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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Henderson and Hoover Dam


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In our first two days in Las Vegas we'd done a pretty good job knocking out the essentials on my list. Now we had to decide which of the optional activities were best to complete. I had already reserved a time slot at the Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson, a large suburb at the southeast corner of Las Vegas that is the second largest city in Nevada in its own right. The ranch was located in a rather desolate commercial area on the western side of town. I was a little dubious about the authenticity of a lion sanctuary in Las Vegas but stellar reviews and countless mentions on Vegas top ten lists convinced me that it would be a good experience for the kids.

I was disappointed right away to see that the lions were kept in concrete-floored enclosures with chain link fences. They looked bored and lethargic, possibly due to the hundred degree heat. As with every other day thus far in Vegas, this was going to be the hottest yet with a projected high of 106. We were as uncomfortable as the lions despite the misters placed along the pathway. I was grateful I'd decided not to shell out a hundred bucks for the chance to feed a lion when I realized it was just a matter of pushing a large pellet through the fence.
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Things looked up a little bit when we got to Ozzie, a young but tall giraffe with his own shed-like enclosure. There was more shade here and one of the employees gave a talk about giraffes while Ozzie painted T-shirts (awkwardly) with a brush held in his mouth. The giraffe wrangler asked if anyone had a joke about giraffes and it dawned on me that I had read one just a day earlier on my phone when the kids were begging me to tell them new jokes. So there I was suddenly in the spotlight telling a long and slightly inappropriate joke to an audience of kids. A man and a giraffe walked into a bar and started drinking. After a while the giraffe drops onto the floor and the man starts walking away. The bartender yells "You can't leave that lyin' there!" and the man replies "That's a giraffe, not a lion" and walks on out the door. In the version I read the giraffe dropped dead but I thought it would be better to leave that part out. There were a few confused chuckles and then the kids got to feed lettuce leaves to Ozzie. Cleo went twice because Spenser was afraid of the giraffe. Afterwards we had popsicles at the gift shop and made our escape. I was somewhat surprised that the ranch had such good reviews considering how sanctimonious people tend to be about zoos and any other entertainment involving animals. I'm hardly obsessed with animal rights but I found the place quite depressing and uninteresting.
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I found the Ethel M Chocolate Factory while researching if there was anything else to do in Henderson after the Lion Habitat. We've had some good experiences with chocolate making in Nicaragua and Belize. Ethel M has the atmosphere of a small, independent business but it is actually owned by the giant Mars candy corporation. Forrest Mars, the founder of the company, established the factory in honor of his mother after he retired and it was later bought by the corporation. There wasn't much going on in the factory when we arrived, probably because it was Sunday, but the showroom had an impressive collection of expensive boutique chocolates. Outside the factory is a surprisingly large and attractive cactus garden.
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After lunch in a nearby Jewish deli we had to decide what we were going to do on the sweltering afternoon. 104 degrees seemed almost too hot even for a water park but we were so close to Cowabunga Bay that we decided it was our best bet. This was the second water park we'd been to in the United States after Kalahari in Wisconsin five years previously, and it was a far inferior product. The entrance fee was astronomical, of course, yet we didn't get to experience much for our money. The young kids area had very little seating and not much in the way of shade either. Almost all the rides had a height requirement that excluded our kids, and the one attempt we did make for a ride we were qualified for failed when the line barely moved over half an hour. I could see that they were using just one raft so one group would have to reach the end of the ride and the raft would have to be returned to the top of the tower before the next group could go. It seemed they were cutting corners everywhere possible except on the price of admission. We finally found our way to the wave pool, which the kids really enjoyed except for the inexplicable twenty minute intervals when the waves stopped coming.
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Not far from Cowabunga but on the Las Vegas side of the border between the municipalities is Mystic Falls Park, a large atrium within the Sam's Town hotel and casino. Most visitors to the city don't get there unless they're staying at the hotel but since we were doing so much exploration by car it was inevitable that we would be driving in that area before the end of our stay in Las Vegas. We were fortunate in that the afternoon water and light shows had recently resumed after pausing for COVID. The indoor park was a very pleasant environment but even more impressive were the interior walls of the hotel facing the atrium. They had been given facades to resemble an array of tall Victorian townhouses such as one might have seen in a major American city around the beginning of the 20th century. The water show itself was a little bit of a let down but I was glad we'd visited just for the opportunity to see the creative design of the park and the hotel.
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We had dinner at a highly-rated Vietnamese fusion bistro in southwest Las Vegas called Black Sheep. The dishes were fairly creative and enjoyable but the restaurant couldn't match up with what Mizumi had given us the previous evening. Even though we hadn't had a single extraordinary experience that day we still felt like we'd spent our last full day in Las Vegas productively. Back at the Airbnb we collapsed into bed feeling that we'd accomplished the goals we had set for exploring the city.

We had strong motivation for getting out of town early Monday morning. We still had to see Hoover Dam and we needed to be completely out of the Las Vegas Valley long before the temperature got close to its projected high of 108. That plan took a hit as soon as I'd lugged our heavy suitcases down four flights of stairs and packed them into the back of the SUV. Somehow the suitcases seemed to have grown an inch in the Airbnb and I couldn't get the trunk door to catch when I slammed it down. After a few vigorous attempts I realized there was something else going on besides the suitcases. The little bar which keeps the door in place when it's closed was in the closed position even though the trunk door was open, preventing the door from engaging with the latch. I tried to pry it out with several implements unsuccessfully. I even looked to see if there was a trunk release inside the car and couldn't find one. It was starting to look like I would have to unload all the suitcases and carry them back up the four flights to the Airbnb and then drive the car with an open trunk to the nearest Enterprise location for them to either fix the latch or give us a new car. Fortunately Mei Ling had the idea to tie the two parts of the latch together with a string which appeared secure enough for us to drive a limited distance without too much fear of losing the luggage.

We decided to deal with breakfast before the car where I made yet another mistake. I picked our breakfast restaurant Jardin based on ratings without realizing that it was also inside the Wynn. That meant we had to go through the whole time-consuming rigamarole of parking in the garage and then wandering through the endless halls of the hotel before we could even sit down. The restaurant was pretty, of course, but service was slow and we ended up paying double the normal prices for very average food.
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By now we were well behind schedule. We found a nearby Enterprise and the guy at the desk came out to look at the latch. He got a pen in there and it almost immediately released, which infuriated me because I'd tried the exact same thing with no luck. However, as soon as I tried to open and close it once more the latch had stuck again. Suddenly Mei Ling realized we'd never tried pressing the latch release on the trunk itself and lo and behold it worked perfectly. The Enterprise guy had probably pressed it himself accidentally while poking at the latch. We were now able to open and close the trunk repeatedly without any problem, and it seemed that if we encountered the same problem again we could just press the latch release and fix it. We decided the best course of action was just to proceed with the car we had rather than waste the morning trying to get a new car. It turned out to be the right decision because the problem with the trunk latch never returned. I felt incredibly stupid for not thinking of something so obvious as pressing the trunk release, even to the extent of hunting for some non-existent secondary trunk release inside the car. Thank God it was Mei Ling who thought of the solution and not the Enterprise guy or I think I'd still be shriveling in embarrassment.

