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Friday, August 16, 2013

John & Kirk's Epic trip out west: Part 1 - Las Vegas and San Diego (and Rancho Cucamonga)

The trip threatened to get off to a very bumpy start - at least for me. I went into Manhattan to work from my mid-town office with the intention of catching s shuttle bus around 2:00 for Newark Airport. My with Andie kindly offered to take my (very large) bag with her to her office which happens to be very closes to where I needed to catch the bus. When I finished working for the day I met her at the bus stop and she gave me my bag. I just missed a bus. "No biggie" I thought, as there would be another bus soon and I was leaving with ample time to account for traffic. Then the bus was late. Again no big deal, still plenty of time. I boarded the bus and we drove to the Lincoln Tunnel. There we waited. And waited. And waited. After about an hour it was clear there was something amiss. As it turned out there was an overturned truck in the tunnel and the tunnel was completely closed down. And traffic was at a complete stand still. This did not look good. When we were basically in the same spot at 4:30 I figured there was no way I was making my 6:30 flight. Well, the gods smiled down on my, the seas parted (as did the traffic), the tunnel re-opened and I made it to the gate with time to spare.

The flight itself was completely uneventful. Then I went to pick up my bag. I went to the baggage carousel and waited. And waited. And waited. No bag. Now, remember, I was not planning to stay in the area. I was leaving on a shuttle that night to Rancho Cucamonga (about an hour away). So I went to the lost bag desk and got in line. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, after about an hour I got to the desk where I was promptly informed that my bag was on the carousel. And it was. Why I didn't see it was completely beyond me. Oh well. Finally, bag in tow, I went to catch the shuttle. The company promised pickup in 15-20 minutes. Well, an hour later my shuttle finally arrived. *sigh* To add insult to injury I was the last stop for the shuttle. I finally arrived in Rancho Cucamonga at about 1 AM. But who cares! The vacation has officially begun! Kirk and I stayed up and visited for a bit, but we were both bushed so we called it a night soon enough.



I should mention here that I am a runner. I ran my first race - the Walt Disney World Half Marathon - in January of this year. Since then I have run 3 more half marathons and a few 5Ks and 10Ks. I am now training for my first full marathon which I plan to do in November. I try not to let my vacations get in the way of training, so during this report I may mention on certain days that I went for a run. Without boring most readers with the details, I will point out that the training consists of "short" (in my case, 45 minute) runs and weekly "long" runs of anywhere from 4 or 5 miles to 13 or 14 miles. I also cross train with core and strength training (although my strength training has been waylaid by a fractured left elbow). Anyway, Thursday morning I woke up early and went on a very pleasant short run through Rancho Cucamonga.

After I got back we got ready to leave, had the font desk call a cab for us and went to Budget Rental Car to pick up our car - a Mazda 3. The car was fine except they did not fill up the windshield washer fluid which was annoying. Kirk and I drove to the neighborhood where we met and did a quick tour of our old stomping grounds, checking out some things that were relatively unchanged and others that had changed quite a bit.

We then hopped on I15 and headed out to Vegas. We stopped in the town of Baker for gas, noticing that there were several eating establishments there. Even though it was past lunch time and we were both hungry, we had already decided we would stop at Buffalo Bill's in Primm right on the border to Nevada. On our last trip to Vegas we did this and had a good time, especially riding the monster roller coaster "Desperado". Mistake. We may have enjoyed Primm on our last trip but not this time. First of all, neither of us really felt like riding the coaster. When we walked in Buffalo Bill's we were struck by the place's foul, musty smell. The food court was completely uninviting, so we went to the Primm Casino instead. The odor in the Primm was not much better. But we were hungry so we went to the buffet for lunch. It was not horrible, but that's about as positive as I can be. We decided that, should there be a "next time", we would stop in Baker for lunch and breeze right through Primm.

We arrived in Vegas in the afternoon and checked into the Aria. Boasting over 4,000 rooms, The Aria is, I believe, the largest hotel in the new City Center complex in Vegas. They tout themselves as the only hotel/casino in City Center, which I found confusing because The Cosmopolitan is also a hotel/casino. Turns out The Cosmopolitan, although right next to City Center, is not actually part of City Center. At any rate, The Aria is a huge hotel/casino that is part of a truly enormous City Center complex.

