When in Vegas, do as the Venetians do

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Cute teddy bear gondoliers for sale at the Venetian Grand Canal Shoppes, Las Vegas

Floating beneath a blue sky with fluffy, painted-on clouds, we obeyed the gondolier, Pepe, when he told us to kiss as we passed under the arched bridge.

Customers boarding the next gondola smiled their amusement, but we were just part of the act at the Grand Canal and Shoppes at The Venetian and the connecting Palazzo hotel, situated on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip.

The waterway runs indoors past shops ranging from Barney’s New York to Tory Burch.

Our private gondola ride cost $80, but visitors can share a boat for less. As we stepped in, Pepe, a true showman, posed with us for two photos, which we later purchased for $65. The cashier threw in the 3D frame for “free.”

The temperature hit triple digits outside and the sky was blindingly sunny, but inside the climate-controlled Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian and Palazzo hotels, it could have been dusk.

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The clouds are ceiling paintings, but the canal is real at the Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada

Like so much in Vegas, things are not always what they seem.

Every so often Pepe broke into a familiar song like “That’s Amore” and ended with the theme song from “Lady and the Tramp.” His voice was quite good, so I asked what he did when he wasn’t singing on the Venetian’s Grand Canal.

“I work on cruise ships,” he said in charmingly accented English. “But my American wife doesn’t like me to travel far, so I work here, too.”

A FAMILY AFFAIR, EXCEPT FOR THE CASINOS

Nestled between the Wynn and Harrah’s – and just 20 minutes from McCarran International Airport – the five-star Italian-themed Venetian rises up 36 floors, with 38 diverse restaurants, 160 shops and several pools. The Azure Luxury Pool deck includes three pools, a hot tub and a poolside cafe.

The 18,000-square-foot TAO Beach deck was so hot – pun intended – people lined up to enter. The new TAO Asian bistro has received rave reviews. Amenities on the deck include 12 air-conditioned cabanas complete with high-definition plasma TV, minibar, masseuse and sunglass cleaning. Yes, sunglass cleaning. Celebrities reportedly love this pool, which closes at sunset. During peak season, the TAO nightclub opens its doors Thursdays through Sundays.

A third pool deck, the Venetian, features spouting fountains and chaise lounge-side drink service, as well as the luxurious cabanas. The larger pool was filled with children the day we visited, but there’s also a smaller one.

In fact, The Venetian welcomes families, except in the casino.

The outdoor area features replicas of Venice landmarks – St. Mark’s Campanile, the Doge’s Palace and the Rialto Bridge.

The king suite we stayed in included a sunken living room with pullout sofa and three flat-screen TVs, the smaller one in the 150-square-foot bathroom. There’s even a phone near the toilet. The palatial bathroom includes a vanity. A lighted mirror has settings that change from day to night, so you can make up your face appropriately.

The remote-controlled Roman shades hold cachet for gadget lovers, and the in-suite dining is round the clock.

Rooms – all renovated over the past few years – start at $355 a night for the 650-square-foot king suite, which can run a little more depending on whether you have a desert or Strip view. Furnishings are pretty plush – you can sleep a long time in those Egyptian cotton sheets. The hotel’s Bella suites have two queen beds.

The Venetian’s penthouse suite spans the three top floors, with a master bedroom, multiple TVs, a fireplace, a second bedroom and two marble bathrooms with jetted tubs. And you don’t have to pay for snacks.

After you have gotten over the huge rooms, think about visiting the concierge desk for show tickets. “Lipshtick,” with comedians like Roseanne Barr, the musical “Rock of Ages,” the Sinatra-centric “Frank The Man. The Music” and Smokey Robinson’s Motown revue “Human Nature” are all on the bill at The Venetian this summer.

STRIP SEARCH

Although The Venetian includes shops, pools and shows, the food is definitely worth a mention. Try a New York strip steak at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut. The meat was tender and the service solid. We ended the meal with a banana cream pie with banana crème brûlée that was sweet but not too rich.

Other choices include Napa Valley chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cafe and restaurant, where our breakfast included a basket of four different artisanal breads that could only be baked in California.

For lunch one day, we stopped at db Brasserie on The Venetian’s restaurant row and experienced great service. Our appetizer of three cheeses – from sheep, cow and goat – was especially impressive. Although we didn’t have time to eat there, hotel staff recommended Morel’s French Steakhouse & Bistro.