I was really lucky to discover our last stop in Las Vegas, or actually Henderson. I only came across Shan-Gri-La Prehistoric Park because I was scanning through Google Maps and came across the icon. Shang-Gri-La is the house of a retired teacher who has decided to fill his small front yard with enormous plastic and metal dinosaur replicas. If that was all there was to it I think it wouldn't have made much impression on my kids. The beauty part was that after we toured the dinosaurs he took them back to the garage where they got to choose plastic eggs from a rack on the wall based on a roll of the dice. There were some complicated rules but they all got to pick a bunch of eggs and keep the little presents they found inside. They were totally thrilled by the experience and kept asking me if we could go back for days after we'd left the city. Cleo still says it was her favorite place in Las Vegas. Shan-Gri-La really shows the impact one dedicated person can have on their community with a little motivation and creativity. I can't imagine how much money he must have spent on his dinosaurs and I made sure to leave a substantial donation in the box before we left.
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I'd made a concerning number of mistakes during our first stop but fortunately they had only resulted in minor inconveniences. We had still had a great time in Las Vegas and learned a lot about the city. Destiny prevented me from committing my final error, a raft tour through Black Canyon at the base of Hoover Dam. As it turned out we were extremely lucky that the company had decided to cancel the tour for all of 2021 as it would have been unbearable to be out on the raft unprotected from the sun amid the brutal heat of mid-day. As it was I was quite concerned about walking with the kids outdoors as the temperature spiked to 108. I had taken several precautions as this would be our first time traveling in extreme heat. Aside from our wide-brimmed hats I had a large spray bottle full of water that I carried in my backpack and regularly misted the kids while we were outdoors. We kept a small cooler bag in the trunk full of water including a couple of bottles that I had frozen the previous night. The frozen bottles kept the other ones cool and were a welcome source of cold water once they had melted by the afternoon. Whenever we left the car I carried a backpack with about twice as much water as I thought we were likely to use.

The forgotten municipality of the Las Vegas Valley is Boulder City, which began as a home for thousands of the workers who built the Hoover Dam in the 1930's. It's a small, pleasant town within minutes of the dam and Lake Mead. Given the heat we didn't have much appetite for exploring the town. However, we did stop at Hemenway Park to see the wild bighorn sheep that come down from the mountains to graze. I was not really expecting them to be there but sure enough as soon as we parked we could see about a dozen of the beautiful animals relaxing in the shade under a large tree. It was funny to encounter them so easily as many people who don't know about the park go on hikes around the dam in the hopes of seeing them. On the way out of Boulder City we had some beautiful views of Lake Mead from the highway.
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The best view of the Hoover Dam isn't from the dam itself but from the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, the world's highest concrete arch bridge. The uphill climb to the bridge was a significant endeavor in the heat but we were sure to keep ourselves well-hydrated inside and out. Even though there was a solid railing on the concrete walkway of the bridge it was hard to lean over to take pictures of the dam. Even if there was no way I could fall over the railing, I felt like my hands were going to go numb and nervelessly release my phone into the Colorado River below us.
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After walking the bridge we drove onward a little further to the garage for the Hoover Dam. The tours of the dam were closed because of COVID but I'm not sure if it would have been worth our time to see the internal works anyway. From the top of the dam we had a new perspective on the vast wall of concrete that held the enormous volume of Lake mead in check. We could also admire the futuristic span of the Tillman Bridge as it traversed the canyon high above the Colorado River.
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The state line between Nevada and Arizona cuts through the middle of the dam and there are clocktowers on either side showing the time in each state. On this particular day they were the same because although Nevada is in the Pacific time zone and Arizona is in the Mountain zone, Arizona does not observe daylight savings time. On the way back to the garage Cleo started complaining a lot more about the heat and kept demanding to be sprayed with water. I didn't take her seriously because we hadn't really been out in the sun for long and it was an abrupt change in attitude, but once we got back to the car I could tell she really wasn't feeling well. An anti-nausea tablet and some air conditioning back in the car sorted her out but it was a reminder that I needed to take the heat and the sun very seriously on this trip. A short while later we were crossing the Tillman Bridge in our vehicle and wouldn't see Nevada again until the last day of our trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:23 Archived in USA Tagged las_vegas family_travel henderson tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: The Other Las Vegas


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The Las Vegas Strip occupies such an outsized position in the American consciousness that it's easy to forget it is a tiny segment of a large metropolis of over two million people, a number that has tripled in the last quarter century. A sizable percentage of tourists never even leave the Strip when they visit the city. Even though we were fascinated by the visual spectacle and energy of the Strip, we are avid explorers of American cities and we were sure to give Las Vegas sufficient time to make sure we took in all the highlights.
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Because of my shoddy planning we only had time to see a couple of things away from the Strip on our first full day in Las Vegas. We had lunch at Lamaii, a pretty good restaurant in a large conglomeration of East Asian restaurants and businesses that extends for about two miles along Spring Mountain Road to the west of the Strip. It's an impressive concentration of Asian enterprises but I don't really agree with its informal name of Las Vegas Chinatown. Aside from the fact that there are easily as many Korean and Southeast Asian signs as there are Chinese, I didn't get any sense of the area having any Chinese character from a residential or cultural standpoint comparable to the Chinatowns in NYC, Boston, or San Francisco. I'd call it more of an East Asian commercial district, similar to what they have on a smaller scale in Denver, Houston, or Atlanta. I was still envious of what they had compared to Miami, a city where authentic Asian restaurants of any kind are very few and far between.

