Tucson, Arizona: Exploring Saguaro National Park, San Xavier Del Bac Mission, and enjoying some of the best Mexican food Tucson has to offer.
Ever since my parents moved to Arizona to enjoy their retirement in the sunshine, they have been wanting to explore more of their new state. This year, instead of visiting them at their home, we decided to meet up with them and both explore Tucson, Arizona. We rented a VRBO house just outside of the city in the Oro Valley area–a very nice area if you are looking for some peace and quiet but still want to be close to all the main attractions. We visiting in April, one of the best times for weather in Arizona and around the time that we Seattlites are in desperate need of some sun.
Day 1: Road trip from San Diego to Tucson
After spending three nights in San Diego (click to read more about our time there), we rented a car to drive to Tucson to meet up with my parents. I’m a pretty big fan of road trips, an the drive was about 6 hours through the desert. However, there wasn’t much to see along the way and it was honestly a pretty boring drive. When we arrived at our rental house, we just ordered some delivery dinner and spent some time enjoying the evening with my parents.
The sunsets in Tucson are fantastic, particularly when accompanied by a prickly pear margarita.
Day 2: Saguaro National Park and some fantastic tacos
Saguaro National Park surrounds Tucson, and there are actually two separate parts to the park–one to the east of the city and one to the west. I had a few short and easy hikes on my list, but even though it was a cooler time of year to visit Tucson, it was already 85 degrees by the time we arrived at the park. We also had my parents with us who have some mobility limitations, so we opted for a short, half mile stroll on an easy paved path through the Saguaros.
There is no toll booth for entry to Saguaro National Park West, you can pay at the visitor’s center. The fee is $25.00 per vehicle. Rangers at the visitor’s center and gift shop are happy to help answer questions about hiking trails, wildlife, and any other inquiries you may have about the park.
The short easy trail we did was the Desert Discovery Trail, which is all level and paved and includes several shaded benches along the way. It is a perfect way to see the saguaros up close if it’s too hot to hike, or if you or your family have mobility challenges.
Note: Always stay on the trail as rattlesnakes and scorpions are often hiding under rocks. Always be sure to take water with you as well, no matter how short of a hike you are doing.
The huge saguaros are really impressive in person. It takes them about 70 years to reach 6 feet tall, and 200 years to reach their full height of around 45 feet. It seems that not one saguaro is identical, they all had unique shapes and varied amounts of arms.
After the little Desert Discovery Trail loop, we took a drive around the rest of the park and enjoyed the scenery.
We said goodbye to the Saguaros and headed into Tucson for some lunch at Top Chef finalist Maria Mazon’s restaurant, Boca Tacos y Tequila.
We enjoy watching Top Chef (it’s pretty much the only reality TV show we watch) and were excited to try Maria Mazon’s food after cheering her on while watching the show. We were surprised and delighted to see that she was actually running food out to customers at her restaurant! She even posed for a photo with Paddy, who was fanboy giddy with excitement. I think she enjoys interacting with her patrons.
As for the food, it was just as delicious as we expected it to be. We had to go with the Boca Balls (fried chipotle mashed potato balls), and the Pulpo Asado (octopus tentacles with ancho chile and lime butter and grilled green onions). We also tried a selection of the tacos, which were all fantastic. My favorite was the salmon taco.
Boca Tacos y Tequila is open for lunch and dinner, and has a full bar. They take reservations for parties of 4 or more. Don’t miss this place while visiting Tucson!
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool and ordered pizza delivery for dinner. Our VRBO rental in the Catalina Foothills was just too relaxing to leave.
Day 3: Downtown Tucson and a Disappointing Tiki Bar
We began our third day in Tucson by doing a driving/walking tour of Barrio Viejo, the old historic part of downtown Tucson. In Barrio Viejo, you can find some historic buildings from the 1800’s that are still standing from when Tucson used to be part of Mexico. Many of the old adobe houses and buildings are painted bright colors.
Per the Tucson Museum website, “The ‘Curse of The Wishing Shrine’ centers predominately on its visitors motives for their visit, and their own lives. It is said that if one visits with a clear open heart that forgives, they will pass, and they may even get their wish fulfilled. For others, it may just be the beginning of history repeating itself depending on what they themselves bring to the shrine. Also, it is said that if you light a candle at the shrine and it remains burning all night long without going out by sunrise, your wish may be granted depending on your motivations.”
Read more about the story of this intriguing historical site here.
After enjoying the historical buildings in Barrio Viejo, we ventured over to North 4th Ave, a neighborhood area in between downtown and the University of Arizona with a lot of fun shops and restaurants. We recommend visiting Pop Cycle, a shop with a lot of unique locally made art and gifts, Generation Cool vintage clothing, the Tucson Thrift Shop (more vintage clothing and costumes), Wooden Tooth Records, and Jellywink (a sex-positive adult boutique).
We were pretty hungry after exploring, and were ready to try some more local food. One of the foods Tucson is famous for is the Sonoran Hot Dog, a hot dog wrapped in bacon and dressed with pinto beans, tomatoes, onions, mayo, mustard, and jalepenos. We were told one of the best places to get these is at El Guero Canelo.
At El Guero Canelo, they bake the hot dog buns themselves. After ordering at the counter, your Sonoran dog arrives on a paper plate in a soft, pillowy bed of fresh baked bread with beans and all the fixings. An economical meal that is delicious and uniquely Tucson, a lunch stop at El Guero Canelo is a must. There are several locations to choose from.
Later that evening, we were excited to check out Tucson’s only Tiki bar, Kon Tiki. A historical hold-out from the mid-century Tiki heyday, Kon Tiki has been in swing since 1963, with much of the original decor and signs.
The Tiki decor and atmosphere in Kon Tiki is well-preserved, but they seem to have added some TVs and made it into a sports bar, which was disappointing. We were seated in a section away from the main TV area so we were content there. Overall, the vintage Tiki vibe is thriving here.
The biggest disappointment however, was the food and drinks. The drinks were sugary 1970’s or 1980’s era tropical. My Mai Tai was mediocre and sweet. The food left even more to be desired. I made the mistake of trying the macadamia crusted mahi, expecting something similar to macadamia mahi dish I’d tried at Duke’s in Waikiki. What I got was a piece of fish drowned in a very sweet, gray sauce with flavors that should never be paired with fish. We all agreed that the cook seems to be afraid of salt, and I had to ask for salt to try and make the meal edible (it was not on the tables). Paddy tried the katsu chicken and waffles (also a mistake), which was bizarrely prepared with a questionable bechamel sauce.
I really wanted to like Kon Tiki, as it is a historical relic of the Tiki era. However, I can’t recommend it and we definitely won’t be back. If you are a Tiki fan and want to go just to see it, I recommend sticking to beer and maybe just try some of their potstickers. Good luck.
Day 4: San Xavier del Bac Mission
A trip to Tucson isn’t complete without a visit to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. I had been once before with a friend on a three week road trip around the southwest in my early 20’s, and the second visit was just as magical as the first. Just a 30 minute drive south of Tucson, it’s an easy day tour.
Tucson and San Xavier were part of Mexico up until the Gadsden purchase of 1854. The Catholic mission of San Xavier dates back to 1692, with the current church building dating back to the 1700’s. It feels like something you would see in Europe due to it’s age and Spanish architecture.
The outside grounds are beautiful, but the inside is shockingly elaborate. Entrance is free, but check the website to avoid mass times as the church is still in active operation.
After touring the mission in the morning, we went a little further south to the tiny town of Amado to visit the iconic Longhorn Grill and Saloon for lunch. We were there for food, but the food is not the draw to this establishment. It’s because it looks like this:
The building dates back to the 1970’s, and has been the site of a bait shop, a roofing company, and a clothing store before becoming a restaurant. It seems to have had a recent remodel inside, and the atmosphere was nice. Menu serves decent pub grub and southwest fare. It really doesn’t get much more Arizona than a restaurant with a giant cow skull in the middle of the desert. It’s worth the stop for the photo-op alone, but the food isn’t bad. Just don’t come in a hurry–service is a little slow.
We spend the rest of our last day in Tucson enjoying our pool and relaxing.
For dinner, I had read that some of the most legendary Mexican fare in Tucson is served at the El Charro Cafe. It is at El Charro that the chimichanga was invented, and it is the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the US.
As we were staying in Oro Valley, we opted for the Oro Valley location nearby, instead of the flagship downtown location. The Oro Valley El Charro was disappointingly in a strip mall, and we sat outside with a view of the parking lot and a Kohl’s. The food however, did not disappoint. Service was quick and the meals were delicious.
A food that is traditionally Sonoran is Carne Seca, which is dried beef that is then shredded and cooked as a filling for tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. El Charro has many dishes featuring Carne Seca. Paddy tried the El Charro Carne Seca Burro, “elegante style,” and I tried the Sinaloa Shrimp Culchi (shrimp cooked in a creamy garlic verde sauce). My shrimp dish came with a side of nopalitos, or cooked nopal/prickly pear cactus.
El Charro is a must for a visit to Tucson, but maybe try and visit the downtown flagship location for better atmosphere. The downtown location is on our list for a return trip.
Overall, Oro Valley was a nice place outside of downtown to get a house with a pool and relax. Pro tip for searching for a house with a pool: If coming during a cooler time of year, check to see if the pool is heated or has a heating option (often for an additional fee) before booking. Many Arizona pools are not heated at all, and are a little too chilly to use during the spring and fall.
I would love to come back to Tucson in March when it is a little cooler and try some easy day hikes in the Saguaro National Park. We didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, and I have a dream of watching the sunset over a hill of Saguaros. We really liked Tucson and would like to spend more time there someday.
Road tripping during COVID: Our two-week road trip through California. Touring the coast, the Redwoods, wine country, and the desert while social distancing and staying safe.
Cancelling our big 10-year anniversary trip to Greece was painful, but all things considered we have been fortunate (so far) in 2020. We both remain employed, healthy, and are able to work from home. We are counting our blessings.
Like many of you, we miss traveling. However, there is no way we are getting on a plane right now nor until there is a vaccine. Being safe and socially responsible are things we take seriously.
That said, we had two weeks of time off booked for September for our Greece trip, and a stay-cation just didn’t have the same luster that it used to. My parents had just sold my childhood home on San Juan Island, WA and moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona in July, so we decided to take a road trip to visit them in their new house.
A lot of thought went into this trip and how we would keep ourselves safe. We came up with the following guidelines and preparations:
We would only stay in motels with outdoor entrances or Airbnb houses where we wouldn’t have to share hallways and elevators with others.
We brought our own pillows and comforters to use as hotels only wash the sheets.
