying too including Duke and the University of Vermont.

After lunch we headed back to the room and chilled for a little bit, examining our pictures from today. The boat tour left from our hotel’s backyard (literally) so it was a short walk over. Dad and I opted to not sit on the top deck in full blazing sun. The canyon was cool, and it was neat to be so up-close to the canyon walls. The color is quite dramatic because there is a shift between the white calcium carbonate that coats the walls up to the high-water mark and the red oxidized iron in the sandstone above.

We discovered a shady spot aft for part of the return trip and took some good photos of the rock formations. I played around with my camera settings and polarizer, experimenting a little.

After the 90 minute cruise it was back to the room for a bit before we headed over to the Rainbow Room for dinner. We were seated alone at a table for six so I guess we can’t complain about the elbow room! Our server, Glade, was an interesting character! He suggested two delicious appetizers, corn fritters and a spinach queso that was lighter and fluffier (due to a ricotta-like cheese) than most spinach dips. I had 16 spiced chicken that had a sweet prickly pear sauce drizzled on top. I was impressed considering how many times we’d been warned about the service here! Glade was very fascinated to learn that French restaurant edict does not involve the waiter pouring the wine or water, but rather leaving it on the table for the guest to pour.

Tomorrow will be an early morning and we’re going to float down the Colorado river starting at the mouth of the dam and then head on to Bryce.

Morning at the Grand Canyon, Evening at Lake Powell

This morning I happened to wake earlier, so I went out a little after 5am to photograph the sunrise over the canyon.Clouds to the east provided a dramatic backdrop, but only a few rays managed to hit the canyon walls, so after an hour I went back to bed.

Today is another temperate day, hot in the sun, but with a cool 70 degree breeze. We had breakfast at the El Tovar, but all the food was pretty heavy and uninspired, so we just picked at it and then went for a walk, to the west this time.

We visited Lookout Point and the Kolbe Studio, and photographed condors and squirrels. We also saw a baby chipmunk.

Puffy white clouds created constantly changing patterns of light an dark in the canyon, which made me glad we no longer have to pay for film in order to shoot hundreds of pictures.

At noon we boarded the coach and headed for Desert View, our easternmost stop at the Grand Canyon. That was a very rainy stop, but it made for some interesting photos.

The we crossed the Navajo Reservation and in the late afternoon stopped at the Glen Canyon Dam Visitor Center.

I was here as a kid, and was surprised how much I remembered.

Our hotel for the night is at the Lake Powell Resort, where I camped as a kid.

Grand Canyon 2012

What a great day! We set out with our Tauck group from The Four Seasons Scottsdale and headed north through the saguaro-littered desert. Soon we had ascended far enough for the cactus to disappear, to be replaced by scrub and the occasional pine.

We stopped for a short visit to Montezuma’s Castle, a cliff dwelling. Then it was on to Sedona for lunch. Throughout the day intermittent rains kept things cool without interfering with our plans.

Sedona is surrounded by dramatic red rock formations, and we stopped to pose in front of some of them before continuing on to the touristy center of town for lunch. To my surprise, Dani selected a Mexican restaurant for lunch, and we thoroughly enjoyed the sea bass tacos and shrimp fajitas.

North of Sedona the road quickly climbs several thousand feet and we were in a beautiful canyon with a rocky creek and tall pines. Then across the high desert to the Grand Canyon.

We stopped to watch the excellent IMAX Grand Canyon film while our luggage was delivered to our rooms, and then we we dropped off at the Kachina Lodge.

Our room is newly refurbished, and is one of only a handful with a view of the canyon. We’re right next door to the El Tovar, so we can dine there, yet have a nicer room than at that 107 year-old-hotel.

We spent the afternoon taking photos as we walked two mile along the rim up to Yavapai Point. Some thunderstorms moving through kept things cool, and provided interesting light.

Then we took the shuttle back in time for a terrific dinner at the El Tovar. I must say the food, service and wine list at the El Tovar are far better than I remembered. Our expert server, Rick, was a middle-aged guy who studied physics and had a passion for Nils Bohr– not your average server!

After dinner we strolled back to our hotel, passing within a few feet of a herd of elk grazing on the lawn.


From Dani’s Blog

This morning began with a 6am wake up call, bags out at 7am, wheels rolling at 8am.

On our drive out of Phoenix our guide, Julie, talked about a variety of things including: Arizona sports teams, Saguaro cacti, local flora, history, and geography.

We made a quick stop at Montezuma’s Castle, misnamed by previous explorers (Montezuma never built anything in this part of Arizona). There was a walking path that made a circle around the cliff wall so you could see the impressive (somewhat impractical) structure. Julie gave everyone on the bus a “Passport to the National Parks” with blank pages for stamping each time you visit a national park or monument. We got four stamps at Montezuma’s Castle alone! One with the date, one for the park, one to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the visitor center’s “new” building, and one with Teddy Roosevelt’s face on it.

After that we headed into Sedona for lunch. We were dropped off on a touristy yet charming main street area. I actually suggested a Mexican restaurant for lunch, Taos, which turned out to be quite tasty. I had fish tacos with mango salsa that were really delicious! I didn’t touch my refried black beans though…

The weather has been quite changeable on our trip so far, but I don’t mind at all. The intermittent rain is keeping the temperature down, and my Chicago skin from instantly crisping in the sun. It rained heavily for about three minutes during the first part of our lunch but by the time we had paid the sky was completely clear again. I bought a couple of postcards and we admired the red rock formations while waiting for the bus to pick us up.

After lunch we continued the drive toward the Grand Canyon. The scenery changes quite rapidly with the changing altitude. It is amazing how there seems to be an invisible line above or below which certain plants simply do not grow.

We stopped at a National Geographic center to watch an Imax presentation about the Grand Canyon. They had popcorn that smelled sooo good, but I managed to refrain. Their popcorn condiments included a lot more flavors than I have ever seen on display before. In addition to salt, butter, and day-glow cheese they also had chocolate marshmallow as a flavor spread. The Imax movie was quite well done, although I would not have wanted to be one of the stunt men in that teeny boat going through those rapids…

We arrived at the Grand Canyon at about 4:40. Dad and I planned to hike along the eastern trail before dinner and take photographs with my schnazzy SLR. We threw our stuff down, rushed outside in time for 10 minutes of beautiful weather, and then the sky opened up, soaking us (though thankfully not my camera) with cold rain that felt like it had recently been hail. We took refuge in the Hopi House and did a little shopping. Having only made if about 50 yards we returned to the room and exchanged our wet clothing for dryer stuff and started our hike again.