Another Las Vegas feature I was excited to experience was Omega Mart, a metaphysical interactive art experience in the form of a surrealist supermarket. Omega Mart is part of a larger complex called Area 15 which is housed in an enormous warehouse right by Interstate 15 in central Las Vegas. Outside of Area 15 is an array of interesting, futuristic sculptures of intimidating size that hint at the weird environment one is about to experience inside.
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The interior of the warehouse is illuminated only by blacklights and various light-emitting displays. It was fairly crowded and noisy in the late afternoon with a pumping electronic music soundtrack. It was set up somewhat like a mall with virtual reality attractions, boutiques, and restaurants on two levels.
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One side of the warehouse was devoted to Omega Mart. At almost $50 per ticket we had made a substantial investment in this novel form of entertainment that I understood very little about. It seemed that underlying the exhibit was some form of mystery we might be able to solve, but no one seemed able or willing to describe what that mystery was let alone how to discover the answer. The entry of Omega Mart was superficially similar to a small supermarket but on close examination the products were clearly not real. The market stocked everything from Organic Moth Milk to Butter-Scented Air Freshener. It was a very entertaining parody of American consumerism and we probably could have spent an hour just in the market amusing ourselves with the creative packaging.
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There are several ways to escape from the market into the huge complex of rooms behind and above, but my favorite was the secret tunnel through the refrigerated cabinet. We found ourselves in a maze of small rooms and large open spaces, each with a completely different creative design. Connecting the different spaces were secret tunnels and slides that were ideal for kids our age to explore. Most of my attention was spent on keeping up with them and making sure they didn't get lost. Interspersed in the rooms were some video displays and texts with repeated themes that hinted at the underlying mystery, but it quickly became clear my kids weren't about to start focusing on some obscure conundrum with such a cornucopia of sensory stimulation around them. In the end we had to beg the kids to leave after almost three hours and even after watching several YouTube videos I still have no clue of what the mystery was about. I think it's a better plan with young kids to focus on exploring every room and secret passage and ignore the metaphysical challenge, at least on the first visit.
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After emerging into the bright light and heat of the Las Vegas afternoon we drove to Downtown Container Park, a small arts and shopping district constructed mainly from shipping containers. The entrance to the park is watched over by a giant metal sculpture of a praying mantis. Inside is an eclectic mixture of galleries, boutiques, and cafes surrounding an enormous multilevel play structure and a performance stage. There wasn't a show going on while we were there and the area in front of the stage was filled with kids building with oversize Legos. It was so much fun for the kids we let them play there until it was time to go back to the Strip to watch the volcano eruption at the Mirage. I was still guilty about the distance I'd made them walk that morning.
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Mr. Mamas, the breakfast place we chose for our second morning, was a lot busier than the one we'd eaten at the previous day. In fact it was jam-packed with full tables as if the COVID epidemic didn't exist. Infection was still my biggest concern about the trip and I'd hoped that we would be able to eat mostly outdoors and keep our masks on otherwise, but there wasn't any outdoor dining here. We had to choose whether to take the last open table or eat elsewhere, and that's when we realized we were going to have to take our chances if we were going to go through with this road trip. The breakfast was totally ordinary despite the line that was forming outside. We ate and got out of there so quickly that I didn't realize they'd charged us for service and included a tip line on the check until after we'd gotten back on the road.

The high temperature of the day was expected to be 102 so there was no question that any outdoor activities needed to be completed in the morning. Las Vegas is bordered on the west by a large area of natural beauty called Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Within the area is a twelve mile scenic loop drive that comes off of Highway 159 a short distance from the city. Considering the temperature and our lack of hiking experience this was an ideal way for us to begin our exploration of the Southwest's natural attractions. Aside from the magnificent views of the multicolored landscape from the road, there were several stops where we could get out and take short walks into the rocky areas and admire the formations more closely. There were plenty of longer trails and some precarious climbs to be made but we knew there would be plenty of opportunities in the coming month to have more intimate encounters with the terrain.
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From the canyon we took Interstate 15 southwest from the city. We made a brief stop at the Silverton Casino to see the mermaid show which had recently resumed after pausing for COVID. That turned out to be a flop with the kids who found it boring and unconvincing, although Mei Ling and I thought it was kind of cool. Cleo was especially critical of the scuba regulator the mermaid was using to breathe, although I'm not sure how exactly she expected the mermaid to go without one. We also had an absolutely awful lunch at a Chinese noodle restaurant inside the casino.
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We got back on I15 and continued until we reached Seven Magic Mountains. The seven towers of brightly-painted limestone boulders by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone are apparently intended to evoke comparison to the naturally-occurring rock formations of the Southwest that appear to be balancing. The towers were erected in 2015 and are scheduled to be dismantled at the end of 2021 after a three-year extension granted in 2018. Rondinone's explanation of his abstract work is typically obscure, but there's no question that the Dayglo colors and dimensions of the towers make for an arresting contrast against the flatness and monotony of the surrounding desert.
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We were now starting to experience the full brunt of the Las Vegas heat so it was time for an indoor activity. We headed back into the center of the city to visit the Discovery Childrens Museum. Children's museums are always on my list when we visit a major city because they are a reliable way to keep kids entertained in a constructive way and I'm often able to teach them stuff while we're inside. Discovery wasn't one of the largest or best we've been to in the United States but given the amount of time we had it more than served its purpose. There was a very fun water feature and also a spiral staircase in the center with multiple little slides and interactive exhibits that the kids loved. As with Omega Mart, we eventually had to tear the kids out of there and Spenser was asking if we were going back to the children's museum for several days afterward.
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With just an hour left to kill before our dinner reservation we headed to The Arts Factory, a warehouse complex of galleries in a commercial district north of the center. I didn't see any other visitors in the quiet building although there were several artists working in their studios. We had a few interesting discussions with the artists that Cleo and Ian got involved in which I thought made the visit worthwhile.
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Dinner at Mizumi was our single biggest extravagance on the Strip, where we had otherwise mostly focused on the free experiences. I had chosen our expensive Vegas restaurant carefully and as soon as we entered I felt like we had made the right decision. The interior of the restaurant was painted a deep shade of red and the decor was elegant and modern. Large picture windows displayed the impressive waterfall in the Wynn atrium outside. I'd describe the cuisine as "creative Japanese" and the food was excellent from appetizer to dessert.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 23:33 Archived in USA Tagged las_vegas family_travel family_travel_blog omega_mart area_15 Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Las Vegas Strip


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Ever since 2017 we've adopted a consistent schedule of traveling during the kids' school breaks. We've taken short trips during the winter and spring breaks and either one or two longer trips in the summer, and it's worked out very well. We were putting a fairly sizable dent in the long list of places we still hadn't seen. Then in 2020 COVID came along and we went an entire year without any travel at all. By spring 2021 Mei Ling and I were vaccinated and it was possible to strategize around the epidemic. Our first post-viral expedition was a week in Belize, a country which had virtually eliminated the disease by strict border controls and tightly-enforced masking. It went well but we hungered for a longer and more intense road trip. I had the Eastern Europe itinerary I had originally planned for 2020 but at the time that was one of the worst-hit areas in the world. Even Western Europe seemed logistically dubious, Asia was locked down, and South America was unthinkable. It was clear that our best bet was domestic travel and there was only one region we hadn't visited that could support a month-long road trip. I had planned on leaving the American Southwest a couple more years until the kids were more capable of hiking and other adventurous activities, but it became clear that we really had no choice if we wanted the kind of travel experience we had become accustomed to. Somehow we'd have to make it work.

