A Travellerspoint blog

Las Vegas

Theme song - "Viva Las Vegas", by Elvis Presley

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What can you really say about Las Vegas? It's bizarre, crazy, fake, plastic, unreal, over-the-top, silcon-enhanced, psychotic, botoxed, and over-indulgent. And it's excellent! We booked rooms at Paris for $60 per night - jumping to $130 per night on Saturday. Neither of us gamble and we don't really understand the appeal, but we did have a casual punt on a slot machine (Alien) and won $28. I don't understand how we won though. That was enough.
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It's been 13 years since we last visited and we were amazed at how much it had expanded. There were a dozen new casino complexes on the Strip. Caesar's Palace had doubled in size. Some of the older casinos were looking distinctly old, such as the Imperial Palace. Other casinos we visited included Bellagio, Venezia, Planet Hollywood, Paris, Flamingo, Aria, Rio, Palazzo, MGM Grand, New York, New York, Excaliber and Mandalay Bay.
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We took in the Circe de Soleil Elvis show - it was amazing. Circe de Soleil has about 8 different shows on in Las Vegas.
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We also took in the New Rat Pack at the Rio casino,which was amusing. After the show we went to Voodoo Nightclub on the roof of Rio. It had great music and fantastic views. On Saturday night we went to The Chateau Nightclub, on the roof of Paris. Nelly was apparently playing but we didn't see him.
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We spent three days in the twilight zone drifting between day and night - literally as there are no windows or clocks in the casinos and their associated shopping malls - and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
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Posted by paulymx 18:27 Archived in USA Comments (0)