Like other hotels on the Strip, The Venetian hosts dozens of conventions annually. Airlines like Southwest schedule 15-17 flights daily to Sin City. In fact, I sat next to the marketing person for Cars.com on our flight to Vegas. She recommended visiting the Fremont Street Experience, a light-show extravaganza near Las Vegas’ old downtown, where the Golden Nugget and other casinos are still in operation.

Despite its attractions, we had to leave The Venetian at some point, so we took a taxi to “Zarkana,” the new Cirque du Soleil show at the ARIA Resort & Casino. The costumes, colors and zany clowns reminded me of the French classic movie “King of Hearts,” in which the inmates are let out of the local asylum.

The acrobats performed with military precision and discipline as they flew through the air swinging from trapezes they then transferred to colleagues. Other Cirque du Soleil shows were sold out, including “O” and “Le Mystere.”

Tip: Do visit the concierge for discounts. The Cirque show we attended was 30 percent off that day because it started late, at 9:30 p.m. Celine, the concierge, warned us not to take the Vegas monorail tour, because you could see more riding a bus down the Strip.

If you go to Viator.com and search “Las Vegas,” you’ll find lots of outdoor activities. One can sign up for a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon for $344 or a scooter tour of Red Rock Canyon for $249.

Las Vegas presents so many choices, but the Liberace Museum isn’t one anymore – it closed down a few years ago. At any rate, it’s one of those places where you can never get too much of a good thing.

For more information, visit Venetian.com or lcva.com.

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Autry National Center describes the West, both cowboys and Indians

Museums delight kids, too

If you’re visiting relatives in a strange city over the holidays, take advantage of the local museums. Most hire family education directors whose job it is to come up with ways to entertain you and your children while encouraging the kids to soak up the exhibition.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, we mixed up a stop to the Gene Autry National Center with stops at the Spice Station in Silverlake District and Flick’s Papetrie.

Gene Autry Museum in Griffith Park

Right across from the LA Zoo sits this museum dedicated to the American West: the Autry National Center. Currently there’s a nostalgic Route 66: Road and Romance exhibit to capture your imagination.
Other exhibits include the Floral Journey: Native North American Indian Floral Bead Work, running through April, 2015, and “Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead.”

If you grew up watching television and motion picture Westerns, you will be delighted to see costumes worn by John Wayne, Paul Newman and Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” I was surprised to see life-sized versions of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

The large museum is no amateur outfit. It has 500,000 artifacts and pieces of art from the West and includes two research libraries.
Check the calendar for lectures and family fun days. Coming up next will be a class on “Planning Your Route 66 Trip,” with photographer and road historian Jerry McClanahan and Jim Ross on Sat., Dec. 6 at 2.
Families are invited to American Indian Games at the Autry on Sun. Dec. 7. Free with museum admission, which is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors 60 and over. Check out new exhibits at http://www.theautry.org.

The Spice Station, Silverlake District

The Silverlake District has a certain urban grittiness, but there are some amazing finds here like the bulk spices at the Spice Station.

It takes five minutes or so to find 3819 Sunset Blvd., because first you have to meander through a path, the lovely impressionistic courtyard covered with trellises and a fountain and then you get to the actual spices in apothecary jars.

Owned by husband and wife team Peter Bahlawanian and Bronwen Tahse, the store carries 140 spices, teas, and tissanes.
I took home jasmine tea and Himalayan salt in packets. The small cottage is lined top to bottom with jars of spices.

DTLA art galleries and museums

More than 100,000 pieces of art in Los Angeles County Museum of Art 5905 Wilshire Blvd., guarantee that you’re not going to see all of them in this lifetime! But pick and choose and take in the ones that call to you. Free admission happens the second Tuesday of every month, otherwise it’s $15 for adults $10 for seniors 62 and older.
Temporary exhibitions include one on Samurai armour, another on Pierre Huyghe, and a third on the Hudson River School. Visit lacma.org for additional information.
The streets around LACMA also contain lots of art galleries.

The Four Seasons in Punta Mita, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico: It’s a jungle out there

“Uno, dos, tres,” counts Miguel, the water aerobics instructor at the Four Seasons’s Nuna infinity pool in Punta Mita, Mexico.  He nudges the guests to hoist their floating  barbells in the air, calling out, “come on, we’ll do a Spanish lesson, too.”

I feel for Miguel, whose real name is Inty Perales. He asks me to take the noon aerobics class but I don’t want to go by myself. Soon, two blond women swim over, though, then an Argentinian man shouts that he will take the class, one of many on tap at the resort daily.

It wasn’t easy convincing this group to join in. Just a few minutes earlier, for example, I  was floating in the crystal-clear water, clutching a frozen mango smoothie – all that I wanted to hoist in the air. And yet, there were the “chocolate delights” we received from room service the night before adding calories to my frame.