It was very pleasant. The sun was going down, turning all the rocks and formations bright interesting colors with lots of contrast. The rain cooled things down a bit so it wasn’t too much of a strain to hike in the thin atmosphere. We went about two miles and then caught the shuttle back, just in time for dinner at the El Tovar.

We had a lovely table next to a widow. Through it I could see the forecast thunderstorm approaching. We shared salmon and trout croscanti that were really excellent. I felt like our roles were reversed however when I had salmon and Dad had a Filet Mignon. Our waiter was an interesting fellow. He was an excellent and professional waiter but he had studied Physics in college and knew all about Niels Bohr and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and had even visited Copenhagen to see Bohr’s Institute. We exchanged reading recommendations. I recommended the play “Copenhagen” to him and he recommended “Copenhagen and Faust” to me. I will have to check it out when we get home!

When we left the El Tovar to go back to our room we discovered a large herd of Elk grazing on the El Tovar’s nice irrigated lawn. They seemed incredibly unconcerned by the tourists and the flashbulbs going off…



We had a relaxing day at the Fours Seasons. After breakfast we went for a short walk through the desert and took some photos, then back to the room to cool off. Even though it was overcast and in the low 80s, it felt hot and surprisingly muggy.

In the evening we met our Tauck Tour Director and group. Everyone seems extremely nice. It’s about half kids, all of whom seem very well educated and well-behaved (although half are boys, so you get the picture). Ages are in the 8 to 14 year range. We had dinner at a table with girls in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades, plus some of their attached attached adults. The adults are partially parents and partially grandparents. As usual, Dani is the only person in her age group, but she seems to enjoy mixing with everyone.

Our tour director, Julie, is the usual super-competent and friendly Tauck guide. She devised a clever ice breaker that involved all the kids circulating to collect information from everyone, in a sort of scavenger hunt.

Tomorrow is a busy day to start a busy week so we’ll head to bead early.


From Dani’s Blog

This morning when I opened my eyes I was convinced I had slept the entire morning away only to discover it was actually 7:45am. We went to breakfast in the dining room. They had a nice buffet with lots of little offerings. The mini everything bagels were delicious, and just the right size. But the show stealer was definitely the bacon. I have to believe they smoke it locally because it is so flavorful and fresh.

After breakfast we took a short (very hot) walk over towards the base of Pinnacle Peak, a redundant name if you ask me. I took lots of photos. Pinnacle Peak is in the background of this photo framed by some cactus.

We retreated back to the air-conditioned comfort of our room after lunch out by the pool, and spent a quiet afternoon reading and playing on the internet. This afternoon a thunderstorm rolled in and sprinkled a little rain on everything. The rain sounds quite different here. It plinks when it hits the rocks because there’s nothing to soften the impact.

We met our tour group tonight, and I am most definitely (for the first time ever) not the youngest person on the tour. There are at least 15 kids under the age of 15 on the trip. We sat with a nice family from Connecticut and a grandmother from Maryland traveling with her granddaughter. The banquet-style dinner was nice and the chicken wasn’t too rubbery.

Most of the group came in today and was fading pretty rapidly by the end. The tour starts in earnest tomorrow as we trek to the grand canyon…

Four Seasons Scottsdale

We had an uneventful flight from Chicago to Phoenix (best line by the Southwest pilot: “Well, we’ve found Arizona, now we’re just looking for Phoenix”) and a 45 minute limo ride from a real tech-head that involved discussions of tablets, iPhones and transfer speeds of different type of networks; I’m sure Dani was about to climb out of the car by the time we reached the Four Seasons in Scottsdale.

The Four Seasons is a scattering of low-slung rooms on a pile of rocks. This view is from our back door:

Weirdly, it rained today, something it hasn’t done in Chicago for a long time, so it’s actually wetter and cooler here than it was there. This might be the last temperate weather we see on the trip, though.

Arizona doesn’t believe in daylight savings time, so we’re now on west coast time, making it earlier than it seems. We’re here a day before our tour starts, so we’ll just relax at the hotel tonight, and meet our tour director tomorrow evening.



We saved the best for last. Having been to Joel Robuchon’s l’Atelier in London, we knew it was good, but I had expected his formal restaurant, Robuchon, to be better. However I actually prefer the honest flavors of the simple ingredients at l’Atelier. I also, surprisingly, like sitting at what is essentially a sushi bar, and chatting with the servers and watching the chefs.

Watch my l’Atelier movie

We went on Friday night, and had a great time. One of our servers, a Nigerian named Sunday, was especially nice, and encouraged us to let him make a reservation for us after our show the next night, and so we did. l’Atelier two nights in a row, wow!

Before dinner on Saturday we saw Ka, our favorite Cirque show by a mile. The story line, consistent theming, and amazing technical aspects of the presentation set this apart from all other Cirque shows. My favorite moments are when the huge platform is first revealed and slowly rotates to show the audience what it can do, then when it later transforms itself into a vertical wall. The show has been rearranged since we first saw it, so that the impressive vertical battle—where you feel like you are watching from above—is now at the end, a great way to finish with the best scene.

We finished out meal Saturday with these delicious mini hamburgers. I’d had a hamburger with foie gras and caramelized onions at db Bistro Moderne in New York, but these are much better. The small size—just four bites each—and the wonderful brioche bun make these a little slice of heaven, without being overpoweringly rich. It was a real treat to end out week in Vegas on such a high note.

Backstage at Caesar’s Forum Shops

With our wine group back in Orlando, Linda and I have a few days alone in Las Vegas.  Thursday we met Ron Ford of Simon Malls for lunch at Sushi Roku and a backstage tour of the Forum Shops.

There are two main shows, with very sophisticated gas, steam, lasers, hydraulics, animated figures, audio and video. Over the years Ron has replaced much of the original equipment with Alcorn McBride gear. It was very gratifying to run into so many people backstage who complimented us on the reliability of our gear.

Ron provided a great tour, and I could tell that he and Linda were kindred spirits, as they talked Hoffman Boxes, Elco connectors and PLCs for a couple of hours. What a treat!

For dinner Linda and I walked next door to Andre’s in the Monte Carlo. The food was just so-so, but the wine list was interesting, and not too pricey by Vegas standards. We had a 1955 Cornas that had lost its fruit, a 2001 Clos de Tart that Linda said was good (by this time my cold was bad enough I couldn’t really smell anything), and a tasting of four vintages and types of Reserva Velha Barbieto Madeira that seemed pretty interesting: ’54 Malvasia, ’53 Bual, ’40 Verdelho and ’51 Sercial.

Then I headed back to the room for some Nyquil.



Delmonico’s was the final restaurant on our Wine Syndicate Las Vegas culinary adventure, and it was easily the best experience. Incredibly attentive and professional wine service by Ryan Anderson made the evening a delight. At last, here was a place that really understood the concept of a wine tasting dinner.