New Orleans

Theme song - "With Imagination (I'll get there)", by Harry Connick Junior

The French Quarter is New Orlean's gem and drawcard and we'd booked ourselves a hotel right in the heart of the Quarter, the Hotel St Marie on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon Sts. The French Quarter was spared the horrendous damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2006 because the first French settlers, who arrived here in 1718, chose to site their township on the highest point beside the Mississippi River. In fact most of the surrounding area was swampland. Building was only possible thanks to modern landfill and land reclaimation schemes. As these new districts were situated on unstable soil and were below sea level, massive dykes and levies were required to keep the sea at bay. When these failed in 2006, largely through long-term neglect, the entire city was swept away. And when we say entire city, we litterally mean the entire city, from the CBD to the slums of the 9th Ward, from ancient wooden shanty towns that still barely had running water and electricity, to multi-million dollar mansions; they were all innundated. As the disaster covered all segments of society it has helped pull the community together, however, a large proportion of New Orlean's population has still not returned - they have nothing to come back to.
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The name - French Quarter - is something of a misnomer. The district was the site of the original French settlement, but that was burnt down and destroyed centuries ago. The current French Quarter is a Spanish construction from the late 18th century. France established their second North American colony in the far south of the continent (the first being in Canada), but few settlers could be found willing to risk their health and life living in the hot, tropical south. So the government scoured the prisons for 'volunteers' who were forcibly married to prostitutes and then shipped off to Louisiana. Although granted pardons and lands mos of the settlers eschewed farming and followed their natural inclinations. New Orleans soon gained a reputation as a den of thieves, prostitutes and smugglers and largely supported itself by laundering the plunder of the Carribean pirates. Even the royal governors were not above running bars and brothels.
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When the Seven Years War broke out between France and Britain, the French decided to safeguard their investment by transferring the Louisiana colony to Spain in 1763. It was a sensible move as Britian went on to seize France's Canadian and Caribean colonies. The Spanish did their best to tidy up New Orleans. The old ramshackle wooden town was replaced with the orderly, grid plan, brick built district we see today. They also established schools, proper port facilities, public buildings and functioning plantations. New Orleans, although still a den of smugglers and prostitutes, finally appeared to be a going concern.
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After Napoleon Bonaparte seized the French throne in 1799 he demanded the return of Louisiana from Spain, but quickly realised France could do little to protect it from the British, so in 1803 he offered to sell the colony to the newly independent United States. The pricetag of the Louisiana Purchase was $15 million and more than doubled the size of the continental United States (Louisiana covered the modern states of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Arkansas, Iowa, parts of Texas and New Mexico). During the War of 1812 between the United States and Britian, Britain attempted to seize New Oleans. A young general, Andrew Jackson, cobbled together a scratch force of militia and pirates (under the pirate leader Jean Lafite) and soundly thrashed the British at the Battle of New Oreans in January 1815. None of the combatants had realised that the war had actually officially ended in December 1814! Andrew Jackson later went on to become the sixth president of the United States.
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New Orleans and Louisiana went from strength to strength under the US - largely on the back of the slaves. New Orleans become the largest slave market in the US (followed by Charleston and New York) and a great export port for tobacco, sugar and cotton. All this of course came crashing down after the Civil War. In the later 19th century the French Quarter was taken over by Italian immigrants and was known as Little Italy. It remained a neglected slum right into the 20th century, dominated by the Mafia and, as always, filled with bars and brothels. Starving artists, such as Hemmingway, began to move in to French Quarter in the 20th century because it was cheap and basically anything goes. Over time the French Quarter slowly cleaned up its act and gained a reputation as a party town. The four blocks of Bourbon St is the epicentre of the French Quarter, lined with bars, strip clubs, restaurants, bars, nudie bars, fast food, more bars, gay bars, tourist shops, and bars. Every year at Spring Break tens of thousands of college kids flock to Bourbon St to drink, party and flash their tits. This sort of thing goes on every weekend but to a lesser extent. It's legal to drink in the street too and all bars serve their drinks in plastic cups so you can take them with you. Great stuff!
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The first night we did Bourbon St. With all its strip clubs it is a bit of a seedy place, but almost every bar has a band performing - some play rock, some play blues, some play jazz. Both Jazz and Blues had their origin in the musical traditions of the slaves. Jazz started in the black ghettos of New Orleans in the early 20th century but quickly spread and then diversified. There are numerous different Jazz traditions and styles on display in New Orleans. Frenchman St is the best place to see local jazz bands play. We visited Frenchman St on our second night and cruised through several bars in the wee small hours.
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After a big night on Bourbon St, which involved cocktails such as the Handgrenade and the Hurricane, and way too much beer, we dragged ourselves down to Coops Bar and Restaurant. It was after 11am but the whole Quarter seemed empty, sleeping off its own hangover from the night before. Coops did THE best fried chicken we'd ever tasted - it left Sylvia's in New York for dead! We did some sightseeing in the Quarter and then ventured down Royal St with its antique shops.
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Although we are not fans of ghost tours we opted to take Bloody Mary's haunted pub tour. When we arrived at the rendevous, Jean Lafite's Blacksmith shop - one of the oldest surviving buildings in the Quarter and now a bar - we found that we were the only people on the tour. Hmmm, that was a worry! How would we conceal our skepticism? Anyway, it turned out to be a great tour. After we told our guide we didn't really believe in ghosts we mainly talked about New Orleans' very dubious and interesting history. We visited Storyville, the old red light district, talked about the mafia and the Kennedy assassination, Jim Garrison's persecution of the gay community (as he was secretly dating a transvestive cabaret singer), the Prohibition era, smuggling, slave trading and murder. We did talk a little bit about ghosts and hauntings and - skeptic as I am, I may have heard a ghost in one of the most haunted hotels in the city (Shelly was annoyed she didn't hear it). We also had a long chat about America's current problems, its place in the world and the health care system. It was a really good tour and a good evening.
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After two days and nights of excess it was time to move on. With half a dozen cocktail yard glasses in our handluggage we hopped a flight to Vegas.

Posted by paulymx 17:18 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Everglades to New Orleans

Theme song - "We're on a road to Nowhere", by Talking Heads

Despite a huge last night in Miami we both woke up in a pretty good state. We packed up, loaded the car and bid adieu to South Beach - I will miss you!! On our first night Shelly had tried to navigate us to a popular Cuban restaurant, Versailles, that she thought was in town. We walked up and down 10th Avenue but found nothing, before realising that it was 10th Avenue in downtown Miami. Oops, slight miscalculation there! So we decided to drive into downtown on our way south. We drove along the inner harbour where the cruise ships dock - so many of them - and along the causeway back to the mainland. The sky was looking threatening however and the thunderheads burst in another torrential downpour that almost stalled all traffic on the motorway. It stopped when we reached Little Havana and there was the restaurant right in front of us. We settled in for a delicious meal of huge proportions. Serving sizes are invariably enormous in America and people often have to take away of doggy bag of leftovers. Back in Savannah I had fried chicken with honey and pecans - it comprised four enormous pieces of chicken, vegetables, grits, a salad and two servings of corn bread. Don't get me wrong it was absolutely delicious and I did have a fair ol' crack at finishing it off, but you can't really eat this way and not expect to get fat. Very fat.
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We set off south towards the Everglades. The Everglades is amongst the largest rivers in the world - it's enormously broad and not very deep, in some places not more than 3 inches. Consequently it appears more as a swamp or floodplain than a river. The whole central and southern part of Florida basically comprises the Everglades. We both went there expecting dense swampy forests, but they were actually in Louisiana. Instead the Everglades as flat with endless fields of tall grass. The swamps are filled with alligators, turtles, snakes and other dangerous wildlife. We drove down to the Everglades Alligator Farm in Homestead, Florida. Once again the heavens opened and we thought the trip would be a washout, but the storm passed just as we arrived. We got to watch the gator feeding - which is always fun - and then took an airboat ride.
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An airboat is basically a flat bottomed boat driven by a propeller at the rear. Our airport was powered by a Chevy V6. It was a fun ride and the captain/pilot - Jimmy- was hilariously deadpan. The boat really moves and he spun it around a couple of times, splashing us all with delightfully fresh swamp water. It was so hot though that we dried off almost instantly.
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Then it was back on the road, but not before we stopped at 'Richard is Here', a famous fruit and vegetable stall that makes fresh fruit thickshakes. Their specialty is key lime. Whoah nelly, it was good!! It was worth driving all the way to the bottom of Florida for.

