Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year in Las Vegas

After breakfast we napped a while, then I caught up on writing my blog while Brett went out in search of a shirt to wear tonight. He didn’t manage to bring back a shirt, but did pick up a couple of tickets to the Cirque du Soleil show, Zumanity. We did the roller-coaster outside New YorkNew York before lunch (surprisingly it was less thrilling than the previous night’s ride at the Sahara!) – then did some more napping in the late afternoon to make sure we were up for reaching midnight then got up and headed back along to New York – New York for the show.

Las Vegas Boulevard is closed to traffic for New Year’s Eve and crowds were already beginning to gather along its length and at the massive eight-lane intersections. Revelry had started early in the afternoon as people started drinking. There were hawkers all along The Strip offering silly hats, air-horns, sparkly necklaces, etc. and Budweiser had set up trailers at intervals along the roadside which appeared to be nothing more than big beer kegs. They were serving into what looked like two- or three-pint plastic mugs with handles that looked a bit like the measuring jugs back home and pretty much everyone under the age of thirty seemed to be carrying one. For all the drinking going on though, everything was good-natured.

The show Zumanity is a somewhat naughty, somewhat erotic cabaret stage-show of humour, song, gymnastics and dance; all very enjoyable, and it provided us with free feather-boas which later proved a big hit on The Strip.

The crowd had thickened by the time we’d finished the show and had a quick bite to eat. It wasn’t oppressive though and throughout remained very well-behaved, if a little loud at times – but that was all part of the celebration. At (roughly) a minute before midnight all of the big display screens outside the major casinos put up the same countdown – which were amusingly out of synch with each other – and we joined in the chant as midnight approached and the fireworks began.

Having seen New Year’s Eve firework shows in London and Edinburgh, I have to say I was rather disappointed with Las Vegas. We were worried to begin with that, being stuck at the end of The Strip, we might not get the full effect. In the end though we needn’t have worried as the display was identical from the top of each of the hotels participating. There wasn’t any choreography or synchronisation to music, it was just the sequential letting-off of a vast number of fireworks; really nothing I couldn’t have organised myself with the right budget down at Fireworks R Us! Still it was an impressive sound and light show and rounded-off the evening nicely.

The fireworks were done before a quarter-past the hour and the crowd began to disperse. I tried calling home, suspecting my parents would already be up by 8am GMT, but the network couldn’t connect the call – predictably, I suppose. Back at the hotel we were straight to bed as we had an early start planned for our last day.

More Vegas

Today seems to be the day of the mobile phone. It’s been pretty much silent through the trip so far but this morning at 3:40am I got a call from Ryan C, a guy I worked with at Saga, to tell me he was at a loose end in London and did I fancy a coffee. At 4am I got a text message from Jeremy F inviting us to birthday drinks later in the week. Around 9am Chris C called from home to wish me a happy New Year and advise me on the best place to see the New Year fireworks in Vegas. Since then there’s been a steady stream of text messages from people wishing us Happy New Year.

We had actually planned a 5am start this morning to catch the sunrise that we missed yesterday, so on the whole the messages weren’t a problem. As we were dressing, the TV news told us that New Zealand had already celebrated the New Year (at 3am local time) and briefly contemplated the huge Earth spinning on its stately axis; I thought of one of my work colleagues who is down there with his family. They were already in 2008 while we had another 19 hours to go!

We drove out to a viewpoint outside the city as dawn was beginning to break and I think I got some good pictures of that, although I’ll probably need to carefully process the shots of the first sunlight hitting the hills beyond, as the morning was hazy again. There was a distinct layer of grey/green smog hanging over the valley this morning. Not pretty!

After that early morning outing we came back to the hotel, napped a while then went down to the buffet for a second (more substantial) breakfast. It was busier this morning than it had been at dinner the first night and we had to queue for a while to get in (another parallel with Disney; endless queue-management in front of each attraction…)

Then we took a stroll through the connecting shopping mall to the Mandalay Bay hotel next door; a much nicer joint than the somewhat down-at-heel Luxor! Whenever I come back to complete my exploration of Vegas, that’s where I want to stay.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Viva Las Vegas

Sunday started early; Las Vegas is two hours behind Dallas and I had been having trouble adjusting my sleep pattern anyway, so at 5am I was wide awake. I coaxed Brett out of bed to come with me to do some early morning photography in the hills surrounding the city.