I devised my usual ambitious itinerary to include as much of the region as possible without skipping anything important. After checking weather patterns I quickly realized that summer is not the ideal time to visit Nevada and Arizona. I was determined to include Las Vegas but it had to be our point of entry in early June. That way we would at least have a chance at seeing some two digit temperatures. I had wanted to include Phoenix but didn't find enough there to justify the risk of overwhelming heat so it got axed. The Sonora Desert region may end up a future winter or spring break destination. Santa Fe, a city I've never found my way to despite an enduring fascination, was the other non-negotiable stop. It didn't make sense to travel to the Southwest without visiting the famous national parks of Utah. Salt Lake City therefore became the third vertex of the triangle of major cities that formed the skeleton of our itinerary. Small towns and national parks would fill the time between city explorations. Persistent research uncovered more and more interesting sights and activities and I soon realized we were about to have a very busy month on the road.
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Even though we didn't have to worry about serious cold weather we had more than the usual luggage. This was mainly because of all the hiking clothes for five people. We needed the water-resistant hiking boots with a solid grip and the fast-drying wool socks. I also bought everyone long hiking pants with a zip-off at the knee that converted them into shorts and long sleeve shirts like landscapers wear. I figured the long sleeves would keep us cooler in direct sun. We ended up with two large suitcases and one smaller roller instead of one large and two small like we usually have, in addition to the carry-ons. I was looking forward to a nonstop to Las Vegas from Miami but in the end we were forced to connect through Los Angeles on the outbound flight. At least we would have a direct flight home for the red-eye on the way back.

As we flew from LA back east towards Las Vegas, I watched the unfamiliar landscape passing beneath us. Irregular arrays of mountains almost devoid of vegetation looked like a model constructed from clay. Between the grey and brown sierras were enormous man-made metallic fields with irregular shapes. Were they solar power plants? Military air bases? I still have no idea.
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Once we arrived my main concern was whether our rental car would be there. I'd been hearing a lot of horror stories about rental car companies being short of cars and people showing up at the counter to be told that the car they had reserved wasn't available. Fortunately I needn't have worried - the agent took me to a whole row of SUVs in the garage and let me pick whichever I wanted. We chose a Ford Equinox that seemed to have the most trunk room. I was so relieved to have a car I completely forgot to ask the agent if any of the vehicles had a true four wheel drive.

Our Airbnb was close to the strip but not really within walking distance. It was a third-floor walk-up in a dingy, stained, concrete block of apartments but the price was right. The journey up the stairs with two 50 pound suitcases was miserable but the apartment itself justified its high Airbnb rating. It was emblazoned with full Vegas decor from the purple lighting to the pop art to the neon sign. It was also cool, comfortable, and immaculately clean. By now it was well after midnight Miami time so we headed directly to bed in order to be ready to begin our adventure in the morning.
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One of the little perks of traveling to the west is that the time change works in our favor. Despite our late arrival we were all up bright and early the next morning. Unfortunately we squandered our early start by driving half an hour to a breakfast restaurant far from the Strip that appeared on several top ten lists I'd read. The restaurant turned out to have pancakes and a build-your-own omelet station that reminded me of my hospital's cafeteria. We were the only customers.

I had decided to kick things off with an early morning tour of the Strip. One reason was that the temperature would be hitting 99 in the late afternoon, and this was projected to be the coolest of our four days in Vegas. On our last day it was going to be 108, but thankfully not until we had already left town. The other reason was I just couldn't wait to put my feet onto Las Vegas Boulevard. I'd done so much research and I had such a long list of things to see on the Strip that I knew I couldn't concentrate on anything else until I had that out of the way. One odd thing about the Las Vegas Strip is that there are quite a lot of casinos that allow you to park for free. That list is constantly changing so it pays to do research ahead of time, because the ones that do charge are quite expensive. We chose Planet Hollywood because it was the southernmost of the places we wanted to see on the Strip. I figured once we'd worked our way all the way north to the Wynn we could take one of the free shuttles back to where we'd parked.
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As soon as we walked out of the garage and into the Miracle Mile shopping mall we got our first taste of the buffet of visual delicacies that the Strip had in store for us. The high, curved ceiling of the upper level is deftly painted to simulate the evening sky and the exteriors of the stores are crafted to resemble an Arabian marketplace. The overall effect is quite beautiful and convincing, and I had the kids half-believing it was the real sky even though they knew that it was early morning.
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The only thing I wanted to see inside Planet Hollywood was the Tipsy Robot, a bar where customers order drinks from computer screens and robotic arms mix them from an array of bottles above them. The kids weren't allowed through the doors and although the exterior walls were glass paneling the robots were too far away to get a good look. I sent Mei Ling in to order a drink but she was worried about the number of customers inside. She figured she'd pay and then it would be an hour before her drink was made so we left empty-handed.
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Everything on the Strip is on an enormous scale so walking distances are much further than they appear on a map. The full city blocks are half a mile long. It seemed like we were walking in Planet Hollywood forever but eventually we spilled out onto the Strip and were greeted by the view of the Eiffel Tower replica and hot air balloon of the Paris Las Vegas Casino. Our first destination was the Bellagio which was directly across the Boulevard. We walked along a beautiful covered walkway with a great view of the Bellagio Fountain and Las Vegas Boulevard until we reached the entrance to the hotel.
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Inside the Bellagio the lobby has a ceiling installation of colorful glass flowers by renowned sculptor Dale Chiluly. Adjacent to the lobby is the Conservatory which is a large open area with a greenhouse roof filled with exuberant displays of flowers and plants as well as dramatic sculptures. On the periphery of the Conservatory were boutiques and restaurants. In any other city it may have seemed ostentatious but of course in Vegas it was absolutely on point and a great introduction to what we would see for the rest of the morning.
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We walked back up Las Vegas Boulevard and cut through the faux Roman ruins and gardens of Caesar's Palace. The grounds of the casino hotels were enormous and I was starting to realize that even though my planned tour looked very manageable on the map it was going to be rather hard on the kids. Once we reached the LINQ promenade we took a quick ice cream break and then had a pleasant walk down the busy promenade with the High Roller Ferris wheel in the foreground. Over our heads were the cables of the FLY LINQ zipline but it was still too early for them to be running.
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The next stop on our tour was the Venetian. I hadn't realized until then the outsized Italian influence on the Strip but up to that point all the casinos we'd seen were based on various eras of Roman and Italian architecture. As we walked over the elevated walkway we saw some people filming an oddly-shaped potted plant. As Cleo went for a closer look the plant suddenly stood up and started chasing her. She squealed and fled as the man inside the plant costume laughed. I saw one the the guys filming had a T-shirt with something about TikTok so presumably they were making videos for a TikTok channel. The Venetian had a nice layout with a sky blue canal, gondolas, and fair representations of St Mark's Campanile and the Rialto Bridge but it reminded me more of Little Venice in Dalian, China than the real thing.
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The kids were complaining pretty loudly about the walk by now but I still pushed them one block further to the Wynn, which reportedly had one of the most beautiful lobbies. However, after everything we'd already seen that morning we were underwhelmed by the long, ornate corridors. We enjoyed one interesting display of colorful orbs made from artificial flowers hanging from a grove of small trees in an atrium. To top it off I realized that Mizumi, the restaurant we'd be having dinner at the next evening, was inside the Wynn so we had wasted that last painful block getting to a place we would be seeing soon anyway.
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I had thought returning to the car would be a simple affair as I knew there were complimentary monorail trams between the casinos on the Strip and I assumed we'd be able to hop on one nearby and hop off close to Planet Hollywood. Unfortunately I hadn't done my research carefully because when I asked the valet at the Wynn for directions to the closest monorail he directed me to the monorail operated by the city, all the way back at the LINQ. Two stops later we got off a full block away from Las Vegas Boulevard, another half mile walk. By the time we reached the entrance to Planet Hollywood we'd walked further than if we hadn't bothered with the monorail at all. To add insult to injury, once we reached the garage we realized we'd retraced the whole distance we'd just walked on a higher level and we could have saved a mile by going straight into the back entrance of the garage from the monorail station. The only positive was that no one had collapsed during the walk. Later I figured out that the casino trams wouldn't have been any help either the way they're laid out, but the lesson learned was that especially with kids a tour of the strip needs to be planned very carefully.