We turned south. We had ambitions to drive out to Key West, the farthest island of the Florida Keys. These islands are all now linked by a bridge and causeway to the mainland. The Keys stretch out for several hundred miles - it's a strange thought to be driving so far out over the ocean. We got as far as the first Key - Key Largo when it dawned on us that after driving all the way out we'd have to drive all the way back again and the novelty would definitely have worn off by then. So we quickly took stock, replanned and turned around. From the far south east of the state we'd drive to the far north west - Tallahassee. And Key Largo? Well, it wasn't worth singing about!

Our route took us right across the centre of Florida. There is nothing in the centre of Florida. We drove across a flat and featureless landscape, the route barely broken by a town or even a hamlet. Night fell - total blackness. Late that night arrived in a junction town called Clewiston, pulled into a motel and crashed.

The next morning we were up and away early - there was nothing to stay in Clewiston for. We still had a full 8 hours drive ahead to reach Tallahassee. Towards midday another storm swept over us, more violent even that those of previous days. Hurricane Irene had by now made landfall in North Carolina, in the Outer Banks, and was creating its own wave of destruction. But that was now far from us. We attempted a detour to Silver Springs - the oldest tourist attraction in Florida - but we got lost and gave up and kept going north.
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We arrived in Tallahassee about 6pm, found a motel and visited the Capitol. Tallahassee is the capital of Florida, which seems an odd choice. It was chosen as it was approximately half way between the old capital, St Augustine, and Pensacola in the east. It feels like southern city, not at all Floridian. It's also fairly non-descript, like other 'artificial' capital cities, such as Canberra. It was Sunday and very quiet so we had an early night.
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The next morning we were up bright and early as I had conditional approval to visit the Tallahassee Auto Museum - if we were out by 8am! We were knocking at the museum door at 8.15 - which is pretty damned good for us. The museum is the work of one family and is extensive and varied. Cars are the major part of the collection but it also included guns, cash registers, boats and trains. We spent almost and hour there and were the only people in the place.
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Then it was all west. We drove through Pensacola, crossed into Alabama at Mobile Bay - scene of another massive Civil War battle - across Missisippi and finally arrived in Louisiana. just for a bit of excitement, about 45 miles out of New Orleans, I went a bit wonky on the road and attracted the attention of the highway patrol. The officer was very polite and I was very apologetic and he let us on our way. Thank God for Lee our GPS who navigated us through the very scary greater New Orleans to the French Quarter. We dropped off our gear and then I drove out to the airport and dropped off the car. It was a stressful drive through some very dicy neighbourhoods but I made it safe and sound. We could not have been happier to say goodbye to that awful car - the Ford Focus. Goodbye and good riddance! A new phase of our holiday was beginning.

Posted by paulymx 00:20 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Miami