We put together a cleaning kit with alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, hand soap, and cleaning products to do a wipe down of high touch surfaces in our accommodations, and to wipe down any other surfaces as we travel
We focused on outdoor attractions only. No museums, restaurants, bars, shops, etc.
We brought a cooler and snacks, and picnicked, got takeout or delivery, or cooked in our Airbnb. Even where indoor dining was open again, we stayed out of restaurants except to pick up food.
We brought a plethora of masks (to coordinate with our outfits of course) and face shields.
Aside from store trips and doctors appointments, my retired parents had been social distancing pretty diligently as well, so visiting them was a calculated risk. It’s been a month since we got home, and no one has COVID so I’ll call it a success.
In addition to COVID, we also had the wildfires on the west coast to contend with. We kept up to date on the fires daily and did a few last-minute plan changes to stay far away from active fire areas.
This trip was a lot more stressful and less carefree than any other trip we’ve taken, but after 6 months cooped up in our house, we had to go on an adventure.
Day 1: Seattle to Crescent City
We set off in the early morning and drove pretty non-stop all day. We had one quick visit to my Grandma’s care home in Albany, OR where we had a social distance visit with her on the patio and ate our sandwiches that we made that morning. We departed I-5 in Grant’s Pass to the 199, passing the famous “Sweet Cron” sign on the 199 highway in southern Oregon.
I hadn’t made a reservation yet for that night, because I kept worrying that we would have to cancel our trip due to COVID or wildfires, and there seemed to be a lot of hotel availability several days before. This was a huge travel failure, as it was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and everyone else apparently had the same plan. I reserved the last crappy room at the Crescent City Motel 6 for $169.00 a night. I’m normally a planner who books way in advance, and for Labor Day weekend I should have known better.
We arrived in Crescent City starving, and I also had the bright idea of getting fish and chips for dinner. Guess what? So did everyone else. We walked to Fisherman’s Restaurant down the road where there were quite a few people waiting for tables or waiting outside. Some people weren’t wearing masks at all, staff was wearing masks under their noses, and we really should have left and gone to the taco stand down the street. But we thought we might be able to just get a quick takeout order.
We were told our order would take about 20 minutes and would be brought out to us when ready. They were very busy and having worked in a restaurant during Labor Day weekend in a tourist town, I know they were doing the best they could. I can’t even imagine having to work in a tourist town restaurant on Labor Day weekend during COVID. Our food finally came out 45 minutes later, and it was a chilly walk back to our crappy Motel 6. The sunset was nice while we waited, but overall the evening was a complete fail.
Day 2: Driving the 101 through the Redwoods
We ate cereal and made coffee in our motel room, and checked out of the Motel 6 as quickly as we could. After yesterday’s travel fail, we were determined to have a better day. Fortunately I had reservations for the rest of our trip, so we had good accommodations to look forward to.
Before we left Crescent City, we gave it one last chance to delight us and went out to the Anchor Way jetty to see if we could spot some sea lions. Crescent City came through for us and there were dozens of fat sea lions sunning themselves on the docks. They were pestering each other and loudly barking and flopping about in big piles. It was amusing to see. The morning sun over Crescent Beach was beautiful, and we felt like today would be a great day.
The coastal drive south on the 101 was beautiful, with lots of beaches and rocky overlooks to the coast below. It wasn’t long before we made it to our first roadside attraction: The Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues at the Trees of Mystery. We did not tour the Trees of Mystery as it was Labor Day Weekend and we wanted to stay away from other people. So this was just a fun photo op.
Further down the 101 we pulled into Klamath to do the “Tour-Thru Tree.” There are a few drive-through trees in the Redwoods, some more expensive than others. Signs in Klamath led us to a small road with a pay booth. No one was at the pay booth, so there was an honor-system pay box requesting $5.00 that we deposited our money into and continued up the road.
The Tour-Thru tree looks like a really tight squeeze, so I got out to take a picture and make sure Paddy got the car through without incident. We have a Nissan Versa and it fit through just fine. Just go slow and straight. It was a little silly but a fun little photo op and break from the highway.
Just south of Stafford, the 101 splits off with a parallel road, called the Avenue of the Giants. This was the second time we had driven this road and it is something you cannot miss if driving through Redwood country in California. The two lane road winds through towering redwood trees, with lots of places to pull off and picnic, take photos, or just get out and stare in awe at these ancient, magnificent works of nature.
Also, there’s a giant ear of corn.
Our magical Avenue of the Giants tour was only slightly hazy from the wildfire smoke near Sonoma, and the temperature was perfect. Our stopping point for the night was Ukiah. When we got further south towards Ukiah, we stepped out at a rest stop and were hit by a 100+ degree heat wave. We were definitely heading into the lower valley.
We had a reservation at the Ukiah Quality Inn, which seemed to be the highest rated motel in the area at a reasonable rate. It was a refreshing change from the Crescent City Motel 6.
*Pro tip: not all chain hotel locations are created equal. I’ve stayed in the Walla Walla Motel 6 which was fine, and the Austin airport Quality Inn which was horrendous. Check reviews.
With COVID, 109 degree temperatures, and poor air quality due to the wildfire smoke, we spent the evening in our room and ordered delivery from Super Taco on Door Dash. It was excellent, we would definitely recommend their food.
Our Redwoods adventure day made up for our Crescent City travel fail.
Day 3: Ukiah to The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo
A few weeks before this trip, I was planning a re-route to avoid the wildfires near Monterey and Big Sur where we originally planned on going. Somehow I stumbled upon the website for The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, and wondered how in the world I had never heard of this place. It became a major destination focus on this trip. Be sure to reserve in advance, their themed rooms are pretty popular.
We continued our drive on the 101 south and opted to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, since we had never done that before. Had we not been in a pandemic, we would have planned for a couple days in San Francisco going to Tiki bars and seeing the sights, but we’ll have to save that for another trip.
The weather got hazier as we drove further south. We stopped for a quick lunch at El Pollo Loco in Salinas. It’s a chain we’d never eaten at before and we were impressed. We loved their salad with avocado dressing and the chicken was bomb. We had to eat in our car though, which was hot and kind of messy. Se la vie in COVID times.
After a long day we finally arrived at The Madonna Inn. I was so excited.
What can I say about the Madonna Inn? Well, it’s eccentric. It was built in 1958 by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, and each room has a different theme and decor. Phyllis Madonna loves the color pink, which is everywhere in the hotel from the mid-century style Steakhouse to the signature goblets for sale in the gift shop, to the signature Pink Champagne cake in the on-site bakery. Some of the rooms are also very pink forward, such as ours:
Behold the Carin Room:
Pink glitter wallpaper. Need I say more?
Having booked the room in advance of our trip, we packed some fun outfits because if you have a hotel room like this you HAVE to do a photo shoot, right? Right.
Paddy was a good sport.
Fun fact: The Grimes music video for her song “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” was filmed at the Madonna Inn and in the Carin room:
The awesome thing about the Madonna Inn was that all the rooms have outdoor access, so no elevators or hallways to worry about during COVID. Be aware that some of the rooms (like this one) are only accessible by stairs, so if you are mobility-challenged be sure to ask which ones are best for you before booking.
After checking in and doing our epic pink glitter room photo shoot, we put on masks and explored the hotel grounds. There were lots of signs around telling guests to wear masks outside of their hotel rooms, and most people complied. Check in only allowed two people into the office check in at a time (not a problem, no one was there when we arrived except the front desk workers).
Most people were wearing masks in the indoor areas in the hotel (bakery, main lobby and gift shop) but a few had masks pulled down under their noses and on their chins, and two ladies kept taking them off altogether. So selfish.
The Goldrush Steakhouse interior was closed for indoor dining, with outdoor dining open. We will definitely have to come back here after COVID. Those pink booths are amazing.
We stopped to admire the cakes at the on-site bakery.
We ordered dinner to go from the Gold Rush Steakhouse. The menu is pretty old style mid-century steakhouse, and nothing on there intrigued me, especially for the high prices. It was hot, so we got some salads and a slice of the pink champagne cake. I feel like dropping the dough on a full steakhouse dinner experience would only be worth it if you were dining in that magnificent steakhouse. We’ll save that for a post-pandemic visit.
The salads were not memorable, but the cake was. We ate dinner and watched a hazy sunset from one of our room’s two balconies and enjoyed some pink champagne and wine.
We also learned that glitter wallpaper really comes alive at night. It felt so fancy to drink pink champagne amongst all the sparkles!
Side note–the bed in the Carin room has seen A LOT of action. It wasn’t very comfortable. For the price we would expect better, and I hope they upgrade the mattress. Not sure if every room has an old worn out mattress or if the Carin room does because it is one of the most popular.
After the pandemic, we would like to come back and enjoy all the Madonna Inn has to offer–the steakhouse, horseback riding, and the magnificent beach-style walk in pool. But for now, the Carin room was exciting enough and we stayed safe. I can’t decide if my next top room choice will be the Hearts and Flowers room or the Blue Romance room. Stay tuned!
Days 4 and 5: Paso Robles Wine Country
The Copper Cafe breakfast looked expensive and boring, so we just ate the breakfast options we brought in our cooler. The wildfire smoke was pretty bad, and our car was covered in ash. We were headed a half hour drive away to a little Airbnb house in Paso Robles wine country, but couldn’t check in until 1:00. We decided to drive over to Pismo Beach to take a look at the California coast. But first, we stopped into the Madonna Inn bakery to get two slices of cake for the road. Their cake is out of this world! If you don’t stay there, at least stop by for cake.
We pretty much just got out of the car and looked at the smoky beach (it was actually a sunny day–those clouds are actually all smoke and ash). I guess at least it wasn’t crowded during the pandemic? I had a plan for us to walk on the beach and do a picnic lunch here, but it was best to not be outside breathing the hazardous air and it wasn’t much to look at with all the smoke.
We hit up the San Luis Obispo Whole Foods and picked up lunch and groceries for dinner, along with some local wine and headed to Paso Robles.
Our Airbnb house was adorable. It was a guest house on a gated private property, with grapes growing in the front yard, nice views and a pool. Paso Robles was a higher elevation than the coast, so we were able to get out of the worst of the wildfire smoke.
It was 95 degrees, so I went and took a quick dip in the pool. It wasn’t heated and was mostly in the shade so it cooled me right off! However, even in 95 degree heat it wasn’t comfy enough to swim in for very long. It was nice to read in the pool loungers, however.
After doing so much driving for the past three days, we were ready to have some down time. We cooked some delicious halibut for dinner and some of the Madonna Inn raspberry white chocolate cake for dessert and binge watched Netflix.