We went about our other planned activities of the day away from the Strip and then returned for the events that only occur in the evening, the eruption of the volcano at the Mirage and the water show at the Bellagio Fountains. This time I had learned my lesson and took advantage of the one hour complimentary parking at both casinos. We got there about twenty minutes ahead of the first of the evening eruptions, which are scheduled from 8 to 11 pm on the hour. I expected it to be difficult to get a good viewing spot but the crowd remained fairly sparse. We occupied ourselves in the meantime taking more pictures of the Strip in the gathering dusk. I found the volcano pretty impressive although somehow the kids were more enthralled by a cloud of gnats that buzzed insistently around my hat. I also got fooled by a false ending to the eruption and ended my video before the grand finale.
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The Bellagio was a little easier to time since the fountains get activated every fifteen minutes. We still almost missed the time we had planned on because it was such a long walk from the parking lot. The fountain was a bit of a let-down after some of the exuberant and colorful displays I saw in Shanghai and Dalian a couple of years earlier, but it was a good opportunity to see the bright neon cityscape of Las Vegas at night. I realized that we could have timed our evening visit to see the fountains and the volcano as well as everything we had seen on the Strip earlier and spent the morning doing something completely different. Fortunately we still had a few more days to get through our Vegas list but my many mistakes of the first day helped me realize that I was definitely rusty at traveling and I needed to be a lot more careful how I was planning our itinerary over the next month.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 20:41 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip las_vegas family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog las_vegas_strip Comments (0)

Rocky Mountain Highs: Steamboat Springs


View Colorado 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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Since it was the kids' first real winter vacation I crammed as many outdoor activities as I could on the way to Steamboat Springs, expense be damned. First up was snow tubing at Frisco Adventure Park. I had booked our time slot well in advance of the trip, which was fortunate because when we arrived we found the lodge completely packed and the day had been completely sold out. The sleds were large inflatable tubes with canvas floors that the kids could sit inside. There was a magic carpet lift up to the top of the hill where we linked up our tubes and then flew down the slope with a push from the attendant. It was the perfect speed to thrill our kids. Cleo felt a little sick from the altitude since we were now at 9000 feet, but she managed to get past it and enjoy a few runs.
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We had to hightail it back east to make our scheduled departure on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. I had hesitated to put this on our itinerary due to mixed reviews but in the end decided we had nothing to lose since there wasn't anything else to do at night in the area. Georgetown was a very cute and rustic town that was originally a mining camp. The railroad itself was kind of a bust. Our car was super crowded and the Christmas light displays outside were mediocre. The ride was far too long as well, forty-five minutes. The kids on the train were either too young to know where they were or old enough to be bored after twenty minutes. Cleo spent most of the last half of the ride asking me how much longer until we were done. The buffoonish Christmas Carol skit in the middle of the ride wasn't much better than staring out the window. When we disembarked from the train at the top of the windy hill, it was the coldest we'd been on the trip so far.
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There was no shortage of restaurants in Georgetown and we got a hearty dinner of pho before we drove to our motel in Idaho Springs and settled in for the night. Idaho Springs was another picturesque mountain town with a strip of hotels along the highway and a main street crafted for tourism. We were efficient enough getting out of the motel that we could grab a hasty but hearty breakfast before getting on the road.
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We were just 39 miles from our snowmobiling site in Fraser which seemed like it would have been an easy distance to cover in an hour and a half, but we barely made it. Soon after we exited the interstate onto Route 40, the road began a steep ascent into the mountains that was marked by sharp hairpin turns on unplowed asphalt. Fortunately it had already been two days since the snow fell and cars had left tracks that we could follow without getting into the slush. The snow-covered mountains and evergreens around us were beautiful, to the extent that I could take my gaze off the center of the road. At one point we even saw a good-sized avalanche taking place across the valley from the highway.
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We made it to the snowmobiling location in the nick of time for our reservation and quickly got suited up. We were well-prepared with three layers of clothing, fleece balaclavas that covered our necks, and polarized goggles. The departure point was a flat field surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The snowmobiling itself was fairly sedate, with the adults driving and the kids holding on behind. I was relieved that we never came close to the speeds of my first snowmobiling experience twenty tears ago in Iceland.
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After snowmobiling we ate at a surprisingly good Cajun restaurant in Fraser, then set off on what seemed like an interminable drive to Steamboat Springs. The Airbnb condo was fantastic, a spacious and beautifully-furnished two bedroom with a good kitchen and not a trace of a draft.
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I'd expected to have some hiccups getting ready for our first day of skiing, but it turned out to be more of an unholy cluster than I could have imagined. I had thought the parking at Steamboat Ski Resort would be obvious, but then I missed the closest lot which forced us to walk several hundred meters carrying all of our equipment. We had to drop the kids off for their lessons in two different locations, and once I got the little ones to the right place I couldn't get Spenser's boots on. His feet had slipped in fairly easily at the rental shop, but now they seemed to have grown two sizes. Finally a couple of employees were able to get them on and I was able to leave him at his lesson. I found Mei Ling dropping off Cleo and Ian at their lesson and then I was finally able to take all our stuff to the lockers. I tried to save a few bucks on a small locker and ended up losing a few bucks by having to rent a second locker. Then when I tried to get my own ski boots on it was a no go. I stretched them as much as I could but it was pretty clear neither foot was going to go in. I had to open up the locker again, grab my shoes, and head over to the ski rental shop at the resort. I guess my boots had frozen while I was getting Spenser ready, because the guy at the rental shop put them on a warmer and afterwards they went on just like they had the night before. Then back to the lockers to drop off my shoes and I was finally ready to hit the slopes at eleven AM, almost three hours after we'd arrived.
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For the next four hours I was on my own. I'd skied a fair number of times up until I was in my early twenties and then gone cold turkey. I decided I simply didn't enjoy it enough to justify all the logistical hassles, and I hadn't really missed it much over the last twenty-five years. I was curious to see whether my body memory would activate after so many years away from the slopes. The first lift from the main ground area was a gondola, which provided nice views over the resort and the surrounding valley.
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It felt very weird to surrender myself to gravity on the slopes, but fortunately it only took me a couple of runs before I felt that I was close to the mediocre skier I had been in my teens and twenties. One thing that helped was that the mountain was a lot less crowded than I had expected. One guy I shared a chairlift with said he thought it was because of the temperature. It actually didn't feel that cold and I was surprised to learn it was in the single digits. I guess I chose my ski clothing well. Eventually I made it to the very top of the mountain although I never got up the nerve to intentionally try one of the black diamond slopes. I did encounter a short segment of moguls after taking a wrong turn which accounted for virtually all of my falls during the day. The most embarrassing fall happened when I ducked too enthusiastically to avoid getting my head clocked by the lift as I jumped off at the summit and then fell backwards onto my butt. In the end my late start didn't matter because by three in the afternoon I was exhausted and bored. It seemed that no latent love of skiing had been born in my soul during my quarter century sabbatical. Back at the base I collected the two families and slogged all the equipment back to the car. In my exhaustion I completely forgot that it was New Year's Eve and that there would be a torch parade down the slope and then fireworks at dusk.
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The prix fixe New Year's Eve dinners in Steamboat Springs were outrageous, so we'd decided to make dinner at home. Our friends were supposed to join us at the Airbnb but fell asleep and never made it. I had a headache and no appetite whatsoever, which confused me until I realized that while we were currently under 7000 feet elevation, the mountain rose to 10500 feet at the summit. I was suffering from mild altitude sickness. Now I also knew why my stumbles on the mogul slope had been so exhausting. A couple of times it had taken me a couple of minutes to catch my breath just from getting myself back to an upright position. Fortunately everyone else was fine and by the morning I was back to normal.