Theme song - "Let the bass kick in Miami, girl", by LMFAO

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Miami is the largest city in Florida (8th largest in the US); its financial hub, commercial centre and a tourist magnet. 38 million tourists come here every year and almost all venture down to the Art-Deco district of South Beach. Florida_P_053.jpg
South Beach has miles of beautiful sandy beaches and this began drawing mass tourism in the early 1920s. The resultant building boom invariabily reflected the latest architectural style - Art-Deco. There are 960 historic Art-Deco buildings in the South Beach historical district.
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War is often the mother of invention and World War One promulgated quantum leaps in weaponry, poison gas, aviation, industrialisation, communications, women's rights and concrete. The Germans made extensive use of steel-reinforced concrete in their trench fortifications, which even today some of their many bunkers dotting the fields of Flanders have proven difficult to demolish. Prior to the war buildings were primarily constructed of brick and decorative flourishes such as columns, marble or plaster inserts, or decorative brickwork were expensive and required specialised skills. The new concrete technology offered architects the ability to mold decorative features directly into the building itself. This led to an explosion of curves, awnings and facades on buildings and the development of a whole new artist style.
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During the 1920's boom years every building in South Beach from the Strip hotels, to cheap apartments and even industrial buildings received the art-deco flourish. By the 1940's South Beach was beginning to decline and in the late 50s and early 60s the area was flooded with Cuban refugees. The District became something of a slum and because it was difficult to demolish these concrete 'monstrosities', this area missed out on the redevelopment that was going on in the rest of Miami - thankfully! In the 1980s the character of the Art-Deco District was finally recognised and was protected from redevelopment. It's now a fabulous area of hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and nightclubs.
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We stayed the magnificent Park Central Hotel, right on South Beach. The hotel has been beautifully restored and is one of the hightlights of the strip. It was quite a step up for us and not really that expensive.

While the Art-Deco District may have tons of architectural style, it would be fair to say Miami 'fashion style' is something of a misnomer, unless leopardskin leggings and body hugging lycra count as style. That said though, attractive girls walking the streets in bikinis was quite pleasing on the eye! As always though, this was a look that not everyone can pull off (I know I can't! - my ass looks huge in a thong), but it seemed like everyone was going to try. We found ourselves repeating the words "Oh my God" alot - and not in a good way!
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Despite the abundance of restaurant bars on the strip, we tended to avoid them. Every restaurant had spruikers touting for business from morning to night. Competition between them was fierce. Our experience from elsewhere is that restaurants relying on spruikers to get their trade tend to be pretty ordinary. We did visit the quaint 11th St Diner - a genuine 1930s steel dining car for a very late breakfast / lunch (around 2pm - we found ourselves eating quite late and irregularly while travelling).
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Other than that it was all bar hopping. Miami has intense nightlife. It seemed every restaurant / bar had happy hours that ran for six hours, huge cocktails and two for one deals. It was hard not to drink and as the nightclubs don't really open till around 10pm iti took real self restraint not to overdo it before heading out dancing. We ended up having a big second night bash ending up at the Mansion Nightclub. It was really flash and absolutely pumping, but the bar prices were exhorbitant compared to normal US bar prices.
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Posted by paulymx 09:43 Archived in USA Comments (0)

To Orlando

Theme song - "Come on Irene", with apologies to Dexy's Midnight Runners

Let's just say we did not wake up fresh as a daisy after our ghost tour/pub crawl/karaoke evening, which was a little unfortunate as we had a long driving day ahead to get to Florida. Adam and Beth that we'd met on the pub crawl were also heading to Florida and we joked that we'd probably meet up again in a storm shelter somewhere as Hurricane Irene was just forming in the Caribbean and was predicted to hit Florida in the next couple of days. Perhaps we were being a little flippant about the danger of driving towards a potential natural disaster, but at that time it did not seem to be such a big thing.
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The drive south was uneventful, but just after we crossed the Florida border we heard there'd been an earthquake in Washington. For a day at least the news would be diverted from Hurricane Irene. We stopped at St Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the US. It was founded in 1565 and was the capital of the Spanish colonies of North America. The British tried to force the Spanish out of America for years but St Augustine was too well fortified. It was eventually ceded to Britain in 1763 and Florida was incorporated into the British Colonies. The fort of St Augustine still guards the bay and is the main tourist attraction of the city.
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We moved on to Daytona Beach. From its beachside architecture, Daytona Beach's heyday was in the early 1960s. Retro-deco motels line the beach front. We chose the Mainsail Hotel as its concrete facade looked the most retro. Although it was 'under new management' it was pretty run down. Back in the day motorcycle races were held on the beach; now all the racing - the Daytona 500 - is done on a professional track.
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We were up early the next day and drove on to Orlanda, home of the theme parks. It was further than we thought so we didn't arrive until 12 and went straight to Universal Studios. We packed in as many rides as we could - excepting the Hulk rollercoaster, because I'm afraid of heights and scream like a girl. But we had a great time.
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The next day we drove out to Cape Canaveral to see the NASA Museum. It is quite a trek out from Orlando and to draw tourists out to the site NASA has commercialised itself somewhat. I wasn't entirely sure if we were at a museum or a Star Trek convention. As we headed south towards Miami Hurricane Irene made her presence felt. The thundershowers were so heavy that we almost lost all visibility, but we pressed on. By a stroke of good fortune for us Irene had swung away from the coast and was heading north. It was now expected to make landfall on the northeast coast, somewhere in North Carolina perhaps.
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Posted by paulymx 23:36 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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