Exploring wine country
The next morning, the wildfire smoke made its way up to our elevation so my lovely day of sunning myself by the pool was not going to pan out. It wasn’t as hot which was nice, but it left us without a lot to do but hang out and relax. We’re good at that though.
If we weren’t in a pandemic (and multiple wildfires), I would have had a whole afternoon of wine tasting planned, possibly with a wine tour for safe transport to the many wineries in the area. I felt like we had to taste some wine, so prior to the trip I had researched some wineries open on Wednesdays (many are closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), that had COVID-safe plans. We selected Niner Wine Estates. Their tastings during COVID are reservation only, are outdoor only with wide spacing between tables, and masks are required at all times except when seated at your table. In addition, they sanitize each table between guests, and have all the tastings poured for you when you are seated, so as to limit your server having to come to your table very often. All the servers wore masks.
We felt very safe. We were greeted outdoors by a masked host who offered us a welcome tasting of wine outside seated far from the entrance area. He took our wine tasting order (one white flight and one red) and once our table was sanitized and all our tastings poured, we were shown to our seats.
We chose the last tasting reservation of the day at 3:00 PM, partly because we wanted there to be as few people as possible, and partly because I had a lovely plan of driving around the countryside looking at vineyards in the late afternoon sun and taking lovely photos.
Unfortunately, the late afternoon sun/lovely photos part was ruined by the wildfire smoke. However, the vineyards were still pretty and the winery had very few people visiting.
We enjoyed the cabernet and the chardonnay the best at Niner, and bought a bottle of each to take with us. They had a nice looking menu as well, but we planned on getting take out in town.
We did a drive around the vineyards despite the smoke and back to town. It was really nice and we would love to come back and do wine tasting again sometime after the pandemic.
For dinner we got take out from La Cosecha in Paso Robles town. Outdoor dining was allowed, and restaurants had spilled their tables out onto the sidewalks and parking spaces in town to create socially-distanced dining. We still weren’t comfortable with this due to so many people walking by, some without masks. We ordered several small plates for takeout: the grilled octopus, the seared scallops, the fried “bombas”, and the beet salad. Everything was excellent. We would love to come back and dine in again after the pandemic.
Day 6: Long driving day to Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Thursday morning, we got an early start on the road for our long day of driving to my parents’ house in Lake Havasu City. The smoke was still bad, and got worse around Bakersfield.
We passed a really bad semi truck flip blocking the entire two-lane highway 58. I think we arrived just after it happened, traffic was beginning to back up for miles. I think the driver was okay, there were people walking around the crash outside on cell phones. Gasoline was leaking all over the road. Hopefully no one threw a cigarette out the window. Yikes.
It was a pretty bland road trip day overall. Lunch was a Del Taco drive-through stop in Barstow. Our one and only roadside attraction on today’s agenda was the Mohave Trails National Monument on part of old route 66, in the “town” of Amboy. The plan was to detour off highway 40 onto highway 66 and then re-join the 40 down the road, but there was a detour and we were directed straight off the 40 cutting over to Amboy on Kelbaker Road. It was an old, poorly maintained road through the desert which was a little nerve-wracking. I had flat tire nightmare panic the whole time. However, we were fine.
The Mohave Trails National Monument wasn’t much to see from the road. It was actually a nature preserve that is good for hiking and exploration with an off-road vehicle.
However, we got an awesome historical shot of old Route 66 and a rad mid-century motel and cafe. I want to come back and check out Roy’s cafe after the pandemic.
We made it to my parent’s house in Lake Havasu City, Arizona late that afternoon and spent time relaxing.
Days 7-8: Drive to Oatman, Arizona and some relaxing pool time
My parents took us on a drive on part of old route 66 through a winding canyon with a lot of harpin turns that was nerve-wracking, but beautiful. The drive took us through the old west town of Oatman, Arizona which is known for the wild donkeys that roam the town and surrounding area.
The town is about one block long, and full of touristy shops and saloons, and of course–donkeys. Tourists buy food pellets for the donkeys and feed them in the street, which keeps the donkeys coming back often for free lunch.
Unfortunately there were a lot of tourists without masks, so we didn’t get to explore the shops while we were there. We managed to catch a group of donkeys alone and got out to say hi. They were very sweet.
We spent the afternoon and the next day relaxing in my parents’ pool and enjoying some family time in their new house.
Day 9: Yucca Valley, California
We said goodbye to my parents and began our journey back west to California. Our last stop on the trip was an Airbnb house in Yucca Valley for three nights, which is near Joshua Tree National Park.
The drive from Lake Havasu to Joshua Tree was only about three hours, and we made it to the Joshua Tree area by lunch time. We stopped for lunch at Andrea’s Charbroiled Burgers in Twentynine Palms. Andrea’s had outdoor tables set up in their parking lot with canopy tents for shade. No one else was at the restaurant (from the dishes on the tables it looked like their lunch rush had just ended), so we decided to eat there. It was a lot more comfortable than trying to eat in our hot car and there wasn’t anyone around besides the two restaurant workers who were wearing masks. The burgers were good, I would highly recommend Andrea’s over the fast food chain options in Twentynine Palms.
Our next stop was in the town of Joshua Tree to see the World Famous Crochet Museum. Back in a lot by an art gallery, one woman’s crochet obsession occupies an old photo processing booth. It is tiny but amazing, full of interesting and colorful crocheted items. It’s free, but there is a donation can with a $0.25 suggested donation. I’m obsessed with unusual museums and this collection is definitely worth the stop in my opinion.
Our last roadside attraction for the day was the Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley. The park is a collection of white statues of Jesus and biblical figures in the foothills of the desert, installed in the 1950’s. It’s an interesting and unexpected sight and also free to visit.
We arrived to our Airbnb in Yucca Valley promptly at check-in time, anxious to see this unusual house that looked so intriguing in the photos.
The house is called The Ancestor, and was built by hand with materials from the surrounding desert by an architect in the 1970’s. The house truly was a work of art.
The Ancestor had a pretty large plot of property covered in Joshua trees, with a large deck on the upper level perfect for having margaritas and watching the sunset. There was a shallow wading pool (not heated) in the front, and an awesome enclosed courtyard hangout area off the kitchen with a gas firepit. The house had so many interesting little details and the hosts provided extra touches like upscale bath products and incense. The house also has a hot tub in an enclosed sunroom area that can be opened up to the outside. It was hands-down one of the most magnificent and unique places we’d ever stayed.
We went into town to pick up some groceries for our stay, margarita mix and tequila, and some takeout BBQ for dinner from Dickey’s BBQ.
Not only was Dickey’s BBQ delicious, they were set up perfectly for COVID safe pick up. Their tables were arranged in a square in the center of the restaurant, with direction for one way in and one way out, as well as 6 ft spacing signs for waiting in line. The staff wore masks and once we paid, they directed us to sit on the side bench to wait, and then deposited our order on the table instead of handing to us to maintain social distancing. We highly recommend their ribs and the turkey.
We spent the evening enjoying margaritas from the deck of The Ancestor and watching the sunset.
Days 10-11: Cabazon Dinosaurs and Yucca Valley relaxation
Our main intention in Yucca Valley was to get some sunshine and relaxation in before heading back to the rainy Seattle weather and an indefinite amount of quarantine in our house. However, we decided to get one more COVID-safe excursion in: The Cabazon Dinosaurs.
The Cabazon Dinosaurs is more of a roadside photo-op than anything else, and at $13 per person the park was a little small. You can walk through it in 15 minutes. However, it is all outdoors, and masks and social distancing were required. The giant T-Rex in the front of the park that you can see from the road has a stairwell up to a lookout from his mouth. We didn’t do that though, as we didn’t know if we would have to pass other people or be in a tight space with people.
Overall, it was a fun little excursion and provided for some great photos.
We spent the rest of the day and the next day relaxing on the property, getting some sun in the splash pool, and enjoying the desert before our drive home.
Quick tip about Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley: It is consistently 10 degrees cooler in Joshua Tree and the high desert than down in Palm Springs. The temperature stayed at 95 while Palm Springs was over 100 when we were there.
In addition, the wildfire smoke was much worse in the lower elevation areas in and around Palm Springs. We had almost booked a house with a pool in Palm Springs but were really glad we didn’t. The air was a bit hazy in Yucca Valley but the higher elevation kept it from being really bad.
Days 12-13: Long, smoky drive home
The wildfires in Oregon were really bad while we were on this trip, and there were large fires up and down the I-5 corridor through Oregon, causing hazardous smoke. In addition, many hotels were occupied by wildfire evacuees. We decided the best thing to do would be to drive home in two days instead of three, which meant 11 hours per day of driving, but no stops in fire-ravaged Oregon.
Our first day we drove from Yucca Valley to Redding, California. It was a pretty long, brutal day. We managed to make one roadside attraction stop at the giant olive in Corning, CA:
We rolled into the Thunderbird Lodge in Redding, CA tired and hungry. The Thunderbird Lodge is a re-vamped vintage motor lodge. It was average and clean.
Northern California was allowing dining in restaurants, and restaurants and bars were packed with people not wearing masks. I stopped at a Japanese restaurant nearby to try and order something to go, but left immediately after a large group of people without any masks whatsoever walked in and stood right next to me.
We ended up getting some gross takeout salads from a bar near the motel, getting side-eye glances from anti-maskers in the bar when we asked to wait for our food outside.
The next morning, we hit a Starbucks drive through (masks worn), but noticed customers not doing the Starbucks employees the courtesy of wearing masks at the drive through. We made one final stop in Redding before hitting the road at a gas station to fuel up and get some ice. There was a large “masks required” sign on the door to the gas station, but the two employees inside were not wearing masks, nor was the customer who walked in while I was in there. Overall, Redding was a pretty bad experience.
The drive through Oregon was so smoky we had to wear our masks inside the car for parts of the drive near Roseburg and Eugene areas. It was sad to see some neighborhoods demolished by fire from the freeway, and large portions of scorched land. I felt so sad for all the people affected by the fire. Businesses and homes lost, animals and even some human fatalities.
We were so happy to have been able to get out and get in a travel adventure this year. We miss traveling a lot, but we won’t be getting back on a plane until there is a vaccine or the virus is down to a dull whisper. This trip gave us lots of ideas of things we want to come back and see in California post-pandemic. We definitely will be visiting the Madonna Inn again, and we would love to spend some time in San Francisco and LA.
Stay safe out there. Mask up and protect your community. We will get through this.