The first day of skiing had been an expensive and arduous undertaking for me, but it was worth it after seeing how much fun the kids had had. Cleo had naturally done the best but it didn't seem like she had progressed enough to be able to manage even the easiest slopes at Steamboat. Personally I'd already had more than enough skiing and altitude sickness for the next twenty-five years, but the kids were very excited to keep going. Fortunately my extensive research had revealed a way for us to keep skiing without paying thousands for more lessons at Steamboat. The town of Steamboat Springs is also home to Howelsen Hill, the oldest operating ski area in North America, which has no affiliation with Steamboat Ski Resort and sells adult full day lift tickets for $50, a fraction of the cost of the resort. Howelsen Hill isn't the best choice for experienced skiers due to the small number of Alpine runs, especially on weekdays, but the bunny slope was open daily and seemed like a perfect option for us. In the morning we loaded up all our equipment and headed out for another day of skiing.

We only encountered one logistical issue this time around. I had entered "Howelsen Hill" instead of "Howelsen Hill Ski Area" into Google Maps which took us on a completely wrong route up the hill on the opposite side from the ski area. Eventually we encountered a snowy uphill slope that I valiantly attempted to summit and failed. Fortunately I never lost control of the car and was able to maneuver to the side of the road. Our friends in their 4WD were able to reach us and we realized the discrepancy in our destinations. I worked the car back around and down the hill and soon we had found the correct place. The ski area was actually quite simple to get to from the center of town and didn't require any uphill driving at all. There was a magic carpet lift to the top of the bunny slope which proved to be very slippery. The kids would slide backwards into me if they tried going up on their skis and a couple of times we fell off completely. It was all I could do to go up with my skis on if I leaned forward and dug my poles into the rubber treads. The slope was great for the kids to learn how to control their speed by turning instead of the silly "pizza" moves they insisted on teaching at the resort. We skied at Howelsen Hill for the next three days, although by the last day the boys had enough and it was just Cleo and me. I was quite proud of how skilled Cleo had become after just a few days of practice. At the end of the last day we decided to attempt the Poma lift to the long beginner trail. Of course it had been a long time since I'd ridden one of these but I remembered they were trickier than they looked. I wasn't too worried about myself but I wasn't sure Cleo would be able to handle it. Surely enough, Cleo got on but immediately got her skis caught in the snow and was tossed to the side. I tried to convince her to get back on but she wasn't having it. I really wanted to see what was at the top of the hill so I told her I'd just be a few minutes and took my turn at the front of the line. I mounted the Poma without a problem but I forgot about the strong recoil after the lift took my weight and I got unceremoniously thrown as well. The two of us slunk back to the lodge in disgrace and packed up to go home.
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It snowed about six inches on our second morning in Steamboat Springs. Once again we had lucked out by getting all the benefits of fresh snow without the hassle of having to drive long distances through it. Cleo helped me shovel out the car and later we all climbed the huge mountain that was left by the plows. On the last day when Cleo and I went skiing on our own, Spenser and his friend Bao Bao made their first snowman.

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We didn't see much of Steamboat Springs until our last full day in town. Until then we had just gone to the supermarket and a couple of the more heralded restaurants on the small town's main drag, Lincoln Avenue. The most impressive was B├ęsame, a two level Latin fusion bistro where we sampled most of the menu and every dish was on point. Even more impressive were the waitresses on the upper level who glided between the crowded tables like birds, never missing a beat or getting flustered no matter how hectic the scene got. It was an exceptional dining experience. Our other dinner out was at a sushi place called Tahk. Because of the kids we couldn't opt for the omakase but I got a picture of their cool set-up before we left.
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There isn't much to see in Steamboat Springs outside of the stores on Lincoln Avenue. On our last afternoon we spent a couple of hours browsing through a consignment store and an art gallery, eventually purchasing a couple of beautiful horse sculptures that were the work of a local artist.It's a pleasant town but I doubt it would be much of a draw if it wasn't for the year-round outdoor activities.
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On our last day we took the kids on the Outlaw Mountain Coaster at the ski resort which they enjoyed but probably wasn't worth the $25 a pop to share a sled. The drive back to Denver seemed excruciatingly long and was only brightened by the snow-covered landscape we passed through.
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W got back to Denver early enough to take the kids bowling for the first time. We drove out to a suburb instead of making another attempt at Lucky Strike downtown. Bowling is another activity I haven't participated in for about twenty years. The alley had rails blocking the gutters that came up when the kids bowled. Did those exist when I was a kid? Not that I recall. Anyway, they certainly made the experience a lot more fun for the kids. After bowling, we found a hot pot place that provided us with a very satisfying final meal for the trip.