We paused in the hotel food court for McBreakfast. The place was deserted apart from a few folks who looked like extras from Jerry Springer, The Opera; one was clearly a Working Girl finishing her ‘shift’ and then there was the couple who looked like the very definition of trailer-trash… hollow eyes, grey skin, long greasy-looking hair, wearing shellsuits. Actually, they seem to make up about half of the denizens of the casino; very few of the folks playing all those slot machines look like they can afford it. There is a certain horrible pathos about the look of them and the looks on their faces; glazed concentration, tinged with a vain, slightly desperate hope. If Dante were alive today, he’d include endless rows of slot machines as one of his circles of Hell.

Anyway, by the time we got into the desert the sun was already well up and a haze was beginning to form so I didn’t get the early-morning-sunlight-on-the-hills shots that I was hoping for. However just being in the desert in the morning was worthwhile in itself. It is pure and silent and beautiful – quite the refreshing contrast to the clutter and noise of the city.

After a couple of hours driving a circuit through the desert west of the city, we headed southeast with a view to visiting the Hoover Dam which isn’t far away. We stopped briefly in Boulder City for a coffee and to visit a cash machine and I was impressed by the township; it was almost chocolate-box pretty, very well kept and the people we encountered in the Starbucks gave it a real small-community feel.

From Boulder the road was clear (and in very good condition compared to Texas!) until a couple of miles from the dam, when it slowed to a stop-start queue for the rest of the way. There was a security checkpoint a mile or so before the dam itself where the police were randomly pulling cars aside to search (because terrorists would never plan for that!) but the congestion seemed to be caused simply by the weight of traffic on a narrow mountain highway leading to a tourist attraction.

The dam is located very picturesquely and we decided that, having come all this way, we should take the full tour which, as well as visiting the turbine rooms, involved a trip into the heart of the dam itself. I was surprised by their policy on photography though – they were happy for us to take as many as we liked. A far cry from the camera Nazis you find in some places! I think my personal highlights were standing in one of the bypass tunnels and looking at the enormous 30-foot wide pipe which delivers water to the generators and later looking out of a ventilation duct in the face of the dam and thinking of the huge mass of water behind me. Seeing one of the actual turbines in pieces for an upgrade was pretty impressive too!

Back at the hotel we got cleaned up for the evening and tried to plan our remaining time in Las Vegas. Having only come here for a few days, expecting it to get old fairly quickly, I’m surprised by how much I want to do while I’m here; it really is a grown-up Disneyworld! We’ve booked ourselves onto a helicopter and trail-wagon tour of the Grand Canyon for early New Year’s day before our flight and are planning to do the Star Trek Experience tomorrow, as well as some day time photography along The Strip.

We took the monorail from the MGM Grand all the way along to Sahara Station and walked from there to the Stratosphere with a view to having dinner there either tonight or tomorrow. They were fully booked for tonight but weren’t sure about New Years Eve (!?) and we should contact their reservation line to check… In the end we ate at the Nascar CafĂ© in the Sahara before riding the little rollercoaster they have and taking the monorail back south.

The journey on the monorail is accompanied by two recorded voices; one is the overly solicitous lady trying to make sure no-one sues anyone by warning you to hold on to the handrail every time the car accelerates or decelerates and lets you know that the doors are about to close and what the next stop is… the other voice is the cheesiest talk-show-host kind of inane drivel and terrible jokes. It would be so much better if they just played you some elevator music while you look out of the windows, as the monorail gives you scenic views of most of the big hotels on both the old and new parts of the Strip.

On the way back to the Luxor, we got off a stop early and went to see the Bellagio Fountain show.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Transfer Day

Dinner with Kevin & Chris was delicious; we went to a rather smart steakhouse and had some very tasty beef. The only complaint was that the desserts were too big; seriously, they were obscenely large even with two people sharing!

On Saturday morning, after overnighting with K&C, we headed back to the parents’ for some brief packing and then on to the airport. The flight to Las Vegas was cramped and too warm but otherwise uneventful. On arrival we could see our hotel (The Luxor) as we disembarked from the plane but, to pick up our hire car, we had to go and find the Car Rental Centre (a courtesy bus ride away) and then find out which of the rental companies was the agent for Auto-Europe (the company Opodo named, without further instructions, as our car provider.)

Eventually in possession of a maroon retro-design Chevrolet we navigated a congested Las Vegas Boulevard to the hotel, only to find we had further major navigation to do to find the check-in through the casino!

The hotel is a pyramid, but it’s only a shell. The hotel rooms are contained in the shell – meaning the lifts move diagonally; a very strange feeling the first time you use them. In the void within the pyramid is a lower floor containing the casino, restaurants and bars and an upper floor containing the other attractions (more retail, a wedding chapel, a museum and a theatre.) There’s also a further level below the ground floor whose only public area seems to be a large buffet restaurant.