This was also the best slate of wines during the trip, and the best tasting we’ve done in several years. The wines:

2000 Montrachet, G. Amiot
2000 Ch ‘Y’

1968 BV Special Label Burgundy
1976 Clos de la Roche – Pierre Bouree Fils

1964 BV Georges de La Tour Private Reserve
1955 Ch Cheval Blanc tenth

2002 Dominus
1986 Ch Mouton Rothschild

1999 Ch d’Yquem tenth
2000 Ch d’Yquem tenth

All of the wines showed great.The favorites were the 1955 Cheval Blanc and the Chateau Y, which is the dry wine from Yquem. I scored the latter a perfect 100, which I almost never do, for whites, especially.

Earlier in the day we changed hotels, moving from the Vdara to the Mandarin Oriental. I had originally booked the Mandarin as a special treat, but it sort of backfired, because we like the Vdara much more than I was expecting. Our suite at the Mandarin is impressive, with about 80  linear feet of glass wall wrapping around a sharp corder of the building, right on the strip.

Of course, the service at the Mandarin is perfect. Heck, during check-in you get hot towels and tea! Still, we both preferred the quiet environment—and the dramatic height—of the room at the Vdara, and it cost less than half as much.

Lotus of Siam

For lunch we went to Lotus of Siam, regarded by many as the best Thai restaurant in America. It’s in a dumpy shopping center off of Sahara, so I’m sure we looked a bit incongruous piling out of a stretch limo. Certainly it was the best Thai food I’ve ever had, and it was great with a large party, because we could have a little taste of so many dishes.

The wine list is quite amazing, with a thousand or more selections, and priced in many cases below retail. There are many bottles that are simply not available at retail, and we took the opportunity to try several 100 point Parker wines. While I didn’t record the food, the wines were:

  • 1997 Corton-Charlemagne Bonneau du Martray – Waxy, 90 pts
  • 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape, Pierre Usegglio, Cuvee de mon Aieul – (RP 100) Tannic, balanced, chocolate dipped cherries, 94 pts
  • 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape, Domain de Janasse – (RP 100) Velvety, meaty, 97 pt
  • 2007 Clos de Papes – (RP 99) wood, leather, vanilla, 98 pts
  • 2007 Sine Qua Non Pictures – Grenache, 15.6% alcohol, (RP potential 100) Big fruit, mint, leaves, wood, plums, meat, 100 pts
  • 2000 Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee Fiacre Champagne – same wine we had a Robuchon, but at half the price! A deal for a vintage Champagne at $75. 95 pts

My scores are mostly lower than Parker’s, but he’s a nut for that 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape vintage.

In the evening we walked over to Ron & Bev’s suite at the PH Westgate for a get-together and had some salmon, Champagne and a 1989 Ch. Angelus that was drinking great, but young. Their suite is expansive, with a wonderful view of the Strip. The blue and red tinted glass is a bit weird.

For dinner we went to Aquaknox at the Venetian, for our vertical Georges de la Tour tasting. We sat at the chef’s table adjacent to the kitchen, which was a bit crowded, like last night, but fortunately this time we just passed the wines so I didn’t have to squeeze around. The vintages were: 63, 64, 66, 68, 69, 70, 71, 74, 75, 77, 78, 79. Standouts were the 68, 69, 70, and the 77, 78, 79. Interesting that they are both runs of three consecutive years.

The food was pretty lackluster, as with my previous visit to Aquaknox:

  • Buffalo Mozzarella with basil and olive oil – probably the best course, because the ingredients worked together
  • Scallop – sliced thin and flavorless except for the parsley on top
  • Poached lobster of truffled creamed corn – Not much flavor to the lobster, but the creamed corn was definitely the best thing we tasted. We should have just had a bowl of this!
  • John Dory – the chef is famous for this dish, but I don’t know why. A nearly flavorless white fish served with trumpet mushrooms that didn’t go with it at all.
  • Maple leaf duck breast with lentils – Nothing really worked here, either. Lentils don’t really enhance duck breast.
  • Veal Ossobucco – A train wreck. The veal was like dried out pot roast, and the mushrooms were bitter and weird tasting.
  • Pineapple-Mango Creme Brulee – this was a delicious creme brulee with some bits of fruit in it, and went very well with the wine John brought, which was the best of show dessert wine from the state fair, a late harvest Seyval Blanc from Ohio.

Needless to say, two strikes and Aquaknox is off my list!

Pinot Brasserie

Monday Linda and I walked up to the Forum Shops and had lunch at Sushi Roku. Our server, Chase, made some great recommendations.

It was a beautiful morning, and we stopped to look back at our hotel across the Bellagio fountain pool.

After lunch we bought some wine and cheese and bread and hosted an afternoon get-together in our suite.

In the evening, Ron arranged for a hummer limo to pick us up and take us to the Venetian.

Pinot Brasserie did a great job with dinner. Our server, Cathy, adeptly handled the entire party.

The Menu:

  • Endive Salad – a nice combination of sweet and bitter, with a cirus edge
  • Seared Foie Gras, Langoustine Tail – Really two courses in one; the truffled morel mushrooms under this were superb
  • Pumpkin Ravioli with chicken with brown butter – this chicken was better than last night’s chicken at Robuchon
  • Chateaubriand and Maine Lobster Tail – Another two course dish, both were delicious
  • Sorbet
  • Cheese and accompaniments – very nice presentation, but we’d been eating cheese all afternoon!
  • Belgian Chocolate Souffle – a nice salty/sweet crust on this
  • Espresso

The format for the wines was six pairs, poured blind, with one Burgundy and one California wine, of comparable ages. It was easy to tell them apart until the last two flights, when things got tough. Nearly everyone had 100% scores until the last flight, when the wine of the night turned out to be a 1973 BV Special Label Burgundy with God only knows what grapes in it!

  • 1949 Charmes-Chambertin, Liger-Belair
  • 1959 BV Beaumont Pinot Noir 
  • 1958 Echezeaux Domaine de la Romanee Conti
  • 1958 BV Beaumont Pinot Noir 
  • 1961 Bonnes Mares – Drouhin-Laroze
  • 1960 BV Burgundy
  • 1967 Chambertin Clos de Beze P. Gelin
  • 1967 BV Burgundy
  • 1971 Beaune Greves Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus Bouchard
  • 1970 BV Beaumont Pinot Noir
  • 1976 Clos de la Roche – Pierre Bouree Fils
  • 1973 BV Special Label Burgundy

I’ll post my notes on the group’s site.