A quick day trip to one of the largest and most remote waterfalls in Washington State: How to get to Palouse Falls and what to expect
I had seen photos of Palouse Falls in our home state of Washington and always wanted to go there, but it wasn’t really close to anything and is quite a long trek from Seattle. An off-shoot of the Snake River located in Southeast Washington State, Palouse Falls really is in the middle of nowhere. This summer, we had plans with some friends to spend a few days in Walla Walla—about an hour drive from Palouse Falls. We decided to take a day trip to check it out.
While wine tasting the day before in the Walla Walla area, our wine servers advised that we go to Palouse Falls early in the morning if possible. Visiting the falls has become increasingly popular. We set out on the road from Walla Walla at around 9:00 AM on a Saturday, hoping to beat any possible crowds.
The drive to Palouse Falls from Walla Walla is through rolling hills of wheat fields. You can take a couple different roads from Walla Walla to get there. The most direct is highway 125/Lyons Ferry Road, which has a lot of windy twists and turns in the beginning. If you are prone to motion sickness, this might not be the best route for you. The other direct way is highway 12, connecting with the 261 in Lyons Ferry. The latter goes through a small town or two, and is longer but a bit less twisty.
We took highway 125/Lyons Ferry Road, which was pretty but did make me a little queasy, despite sitting in the front seat. The drive was only about an hour, and there was still plenty of parking available when we got there. We took highway 12 back.
*Note: Palouse Falls is a state park, which requires a Discover Pass to park there. There are no places to purchase a pass at the park, so buy an annual pass or day pass prior to your trip.
From the parking lot, walk down through the tiny campground to the cliff to view the falls.
The falls are stunning, and the canyon is a sharp contrast to green western Washington, and even the golden wheat fields on the way to the falls. There are a few view points from the parking lot area.
We were hoping for a small hike or something to make the visit a bit more exciting than getting out of the car and looking at the falls. We walked up the hill to the left of the parking lot facing the falls and found a small trail, with this sign:
The trail led away from the falls, along the canyon towards an eventual descending trail down to the canyon floor a ways from the falls.
We walked on it for a little ways, but had no intention of trying to get down to the falls.
If your plan is to swim beneath the falls or hike down to the falls, please reconsider. There have been several deaths at Palouse Falls, the more recent ones including a man who fell when a ledge crumbled underneath him, and another where a man swimming under the falls got sucked under by the waterfall and drowned. It is extremely dangerous, and the falls are best enjoyed from the top of the canyon, a safe distance from the edge.
We may have been interested in exploring the trails on the top of the canyon away from the falls a bit more, had it not been 90 degrees with the strong possibility of rattlesnakes.
Regardless, the views were gorgeous and there were copious amounts of wild sunflowers.
The area was gorgeous, and it was a nice morning activity from Walla Walla. I don’t think the trip to Palouse Falls would be worth the drive for a day trip from anywhere further away than an hour and a half. There isn’t a lot to do other thank take in the beauty of the falls and the surrounding canyon.
Staying near Palouse Falls:
For a longer visit, the tent campground at Palouse Falls State Park wasn’t great. There was no privacy at all and you have day trip visitors trekking through the campground constantly. It is also first-come, first-served, meaning that if you drive all the way out there and the campground is full, you are out of luck. However, I am willing to bet that at night when all the visitors are gone and it is just campers left, the stars probably look spectacular.
If you really want to camp in the area, you might be better off camping at the Starbuck/Lyons Ferry KOA a 15 minute drive away. I haven’t stayed there, but they take reservations and the campground is right on the Snake River. Their website shows swimming and boating activities available at the campground.
Overall, Palouse Falls and the surrounding Snake River area is a unique area in Washington State and definitely worth a visit.
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Visiting local friends in New York City: The Coney Island Mermaid Parade, Exploring the East Village, Williamsburg, and a lot of great food.
I finally feel like I really got to know New York City. My three previous trips to New York City were all quick two-day adventures, mostly focused on hitting up big attractions in the city. This was a solo trip to visit my native New Yorker bestie Keith, for 6 nights. Keith and his partner Mike were kind enough to put me up in their Inwood apartment guest room, and I timed my trip around the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in June. Having seen most of the big tourist attractions, I was able to spend my 5 days in New York City having fun and and exploring some of the amazing food and quirky attractions New York has to offer.
Day 1: The Museum of Sex, The Guggenheim, and a Tiki Bar
Following a three hour flight delay due to thunderstorms in New York, an evening of catching up with Keith and Mike, and a good night’s sleep, I was ready to head out into the city. Keith’s suggestion for the day was the Museum of Sex in the mid town area. They were having an exhibit on sexuality in the 1970’s -early 1980’s punk scene, and Keith had read about a bouncy house made out of boobs. That there was a bouncy house of boobs was really all he had to say, but the punk exhibit sounded great too.
The punk exhibit was interesting, focused on the early punk scene in New York City. Punk celebrity fashion, show posters, show videos, and photographs were displayed with a lot of text about sexuality in early punk culture.
There was also an exhibit on the history of the stag film, with video clips of various pornographic films and cartoons from the 1920’s on display along with an informative history timeline of pornographic films.
The main highlight however, was SuperFunLand, which was a carnival like exhibit with a kaleidoscope room, various carnival games, and as promised–a bouncy boob house.
SuperFunLand costs a bit extra (I think like $4 extra), but it is totally worth it. You only get about 5 minutes in the bouncy boob house, but I really don’t know how much longer than that I could jump around on boobs to Van Halen’s “Jump.” It was a good amount of time for me.
After bouncing on boobs, we went down a dark velvety hallway to a door titled The Tunnel of Love. The ticket man asked us if we were prone to seizures or motion sickness, and if we minded being squirted in the face with water. We weren’t sure what we were in for, but we swiped our ticket cards and forged ahead.
The Tunnel of Love was a large-scale immersive short film exhibit with moving seats and special effects to make you feel like you were moving through the film. And yes, we were squirted in the face with water twice. It was a little sexy, a little psychedelic, and a little obnoxious. Overall, I’d recommend. A note about motion sickness: I am very prone to motion sickness, and I was fine.
After the Museum of Sex and a bit of meandering in a book store and getting coffee, we were ready for a bite to eat. One of my bucket list food spots on this trip was celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s Baohaus in the East Village.
I wished I was a bit hungrier, as I wanted to try all the baos. I settled on the Chairman Bao with pork belly, relish, crushed peanuts and cilantro. Keith tried the Birdhaus Bao, which was fried chicken with a lemon-garlic aoli, crushed peanuts, and cilantro. They were really good and if there weren’t so many other great places to eat in New York City, I would have gone back and tried them all. Note that one bao is snack-sized, two would be more of a meal. They also serve rice bowls and taro fries, which we did not try.
Second on my East Village bucket list was getting dessert at Milk Bar. Milk Bar is chef Cristina Tosi’s creation, most famous for her cereal milk ice cream, and Milk Bar Pie (formerly known as “crack pie,” but I guess someone gave them flack about that). Paddy and I really enjoyed the episodes about Milk Bar and Cristina Tosi on David Chang’s segment of Mind of A Chef (Netflix), and I needed to see what the fuss was all about.
Keith and I both opted for the cereal milk and compost cookie ice cream swirl combo, with compost cookie topping. It was pretty damn good, but not something I would go out of my way for specifically. You do have to be someone who really likes the salty-sweet flavor combo (which I do) to enjoy this ice cream.
I really wanted to try a piece of the Milk Bar Pie too, but there is only so much sugar I can consume in one sitting. I vowed to return.
Later that evening, Keith and I took a walk through Central Park on our way to the Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheim Museum was having a private preview party for it’s members to come view the new Basquiat exhibit after hours. Keith was a member, and what is more New York City than a private party at the Guggenheim?
The Guggenheim had a really awesome corkscrew layout, where you can walk (up or down) the spiral to view the art. There are off-shoots from the spiral levels to larger exhibit rooms. There was also a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit that was really interesting.
The Guggenheim Museum is normally open from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM daily, and Saturdays until 8:00 PM. Check it out.
After the Guggenheim we took a cab to the East Village to meet up with Keith’s partner Mike for dinner.
Mike has been trying to eat a more plant-based diet lately, so he suggested Bar Verde, a Mexican restaurant serving only plant-based dishes. Bar Verde was packed, but the wait for a table wasn’t too long.
We started with the smoked pineapple mezcalito cocktails, which were pricey ($15) but delicious. We also tried the hearts of palm ceviche, and several types of tacos including tempura avocado, maitake mushroom carnitas, and farro chorizo.
I’m not a vegetarian but I do love veggies. The array of veggies used in all the dishes was extremely broad, and everything was packed with flavor. I would absolutely recommend this place, even if you aren’t vegetarian.
Otto’s Shrunken Head was having Rebel Night, a 50s and 60s vinyl dance party that happens every third Friday of the month. We ordered some drinks at the bar (I got the squealer– a lychee and passion fruit slushy in a pig tiki mug) and made our way to the back room to check out the dance party.
*Tiki drinks at Otto’s are $20 including a tiki mug. If you don’t want your mug, just return it to the bar when you’re done for $6 back.
I thought it might be fun to do the twist to some old vintage vinyl, but the back room was full of people who actually knew how to dance. There was a group of about 12-15 people in full vintage rockabilly attire, with rehearsed swing-dance style moves. I was not going to try and join in with that, but was happy to drink my slushy pig on the side bench and watch. It was impressive.
We didn’t stay out crazy late because we had a mermaid parade to judge the next day.
Day 2: The Coney Island Mermaid Parade
I timed my visit to New York City around the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in June after Keith told me it existed. We had purchased judge-ships for $200 each well in advance, which included bleacher seats, port-a-potties for judges only, free beer and food, a t-shirt, and the opportunity to view and judge the mermaids. Because mermaids.
Coney Island was a two hour subway ride from Keith’s apartment in north Manhattan, but it was worth it. We donned sailor attire for the occasion.
The parade and costumes were fantastic, and I would absolutely recommend it if you are in New York in June. I read later that there were approximately 850,000 people at the parade. Bring water and sunscreen and try to arrive by 11:00 AM if you want to avoid subway crowds and stake out your spot. Or be a judge, and get a great seat in the shade with all the amenities.
The parade lasted from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM, and included three marriage proposals and one actual wedding. The costumes were impressive, and glitter was everywhere.
After the parade was over, the “mayor” of Coney Island did a beach opening ceremony, which we missed. We walked along the boardwalk where mermaids from the parade were posing for photos. The beach was definitely open, and very crowded.
We had enough of crowds for the day, so we headed back to the subway station to go get dinner and relax a bit in Brooklyn.
Keith’s friend suggested a little French Bistro called Bar Tabac right near the subway in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. We got a little side walk table outside, a nice shady spot to wind down after a day of crowds and mermaids. I had the calamari and the gazpacho, which was delicious on a hot day. Bar Tabac was very cute and everything on their menu looked amazing. I would definitely recommend this place for lunch or dinner if you are in the area.