We ate and then set out to explore The Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard.) We didn’t really get very far, just completing a circuit between the four casinos near our intersection; the Excalibur, the Tropicana, New York – New York and the MGM Grand. It took a while, even with the overhead walkways connecting the buildings, especially as I kept wanting to take pictures of everything. We were pretty tired though and got a relatively early night, not long after 9pm local time.

Friday, December 28, 2007

More Shopping

More shopping today; Brett got the suitcase he’s been after and I got a couple of pairs of trainers and a pair of formal shoes to wear with my suits. We headed out around White Rock Lake, where I got some good photos last year, but alas nothing looked good this time around, the season being most definitely Winter rather than Fall.

After lunch by the lake we headed back to Susan’s to pick up her, Jesse and Steve and go to watch I Am Legend, the new Will Smith movie. It turned out to be very good; excellent creation of an abandoned Manhattan (can’t wait to see The Making Of… to find out just how they did that!) and a great performance by Will Smith, who is the only person we see for most of the movie. I’d definitely recommend you go see it – but go see it with a friend you can hold on to during the scarier bits!

Off out for dinner and drinks with Kevin & Chris tonight and then Vegas tomorrow!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Day in a Paragraph

Bit of a so-so day; did more shopping and bought good cheap stuff. Was suffering from a possibly-migraine headache through most of the day though so was pretty slothful. Shops in the morning, lunch at the family restaurant (including minor family tiff), a bit more shopping after lunch, coffee with Kevin again (more conversation today though) and then home. We were supposed to be having dinner with an old friend of Brett’s today but I wasn’t feeling up to going out and Brett felt that he could do with a quiet night as well, so we rearranged.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day

Brett’s mum did us a cooked breakfast this morning. I ducked out of the gravy (really a savoury white sauce) and had jam on my biscuits (actually light, scone-like cakes) instead, which seemed to satisfy honour all round. (Brett has given me lots of grief previously about not appreciating the American tradition that is Biscuits & Gravy for breakfast…)

We (Brett, Donna and me) headed out to a nearby opticians mid-morning to get Brett some new glasses made, as his prescription has changed recently. From there we headed on to Northpark Mall for what ended up being a not-very-satisfying shopping trip. Everything was more crowded than it had been on Christmas Eve and neither Brett nor I managed to find much of what we were after. After we’d given up on the shopping we met up with Kevin and Carter for a coffee at the nearby Barnes & Noble bookshop. I also picked up a book I’ve looked at a few times but always resisted buying; 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.

Dinner had been planned for a Tex-Mex place called Chilli Gordo’s. I recall we ate there last time we were here and the food was good. Sarah & Andy and family were there, along with Susan & Ali’s crew. We headed back to their place for dessert and coffee afterwards and had a few games of Spades. After the game though, I fear I wasn’t much company as I managed to doze off again. Don’t know what’s the matter with me; I’m normally much better at getting over jetlag than this.

Headed home afterwards and straight to bed.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day

Christmas Day was another early awakening, followed by reading until the house stirred. Nothing much happened in the morning. We went over to Sarah and Andy’s place for lunch, along with Jim & Donna and Susan & Ali and their family and had a pleasant few hours. I’d forgotten that Andy keeps tropical fish and lizards.

In the afternoon we took in a couple of movies; firstly, The Golden Compass with Ali which I wasn’t too impressed with. The storyline seemed too hurried and wasn’t particularly well written. After a brief trip back home, we went on to see Sweeny Todd with Kevin. This was a much better movie; from what I recall a fairly faithful rendering of the Sondheim story. It looks very much like you would expect Tim Burton movie to look but then, given the story, how could it look better? They don’t stint the gore, though; each slashed throat is seen in excruciating close-up.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

In the end we were an hour and a half late getting away from Gatwick and I think that time tipped the flight into the interminable range. The gap between onboard meals didn’t help either. After eight hours of fasting, a small chicken roll and a 3cm square of fruitcake isn’t enough to satisfy me.

Unusually the standard US welcoming formalities (standing in line for an hour to be photographed and fingerprinted by Immigration) didn’t piss me off and once I had been processed by the bureaucracy, we were straight through to pick the luggage and out to meet Ali and his son Jesse, who had come to collect us.

The moon had only just risen as we drove across Dallas and it was massive in the sky. I wished I had taken my camera as carry-on baggage, rather than leaving it buried in my suitcase where it would have been a real hassle to get out.

Back at the ranch Donna was cooking up spaghetti and not long after we arrived, most of the rest of the family showed up to welcome us. After dinner we played board games until people were ready to head home. I think the napping on the plane helped me avoid dozing off too early in the evening and in the end we lasted until around 10pm before turning in for the night.