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We crashed in a very basic Airbnb near the airport and got up before dawn for our flight back to Miami. It had been a very different kind of trip but I think the children will remember it more than any of the others we've taken. It's hard to underestimate the impact of a full week of winter with sledding, snowmobiling, and skiing on Florida kids who have never even seen fresh snow before. I was content with having seen how much fun the kids had and also with having crossed another major American city and state off my travel list. I'm pretty sure we're going to have to do an annual ski trip now, and I'm excited to try it in some of the states we still haven't visited like New Mexico and Michigan. The kids are also pretty close to the age where it would be fun to start hitting the national parks in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah on summer vacation. As usual, the more trips we take the longer our wish list gets.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:58 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Rocky Mountain Highs: Denver


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Perhaps it's just a reflection of my own native bias, but I find the United States to be one of the most interesting countries to travel in. There's a stark difference between the United States and Europe. In the US most of the regional differences are best appreciated in large cities while in Europe it's the small towns that exemplify the regional character. There are very few countries that can boast the kind of difference in culture seen between Miami and San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City. However, it can be difficult to find distinguishing characteristics between small towns in Arizona or South Carolina, on opposite ends of the country. For that reason, my favorite way to travel in the US is to fly to a major city and build a road trip around it that hopefully encompasses other large cities. That's an easier task on the coasts and the upper Midwest, but out in the large western states major cities are few and far between. That's why most of the remaining major cities I haven't seen in the US are out west: Denver, Phoenix, and Santa Fe to be exact. Of all of these, Denver seemed like the most glaring omission so when I felt the time was right to take my family on their first real winter vacation I focused on ski resorts in Colorado. It was quite easy to choose from the countless ski towns because I was determined not to expose us to any risk of altitude sickness. Coming from Miami at an elevation of zero, the adjustment couldn't be any worse. Almost all the Colorado slopes have base elevations well over 7000 feet with some rising as high as 13000 feet. The only town that was even close to 7000 feet was Steamboat Springs so that made our choice pretty easy.

It's possibly, but unlikely, to feel ill from altitude even at 7000 feet so I gave us three days in Denver to acclimate at 5000 feet before pressing onward into the Rocky Mountains. As it turned out, three days was more than enough time for us to check out everything that we could do in Denver in the middle of winter. We took an evening flight from Miami and were at the rental car counter by ten o'clock, benefiting from the two hour time change. I had taken a substantial risk by renting a front-wheel drive car instead of spending three times as much for an SUV. What settled me on the car was the rental company's refusal to guarantee that even the SUV would be four-wheel drive. I have no idea what percentage of their SUV's were two-wheel drive, but I wasn't about to pay triple and end up with essentially the same wheels. I did make sure to check that our ride's wheels had the mud-snow rating. American airport car rental agencies are usually super-efficient but there was a hiccup this time as our agent suddenly determined that the car our children and luggage had been packed into had not actually been released. In return for transferring all our kids and bags into another car in the frigid winter air we were given a free tank of gas. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in the Jefferson Park neighborhood west of Downtown it was way too late for anything except pizza delivery.

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One unusual wrinkle about this trip is that we were joined by a small family that Mei Ling is friendly with in Miami, consisting of a four year old boy, his aunt, and her mother. In the morning we met up and began our downtown exploration at Denver Union Station. Denver's original railway station underwent a very successful restoration and redevelopment in the first half of this decade and now evokes memories of the great train stations of the early 20th century. A warm and welcoming waiting area is surrounded by coffee shops, lunch restaurants, and bookstores. The building is still a major transportation hub with a commuter rail station and an underground bus terminal.
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One thing I noticed right away was the very upbeat atmosphere among everyone at Union Station, both employees and patrons. One patron at the bookstore where we were browsing suddenly turned to me and made a joke about the cover of a book. That doesn't happen in most cities. Was it a Denver thing? We ate at Snooze, a popular Denver breakfast chain, which was pleasant but not remarkable. The staff there was likewise cheerful and laid back, despite the hectic atmosphere. I wondered if everyone's positivity was somehow related to the wide availability of legal cannabis. Were they just stoned 24/7? People seemed to be eating as if they were. Walking around afterwards we discovered Mercantile Dining & Provision, a beautiful restaurant with an open kitchen attached to a gourmet market. I regretted not having explored the whole building before breakfast, but at least our meal had been very satisfying.
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Next door to Union Station we spotted a very cute Chinese cafe called Zoe Ma Ma and went in to check it out. They had just opened and were getting dumplings and pancakes ready for lunch. It was a very authentic place owned and staffed by Taiwanese immigrants and they were pretty happy to meet Mei Ling and the kids.
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Our next stop was the Colorado Convention Center to see a modern landmark, the Big Blue Bear. I love these kinds of whimsical installations that help to give cities a memorable and unique profile, and I knew the kids would get a kick out of the statue. The enormous sculpture was even more imposing than I had expected, and worth every penny of the half million dollars the city paid for it.
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The bear is just two blocks from downtown's main thoroughfare, the 16th Street Mall. Although the Mall appears pedestrianized, pedestrians would be wise to keep a watchful eye on the large shuttle buses that careen up and down the street with alarming speed and regularity. Despite the stately and ornate buildings that lined the Mall, most of the ground level businesses were convenience stores and low end eating establishments and we didn't find much reason to hesitate as we walked southward.
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At the end of the Mall we encountered Civic Center Park, which was dominated by the imposing Colorado State Capitol Building. The grayish-white granite exterior was impressively pristine in the bright winter sun and the golden dome gleamed cheerfully.
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In the plaza at center of the park there were so many people in small groups that at first we thought we'd stumbled on a farmer's market in the dead of winter. It turned out to be something less salutary, a large encampment of homeless people many of whom had carts piled high with their belongings. At the north end of the park we passed through the Voorhies Memorial, a neoclassical monument with a pleasing semicircular design and a fountain in front. Our tour of the neighborhood had ended almost as quickly as it had begun. I was somewhat nonplussed at how small and bland the downtown area had been compared to other American cities of similar size such as Boston or Minneapolis. Thus far Denver seemed more on a level with smaller cities like Buffalo or Orlando, not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that.
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Once we'd finished with Downtown, it wasn't easy to choose another destination to visit. I hadn't found any particularly interesting neighborhoods in my research, and certainly no ethnic neighborhoods. There wasn't much in the way of eclectic stores or markets like we'd found in other cities either. Eventually we decided to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which seemed to be the best choice for young kids among Denver's museums. We spent more than an hour wandering among the wildlife dioramas on the second floor before realizing that there was a much more interesting area called Discovery Zone on the ground level. We gave the kids another hour here because they enjoyed the interactive displays much more than the static exhibits upstairs. As we left the sun was setting over the large expanse of City Park.
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Denver was a little light on activities in the winter months but one area where the city seemed to be very competitive was food halls. There were several sizable ones in the central city and some other good ones in the suburbs. For our first dinner in Denver we chose The Source, a former iron foundry in a neighborhood called Five Points adjacent to Downtown. It wasn't a typical food hall in that several of the spaces were occupied by retail boutiques. The few restaurants were mostly of the sit-down variety and there was very little in the way of common area to combine purchases from different vendors. The division of the development into two disconnected spaces made each section seem somewhat threadbare and inert. We had drinks in the small central bar called Isabel while we perused the appealing menu of a restaurant called Acorn, which fortunately was just opening and permitted us a large table on the condition that we be out in less than two hours. No problem there. The food was prepared in that contemporary, farm-to-table American bistro style that's often attempted but rarely well-executed. In this case it was done very, very well and we were very pleased with our first real restaurant in Denver. I noted ruefully that we would probably have to try ten new restaurants in Miami to expect to find one meal that good. Afterwards we went to the adjoining market hall which is attached to a boutique hotel. Here we found a barbecue restaurant and some cool eclectic art. On the roof of the hotel was a stylish bar with great views over Downtown.
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During the night something pretty awesome happened. It snowed. To a lot of people reading this that might seem fairly mundane, but none of my kids have ever seen snow falling or freshly fallen snow. The closest they've come has been old patches of spring snow in Andorra and Norway that were dotted with sheep dung. When they woke up and saw what was going on out the window they were incredulous. It had been fifteen years for me since my last snowfall and I have to admit it looked pretty sweet. There were several inches on the ground and the snow was still coming down. It was light, powdery stuff that melted quickly when it touched our skin. For the kids the snow was pure excitement but I had other things to worry about. I'd decided not to pay threefold the price to rent an SUV after the rental company refused to guarantee me a four-wheel drive, so we had a regular front-wheel drive full size car. At least we had the mud-snow rated tires, but I felt a little guilty about having chosen the cheaper and somewhat riskier option. The car was perched atop a very steep driveway that had been easy to negotiate before, but now I had to reverse it down into the street. I carefully made sure that there weren't any cars coming our way before I backed it down, and fortunately the car didn't slip. The roads hadn't been plowed but the snow on the asphalt had already largely been churned to slush by morning traffic. It was still unnerving driving in snow again after so long. Funnily enough, I'd driven through much worse countless times in Boston during my residency with a light front-wheel drive Nissan sports car which didn't even have snow tires. I rarely thought about it being dangerous even though I'd had to dig myself out of the middle of the street more than once. Having a wife and three little kids in the car changes one's perspective on these things rather dramatically.