The Mermaid Parade and long subway journey wiped us out, so we ended our Saturday night watching Golden Girls at Keith and Mike’s apartment.
Day 3: Lazy Sunday Brunch in Harlem
New Yorkers love their Sunday Brunch. My celebrity chef nerdery led us to Marcus Samulesson’s Red Rooster in Harlem, an easy subway ride from Keith and Mike’s north Manhattan apartment.
Red Rooster has a “gospel brunch” on Sundays, with live gospel singers as entertainment. They don’t take reservations for brunch, and I was worried that the wait might be long. To our surprise and delight, we walked right in and were seated right away.
I will warn you, Red Rooster is a bit on the expensive side. Expect to pay for brunch what you would for a nice dinner. That being said, the food is heavy and delicious and you will leave full and happy.
We started with some bloody marys, which were strong. I had to try Marcus Samuelsson’s fried chicken that I’d heard so much about, so I ordered the Hot Honey Yardbird which came with sweet corn succotash and tomato salad. The chicken was crispy and a little sweet, and the tomato salad and succotash was the perfect fresh and acidic compliment to the heavy fried chicken.
Keith had the Rooster Slam, which had a little bit of everything, and Mike had the NY Cheddar & Kale Omelette. Everything was outstanding.
One of the gospel singers walked around the room with a portable microphone, serenading diners.
When we left, there was a line out the door. I guess we hit the right time. Red Rooster lived up to the hype, and I will definitely want to come back on my next visit to New York City.
After brunch we walked around Harlem a little bit. Mike has a thing for cookies, and said that I had to try one of the enormous cookies from Levain Bakery. We stopped into their Harlem location to pick some up for dessert that evening. The cookies are huge, more like a cookie mountain. I can attest that they are delicious. The bakery was tiny, and there were a few other baked goods for sale, but it was clear that the cookie was the star of the show here. They come in chocolate chip walnut, chocolate chocolate chip, chocolate with peanut butter chips, and oatmeal.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking in Inwood Hill Park, and having drinks with friends and watching the Women’s World Cup at the Tubby Hook Tavern in Inwood.
Day 4: Wandering in Williamsburg
On Monday, Keith and Mike had to go back to work so I had a day to myself. I had read about a plus size consignment clothing store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so I decided to wander around Williamsburg for the day.
Williamsburg was an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn without a lot going on until the 1990’s. As with any trendy neighborhood, low rents brought in artists and young people and gentrification set in. Williamsburg is now a hipster-mecca in Brooklyn, and I was curious to see what it was all about.
After three days of walking all over New York, my feet were a little beat up. I had a little time to kill before some of the shops in Williamsburg opened up, so I got a reflexology foot massage at Happy Foot Spa on North 5th St.
Feeling relaxed and my feet rejuvenated, I walked over to Plus BKLYN consignment boutique. It was a super cute shop, but the inventory was a little low. I didn’t find anything I loved this time, but would recommend checking it out if you are a size 14+.
I poked around in a few more shops on Bedford Avenue before I got a little overheated walking in the hot sun. Time for lunch and a cold drink.
I had originally scoped out Pies and Thighs as my lunch option for the day, but after just having eaten fried chicken the day prior and it being so hot, I wanted something lighter. I ended up at Pearl’s, a Caribbean spot on North 8th St, and ordered a refreshing jerk chicken salad with mango and arugula. A variety of sauces were brought to the table, the best of which was a creamy garlic sauce that I ended up slathering all over my chicken.
Later that evening, I met up with Keith and Mike in the East Village for dinner at Prune, another restaurant on my celebrity chef nerdery list. On Mind of a Chef, one of our favorite cooking shows on Netflix, Paddy and I fell in love with chef Gabrielle Hamilton. I loved her aprons and mis-matched pots and pans, down-to-earth cooking style, and her creativity. She hates letting anything go to waste in her kitchen, which is also something I greatly admire. I was excited to try her cooking.
Prune is tiny but intimate. I was glad I had made a reservation, as the place was packed on a Monday night.
We started with the shaved celery salad with blue cheese toast, and the fried anchovies. The anchovies were simple but delicious. The celery salad was really impressive. I wouldn’t think to make celery a star ingredient in anything, but here it was, hogging the spotlight drenched in butter on blue cheese toast. And it was fabulous.
For an entree I ordered the roasted duck breast with braised beans and smoked tomato vinaigrette, which was smoky and cooked perfectly. Mike had a medley of different veggie dishes which was their vegetarian option, and Keith had some gargantuan hunk of meat on bone that I can’t remember what it was. Forgive me, I was enamored with my duck and wasn’t paying attention.
The dishes didn’t have the prettiest presentation, but that is exactly Gabrielle Hamilton’s style. Food cooked with lots of flavor and love that doesn’t have to dress to impress. I am looking forward to going back here again with Paddy someday.
As tempting as dessert was at Prune, we wanted to cap the evening off with dipped soft serve from the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop around the corner. New York’s best soft serve is big, gay, and covered in delicious toppings. No matter what your sexual orientation is, you have to have Big Gay Ice Cream in New York City. Complete with Heimlich maneuver instructions illustrated with Bea Arthur and a unicorn.
Keith got the Dorothy cone, which was vanilla soft serve with dulce de leche syrup and crumbled nilla wafers. I naturally opted for the salty pimp, another vanilla soft serve cone with dulce de leche dipped in salty dark chocolate. What’s not to love?
Our subway car’s AC was out on the way back to north Manhattan, so we got a free impromptu crowded public sauna to end the evening. It was gross. Se la vie.
Day 5: Catacombs and the East Village
Late Monday night before I went to bed, an ad popped up in my Facebook feed for a Catacombs tour at Saint Patrick’s Basilica in the Nolita neighborhood. I didn’t have any solid plans the next day, so I booked it.
The tour is run by Tommy’s New York and is a tour of the tombs underneath the basilica, which contain members of New York’s historical elite. Buried here are bishops, congressmen, and members of the Delmonico family, as well as many others.
The tour started at 11:00 am, where we got a brief history of the church in a waiting room across the street from the basilica. We were then led to a basement room under the church where two huge wooden doors creaked open for dramatic effect, revealing a dark hallway lit only by candlelight and an eerie red glow.
Before you get too excited, this isn’t like the catacombs you might see in Paris or other parts of Europe. You aren’t going to see any real human bones. Overall this tour is mostly an interesting New York City history lesson, and not much of a macabre experience. It was fun to tour it by candlelight, however, and we were all given a souvenir electronic tea light to walk with and help us read the inscriptions on the tombs.
Turns out the gothic red glow illuminating the hallways was from red exit signs in the back of the catacombs. It did make for a nice effect.
Our guide was informative and fun. If you have time and want to learn about some historic New York families and feel like getting a little spooky, this is a nice way to spend two hours. I’d recommend it as a good escape from the heat or rain as well. That day I was happy to escape both.
We got a brief tour of the inside of the basilica before afternoon mass started, and ended with a tour of the cemetery surrounding the church.
Saint Patrick’s Basilica is only a few blocks from the East Village, so I walked over there after the tour to have lunch and do some shopping. On my agenda for lunch was the B&H Dairy, a kosher deli in business since 1938. B&H advertises itself as a vegetarian restaurant, but in truth it is a pescatarian restaurant (they serve fish). I don’t eat beef, so I thought I’d skip the long lines at Katz’s Delicatessan in favor of this place (I’ll go to Katz’s someday with Paddy on another trip, he is all about the pastrami).
Seattle is seriously lacking in the kosher deli department, so I felt like I couldn’t leave New York without having some matzo ball soup at a kosher deli, and I’d also never had a knish. I bellied up to the lunch counter and ordered both.
I have mixed feelings about my meal choice here. On one hand, I was happy to tick New York City matzo ball soup and a knish off my New York checklist. On the other hand, I was kicking myself for not ordering one of the tuna fish or white fish salad sandwiches on thick homemade bread that I watched the deli guy constructing. The sandwiches looked AMAZING, while my knish was kind of like eating mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy. I am determined to revisit this place on my next trip and order one of those sandwiches.
Obscura Antiques and Oddities is just that, a place to look at and purchase odd stuff. I am drawn to the weird, so this was right up my alley. Old post cards, creepy dolls, taxidermy, and other random items are for sale. I didn’t find anything I was in love with, but it was fun to explore.
Trash & Vaudeville is punk rock, and if you have a love for outlandish shoes this is your place. I found Paddy an awesome button down shirt with jellyfish printed on it. Their lack of plus sizes however was a little disappointing, especially when they carried a lot of brands that made their styles in plus sizes.
Enz’s is a tiny boutique rockabilly clothing shop right next to B&H Dairy. The shop owner was really nice and makes a lot of the dresses herself. I loved a lot of them, but sadly she doesn’t have a lot of plus sizes either.
I stopped by Milk Bar again to try and get a slice of their famous Milk Bar pie, but they were closed for repairs that afternoon.
I ended my evening spending time with Keith and Mike and their friends. This trip I felt like I really got to know New York City outside of the tourist trail. It was nice to have time with friends and to see different neighborhoods without the pressure of trying to check places off of a sight-seeing list. The East Village is my favorite neighborhood in New York, but there is still so much I haven’t seen. So many meals not eaten. There will be other trips to New York City in my future, I can assure you. There is something for everyone in New York.
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Las Vegas 2017: Getting off The Strip–downtown Las Vegas and the Arts District. Checking out local spots and culture in Las Vegas’ historical downtown and the up-and-coming arts scene.
The last time we were in Las Vegas, when we left we decided we’d had enough of Las Vegas and probably wouldn’t be back any time soon. But…..Las Vegas always has a way of seducing you back. The inexpensive and easy 2.5 hour flight from Seattle, the escape from the Seattle rain, the abundance of cheap, nice hotel rooms, the ability to walk around the street with a drink in your hand, and the great restaurants are ever enticing. We needed a quick winter getaway to lift our spirits (January through April in Seattle is a miserable, rainy, cold, awful time) and decided that Las Vegas would be quick and affordable. We had also never made it to downtown Las Vegas during our first two trips, and decided that this time we would stay in downtown Las Vegas and avoid The Strip altogether.
It was a wonderful plan. We had a fabulous time exploring historical downtown Las Vegas, the Arts District, and a few other local spots. Not once did we go to The Strip, and we left Las Vegas with a new appreciation for Sin City. Our trip was made even better by reuniting with an old middle school friend of mine who was living in Las Vegas and producing a local burlesque show through the winter.