Christmas Eve started early for me; jetlag had me awake around 4am so I lazed and read a while until we headed out for breakfast with Brett’s dad to the nearby Waffle House. Jim likes the venue and since it’s open (I think) 24-hours a day, it’s the ideal spot for us to get breakfast when we’re up really early.

Brett and I took the festive turkey over to Susan’s house late morning and then went on to some of the nearby malls to do some shopping. We were surprised by how un-busy it was for Christmas Eve but weren’t going to complain. In the end I bought a couple of new suits, shirts and ties, a couple of pairs of jeans (I mean, at £12 for a pair of Levi 501’s, how could I not?? They’re £40-60 in the UK!) and some new chinos. Brett was looking for stuff too but didn’t find what he was after.

Around 6pm we headed back to Susan’s house for the Christmas dinner and present opening. The whole family was there and a substantial amount of food was laid on. After eating, the family gathered in the den to open the Christmas presents arrayed before the tree. There followed the inevitable chaos as the younger nephews and nieces set to. Carter and Joey both received Transformers toys which can be changed from being a rifle which shoots foam darts into either a plane or a truck. The two of them spent the rest of the evening constantly changing them back and forth; there was no game-play with the toys in either configuration (apart from occasional shooting of darts at people) the joy of the toy seemed to be in changing it from one configuration into the other. And this they did, with gusto.

My recollection of the end of the evening is vague; I think I began to nod-off before 10pm.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Christmas Trip Begins

Well, once again the Magical Packing Fairies failed to show up and I was left to organise my own suitcase. Turns out I was better organised than Brett though as he still had packing to do after the alarm went off (at 5am!) this morning.

London is blanketted under a heavy fog this morning but the traffic was lighter than I'd feared. A bit of congestion on the approach to the terminal is all. For once BAA had everything working and the 'security' process was rapid.

We boarded on time but are now being de-iced while awaiting a slot from Air Traffic Control. The Captain reckons it could be an hour...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Perfect Moment

Today felt like a holiday; a really nice holiday.

I was only in work for a couple of hours. I arrived straight into a good meeting, proof-read and sent a report I’d written yesterday, did an interview over video conference with a potential new recruit in Bologna and then got on a train to Oxford. It’s the company Christmas party tonight but I’m skipping that this year to hear the BBC Singers sing music from the Tudor period in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford.

I arrived at the hotel around 3pm. Brett had booked us a room at the Malmaison which is a converted gaol. It’s all very nicely done and I especially loved the heated slate bathroom floor! As Brett wasn’t due until early evening I had a wander around the town centre. I think I probably have been here before, but likely on a very brief city tour with a group as I don’t recognise it particularly. Some of the town reminds me of Edinburgh – grand architecture in white stone – but not much of it is Georgian and the architectural styles vary quite a bit.

Brett arrived a little after five, a bit worried about whether we’d make the concert on time (it was due to start at 6pm.) In the end we had no difficulty as the College was only a ten-minute walk from the hotel. The chapel was everything you would expect from an Oxbridge College; candlelight, carved stone and wood, stained glass, stalls and pews lining the walls. It was also quite cold, which tempered the enjoyment somewhat. The music was lovely, although I don’t think the acoustic was sufficiently good to really let you hear all forty parts of Spem In Alium. I’m looking forward to downloading the MP3 when the performance is broadcast tomorrow night, in the hope that the positioning of the microphones will make the recording clearer.

The College itself looked well worth a visit too and we both agreed we’d like to come back to Oxford to explore it more closely. Looks like a weekend break in the Spring is in the offing!

Afterwards we strolled back to the hotel and had dinner in the brasserie before retiring for an early night in our beautifully appointed cell.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Beowulf et al

A good day today; got the telecom terms and conditions agreed, got the SAN and the Scottish ISP change signed-off, got the outstanding IT Policy written, got my monthly report drafted and cleared my inbox.
To finish the day off nicely had a leisurely dinner with Ping at 'Canteen' under the Festival Hall then went to see Beowulf in 3D at the Waterloo IMAX. Really enjoyed the movie; a good, (truly!) classic plot with lots of human grit and ambiguity. The CGI was excellent; photorealistic in places! The 3D was used to good effect throughout. Only fly in the ointment was the almost comical, Austin Powers-esque modesty protection of the naked hero. Apart from that it didn't feel like a Hollywood movie at all. Would watch it again.
Home to pack now; off to Oxford tomorrow for a concert at Merton College and a night in a smart hotel with Brett.