Unfortunately I started getting a sore throat during this event, but Linda was nice enough to go over to the Aria and get me an assortment of medicine to help me try to shake it.

I would definitely have another event at Pinot Brasserie, although it would be better to schedule all these Venetian events earlier, because there is an obnoxious nightclub across the hall from them, and the thumping gets old after a few hours.



Today Linda and I explored the area around City Center, including several hotels owned by MGM: The Bellagio, Aria and Monte Carlo. These are connected by a tram, along with the Crystals mall. We had a good lunch of tapas at Julian Serrano in the Aria. The ceviche was the highlight, and a glass of Albarino the perfect accompaniment.

The rest of our Wine Syndicate group had arrived by afternoon, and at 7pm eight of us (Ron, Bev, John, Debbie, Dick, Priscilla, Linda and I) went to see Love at the Mirage.

Let me preface this by saying I’m not a big fan of Cirque du Soleil shows. I’ve seen six of them, and with the exception of Ka, I’ve always felt that they were much sound and fury, signifying nothing. Still, I was surprised how much Linda and I hated this show.

First, the good: The music is superb. Every sound (except a new string part written by George Martin for While My Guitar Gently Weeps) is from the original 1960s Beatles tapes, but Martin and his son have remixed bits and pieces to create a sound collage that transcends the originals. I was very familiar with the CD, but the show’s sound is even better, and contains additional material.

Also terrific is the technology. The moving stage floors, set pieces, scrims, and super-accurate projections thereon are extremely impressive. And an effect involving an audience-covering sheet is quite magical.

But no amount of confetti, streamers, and gimmicks can save this show from utter meaninglessness. Except for a few rare moments when the mindless action on the stage seemed to have some relationship to the songs (A Day In The Life, for example) the show has no story and no emotional tug whatsoever. It’s clear, too that the designers knew they were in trouble, and attempted to fix it by piling on more and more.

It’s almost comical the way the quality of the show varies in inverse proportion to the number of people on stage. One person was usually compelling, two a bit diluted, three confusing, and four a muddle. Now imagine fifteen, and you have an unfocused mess. What a missed opportunity, where the sum of the parts is not only less than the individual values, it totaled approximately zero.

The audience—especially the drunks, of whom there were many—loved it, of course. Bread and circuses.

After the show we were picked up by one of the MGM’s gold limos for our ride to dinner. There were supposed to be two limos, but due to a screw up there was one, so the ride involved some lap dancing, which was entertaining.

The limo discharged us in the courtyard of the mansion at MGM, which is a sprawling complex devoted to high rollers. The walk through this area to the restaurant was a great peek into how the unimaginably rich and stupid live.

The private room at Joel Robuchon was beautiful, and the perfect size for the eight of us.

I had arranged for a prix fixe ala carte menu, which allowed us to each select our appetizer, two main courses and dessert. The rest of the courses were set. This worked out well, because it allowed us to try some different things, whilst avoiding some weird dishes on the 16 course tasting menu. The price of the meal, at $230 per person, was steep but probably reasonable for the quality of the food. The wine list, while extensive, was insanely overpriced, but Ron did a wonderful job of finding nice selections on something less than NASA’s budget.

My meal consisted of:

  • Amuse bouche – a citrus and foam combination that was quite refreshing
  • Foie gras and violet artichoke salad – delicious and not too heavy, the foie gras was a thin pate
  • Chestnut soup – the smoked bacon foam was a highlight
  • Sea bass with lemon grass – great lemony flavor, but the dish didn’t completely hang together for my taste
  • Wagu rib eye with wasabi spinach – a stunning course, with a wonderful assortment of tastes, and intensely flavored beef that melted in your mouth like butter. Easily the best course.
  • Chocolate, coffee ice cream, puffed rice – I traded this with Debbie for banana and passion fruit which I preferred, although I was in the minority on that one.
  • Assorted mignardises

The wines:

  • Vintage Champagne – best wine of the evening, a toasty elegant starter
  • 2007 Chassagne Montrachet – a pleasant, citrusy white Burgundy that accompanied the seafood perfectly
  • 1998 Nuit St. Georges – great earthy nose with lots of Burgundian promise; light palate, though
  • 2008 Penner Ash Pinot Noir – the nose eventually opened up a bit, but not as good as other vintages I’ve had of this. Thin palate of light sweet cherries
  • 1989 Ch. Destieux St. Emilion – Surprisingly soft for the year, this was one of the better buys on the list
  • 2009 Mollydooker Blue-Eyed Boy – as always a knock out, great with the cheese and dessert
  • 1985 Laberdolive Bas-Armagnac – a spectacularly complex spirit, poured by the glass, and a steal at $28. I need to find some of this.

Dinner with the wines, ten bottles of water, coffees, various fees and gratuities came to slightly over $1000 a couple. Worth it? Hard to say, as I’ve had more spectacular meals for less. On the other hand, the setting was magical, and it was a great way to kick off the trip. It will be interesting to compare it to the next-door sister restaurant, l’Atelier, on Friday.


Today is the first day of our Wine Syndicate getaway to Las Vegas. We took advantage of our membership miles to fly first class on Delta through Atlanta. It took most of the day, but it was a pleasant flight, with a couple hours spent in two Crown Rooms, and some spectacular views of the Grand Canyon on the way.

I decided to try the new Vdara Hotel at City Center because it offers rooms with kitchens and enough space to have wine get-togethers. Upon check-in the woman at the front desk kindly upgraded us to a penthouse on the top floor (56) overlooking the Bellagio fountain! We have a kitchen, dining area for six, guest bath, and even a laundry room. This must be close to the best room in the hotel. Lucky!

We only had an hour or so before heading to The Monte Carlo for dinner at Alain Ducasse’s Mix.

The restaurant has a contemporary European design. It on the 64th floor of THE hotel at The Monte Carlo. Some of the bar space and dining area is outdoors, which is fairly unique.

The service was amazing. It’s one of those places where things just disappear from the table when you’re done. We timed it, and wine glasses were leaving seconds after we finished with them.

Dinner was excellent. We had two different tasting menus. It’s nice that not everyone at the table has to order the same tasting menu. Highlights were the guacamole served with Linda’s tuna, the foie gras, black truffles and mashed potatoes served with her beef, her curry lobster, the passion fruit, pineapple juice and cocoanut foam cocktail served as a pre-dessert, and her baba rum, which was served as a kit with a delicious Montecristo 10 year rum that was very floral. Yes, she ordered the better tasting menu! The wine pairings were a deal, too, since the wines by the bottle were very steep. The pairing was a bargain, and hers even included a glass of 2005 Quintessa that was superb.