After parking in self-parking we made out way to the front desk. This is a very long walk that winds a rather circuitous path through the massive casino complex. In fact, it seemed to me that the front desk is as far from self-parking as possible. Like most Vegas hotel/casinos, The Aria does not really have an impressive lobby since the casino area serves more or less as a lobby. That said, the hotel's decorating scheme begins at the check-in area with dark woods, simple lines and lots of interesting textures. The modern design is reminiscent of many newer hotels, like The W and even, from what I've seen, Bay Lake Towers in WDW. While the style is clean and attractive, it is also perhaps a bit cold.

This design theme continued to the room, which was quite spacious. When we entered the room the curtain automatically opened, revealing an impressive Las Vegas Strip view - a nice touch. Speaking of that, while the view from our room was nice, I have to say that the configuration and position of the hotel makes me think that most of the rooms don't have much of a view. At least not a view of the Strip. Of course I can't confirm this, but it looked that way to me. And while, like the rest of the hotel, the room was clean, well appointed and tastefully decorated, it was also a bit, well, odd. As an example, in the bathroom there was a frosted glass wall and door separating the toilet area from the rest of the bathroom. OK, this looked pretty interesting but for all practical purposes it was useless. How shall I put this? Unless you are... let's see... comfortable enough with the person with whom you are sharing the bath to use the toilet with no wall at all, then this frosted glass wall makes no difference at all. You are still going to want to be the only one in the bath as you, uh, take care of business.

In addition to the odd glass wall I noticed the lack of towel rings. OK, I get it, towel rings ruin the aesthetic you are going for. But you know what? I have damp towels and I need to hang them on something. Annoying. And speaking of annoying, can hotels please start using safes that are big enough to hold a large laptop? Not a single one of the five hotels we stayed in on this trip - including the Aria - could fit my laptop. And the safe at the Aria I think was the biggest I encountered on this trip. In addition to large safes, most hotels, especially higher end hotels it seems to me, refuse to provide free wifi. This is another thing I find aggravating. I think that we are going to start seeing more free wifi in hotels in the future, though. At least I hope so.

On the good side, the shower was large and very nice and the beds were comfortable. Kirk reported that he did not like the pillows but I had no issues with them. Overall the room was quite nice and comfortable. Only minor complaints there.



Once you leave the room is when the complaints start. There are issues may have seemed very insignificant when taken individually, but I had the feeling that they informed larger problems. First, there are the little details. These are the things that you only notice when they're not right. An example was they had towel bin at the pool which was a large plastic bin with "Aria" scrawled on it in indelible ink by what appeared to be a three year-old. Speaking of the pool, or pools really, I was unimpressed. There are several pools with their own pool areas, and each of them is unimpressive. None are very large nor do they boast interesting landscaping or theme-ing. And the pools were too warm and the spas were not hot enough. A resort of this size should do much better. And finally, the staff. The staff at the Aria were actually quite pleasant to deal with, but there were little things that indicated what I suspect is a lack of proper training. One case in point: I asked where the pool was and I was told "The Second Floor". OK. I went to the elevator - no "Second Floor". I actually asked a guest who informed me it was on the "Promenade" level. Look, if the elevator says "Promenade", then call it "Promenade". You and the other folks that work there may call it "The Second Floor" but the guests have no way of knowing that.

Finally, housekeeping took Kirk's phone charger. Of course I don't think they intentionally took it - that would be silly. Rather I suspect they unplugged his charger when they plugged in the vacuum and inadvertently took it with them when they left. He didn't notice until we were ready to leave and we tore the place apart looking for it. Kirk called security who said they would call after the housekeeping crew came in "at 11" (this after the housekeeping manager said that the crew comes in at 9). By 11 we would be well on our way so Kirk just bought another charger. And they never did call.

So, no, we were not impressed with The Aria.

On that first night in Vegas we met 2 of my brothers - younger brother Todd and older brother Norm - for dinner. They had requested someplace "not too expensive" (no problem for me), so we went to an upscale burger place in The Cosmopolitan called "Holsteins" (a horrible name, but better than what I originally thought it was - "Heifers"). It's a cute place with a funky decor which predominately features the restaurant's cartoon cow mascot. We were seated in a large banquette which was, honestly, not conducive to conversation. We were seated 4 across with me and Kirk on the ends and Todd and Norm in the middle. As a result Kirk and Todd talked to each other mostly while Norm and I talked.