Waiters intermittently  brought swimmers and sunbathers water bottles, frozen chocolate cappuccinos and cool rolled towels. It’s easy to eat healthy here, since the four restaurants, Asamara, with a Mexican – Asian fusion, Bahia, right on Cuevas beach, Ketsi, a casual cafe, and Tail of the Whale, the a la carte eatery upstairs at the golf clubhouse.

The resort makes a good family venue, since there’s a kids’ camp, as well as the Lazy River and other activities the little ones can do while the adults play.

With triple digit temperatures producing high humidity, sluggishness reigned last Labor Day, producing very little labor.

 

Lots of choices, even during low season

The 45-minute drive from busy Puerto Vallarta International Airport takes you past Nueva Vallarta and Banderias to the gate for Punta Mita, which actually means ” gateway to paradise.”

Other resorts in the area include the St. Regis Hotel where you can dine in the award-winning Carolina restaurant.

The world-class Four Seasons resort spans 17,000 square feet and sits next to two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses with ocean views. Besides the “adults-only” Nuna pool, two others exist for guests’ pleasure.  Parents and children can navigate the Lazy River on inner tubes. Two fine sand beaches feature  bamboo “nesting swings” and canopied double beds. Ten tennis courts and a 55-foot yacht charter round out the recreational possibilities.

 

September marks the low season — high season starts in November — so nights often included intense showers and thunderstorms after sultry weather. We watched the choppy Bay of Banderas from the hammock of our oceanfront casita, a room I highly recommend.

The casita showcases Mexican hand-crafted items, like the blue embroidered bedspread.

Citing rough weather,  tour operators canceled our plans to visit the Marieta Islands, an archipelago and UNESCO MAB Biosphere  reserve.. The uninhabited islands were formed by volcanic activity but in the 1900s the military began test bombing. In the 1960s, scientist  Jacques Costeau led a successful fight to stop the explosions.

The Hidden Cave Beach lands on many “best beaches” lists. The bombing caused lots of caves and tunnels.Vallarta Adventures (www. vallarta-adventures.com) sponsors whale-watching, scuba-diving and fishing trips and a popular tour of the Marieta Islands. Vallarta Adventures also sponsors canopy trips for some extreme zip-lining.

You can also watch dolphins, whales, and sea turtles sleeping in the sun. The national park allows snorkeling, diving and kayaking. The boat ride to get to the islands takes an hour.

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Enrique Alejos, a gastronomic and ecological enthusiast who claims to be the world’s only cultural concierge, hosts history lectures   and tasting classes. He explores Aztec and Mayan contributions to chocolate and tequila.

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Concierge Enrique Alejos pouring Sangria for guests attending one of his lectures at the Four Seasons Hotel, Punta Mita

At a tequila tasting, guests sip from shot glasses to see if they can sense tobacco, eucalyptus, apple or pear notes. A wilder, more intense Napa Valley experience, complete with Sangria.

Alejos tells the group,  “my job is to make guests fall in love with Punta Mita.”

He also teaches the history of chocolate, which comes from Mexico.

The concierge also manages the resort’s turtle-release program, a particular favorite with families. A staff member described Alejos as “a sponge” with an encyclopedic knowledge of Huichol art and healing traditions. On any given day, Alejos discusses the history of Mexican chocolate or mescal and the Mayans.

Tequila must come from blue agave plants registered in one of five states, including the highlands of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. “The plants must be grown above sea level. Each agave will take ten years to grow.”

Apuane Spa pours on the tequila

The on-site Apuane Spa features beauty treatments like the Mayan Mud mani/pedi and the “Man for All Seasons”men’s 50- or 80-minute facial.

One can also choose the Punta Mita manicure, which uses tequila to exfoliate and soften hands. Stressing the healing properties of the spirits, Linda says, “some grandmas rub tequila on your body if you have pain.”

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Signature treatments include the “Timexpert” anti-wrinkle, collagen and face-lifting facials; and the “Hakali” massage, which uses the local Huichol Indian floral hakali or nopal, cacti known for their healing qualities.

Guests might also enjoy a massage on the beach, an amazing experience on the newly revamped Manzanillas and Cuestas private beaches. Canopied day beds provide shade from the heat, woven swings invite couples to share . There are tables for snacks, served at the beachside surf shack.  At night, the resort sets a bonfire on the beach.

The palm trees, thatched roof and tiki lights add to the ambience of a tropical vacation. General Manager John O’Sullivan said the team wanted “to elevate our oceanfront address with a paradise experience on the beach.”