When we returned to our room for a much needed sleep, this was the view:

Las Vegas Star Trek Convention 2005

Dani’s Los Angeles Journal

August 1, 2005

We were supposed to leave Saturday night but Delta called to tell us our flight was cancelled, so we ended up leaving REALLY early in the morning on Sunday. We connected in Salt Lake and arrived in LA in the early afternoon. After a stop at Grandma Marjorie’s house we all went to my parents’ favorite Mexican place for dinner, El Cholo. I don’t like Mexican food much but it was pretty good. They have cheese chips that are to die for. By five o’clock we had to call it quits and head to the hotel.

We are staying at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena (about half an hour away from Grandma) and it’s really nice. Our room is large and has a beautiful view. Dad and I went for a swim, then came back to the room and vegged for a while. By 8:30 we were ready for bed.

On Monday, feeling a little more human, we ordered a HUGE room service breakfast. Even Mom had something (she never eats breakfast). It was really good. I have some history homework I’m doing (really long boring homework) so I did that for most of the morning.

At lunch Mom and Dad took me to an old haunt of theirs, Tommy’s Hamburger Stand. They do nothing in moderation there. A burger has a patty, two handfuls (big handfuls) of onion, ten or fifteen pickles, and a giant scoop of orange goo they call chili. All in all it was a, unique experience. Did I mention that the goo turns your fingers orange permanently?

After we had consumed as much as we dared we went over to Grandma’s. Her next-door neighbor Denny came home from work early and talked with us for a while. I went next door and met his dog, Johanne Sebastian Bark (they just call him “Sebastian”). He is a white German Shepherd and he is BIG! Standing on his back feet he can look me in the eye. He weighs about 120 pounds and his shoulders come to my waist. He is really sweet though. He has an old bucket he thinks is a toy. He holds it over his head and prances around, then puts it down and rolls it across the yard with his paw. At 7:00 we went to dinner with relatives at Shanghai Red’s at the marina.

Wednesday we went to Farmers’ Market. My parents remember this place from when they were kids. It’s a bunch of open stalls outside where they sell everything from greasy pizza and French crepes to tacky tourist junk. We had lunch there, Mom and I decided to partake of the greasy pizza, dad had a ham and cheese crepe and Grandma had Chinese food.

Have you ever eaten coke bottle candies? They are the best invention under the sun! It’s made of what gummy bears are but it’s clear. There is coke injected into the bottom of them. They’re great! I have a small bag of them that I bought maybe we can share when I get back. Oh, and guess what they have in every supermarket and convenience store in California, Squirt! They have Squirt! I have been getting it every chance I get. Anyway, it was a lovely afternoon.

They’ve built a shopping area called the “Grove” next to Farmer’s Market. We wandered around there for a while. They have a huge, three-story Barnes and Noble. I bought the book version of Wicked, my favorite play on Broadway.

For dinner we went to the Smokehouse. They have has the best garlic cheese bread anywhere.

Dad bought some tickets to see the King Tut exhibit on Wednesday. There were lots of neat treasures on loan from Egypt. They not only had lots of gold treasures but also lots of really well-preserved wooden things. There was one footstool that was made of wood but it was carved and inlaid to look like an animal hide. A guided tour on tape interpreted it all.

For dinner we went up to an old building called the Saddle Peak Lodge, up in the mountains. We sat outside and watched the sun set. The Saddle Peak Lodge has been many things in its time including a hunting lodge, a speakeasy, a brothel and a fine dining restaurant. They specialize in game, so I had buffalo and dad had elk. Mom had ravioli, and man, are those things hard to shoot.

Thursday Mom and Dad and I took a two and a half hour drive north to the central coast wine country. It was good. The views were lovely, and there was a nice breeze, so it wasn’t too hot. We stopped in Solvang, a touristy Danish village, for some butter cookies. The movie Sideways was filmed in and around the town of Los Olivos; it was neat to keep running into places where they filmed. Mom and Dad did some wine tasting, and we had dinner in a nice little restaurant imaginatively called “The Los Olivos Café”.

We spent most of Friday at Grandma’s, and went to a new restaurant in the historic Wiltern Hotel for dinner.

Saturday Mom and Dad went to Fry’s, a giant electronics store, and selected a new computer for Grandma (her old one had a really weird software problem).

On Sunday Dad finished setting up Grandma’s computer and we went to Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills for dinner. Trader Vic’s is where the Mai Tai was invented, and they served that and all sorts of other wacky tropical drinks, along with some excellent spare rib appetizers.

Steve’s Las Vegas Journal

Monday we packed and checked out of the Ritz Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena — after a week it had begun to feel like home. We took the 210 freeway to San Bernardino and then 15 over the pass to the high desert. The drive to Vegas took about six hours, and carried us through mostly rocky, barren terrain on a surprisingly busy four-lane road. A long, skinny ribbon of thunderstorm hung like a curtain across one valley, and provided ten minutes of torrential rain in a landscape that was otherwise parched and dusty.

We’re staying at the Venetian Hotel, our favorite in Vegas. Every room is a suite, and there are 17 restaurants in the building!

Monday evening we had tickets to see Penn & Teller at the Rio, so we had dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Masquerade Village there. While waiting for dinner Dani was able to watch the Mardi Gras parade that I worked on a few years ago. It’s a fairly complicated control system for a dozen or so overhead floats on which the performers ride.

Penn & Teller were amusing, but it wasn’t a great magic show. Before the show Mike Jones, a terrific jazz pianist, performed with a stand up bass player who turned out to be Penn himself. During this preshow the audience was invited onstage to inspect a box and sign an envelope, both later used in the show.

Tuesday we had lunch at Taqueria Cononita by the Grand Canal in the Venetian. Dani bought a magic trick at one of the shops and spent the afternoon practicing. After some power napping we changed and drove to the MGM Grand to see the new Circe de Soleil production, Ka.

I find myself at a loss to adequately describe Ka. Days later we were still trying to absorb everything we witnessed. Here’s how the Las Vegas Review-Journal described it:

Cirque Tops Itself: ‘Ka,’ the most expensive live show in modern history, takes a new direction by telling a story

Seen from directly overhead, two opposing groups of armor-suited warriors charge to meet in the middle. A fierce battle ensues, the warriors using staffs, swords and kung fu. Some have an almost-supernatural power to leap over their enemy.

That’s how the scene unfolds in Cirque du Soleil’s new “Ka. ” But the audience doesn’t see the overhead perspective on film, or reflected in mirrors. They see it because the warriors are suspended in the air, their feet rappelling onto a near-vertical wall, upon which the image of the battlefield is projected.

Along with performing their stunt combat, the performers are squeezing control units, hidden in their fists, to move the wires that suspend them from a grid 90 feet above the stage.