I had "The Classic" (a basic burger - $14) and 2 Guiness ($8.50 each!), Kirk had "The Longhorn" ($16) and a Diet Coke ($3), Todd had a quesadilla ($15.50) and Norm had a salad ($13). I also had onion rings, which I ordered specifically because I thought I read that they were beer-battered. They were not. Our total bill came to $91 before tip. The food was... OK. I would expect an exceptional burger for $14, and I can honestly say that the In-N-Out Burger I had on the last day of the trip was much better for less than a third the price. Of course comparing any burger to In-N-Out is not fair, but still... Kirk has the same impression. just OK. At least there was no exceptional food to get in the way of the conversation. I would not recommend Holstein unless you are dying for a burger and are right there.

As we had a $100 resort credit for the Aria, Kirk and I also ate at two restaurants there. We had much better luck with The Aria restaurants.

First, we had pizza at "Five 50". It was a good, rustic pizza. (Forgive me for not having pictures of the food, I am not in the habit of taking "food porn" shots. I always think of it after eating.) We split a 16" pizza with mushrooms, half pepperoni and half sausage. It was quite good. Although it looked too big for use to be able to finish the the whole thing, we managed. We also ate at a high-end Mexican restaurant called "Javier's". This would turn out to be, perhaps, the best meal of the trip. Kirk and I both ordered a Chile Relleno/Taco/Enchilada combination. (I only wanted the chile relleno and taco, but our server told me it would be cheaper to get the combo so I did. I did not regret this as the portions were not large.) The chile relleno was excellent, though a bit on the small side. The enchilada was good and the taco - the hard shell variety using a shell made from home made tortilla - was perhaps the best hard shell taco I have ever had. Also, instead of the usual pinto or black beans they served some sort of yellow refried beans - and they were delicious! The combos were $22 each. The food was excellent. I can't say the same for the drinks. I had 2 specialty margaritas - cucumber and pomegranate. Both were good but way too strong. And I don't mean booze strong - I mean taste strong. Almost thick and syrupy.I know this sounds like sacrilege, but I actually watered them down after a few sips. The margaritas were $15 each and Kirk had Diet Coke in tiny bottles for $5 each. Obviously they make their money off the drinks. The total bill was $90 before tip.

On Friday morning I got up for a run and ran down Las Vegas Blvd. By pure chance, and almost exactly the halfway point, I ended up near a pretty famous sign. I stopped to look and luckily there was someone there willing to take my picture:



On the DIS Unplugged podcast we discussed things to do while in Vegas. One thing we discussed was a zip-line through downtown Vegas. That sounded awesome - but unfortunately it is no longer available. Another idea was Cirque du Soliel, but the only one Kirk was interested in was "One" (featuring the music of Michael Jackson) which I had no desire to see - mostly due to the fact that, as it had recently opened, all tickets were full price. So, we decided to skip it. We actually ended up doing the same thing I had done with my family on our last trip to Vegas - Red Rock Canyon. Red Rock Canyon is a National Park just outside of Vegas - about 30 minutes from the Strip. In fact, when you drive out there you find yourself thinking that it couldn't be that close because you are driving through residential neighborhoods right up until the last couple of miles.

We were both a bit concerned about walking around in the 100 degree-plus temperatures, but the park is mostly organized in a loop where you drive from one site to another. You can get out and go for long hikes - but you don't have to. Even still, while we expected to stay there an hour or two and we were there all afternoon. I can not recommend this side trip enough.

Here are some pictures from Red Rock - hard to believe this is only about 30 minutes from the Strip.































I know what your burning question is: did we gamble while in Vegas? Yes. About an hour of video poker. Kirk lost $15 and I won $40.

On Saturday (August 3) we checked out of the Aria and drove to San Diego. Along the way we stopped in Baker to have lunch at one of the fine dining establishments that you can find in the West but not where either of us live: Jack in the Box. We both ordered their unique tacos (2 for $1!) and I had onion rings as well, which are also unique. Jack in the Box make their tacos by deep frying the taco shell and beef and then stuffing it with a half slice of american cheese, lettuce and sauce. Definitely a one-of-a-kind taste (thankfully, some would say I'm sure).

Alas, their deep fried apple turnover is no longer on their menu (or else I would have ordered one of those bad boys in a heartbeat!)

We arrived in San Diego just in time to check in to the hotel and get to the game. As I mentioned in the intro blog entry, I am a Yankees fan and, as serendipity would have it, the Padres played the Yankees this weekend. We stayed at the Bayfront Hilton. Nothing in particular to report here - it's a fairly typical and serviceable Hilton. the room was a bit smaller than the room at The Aria. And the view of the docs - with a Dole Pineapple shipment unloading - was less impressive. We found ourselves wondering if any of those containers were filled with Dole Whip.