Our flight landed at 7:00 PM, but sat on the runway for 25 minutes because our gate was occupied by a delayed flight. Fortunately we had not checked baggage, so when we finally got off the plane we were able to dash down to ground transportation to catch our shuttle.
We had reserved a round trip shuttle through the aptly named shuttle service Airline Shuttle. It was very inexpensive at $18.00 per person round trip with direct hotel pick up and drop off. Online booking was easy. Be sure to print off your confirmation, however. They do not accept phone screen confirmations, you must print a copy with the bar codes. Their website made this pretty clear, so I printed two copies, just in case.
There are other transportation alternatives such as buses and taxis. A taxi to downtown Las Vegas will run around $40-$50 from the airport one way, and a bus will take a long time. The shuttle was definitely the easy and affordable option.
Finally , we arrived at our hotel, The Golden Nugget. After a bit of confused wandering around in the huge casino we made it from the back entrance where the shuttle dropped us to the front desk to check in. We had reserved the most inexpensive room through Booking.com –a Carson Tower King, non-smoking. We were informed that the only non-smoking rooms available had two double beds. Upon presenting the front desk lady with our printed confirmation for a king room, and informing her that I am allergic to cigarette smoke so a smoking room was not an option, she upgraded us to a Rush Tower king room at no extra charge. (This is why I’m old-school and print my confirmations, it’s easy to whip out and show at check in if something doesn’t match what you were promised.)
The Rush Tower rooms were NICE. The Rush Tower was clearly the newer, upgraded side of the hotel. Our trip was off to a great start.
After a speedy luggage drop and clothes change, we were dying for a drink and a snack. It was already 8:30. We headed down to the casino and into the Cadillac Tequila Bar.
The drinks and food at Cadillac Tequila Bar are a bit upscale Mexican, not outrageously expensive but not cheap. I ordered the Elote (Mexican street corn) and the Ahi Tuna Tacos appetizer and a guava margarita. Paddy ordered the Queso and chips, a beer, and a shot of tequila. The tequila menu was extensive, but the cheapest shot was $9.00. Whatever, we needed to get our night going. The tequila was high quality.
The food was great. Paddy was particularly impressed with the queso dip–real cheese (no Velveeta) and great flavor. The ahi tuna tacos were also very tasty. There was an Asian ponzu-style sauce to pour on them, and the shells were made from wonton wrappers. My guava margarita was delicious, but didn’t seem to have much booze. I ended up ordering another $9.00 shot of tequila to add to it.
After snacks and a couple first drinks, we were ready to check out Fremont Street.
Fremont Street is the heart of downtown Las Vegas, and the original thoroughfare through the city. Many of the casinos on Fremont Street including the Golden Nugget are still there, but with a modern makeover. The west portion of Fremont Street is the renowned Fremont Street Experience.
The Fremont Street Experience is a covered pedestrian-only section of the street. At night, a light and music show happens on the ceiling every hour. Cover bands play at two different stages on opposite ends of the covered street, tourists zip line over the crowds and under the covered light show, and various street performers and people in costume are stationed around the street providing photo opportunities for tips. There are flashing neon lights and alcohol for sale from street side bars everywhere you turn. I was able to procure a keg cup of cheap white wine for $6.00 (don’t judge).
The Fremont Street Experience was fun for approximately 15 minutes. After that, we were ready to get out of neon tourist fun-land. We kept walking down to the east part of Fremont Street, which was a much mellower and quieter experience. The covered pedestrian street turns into a regular downtown street with fewer large casinos and more small bars and restaurants.
Fremont Street East was recently re-vamped in 2002 and new, hip bars and restaurants have been popping up to revitalize the local downtown Las Vegas scene.
We wandered into Commonwealth, a hipster speak-easy style bar with dim lighting and 1920’s decor. The music was modern and the cocktail menu was fancy. We ordered drinks at the bar and walked around. It was about 10:00 PM, so the night was just getting started for the 20-something crowd that was beginning to trickle in.
We wandered upstairs to the rooftop patio, which had a DJ and another outdoor bar. A server came around with free shots of knock-off Fireball whiskey and tiny complimentary cupcakes. Who doesn’t like free shots and cupcakes?
I had read that there is a speakeasy within Commonwealth called The Laundry Room. The only way to get into the Laundry Room is to send a polite reservation request via text to (702) 701-1466. We sent a text to see if we could get in while we were there, and waited a little bit. We finished our drinks and about 10 minutes later received a response with an offer of a 12:15 AM reservation. It was 11:00 PM, and we were tired from working earlier that morning and then traveling, so we thanked them and declined the offer. We’d been to “speakeasies” in Seattle and New York and weren’t feeling like getting into the Laundry Room was that important to us. Maybe next time.
We wandered around Fremont Street a little bit more before calling it a night.
Friday morning we were greeted by 58 degree drizzle, very reminiscent of the Seattle weather we were trying to escape. Se la vie. We took that as a sign that we should go ahead and sleep in a bit longer.
Eventually, we were hungry. I had read that the buffet at the Main Street Station casino around the corner was supposed to be one of the best cheap buffets in town, a local gem. We put on our raincoats, walked to Main Street and got in the buffet line.
We waited in line for about 10 minutes, only to be told when we got to the front of the line that they would be closing at 10:30 (it was 10:15) for half an hour to switch over to lunch, at which point everyone in the dining area will be forced to leave. We decided that 15 minutes was not the time frame that we wanted for breakfast, so we opted out.
*Note–we learned that this is Main Street Station buffet’s weekday schedule. Saturday and Sunday have a champagne brunch buffet from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM for $11.99. We didn’t make it back to try this, but will definitely consider it for our next trip.
We were starving, so we wandered into the Plaza Hotel and casino next door on Main Street to see what they had going on. We found Hash House a Go Go inside the casino, which had a 15 minute wait but looked really good. We gave the host my cell number and walked around the casino until we got a text that our table was ready.
At first look, the prices at Hash House a Go Go seemed a bit high–most plates in the $16.99 range. But then we saw the food coming out of the kitchen—it was HUGE. We were hungry, but the portions this place was serving wouldn’t be something either one of us could finish individually. So we found a dish we both wanted to try and split it. We were really glad that we did.
We ordered the Andy’s Sage Fried Chicken Benedict, which the menu bragged to have been featured on Man Vs Food.
Andy’s Sage Fried Chicken Benedict is a split biscuit with two fried chicken breasts, bacon, mozzarella cheese, tomato, tomato, spinach, scrambled eggs and chipotle cream sauce, served on a bed of mashed potatoes. It was delicious, but massive. Eat this one with a buddy. I couldn’t even make it all the way through my half.
All things considered, the prices are pretty reasonable after all at Hash House a Go-Go, considering the portions. I think we’ll have to come back again on our next downtown Las Vegas trip and try the crab cake benedict.
After breakfast, we called a Lyft and took a short ride over to the downtown Las Vegas arts district.
The downtown Las Vegas arts district is a rapidly up-and-coming neighborhood comprised of several bars, restaurants, art collectives and galleries, and vintage shops. It is also the new home of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which was our first stop.
We caught the Burlesque Hall of Fame during a transition period. It had previously been located on Fremont Street, but had recently moved to the arts district and was in temporary art gallery space while their new location was being renovated across the street.
The gallery was a small space, but had a few costume pieces on display from burlesque legends, and a well-constructed timeline of the history of burlesque with many photos and other memorabilia. The man at the front desk was more than happy to answer our questions.
You would think that a town like Las Vegas, with all it’s glitz and glam would have a great modern burlesque scene. Sadly, we were informed that has not been the case. In Las Vegas there are showgirls, and there are strippers. The art of the rhinestone-encrusted shimmy and a wink with costumes and dancing has been a little lost on sin city. It’s not large-production enough to compete with the big-time casino shows, and it’s too classy to be a raunchy modern striptease.
There are local burlesque performers who are trying to change this, however. Small-venue burlesque shows are becoming more frequent and the local arts scene is growing. The gentleman at the Burlesque Hall of Fame informed us that there were big plans in the works for their new space. He said they have tons of costumes, vintage marquees, and lots of other items in their collection that they are excited to exhibit. Check http://www.burlesquehall.com/ for updates.
Here are some burlesque show posters from current local burlesque troops. Look them up if you’re planning a trip!
We moved on from the Burlesque Hall of Fame to S Main Street to explore the vintage and antique shops.
If you are looking for vintage furniture, clothing, or random kitschy knick-knacks, S Main Street in the Arts District is the place to be. The only thing stopping us from blowing our tax return on a lime green 60’s sectional sofa at Retro Vegas was that we couldn’t take it on the plane home. And maybe a little common sense.
We had a lot of fun looking at all the shops on S Main Street. There was so much to explore. I really wanted to go to the Rockin’ Bettie store, a boutique with retro-style dresses and clothing, but sadly they were closed because they were at a rockabilly convention. Next time.
Later that afternoon we went and got foot massages at the Happy Feet massage place in the El Dorado casino on Fremont Street. $15 for 30 minutes. It was money well spent, we felt revitalized and ready to take on the evening.
After our foot massages were over, we got take out from the Cousins Maine Lobster food truck on Fremont Street. Their menu looked amazing (lobster tots!) I got a lobster roll, Paddy got the lobster grilled cheese, and we got some smothered tots to share–tots smothered in a creamy salsa sauce.
Overall everything was tasty and the lobster was great, but we both felt like our sandwiches were a little small for the price.
After dinner we got dressed up and headed to Atomic Liquors on Fremont Street to meet up with L, a long lost middle school friend of mine and her husband Sam (I am just using her first initial to protect her privacy). L had been living in Las Vegas since the fall, producing and performing in the Leather & Feathers Burlesque Cabaret show at the Erotic Heritage Museum. I grew up with her, but hadn’t seen her since middle school.
Atomic Liquors is the oldest free-standing bar in Las Vegas. It was formerly a cafe, originally built in 1945. The cafe customers used to watch atomic blasts at the nearby atomic test site from the roof of the cafe . In 1952 the cafe owners Joe and Stella Stobchik turned it into a bar. Rumor has it that the Rat Pack and the Smothers Brothers used to drink there after their nightly shows.
Slightly divey, but with a classy signature cocktail menu and a bartender who looks like she stepped out of a 1940’s pin-up magazine, Atomic Liquors was a great place to start the evening.
It was fun reuniting with L, who gave us the scoop on what it was like to live in Las Vegas. She said that everyone she’s met in Vegas has been surprisingly friendly. She thinks that it is because everyone she meets isn’t from Las Vegas. Most people are transplants from elsewhere, and know what it’s like to move to a new city and have to find new friends. She is also a huge fan of the plentiful cheap Sunday champagne brunch deals.
