Wednesday, January 18, 2012

2012 Began In Vegas

Simply put: I don't know what to do with myself in Las Vegas. I don't gamble. I don't go to clubs. I don't drink much.
Nevertheless, Erinn and I joined my two roommates and a couple others on a trip to Las Vegas for New Year's Eve and we really enjoyed ourselves. Erinn and I haven't been to Las Vegas since we were kids so this was our first Vegas trip as adults.

Really the draw for us was the Paris Casino and a few other themed casinos. Paris, the Luxor, the Venetian, and New York look so cool because they've created a sort of miniaturized version of the places they represent. The Paris hotel has a scaled down Eiffel Tower. The Luxor is a glass pyramid. The New York hotel is a grouping of famous New York skyscrapers. And the Venetian has canals where you can take a gondola ride with a man who will sing to you! All of these novelties are very fun to look at when you're walking around the Vegas Strip with very little cash.

For us, it started at the Gold Coast Casino buffet, which is where we met up with our other New Year's companions Mike, Laura, Tyler, and Garrett. They had all gotten to Vegas the night before and didn't get much sleep. The popcorn shrimp and cheesecake was pretty good, but not much else.

We then split up with plans to regroup later that evening. Erinn and I walked to the strip, got lost in the Bellagio, and made our way to the Paris Casino. The Las Vegas strip has a number of walkways that take you over the street to decrease pedestrian congestion at street corners, but there were so many people there on New Year's Eve it was chaotic. We had a fun time dodging crowds, avoiding those people who hand out flyers with naked people on them, and finally found the front of Paris.

The Paris Hotel is very beautiful. The exterior is made up mostly of a replica Eiffel Tower and a building in the shape of a hot air balloon. And everything is covered in lights. Once you get inside, you feel like you're walking down a parisian street complete with restaurants, cafes, and shops each with their own street-like facade. The ceiling is designed to look like the sky and the outdoor lights and benches really complete the scene. This is typical of many of the hotels on the strip which have a distinct theme like those I mentioned earlier. New York, The Venetian, and others have a Disneyesque feel to them on their main levels, each unique to their respective names. However, drift a bit from the main rooms with all their simulated streets and you'll come across black jack tables and slot machines like you'll find in any other hotel.

There's an elevator in the Paris Hotel which will take you up the Eiffel Tower for something like 18 bucks, but Erinn and I decided to save our money. I enjoyed walking around the hotel feeling like I was in some smokey, Americanized version of Paris, but I know we'd both prefer to save our money to see the real thing. The crepes looked delicious, but if I'm going to pay 10 bucks for one, I'd rather be doing it in France.

We continued down the strip, but very slowly. Walking the sidewalks on New Year's Eve is a bit like going to Wal-Mart on Black Friday, except with more booze and snakes. Did I mention the snakes, yet? At several (yes, several) points along the strip, there were snake handlers hoping to get some money thrown into their hats. Also Wonder Woman, bagpipers, and some guy trying to sell his burnt cd for 5 bucks. Finally we made it to the New York Hotel.

Our afternoon continued on this way until we met up with Tyler and Garret and started walking back to our hotel. What's great is that at this point, the strip had been closed down to vehicles and was open only to pedestrians. This made our walk much faster. By around 5pm, we had gotten down to Excalibur, which put us about 2 miles from our hotel. It took us a few hours to get that far south on the strip that afternoon, but it only took about 50 minutes to walk back up.

We met in the room with Mike and Laura, split up again for dinner, met again in the room and started walking to the strip again around 8 or 9 (Erinn and I were singing songs from The Little Mermaid for some reason).

This is when the celebration for New Year's Eve really started. People were everywhere and there was this party feeling even though everyone else was just walking around like we were. The six of us lost each other a few times, but we just kept moving, looking around. We ended up in front of the Bellagio so we could watch their fountain show until midnight when fireworks were supposed to start. So here we sat, watching the fountain, watching people, talking with each other. When midnight came there was a countdown on a big screen overlooking the strip, and a fireworks show began. It was pretty impressive. The fireworks were being shot off eight different hotels all along the strip. We were right in front of the Paris Hotel, so these were the ones we paid the most attention to, but it was pretty amazing looking up and down the street to see all the towering hotels shooting fire from their rooftops. When the fireworks eventually stopped (and they seemed to go on for ages) we said "Happy New Year" to each other once again and walked slowly back to our hotel.

The next morning, after checking out, Erinn and I said goodbye to the group and headed off on our own adventure in the pursuit of delicious food.

It was definitely different from most of my other New Year's celebrations. Usually I end up at some friend's house for a New Year's party. I think last year a few of us had a shindig at my house and we played Rock Band all night. This was a fun change of pace and Erinn and I love getting out of town. I don't plan on going back to Vegas for another New Year's Eve, but I'm glad I went this time.