In part, it’s the answer to the question everyone had: How could Cirque top itself and deliver a distinct new product in its fourth show on the Strip?

The $165 million “Ka” marks not only a watershed for Las Vegas entertainment, but perhaps the creation of an all-new entertainment medium: the live movie; theater that uses the language of cinema.

“In movies you will see a battlefield from different angles… We’ve had the opportunity to give people a live experience about battle that is completely different than what you would get in any other theater,” says Lyn Heward, who oversees Cirque’s creative content division.

“Ka” has the rich, textured atmosphere of grand opera, except that nothing is stagebound, not even the two stages themselves.

Scenes flow from one to another, changing perspective. When the nanny of the young protagonist falls overboard during a turbulent storm at sea, you first see the older caretaker swept off the side of the boat that spins and bobs like a cork on the water.

Then the stage transforms to an underwater point of view, to show the nanny sinking to the bottom — again by using aerial wires and film projection — and the young heroine  plunging in to rescue her.

“It does focus the way a spectator can watch an activity. When I go see `O,’ I have difficulty choosing what to look at,” Heward says. “But this is a little bit different. We are giving you a point of view to look at this from. “

Moreover, the signature Cirque music, acrobatics and overall aesthetic have been focused into actual storytelling for the first time.

In lieu of a fixed playing area, the stage design resembles a black void, where the two main stages move in and out of position. One is the “Tommy deck,” a platform that slides in and out much like a drawer. The other — the one hosting the vertical battle — is the “cliff deck,” an 80,000-pound rectangle lifted in and out of place by a 230,000-pound gantry arm.

The cinematic feel of the show also introduces a new, home-theaterlike dimension to the theater: Every seat has its own personal set of speakers.

“It is not as if sound always comes out of the seat. It is just another pair of speakers,” says sound designer Jonathan Deans. In fact, there are 180 outputs of sound, compared to 60 for “EFX. “

“We take a sound and shred it into multiple sections,” Deans explains. “It will go out and fly around the auditorium shredded, then come back into that (original) sound. Will the audience know that is happening? No. But they will feel something different is happening. “

Much of the music is recorded, but all sound effects are live. “If a fireball comes up through the stage,” Deans explains, “we draw little squares on the camera image (that monitors the stage action). So when the fireball crosses through the squares, it actually triggers different sounds, and places the sounds to different speakers. “

René Dupéré, who composed the soundtrack to “Mystere” and most of the Cirque shows before it, returned to the fold at Laliberté’s request after a 10-year break.

“It has to be a score, like a movie score,” Dupéré says. “The music has to tell what’s going on, because there’s nobody talking. “

The most distinctive aspect of the score is a 42-voice choir, which sings “invented lyrics” by Dupéré’s wife, Elise Velle, who was principal singer for the first year of “Mystere. “

The choir and orchestral sounds are blended in with the live performance of a seven-piece band, which the audience doesn’t see.

But, Dupéré says, in places “I had to soften (the music) a bit. It was so dramatic, I couldn’t see the action. The music was too big. “

It’s a larger lesson the creators of the most expensive live show in modern history are trying not to forget. One key special effect is created by nothing more than the shadow of a candle.

“Human beings make the effects, and not machines,” Heward says. “The technology is simply a support to the human performance. “

Click here for a technical article from

Total Production.

Dinner at Nob Hill was as unremarkable as Ka was remarkable. Overpriced, uninteresting, and with an amazingly extensive selection of incredibly unappealing wines at absurd prices, this is the number one clip joint to avoid in Vegas.

Wednesday began with a delicious room service breakfast. The servers are exceptional at the Venetian, setting the table in your room as if you were in a fine dining restaurant.

Then we walked across the street to the Treasure Island, which has been destroyed by MGM Mirage, the new owners. The name has been changed to the “ti,” and the skull and crossbones sign, the most distinctive in Vegas, has been removed. The exterior pirate ship theming has also been modified to make it “sexy,” and the redemption gaming center that Dani and Linda were looking for is gone.

We took the tram over to the Mirage and purchased an admission to the Secret Garden of Siegfried and Roy and spent a pleasant hour watching lions and tigers sleep.

After riding the tram back to the ti we crossed the street to the new Wynn. Steve Wynn’s latest upscale creation is even uglier than the Bellagio. The outside looks like an office building behind a dyke, and the inside is filled with the same garish mess as Bellagio. The only focal point, a “water feature” that is a simply a wall with water running down it, is so poorly placed that only a few dozen patrons can see it at one time.

Back at the Venetian we allowed our body temperature to return to normal while waiting about an hour for an afternoon snack in the Grand Luxe Cafe.

In the evening we drove over to the Hilton to pick up our wrist bands for the Star Trek convention, which begins tomorrow.

Dinner was at Bouchon, an authentic Parisian Brasserie in the new Venezia tower. It was indeed authentic, right down to putting the bread directly on the table. It was also delicious. The fois gras terrine appetizer turned out to be an entire 5 oz jar of pate de fois gras, pricey at $41, but enough for three, and worth every penny.

After a delicious breakfast at Bouchon — best baked goods outside of Paris! — we headed for the Las Vegas Hilton.

The Star Trek convention attracted an interesting cross section of people, to say the least. On Thursdayand Friday there was a high ratio of Trekkers in Federation costumes. These are the fans Shatner was was addressing in his Saturday Night Live sketch, “Get a Life. ” These people still live in their parents’ basements. It’s probably a good thing.

By the weekend, though, when attendance peaked at over 3000, the audience was a cross-section of all ages, with women perhaps slightly outnumbering men. If there was any demographic missing it was young teenagers, particularly girls. Kids came with parents, older teenagers rived on their own, and a lot of the audience must have seen the original series when it first aired. But Dani was fairly unique, and as a resulted attracted a certain amount of attention form the celebrities.

The format of the convention is: stage presentation by celebrity, stand in line for celebrity’s autograph, go to dealer room and buy crap.

I found the presentations almost uniformly entertaining. The stars enjoyed talking about current projects, and most were genuinely pleased by the loving reception they received from the fans. Two open mics at the sides of the stage allowed fans to ask questions, and the stars answered them with candor, and often with great wit.

The standing in line was a bit tedious, but nearly every celebrity made an effort to make eye contact or say a few words to each fan, even if they were signing 600 autographs. These autographs are the currency of the convention, as they — either directly or indirectly — cost $20 to $80 each. This comprises the celebrities’ compensation for attending, and also provides most of the convention organizer’s profit.