After a couple drinks at Atomic, we headed over to the Beauty Bar on Fremont Street to see a local band, Franks and Deans. There were many interesting photo ops along the way. And we found Vegas Santa! In February! He was urinating on the motel sign that advertised that llamas stay free.
We eventually made it to the Beauty Bar. The Beauty Bar is a chain bar, the original Beauty Bar is in New York. The bar offers booze and manicures during the day, and booze and live music at night. The walls were covered in pink and red glitter, and the bar and furniture are all vintage 1960’s beauty salon style.
The bands and atmosphere were great, the drinks were not. Weak, overpriced cocktails were served in crappy plastic cups and they didn’t serve wine. (Um, if I owned a bar plastered in pink glitter, there would definitely be wine on the menu. Possibly even mini bottles of Cooks served in a paper bag with a straw. Just sayin’.)
The bands made up for the lame drinks. The opening band was The Swamp Gospel, and they were great. Gritty, Southern-style blues-rock, complete with rubber snakes thrown into the audience.
Franks and Deans went on last, and they were fantastic. It doesn’t get much more modern, local Vegas than Franks and Deans. They do punk rock style covers of old crooner songs (their name is a play on Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin if you hadn’t put that together already). They put on a great show, complete with a go-go dancer.
We ended the night by soaking up the booze with pizza from Evel Pie across the street. The name is an homage to stunt performer Evel Knievel, and they always offer a $5.00 pint of PBR and a slice special. Open until 4:00 AM on weekends, it’s a good place for late night munchies.
Saturday started pretty late, on account of the alcohol-soaked late night before. The weather was also even worse than Friday’s, cold and pretty rainy. We took our time getting out of bed. Eventually, we got pretty hungry so we grabbed some coffee at the Starbucks downstairs and then headed down Fremont Street to the Container Park Mall.
The Container Park Mall is on the East portion of Fremont Street, and is built entirely out of recycled shipping containers. There are lots of little shops, a couple restaurants, a coffee shop, and even a little wedding chapel on the third floor. There is an outdoor stage in the center of the mall, and lots of tables and places to view live music should a show be going on.
We found sustenance at Cheffinis Hot Dogs on the ground level. Their hot dogs are some of the best we’ve had, with lots of options and toppings. I loved that they offered a turkey dog option in addition to beef and veggie dogs, since I don’t eat beef.
I had the Moshi Moshi dog with a turkey frank, which had caramelized onions, seaweed, jalapeño, wine sauce, and spicy mayo. Paddy had The Grandfather with a beef frank, piled with chopped pork belly, red bell peppers, caramelized onions, crushed potato chips, spicy mayo, basil aioli, pickled mango, and topped with a fried quail egg. They were delicious.
We then explored some of the container shops and admired the murals on Fremont Street.
On the way back to our hotel, we stopped off at The D Casino and went up to the second floor to check out their collection of vintage slot machines. We played a couple for fun, no wins. They are the classic kind with the pull lever on the side and the cherries, numbers, and other little pictures that spin and you try to get a match.
Later that afternoon, we headed to Chinatown for food and drinks. A lot of people (including us before doing research for this trip) don’t know that Las Vegas has a Chinatown, but it does. It isn’t the type of Chinatown you see in other cities, however. You won’t find a cute downtown area with hanging lanterns, Chinese archways and funky little side streets to explore. Las Vegas’ Chinatown is essentially one big long strip mall extending for miles west of The Strip on W Spring Mountain Road.
Don’t be put off by the strip mall appearance. If you like Asian food, there are many great restaurants here to explore. And one really great tiki bar.
If you’ve read much of our blog you probably have figured out that I have a tiki bar fascination. There are two great old-style tiki bars in Las Vegas, one of which is The Golden Tiki.
The Golden Tiki’s strip mall location gives a deceiving outward appearance, but once you step inside the large double doors, you enter another world. Clamshell fountains, dark, intimate booths and tables, a large wrap-around bar, and a ceiling covered in tiny LED star lights that flicker all create an exotic tropical wonderland. Tiki kitsch and tropical memorabilia abound, with the 1960’s exotica sounds of Martin Denny playing on the bar surround sound system.
We cozied up in a little side table and got out our cell phone flashlights to read the menu. Don’t expect food here. Their kitchen offers only 15 pupu (appetizer) platters each Friday and Saturday night that serve four people each, sold until they are gone. There are many other great food options in the area, so eat first and come here for drinks.
Since I’m a bigger fan of tequila than rum, I ordered the Coconut Sunrise, with coconut and aloe liqueurs, tequila, lime, orange juice, honey mango syrup, and grenadine. It was sweet but fruity and delicious.
You can also order a drink in a souvenir tiki mug, which was tempting but we didn’t want to carry it around for the rest of the evening. We had some time to kill, so I tried the Dole Whip, a soft serve pineapple sorbet. The Dole Whip was delicious, albeit a HUGE serving. I could only eat a portion of it.
Eventually, we were getting hungry, so we settled up and headed out to dinner. I couldn’t resist the photo in the giant clam shell before leaving, however.
Prior to our trip to Vegas, I had been browsing through restaurants on Yelp and Tripadvisor, and came across District One Kitchen on the outskirts of Chinatown on S Jones Blvd. We love Vietnamese food, and their menu looked enticing. The menu is more Vietnamese-fusion than straight Vietnamese, combining flavors of Japan, China, Thailand, and a little French.
We started with the oysters, which came with a light soy-ponzu sauce and caviar. They were delicious. The sauce wasn’t too much to overpower the flavor of the oyster, and the caviar was a nice touch, adding texture and a little boost of flavor.
Paddy tried the beef carpaccio, which he said was amazing (I don’t eat beef so I’ll take his word for it). We also shared the whole grilled squid with a spicy aioli, the Vietnamese-style green papaya salad with prawns and pork, and the “Belly Buns,” (pork belly pinch buns). We are suckers for pork belly pinch buns. Everything was outstanding. We would highly recommend the trek out to District One, it is worth it. The prices were reasonable for what we got.
We had tickets that evening to see my friend L perform as a guest in the Artifice Bar’s “Nerdlesque” show in the Arts District, so after dinner we caught a Lyft over to The Velveteen Rabbit on S Main Street to have some drinks before the show.
The Velveteen Rabbit is so hipster that if I didn’t know where I was, I would guess that I was in Portland.
There were antique velvet couches and chairs, chandeliers made from old bottles and canning jars, and a craft cocktail menu made zine-style in a booklet including poetry. You can cake the zine/menu home as a souvenir for $1.00.
I ordered the “Fireside” cocktail from their seasonal winter menu, which consisted of roasted marshmallow bourbon, salted hazelnut peppermint orgeat syrup, lemon heavy cream, and aztec chocolate bitters. It came in a teacup with a roasted mini marshmallow on a cocktail pic. It was impressive. Paddy tried the “Smoke & Cinder,” with rye whiskey, averna, cherry heering, black walnut bitters, ginger, and laphroaig mist. Don’t ask me to explain any of those ingredients to you, because I have no idea what they are. Paddy gave a rave review of the Smoke & Cinder. It seemed like the right thing to drink while wearing a red velvet blazer.
The Velveteen Rabbit makes a lot of their cocktail ingredients in house (I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to find salted hazelnut peppermint orgeat syrup in the store), and they do an excellent job. Their website even advertises cocktail making classes every other Saturday afternoon, if you’re interested in taking your cocktail skills to the next level.
It was early, so there weren’t many people in the bar yet. There was a small DJ booth in the corner and a small dance floor area, along with a projection light show on the brick wall near the dance floor. I did not see an event calendar on their website, but it looks like The Velveteen Rabbit is set up for some late night fun.
When it was time, we settled up with the bartender at the Velveteen Rabbit and walked up the street to the Artifice Bar for the Nerdlesque Show.
The Nerdlesque Show happens every third Saturday at the Artifice Bar in the downtown Las Vegas Arts District, and has a different, unique, and “nerdy” theme for every show. I was told that last month’s theme was Alice in Wonderland, while this show’s theme was DC Comics.
My friend L was a guest performer in this show and got special permission for me to photograph her act, which was a burlesque Joker theme. Other acts were based on Cat Woman, Poison Ivy, Raven, Harley Quinn, Superman (a fantastic male burlesque act), and a couple of characters that I wasn’t quite nerdy enough to know.
When we got to the Artifice Bar we met L, who introduced us to a friend of hers and we found seats along the side wall of the room. I sat down next to a petite older lady with big, beautiful copper red hair. After seeing a couple people talk to her and call her “Tempest,” I turned to L’s friend and asked if she was Tempest Storm. She was.
Tempest Storm is one of the greatest classic burlesque legends of all time, her exotic dancing and burlesque career spanning decades. She is still active in the Las Vegas community at 89 years old. I introduced myself to her and told her it was an honor to meet her. After the show, my friend L asked if we could have our photo taken with her, but she declined. It was a little disappointing, but I’m sure she is tired of having her photo taken all the time.
Tempest was soon moved by the show producer from the chair next to me to a nicer table location with a better view, but it was exciting to meet her.
The DC Comics Nerdlesque show was great. Each performer put a lot of effort into their costume and routine, and many included props. My friend L (stage name Katerina HoneyBunny) did a great Joker Routine to “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads, complete with a straight jacket. It was a fun show.
Sunday was a no-plans day. We had a dinner reservation later that evening, but other than that the day was scheduled to be a do-whatever-we-feel-like day. I’m a planner, but I always like to plan for no-plans days on trips.
We slept in again, and then made our way down to the Container Park Mall to have brunch at The Perch restaurant inside the park. A no-plans day seemed like a good time to take advantage of their unlimited bloody Marys, bellinis, and mimosas for $15.00.
Apparently, everyone else had the same plan so we had to get on a list for a table. It was a 30 minute wait, but it was worth it.
Paddy had the Short Rib Hash, and I had the Smothered Egg Biscuits, which was basically biscuits and gravy with scrambled eggs and cheese on top. Good dishes for a hangover.
The bartender was our server, and he was great. He kept our bloody Marys and bellinis full. We even got a couple bellinis for the road–although we learned that we weren’t allowed to take them out of the Container Park. It didn’t really make sense, considering that Las Vegas has allows open containers, and there were people walking around with drinks on Fremont Street right outside the Container Park entrance. But the security lady wouldn’t let us leave until we finished our drinks.
We considered going to the Mob Museum, which sounded interesting, but the ticket price of $23.95 per person seemed a little steep. That, and we had a pretty good bloody Mary/bellini buzz going and weren’t really in a museum mood.