It’s probably one of the few places in the world with secluded suspended nests, a place to take in the tiki torches and candles.

For more information, visit fourseasons.com/puntamita or

Tossing the dice in Vegas

As you land in McCaren International Airport, you see a line of buildings rising out of the flat desert.

The last time I was here, Hunter S. Thompson had just written ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.’ My ex and I were driving cross-country from Boston,escaping the chains of weekly family dinners that would one day seem like a good idea.

We settled in a campground on Lake Mead.  My makeup melted in my purse, which was on the front seat of our car. The heat was suffocating and I spent the whole time in a blue bathing suit my younger sister had sewn for me from scratch.

The “strip”  was then located on Fremont Street, what they now call the old downtown.  Dark, smoky casinos seemed shabby and filled with small-time criminals trying to roll their way out of whatever trouble they were in. I didn’t much like gambling, so I just played the slot machines for hours while my ex logged time on the blackjack tables.

It wasn’t glamorous like it is now, so I never came back.  Today’s strip is in an unincorporated area with an ironic name: Paradise.

As soon as we ambled down the jet walkway, carry-ons in hand, shiny neon machines greeted us, as if to let us know we were in Vegas.

A man at the Taxi sign told us we could buy shuttle tickets to the Venetian. We stopped at Caesar’s Palace, where cartoonish statues of Greek statesmen dotted the grounds.  Looking at the map, I saw New York New York and Paris, Las Vegas hotels.  We passed the Eiffel Tower.

Crowds thronged on the streets in the relentless sun. People seemed sweaty but they kept going. Maybe they were just taking walks on the famous strip.

According to Wikipedia, Frank Sinatra and his gang broke  color and ethnic barriers here.  Sinatra wouldn’t perform unless Sammy Davis, Jr., was given a room in the hotel.  Dean Martin performed here, too.  Now, the Venetian runs a Frank musical most nights.

The Zinfandel Trail

It’s a great way to spend a slow, sunny weekend afternoon. Drive up into the Cupertino foothills and follow Montebello Road up the mountain, past the quarry. Park in the lot. The trailhead starts just across the road.

Keep walking til you see the sign for the Zinfandel Trail. It’s about two miles long and takes you to the Cabernet, Zinfandel and other wines made at the historic winery. If you follow the Bear Meadow Trail, you can hike to a small pond fit for a picnic.

Watching the ships go down the Bosphorus

Nothing’s better than watching the ships go down the Bosphorus Strait from my family’s vacation home in Kanlica, Istanbul, Turkey.

It’s not a fancy place, but the floor to ceiling windows  give you a view you’ll remember the rest of your life. The place could probably use a remodel, in American terms. There’s a small flat-screen TV, but most channels are snowy.

When I was younger, every night we would eat out on the patio, which ends in a drop dead cliff. None of us children fell off, miraculously. Later on, none of the grandkids did, either. In Turkey, the  safety rules were lax. It’s like that on the roads, too. Whatever God wants to happen, will happen. It’s not up to us because God knows all things. I swear, that’s the attitude.
But I’ve never felt more alive than standing out on that patio, looking at the sliver of sea, with majestic ships from Russia, England, and neighboring countries, floating in front of me. The water turns pitch black and the Istanbul lights dance, dance on the European side across the way. You hear music and cars honking, it’s just all there at a distance. It makes me want to call everyone I ever knew and tell them to come over to have a glass of raki.
Here in the States, we all huddle in safety in our own private caves, homes we’ve bought or rented, keeping to ourselves, scared we’ll reveal something that could be used against us in a court of law.
It’s a different society, another way of looking at life.

English: Istanbul, Turkey

English: Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Try to learn about your neighbor. Where are they from? How did they get here? Not polite to ask?
These are the best questions.
I wish you were here the night my brother was married at the Esma Sultan Museum on the Bosphorus. Everyone danced until all hours of the night and even Orhan Pamuk was there. At 2 a.m., my brother took the stragglers out on a rented water taxi. I almost didn’t get to go because I’m not a good Near Eastern girl, never was. But it was so sweet, to meet the buildings on the Bosphorus just before the dawn, that I’m glad I got to go. The people who ran the boat passed out fish sandwiches and when we got off on the other side, we stopped at a café for a very early breakfast. The lights twinkled on, dawn came, we walked to my grandmother’s apartment and fell asleep in my grandfather’s study as the gray light seeped in.
I couldn’t see the Bosphorus, but I felt its magical presence everywhere.