The dealer room was actually pretty interesting, because in addition to many booths selling Star Trek collectibles and photos there was also a large section devoted to minor celebrities. Here was an opportunity to have photos personalized, buy CDs, or just chat with a couple dozen minor stars. And some of these people weren’t that minor: James Darren hung out for several days, as did a large number of other characters from the five series.

Although there was more of an emphasis on autographs than I’d have liked, I tip my hat to the organizers, who kept the event running like clockwork for four days. No presentation ever started more than a few minutes late, and the mics and video worked well.

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Here’s what we saw during the four days:

The show opened Thursday with a mediocre improv of TOS (The Original Star Trek) by some guys from Texas. Aside from an amusing double take when the security guy realizes he’s wearing a red shirt — and is therefore certain to be killed — it wasn’t that great.

It was followed by a presentation by Denis Russell, who worked on the original opticals for TOS. Denis seems like a nice guy, but is the world’s worst speaker, and I’m still not sure he knows what an optical is.

Throughout the convention there were some interesting lunches at Benihana, but although we had gold passes that included almost everything, lunches weren’t part of it, so I won’t describe them.

After lunch things picked up with an amusing presentation by Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Rand on TOS) and Robert Walker, guest star of the Charlie X episode. Raised by aliens, Charlie has some trouble adapting to human ways. In one famous scene he swats Rand on the butt as he passes her in the corridor. Whitney has had a rough life, which she’s only recently gotten back on track, and Walker talked about his (apparently famous) parents. They had a good rapport.

Next up was LeVar Burton. He’s an incredibly intelligent and well-spoken man, who talked about the impact of Roots, and his rather extensive directing experience. He just starting a new movie with Stan Lee. An amazing number of people thanked him for his 28 years of work on PBS’ Reading Rainbow.

John de Lancie played Q on TNG (Star Trek the Next Generation), DS9 (Deep Space 9), and Voyager. (I don’t know if he was on Enterprise, as I haven’t seen most of that yet. ) He is very involved in producing classical music concerts and legitimate theater, and is a long-time friend of Kate Mulgrew.

Robin Curtis was a Vulcan in the movie The Seach for Spock. We skipped her presentation.

Corbin Bernsen played Q2 on TNG. We skipped this.

I couldn’t figure out who Dean Haglund is until someone told me he was one of the computer guys on the X-Files, a show I’ve never seen. So why is he at a Star Trek convention? Apparently he makes a career of touring the various conventions (more than one a month) doing improv. His show was hysterical! He began by explaining that the plot of all X-Files episodes is the same: some weird creature is discovered and then the government spend the rest of the hour denying it. So he invited the audience to suggest the creature (I think we ended up with a stoat-moose-rabbit) and then selected audience members to help him perform three sketches:

  1. Audience member attempts to make verbal sound effects as Dean describes the action — and comments on their sound effects.
  2. Audience member provides Dean’s arms as Dean acts out a scene — including taking questions from the audience: “Yes, you sir… no, not the one I’m pointing at, the one I’m looking at. “
  3. Audience member attempts to move Dean’s body as Dean — spastically — describes the climax.

Very funny stuff.

Thursday night was a private party for the gold ticket holders — at least 500 of us — at the Star Trek Experience attraction. Buffet food was served in Quark’s Bar, which looks a lot like the one on DS9, and seats the same dozen people. Entertainment was mostly by Chase Masterson, who played Lita, one of Quark’s Dabo girls, and is a pretty good nightclub singer, and Vaughn Armstrong (Admiral Forrest on Enterprise), who has a country band. The Star Trek Experience attraction was also open, with its astonishing transporter effect, which makes it seem as if you are “beamed” aboard the Enterprise. Also open was the new Borg Encounter, which is an excellent show incorporating live actors, 3D Hidef video and effects. Both are top notch shows.

Friday began before lunch, but we skipped the presentation by Gwynyth Walsh. We did get her autograph later, and she looks much better than this in person.

Garrett Wang (Ensign Harry Kim on Voyager) was a delightful speaker and did some very funny impersonations of Kate Mulgrew. He hung out with the attendees later, and seems like a really nice guy.

After lunch we met the first of four captains appearing at the convention, Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway of Voyager). Kate is just back from two months in Ireland with one of her twenty-something sons, where they were writing poetry and stories. She’s in Tea at Five, the popular one-woman show about Catherine Hepburn, and is enjoying being 50 and slowing down a bit.

Max Grodenchik and Chase Masterson played Quark’s slow brother Rom and Quark’s Dabo girl Lita on DS9. They took the stage together, and couldn’t be more dissimilar (well, maybe in makeup they could). Max is incredibly shy, and Lita incredibly outgoing. We met them in person later in the dealer room, where we bought photos and CDs. They were both very generous with their time.

Gary Graham plays Vulcan Ambassador Soval on Enterprise. We skipped this presentation.

Marina Sirtis and Micahel Dorn played Counselor Troi and Klingon Warf on TNG. Michael was busy finishing a photo op (pose with the star of your choice, sort of like Madame Tussaud’s) so Marina came out first and told us all the ways to tease Michael when he came out. They are obviously great friends, and were very entertaining.

After the show we headed back to the hotel to change, and went to Valentino’s for dinner. This was a bit disappointing, as the Wine Spectator names it one of America’s top ten, but they must be referring to the one in Los Angeles. The wine list, though extensive, had no older wines, and the Italian food was challenging and not particularly great.

Saturday we arrived in time to see Penny Johnson Jerald, who plays Cassidy, Captain Sisko’s girlfriend on DS9. Cassidy is one of our least favorite characters, because the two of them appear to have absolutely no chemistry. Oddly, Penny’s presentation consisted mostly of telling us how great their chemistry was.

Connor Trineer (“Trip” from Enterprise) wasn’t scheduled to appear, but at the last minute Jolene Blalock (T’Pol from Enterprise) cancelled. Jolene seemed to be persona non grata with the organizers, but Connor was a great sport and showed up with less than 24 hours notice.

Robbie McNeill (Tom Paris from Voyager) has been busy directing, including many episodes of Desperate Housewives.

Rosalind Chao played Keiko, O’Brien’s wife, on TNG and DS9. We missed most of this presentation.

Jeffrey Combs has played several roles on DS9 and Enterprise, including Brunt and Weyun. He joined Vaughn Armstrong (Admiral Forrest from Enterprise) and Casey Biggs (Damar on DS9) for a live musical performance. Armstrong is a good bluegrass musician, and Biggs has a wonderful voice. Combs was truly awful. Nice guy, though.

Speaking of singing, James Darren, Linda’s heartthrob from the 60’s was up next. This guy was playing Moondoggie in Gidget movies in the 1950s, and he looks younger than me. On DS9 he play holographic nightclub singer Vic Fontaine, and introduced a new generation to the classic Vegas songs of the 50’s.