So we walked back to the Golden Nugget and poked around. We looked at the pool and the big fish tank (formerly a shark tank with a water slide that goes through the tank in a clear tube, but there were no sharks and the slide was closed for repair). I’m not sure if they plan on replacing the huge tunas in the tank with sharks again, or if they learned that reef sharks shouldn’t be kept in small tanks. I hope it is the latter.
It wasn’t really warm enough to swim, but the pool was heated and a few people were swimming anyway. Up the stairs from the pool to where the top of the water slide was, were a bunch of fancy pool cabanas for rent (all empty) and a smaller adult pool with a bar where a bunch of drunk adults were partying.
Back in the casino we played a couple slot machines for a minute, but only because they had Gremlins on them. $2.00 down the drain. I’ve never been very lucky with slot machines, but I’m also not really a big gambler.
Finally, we decided to sit at the fancy fish tank bar near the Rush Tower elevator and have a drink and watch the fish.
As always happens with day drinking, we eventually needed a nap time.
That evening, we had made a reservation at Las Vegas’ most famous Thai restaurant, Lotus of Siam. I highly recommend making an online reservation a week or more in advance, this place is POPULAR. It’s been around for over 20 years, and has been given even more notoriety in recent years by being featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown.
Housed in an unassuming strip mall location east of The Strip on East Sahara Avenue, Lotus of Siam specializes in serving Northern Thai cuisine.
We had read reviews and seen Parts Unknown, and knew two of the dishes we wanted. The menu was a bit overwhelming, however. Everything in the front of the menu is your standard Thai restaurant fare, while the Northern Thai dishes and house specialties are all towards the back. It was a huge menu. I think that a menu makeover might be a good idea–feature their house specialties right up front, and the Pad Thai and other standard Thai dishes that are not northern towards the back. Kind of like the hamburger at the back of the Chinese restaurant menu…”Yes, we have it. But it’s not what you should be ordering here.”
The server helped us locate the two dishes we were after–the Garlic Prawns and the Crispy Duck Khao Soi. We also ordered the Nam Prik Hed, described as a spicy mushroom dip with fresh vegetables. We were looking for a veggie dish to add and it was something we’d never had before, so we gave it a go.
The Garlic Prawns came out first. Deep-fried in the shell with garlic and black pepper. They lived up to the hype. We couldn’t stop fishing out forkfuls of the fried bits of garlic and cabbage at the bottom of the dish, it was delicious.
The Crispy Duck Khao Soi and the Nam Prik Hed arrived next. The Khao Soi came with an assortment of lime wedges, red onions, and pickled veggies on the side to add to our taste. We added it all. The noodles were flat egg noodles and the broth was a curry base. The duck was cooked perfectly with delicious crispy skin.
The Nam Prik Hed was a dip made from green chilis and pickled mushrooms. It wasn’t a very exciting dish, but it provided the perfect fresh vegetable component necessary to balance out the heavy fried prawns and crispy duck.
We were painfully stuffed when we left. Don’t miss this place if you like Thai food–it is worth the Lyft ride. Also, don’t forget to make a reservation. When we left the doorway was full of hopeful, hungry, reservation-less people, waiting for a chance at a table. If you do make a reservation, know that they will only hold the table for five minutes past your reservation time. Then it becomes available for someone else. And it appeared that there is always someone else.
After dinner, we called another Lyft to cap off the night at the other classic tiki bar in Las Vegas, Frankie’s Tiki Room.
Franki’s Tiki Room is on the outskirts of the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas, on W Charleston Blvd. It’s dark, open 24 hours, and serves only drinks (no food).
Tiki drinks are $10.00 each, or $25.00 if you want it in a souvenir tiki mug to take home. They had a lot of souvenir tiki mugs, all with the Frankie’s Tiki logo engraved into them on the back. We met a couple in the booth next to us who come to Las Vegas from LA a couple times a year and had collected almost all of them.
I ordered the Nakalele Knockout, which was said to be a tangy, refreshing blend of rum, hibiscus, and lime. All I tasted was rum–it was strong. Paddy had the Green Gasser, a mix of citrus rum, Red Bull, melon liqueur, and Bacardi 151 that was also really strong. The bartender wasn’t the friendliest, but he made some stiff drinks.
L and Sam joined us at Frankie’s. Sam liked the Frankenstein, and I had the Kapu I’a which was the one tequila cocktail on the menu. I liked it a lot better than the Nakalele Knockout, but I am partial to tequila. My third and last drink was the Scurvy, which was a pineapple and coconut sugar-bomb that I couldn’t finish (and was glad I didn’t). We all ended up with a bit more of a buzz than we intended.
The next morning, all the rum and sugar from the night before was making us a little green around the gills. It didn’t help that we had a 9:30 AM flight to get up early for.
Our shuttle arrived at airport terminal 1, which was a complete madhouse. Everyone in Las Vegas seemed to be taking a Southwest Air flight out that morning. Our driver told us that our terminal was the next one, terminal three. Everyone else in the shuttle got off at terminal 1 to battle the long security lines.
Terminal three was the complete opposite. We flew Alaska Air, and terminal three was quiet and mellow. We barely had any lines at security, and it was fabulous. The other domestic airlines at terminal three were JetBlue, and Virgin. Our shuttle driver said that terminal three is usually not as busy as terminal 1.
Moral of the story: If you are going to Las Vegas, try not to fly Southwest–try to get a flight with Alaska, JetBlue, or Virgin. Everyone seems to fly Southwest and terminal 1 is very busy.
We had the perfect ending to our trip at terminal three. Before we left for Vegas, my friend Keith told me that if I saw a Dolly Parton slot machine, I had to play it. I promised I would. I didn’t really expect to see a Dolly Parton slot machine… but low and behold, this is what was next to our airport departure gate:
I had spent almost all of my cash, but had one last dollar in my wallet. Dolly Parton took my last dollar like a cold-hearted temptress.
We didn’t win big in Las Vegas, but we didn’t really try. Gambling has never been our thing. There are many other fun reasons to go to Las Vegas, and we really enjoyed getting off of the strip and seeing downtown Las Vegas. We didn’t leave feeling like we were “over it” this time. We want to come back. On our next trip, we’d like to make it to some of the other local places that we missed, and maybe see a show. We still have yet to see an Elvis impersonator (although I think they are ore scarce these days). Coming back in warmer weather and spending more time at the pool sounds nice too. Not to mention all the unexplored restaurants in Chinatown. Las Vegas is a great, quick and easy and a relatively inexpensive grown-up trip. We will definitely be staying in downtown Las Vegas again on our next trip.
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Our trip to Chicago in 2008: Heavy metal burgers at Kuma’s Corner, thrifting in Wicker Park, The Hancock Tower, Navy Pier, and sculptures at Millennium Park.
Chicago was a quick trip in May of 2008. The weather was great, but they don’t call it the windy city for nothing. Our flight was delayed for several hours due to high winds in Chicago.
If you’re going to Chicago, expect flight delays. And as a general rule, we try not to book flights with a layover in Chicago unless it’s the only option. Especially in the winter. But it’s a great city that is definitely worth any travel hassles.
Click on any photo below to enlarge
We were visiting a good friend of ours who had moved to Chicago to go to school and eventually become an art professor. We stayed with him in his apartment the first two nights, and then at the Red Roof Inn downtown the last two nights. At the time the Red Roof Inn seemed to be the best deal in town–we got a room for around $100 a night in the center of downtown, in walking distance to everything.
Our friend Al showed us around his neighborhood. Unfortunately, we didn’t take as many photos as we wished we did, and the trip was a long time ago and such a short trip that we don’t have a ton of things to share. But we’ll gloss over the highlights.
First of all, if you eat at one restaurant while you’re in Chicago, go to Kuma’s Corner. Kumas is what happens when you pair great and adventurous pub grub cooks with heavy metal enthusiasts. The result is hands-down the most mind-blowing burger experiences we’ve ever had.
Be prepared for a line, we had to wait for awhile. It’s worth it.
Paddy had the “Pantera,” a beast of a burger with homemade ranchero salsa, bacon, shredded monterrey jack, roasted poblano pepper, and tortilla strips on a pretzel bun. I had the “Iron Maiden” with a chicken breast instead of beef, which had chipotle mayo, cherry peppers, avacado, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion on a pretzel bun. The pretzel bun is the part that pushes these burgers over the edge into amazingness.
If you’re really hungover and need something to mop up last night’s over-indulgence, you might try the “Slayer.” The Slayer is a beef patty on a big sloppy pile of chili, monterrey jack cheese, cherry peppers, andouille sausage, fries, carmelized onion, green onion, and “ANGER.”
Also at Kuma’s you will find a selection of local beers and local ingredients as the owners do their best to support local farmers and brewers in the area. They also donate to a “charity of the month” and encourage their customers to donate as well.
Another highlight of our trip was exploring the shops in Chicago’s hipster neighborhood of Wicker Park on N Milwaukee Avenue. I found a vintage Cyndi Lauper True Colors Tour T-shirt that I cherish to this day.
We had a great time with Al and his friends, and then we had to make time for some inevitable tourist activities.
We thought about going up in the Sears Tower, but after consulting our guidebook, it sounded like a long wait in line for an overrated view that might be just as great from the Hancock Tower. So we opted for that. We were glad we did. The views were spectacular, really giving you a sense of how massive the city of Chicago really is. Also, you can see the Sears Tower in the skyline view, which is a pretty central part of the Chicago skyline. If you’re in the Sears Tower, you can’t see it. We recommend the Hancock.
We also had a nice stroll on the waterfront park, where we randomly ran into one of my old college friends who happened to be visiting as well. It was a pretty crazy coincidence.
We stopped for lunch on Navy Pier at the famous Billy Goat Tavern made famous by the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd SNL skit (“Cheezborger! cheezborger! No fries, cheeps!). It was an experience, but wildly overrated. My chicken burger was a bland chicken breast cooked on a grill and slapped onto a plain naked bun. I can’t remember if there was even cheese. All condiments were self serve. And don’t forget the chips in a bag. Minimal effort, minimal flavor.
Below: views of the waterfront from Navy Pier
The last big highlight of our trip was Millennium Park. We loved all the larger than life sculptures, specifically “the bean” aka “Cloud Gate” by British artist Anish Kapoor.
Lastly, we had to try out Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza at Pizza Uno. It was pretty good, but felt more like a tourist trap than anything else. It was packed with tourists but we managed to squeeze in at the bar and avoid the wait for a table. The crust was good, but the sauce and toppings were a little on the bland side. We have a feeling that there is much better deep dish pizza in Chicago, and if we return, we’ll be looking for it.