Dole Whip anyone?

PetCo Park- where the Padres play - is a beautiful park (even though Kirk, who owns a small boutique pet supply store, was none too happy about being in a stadium named after his arch nemesis). The game was excellent except for the sun being directly in our eyes for the first half. It started out as a real pitchers duel through the 6th with Ivan Nova matching the Padres pitcher Tyson Ross 0 for 0. Then, in the seventh, Granderson hit a 2-run homer scoring himself and Soriano. Granderson would score again in the 9th. Nova pitched 7 shut-out innings with Robertson pitching a scoreless 8th and Mariano coming in for the save. The final score was 3-0 Yankees. The Rivera save was particularly satisfying because in the only game I had seen this season - Rivera's final season - he not only blew the save but lost the game. Kirk and also never seen the future Hall of Famer pitch and this would be his one chance. A great game all around.





On the podcast, Tony suggested we check out the Gaslamp Quarter, so after the game we did just that. The joint was jumping. It's a really cool part of town with lots of clubs and restaurants. Kirk had a hankering for some sort of seafood soup or bisque, and we ended up at The Palm which served a very good Lobster Bisque. I also had an excellent salad (like a Caesar but not) and a glass of very good pinot grigio. It definitely hit the spot. About $50 before tip.



The next morning (Sunday) I went down to use the hotels decent gym and then tried to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks but it was way too crowded. Instead we left - I figured I could get coffee on the road. Our destination was Old Town San Diego. Interestingly this was not one of the recommendations from the podcast, but I did hear about it from another episode of the podcast. Once we got there I went to the bar at Casa Reyes - which is located right in the center of Old Town - where I was finally able to get a cup of coffee. Not a great cup of coffee, but at least it dispelled the caffeine headache.

After walking around Old Town a bit we had lunch at Casa Reyes. We both had tamales - which were huge. I wish I could say the food was amazing, but honestly it wasn't. It was fine, but not great. The tamales were huge as I said, but not memorable. Neither of us finished ours. And the refried beans were pretty ordinary.

After lunch we decided to walk to the Presidio. Mistake. I'm not saying going to the Presidio was a mistake - walking there was. It was difficult to find as we could not find a clearly marked path and we doubled back several times. If you want to go there, drive. Still, it was very pretty, just not worth the effort we put in to getting there. While there we asked about the Mission and we were told that, while the Presidio location was the original location of the Mission, it had since been moved to another location.


;


Once we walked back to Old Town we decided that, as the Mission that exists now is not the original, we would skip it and instead look around Old Town some more. I was glad we did as Old Town is very interesting with some wonderful little shops and museums (including a cool little Wells Fargo museum).










After returning to the hotel and resting up at the pool (for me) and in the room (for Kirk) we decided to head out to Belmont Park and The Big Dipper roller coaster. This was another of Tony's recommendations. And if this had been about 20 years ago it probably would have been a good one. But for us, it just didn't really have much to offer. 2 good things did come out of it, however. First, it was our one and only opportunity to check out that beach. Although admittedly all we did was check it out, as we stood on the boardwalk for a few minutes and looked out to the ocean. Also, Belmont Park has a "Hot Dog on a Stick". This little franchise in ubiquitous in Southern California malls but I have never seen one anywhere else. I had a corn dog and a lemonade. It definitely took my right back to the SoCal mall experience...

The lobster bisque at The Palm in the Gaslamp Quarter was such a hit we decided to go there again. We headed back to the hotel pretty early as we would be leaving early the next day for Disneyland. One thing I like to indulge in is the occasional cigar (preferably with scotch). The Hilton is a non-smoking hotel but they did have a nice little smoking area with seating, so I went there. Now, it obviously takes a lot longer to smoke a cigar than a cigarette, so as I set there several cigarette smokers came and went. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with them. First was a young Italian mother living in France. She spoke several languages, but her English was very rough. Still, we managed to have a pleasant conversation. She left and was replaced by a young woman from England of Scottish decent, with whom I discussed accents. Finally was a Turkish gentleman who I chatted with for a few minutes before it was time for me to leave. It was a very pleasant finish to a fun couple of days in Vegas and San Diego.

I know that most of you reading this are probably most interested in hearing about Disneyland and especially D23, but I wanted to write them in chronological order. I hope to have the rest done by the end of this weekend, so stay posted! And if you want to get updates when I post entries, friend me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or add me to your Google+ circles (link below).

Next up: Disneyland!

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