Avery Brooks played Captain Sisko on DS9. He was the first black to receive an MFA in both acting and directing, which he did simultaneously. He has been a professor at Rutgers sin 1972, and tenured since the 80’s. He also directed my favorite DS9 episode, Far Beyond the Stars, in which he plays a 1950s sci-fi pulp writer who is the victim of discrimination. Needless to say, Avery is an a amazing speaker. Afterwards he signed autographs with Penny Johnson Jerald, and their chemistry seemed OK. Avery stopped Dani in the autograph line to shake her hand and talk with her for a minute, and it’s the only time I’ve seen her nearly speechless.

After a quick bite at the Mexican restaurant down the hall (it’s the only decent restaurant in the Hilton, so we’ve eaten there three times in three days) we returned for the world premier of Star Trek: The Concert. 34 members of The Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Richard McGee, played all of the great Star Trek themes in chronological order. McGee was obviously also a fan, and his comments between pieces were quite enlightening. The orchestra was quite good except for a couple of horn players who should be taken for a ride in the desert. Composer Dennis McCarthy came onstage to conduct his themes from DS9 and the movie Generations.

The concert included an interlude for a vocal performance by Nana Visitor (Kira from DS9) but although she was at the convention she cancelled this performance for some reason. The already overworked James Darren gamely took her place, although I’m sure he felt ridiculous standing in the middle of an orchestra and singing to a prerecorded track.

The concert was followed by a Dessert Party with a live band and more entertainment by James Darren and others, but it was crowded and not very intimate in the huge convention space, so we left after only a few minutes.

Sunday began with a DS9 reunion featuring Nana Visitor (Kira), Rene Auberjonois (Odo) and Armin Shimerman (Quark). There was great chemistry between the three of them, and it was lots of fun. To raise money for charity, in the autograph line Rene was doing individual sketches for $10. He drew a picture of Odo’s bucket with a word balloon saying, “Dani. “

At noon Patrick Stewart arrived from Vancouver (where he has been filming X3) for a rare convention appearance. Patrick is living in London, and has rejoined the Royal Shakespeare Company. He will appear in several plays throughout 2006, and at one time or another next summer, all 37 will be produced. Patrick is clearly an ACTOR, but he takes his Star Trek notoriety with good grace.

Shatner is just so damn funny! An aspiring actor asked for advise and Shatner said, “So you want to know what you can do to be famous, rich, have the yacht, the babes, everything? Nothing. It’s all luck. “Actor, author, horse trainer, musician; this guy is busy. During his presentation he auctioned off a number of items for charity. Most interesting was your chance to be in his next Star Trek book. Two people paid $5000 each. Patrick Stewart joined him on stage momentarily before departing.

After Shatner’s stage appearance we hurried over to the dealer’s room to pose for a picture with him, a father’s day gift from Dani. We got to exchange a few words and I left him a copy of one of my books.

Following the photo op we caught most of Brent Spiner’s (Data on TNG) presentation. Brent is a really funny guy, and has an absolutely dead-on Patrick Stewart impression. (Patrick was earlier asked if he had a Brent imitation and he said, “You know why all those guys imitate me? It’s because they want to BE me. “)

The convention wound up with Robert Beltran, Chakotay on Voyager. Of all the celebrities there, Beltran was the only one who seemed to have an “attitude,” and he might not have been the best choice to wrap things up.

Here’s Dani posing with a couple of passers-by in the dealer’s room. I’m not sure if the Klingon and Andorian were from the Star Trek Experience, or were show attendees.

A parting shot of Dani who, through the magic of digital imagery, appears with the DS9 cast. Wrap Up: Since a big focus of the show is autographs, which we now have coming out of our (Ferengi) ears, I don’t think I’d buy a gold ticket to another convention. But it was a lot of fun, and I’d certainly consider a day pass to future conventions.

Las Vegas 2000

In the Fall of 2000 most of The Wine Syndicate group went to Las Vegas, where we stayed at the Venetian. We had some great lunches, dinners and tastings, and also found time for Star Trek The Experience, a tour of Caesar’s Magical Empire, and “O’ at the Bellagio..


The Alcorns, Crockets, Henlines, Robinsons and Siegels.


Thursday, October 12th. Dinner in Red Square at Mandalay Bay.

Friday Dinner in Picasso at Bellagio. Yes, that’s an original behind the Henlines.

Saturday Lunch at Stratosphere’s Top of the World restaurant: Dining at 887 feet.

We capped off our trip with a grand tasting (and 4-1/2 hour dinner!) Saturday night at Delmonico Steakhouse, which graciously provided the appropriate glassware, plus and superb food and service.

Delmonico Tasting Wines:

79 Grands Echezeaux & DRC Echezaux
86 & 91 BV GDLTPR
Guenoc Cabernet Franc
Far Niente Cabernet
86 Ch. Mouton Rothschild
Lynch Bages
91 Dominus
81 Ch. d’Yquem

Los Angeles, Las Vegas & Grand Canyon in Art 1996

Grand Canyon 96
The annual “Return of the WEDI” trip in 1996 went to the Grand Canyon for the only time.

When I travel I like to keep a journal so I can experience the trip again, years later. Now I use a laptop, but when Dani was little both of use kept travel journals using blank books and colored pencils. Here is a journal I made of our December 1996 trip to the West. Photos from this trip may be found in the Family and WEDI sections.

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Bryce, Lake Powell, Grand Canyon 1980

In December 1980 we took a driving trip throughout the western United States, visiting Las Vegas, Zion, Bryce, Lake Powell, and the Grand Canyon. Linda drove her faithful RX-3 station wagon, while I took photographs. We enjoyed the brisk weather, and the solitude afforded by the nearly empty National Parks.

Utah 1980
Linda’s venerable RX-3 Station Wagon, somewhere in Utah. This picture was taken shortly after we learned what “black ice” was, and we were probably stopped to change our underwear.

Not US89 1980
Yup. This is definitely NOT US-89.

Bryce 1980
Bryce Canyon. We stayed at a colorful place called “Ruby’s Inn”. I’ll never forget the mattress. We finally put it on the floor.

Lake Powell 1980
Lake Powell. It was like glass.

Col River Linda 1980
Sunbathing along the Colorado River. I suggested a bikini, but she was worried about snow.

Col River Steve 1980
This canyon gets much deeper, downstream.

GC Linda 1980
Grand Canyon. Linda held this tree up for a while…

GC Steve 1980
…then I took over.

gc 80
Dangerous to overlook this overlook.

GC Car 1980
We stayed at the El Tovar, and it snowed the night before we left. This was cute until we couldn’t get the car started.