Asian-Mexican fusion Onefold proved to be an excellent choice for Sunday brunch. All eight of us were delighted with the delicious and creative food and returned to the outdoors warmed and satiated. We browsed a gourmet food store called Marczyk Fine Foods for a while and then drove around Belcaro, which seemed to be the wealthiest residential neighborhood within the city limits. It was nice, but didn't have the same wow factor as the high end neighborhoods in other cities.
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It was barely noon and I was completely out of ideas for what to do in Denver. All I had left was my list of food halls. We decided to drive half an hour south to the small town of Castle Rock which had a small food hall called Ecclesia Market. As we exited the highway we passed the distinctive butte that gave the town its name. The enormous caprock at the summit evoked the ruined castles we've seen atop similar hills in Italy and Spain, but the town itself was classic Americana. Inside the market were a specialty foods store and a couple of small restaurants that didn't really tempt us. There was a also a fish market which didn't have much fish but incongruously sold fresh coconuts which were quite delicious. The very friendly guys working there entertained the kids with a fake spider in a box.
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Down the street from Ecclesia was a large crafts market and variety store where we browsed for about an hour and bought some toys for the kids. Our first stop back in Denver was the closest thing we could find to an ethnic neighborhood, a mixed Mexican and Vietnamese section of Federal Boulevard in the southwestern part of the city. We stocked up on noodles at Vietnamese supermarket and then chose a Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish restaurant called The Crawling Crab for lunch. Vietnamese-Cajun? Yes, it's a thing. Apparently it was started by Vietnamese who had been displaced to Houston by Hurricane Katrina in 2009 and spread back to New Orleans and then all over the country. We even have one in Miami and it's the best crawfish I know of here. It turns out a couple of big bags of messy, spicy crawfish and a couple of dozen freshly-shucked oysters were all that we needed.
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We drove back downtown with the idea that we could spend a couple of hours giving the kids their first experience with bowling at Lucky Strike Denver, but when we arrived we learned there was a four hour waiting list. Instead we bought tickets for the huge video game arcade which suited the kids just fine, although watching them flail on the complex racing games made me wince. On the way to dinner we passed by an outdoor carousel and Larimer Square, both of which were beautifully lighted.
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Our choice for the evening food hall was Denver Milk Market, also downtown and not far from Union Station. This was a fairly large food hall that was pleasantly energetic and crowded, but the food choices were fairly banal. It felt like someone had created a list of the most popular fast foods across all the food halls in the United States and then put them all in one place. As it turned out, one restaurateur was behind all sixteen vendors so perhaps this was exactly the concept he was looking for. The one exception was a cheese shop where we put together a platter of whatever cheeses and salumi took our fancy. Cleo also loved the carpet of pennies in front of the counter. On the way out we stopped for a brief chat with a blue Lego man who was sitting morosely on a bench.
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On our last morning in Denver we dressed the kids up in the color-coded fleece underwear I'd carefully selected before the trip. It had been surprisingly temperate in Denver but I knew it would be a lot colder once we got into the mountains. I decided to take a shot at a brunch reservation at Root Down, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Denver, and surprisingly got a table for the eight of us. We arrived a little early, ten minutes before the restaurant opened, which meant we could fulfill another of the kids' dreams. Their first snowball fight! There was a small park right across the street from the playground that had several inches of pristine day-old snow. The kids never really got the hang of packing snowballs. They were in too much of a hurry, and most of their attempts disintegrated as soon as the snow left their hands. I took it pretty easy on them, but I still made sure they each got to experience the unique sensation of getting nailed by a snowball.
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Root Down had solid American food, although the menu was small and not very adventurous. It was definitely no competition to the brunch we had at Onefold the previous day. The kids were entertained by the display of colorful rotary dial telephones, whose purpose they had trouble identifying. Close to Root Down, we stopped at another small food hall called Avanti Food & Beverage although we didn't have any inclination to keep eating. It looked decent although there weren't many customers on a Sunday morning.
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We were an hour ahead of schedule for snow tubing in the mountains so we made one last stop at an amazing used bookstore called West Side Books. The place reminded me of the bookstores I used to frequent as a college student in Boston. It's too bad that our hometown of Miami doesn't seem to have any worth visiting. The kids all got a kick out of it and we found several books to keep them away from their iPads for a while as we drove into the Rockies.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 01:38 Archived in USA Tagged travel denver blog tony friedman Comments (0)

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