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Erinn and I drove to the coast last week so she could take the CSET. The actual test wasn't much fun for either of us, but it's always nice to get out of town for a bit. She lost her mind scraping her brain clean during the test while I read at a park down the street. Alright, I guess my part sounds pretty nice.

We then took a short drive south to Solvang to walk around and soak in all its Dutchiness, ate a Cream Puff at a local dutch bakery, and continued down highway 101 to Santa Barbara. Again, we parked, walked around the town, and soaked in its niceness. There's no comparison between Solvang and Bakersfield or Santa Barbara and Bakersfield. There aren't any places in town where one would go simply to walk around and window shop.

That particular evening, Santa Barbara was having a farmer's market on State Street. Erinn and I made a few passes at one of the stands getting a bunch of samples of cheese before giving in and buying one called Garlic Jack that is super delicious. I bought Erinn some daisies and she bought some tangerines.

I'm sure Erinn would like me to point out that tangerines are hard to come by in a typical grocery store. You can get "cuties", clementines, or "small oranges" any day, but tangerines must be too tasty to keep around at Albertson's.

We then walked back up the street to our car in time for parking to be free (ah, yeah!) and started a lazy drive home. I love slow drives with no rush. We get to talk, listen to music, listen to movies play in the car, make stops whenever we want. When we got to Valencia, we made an impromptu stop at BevMo and picked up a handful of rootbeers. Then we stopped at Islands for a burger before heading north for Bakersfield.

It was a nice, quick trip. Solvang is pretty, but kind of boring on a weekday, especially if you're not hungry. Bring an appetite and walking shoes. Santa Barbara and the whole area that surrounds it is beautiful.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A New Year to Travel

This New Year's Eve I was determined to join my friends on their trip to Las Vegas. I am not much of a gambler or drinker, but I don't often give myself time to spend with friends and this seemed like a great opportunity to do something different for New Year's with people I care about. My two roommates and close friends, Tyler and Mike, booked a room at the Gold Coast Hotel for New Year's weekend and off we were.

Yet this was only half of our trip. Erinn, my lovely girlfriend, hasn't visited many places outside of California but we've started venturing out on trips in an effort to see the world. The combination of wanderlust and boredom with our current hometown keeps us restless and constantly looking for new places to visit. The Grand Canyon? Yellowstone? Those and many more are on the agenda.
Erinn never went many places growing up except to Disneyland once or twice a year and occasionally she went to California's Central Coast on trips with her family. Conversely, I've been on quite a few trips around the country with my family.

For my family it began, more or less, with short camping trips to the coast, sometimes just a night or two in Morro Bay or San Simeon. Then we went on longer camping trips all around California and into Oregon, once going camping for about a week in Mammoth, once camping in Oregon at Diamond Lake, taking day trips to Crater Lake or boating around on Diamond Lake. On longer trips like the one to Oregon, we would camp at various points along the drive, stopping in Eureka for a night at a KOA (Kampgrounds of America) or in San Simeon at the State Park. When I was in high school we started going on longer summer trips across the country, staying in hotels. We once flew to Washington D.C. One time we took a train from Los Angeles to Kansas City where my dad rented a car and we drove all around the midwest, visiting family, stopping at odd and interesting museums and historical sites, and just generally taking in the country. We also took my grandparents on a roundtrip drive from California to Missouri where they grew up. Looking back on it, those were some pretty cool trips.

The shame is that I never really appreciated these trips while I was on them. Occasionally we would stop somewhere that interested me (Graceland, The Parthenon, The St. Louis Arch, Mt. Vernon) but mostly I was an insufferable companion, always complaining about the length of the drive, the boring stops we had to make along the way, the heat, the humidity. It wasn't until I was making trips of my own that I began to see the fun in the entire experience. Last August, Erinn and I went to North Carolina and Tennessee and we both said something nice about the humidity. Wha?? Traveling for yourself brings a different perspective.

Being on the road is freeing. It is a pleasure just to be away from the responsibilities of home, seeing a new landscape develop in front of you as you slowly make your way down an unfamiliar road. Often enjoying the journey even more than the destination. These were foreign ideas to me as a teenager, but are very real to me now as I look forward to each new trip, big or small.

And the best part is that I get to share this with Erinn, my best friend. I am lucky enough to have seen many states with my family, but each trip with Erinn feels like I'm seeing these places with new eyes. Erinn may never have been to Nashville before we went together, but I must not have been looking the first time around because it all feels new. My eyes are open!

And so it is that I decided to start recording bits of our trips in blog form. This is an attempt to remember these trips better while still writing something interesting. Hopefully I'll be able to hit both of those notes with this blog. So, off we go! Off to Las Vegas, Cracker Barrel, and the Grand Canyon Caverns!

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