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What Happens in Vegas...

My husband turned the big four-oh in January, so I had arranged a surprise trip to Las Vegas in April for his birthday. We traveled with another couple (and no kids [!], although we did see plenty of families with kids while we were there).

We flew nonstop out of Philly on Southwest the Sunday before Easter. I love, love, love Southwest - I wish they flew everywhere! The flight was uneventful and before we knew it, we were landing at McCarran International Airport, where the flight attendant announced, “I’ll tell you what my mother told me when I turned 18: get out.” Love it!

I had arranged for a limo to take us the short ride to our hotel (and for the return trip to the airport in five days), and we found our charming driver waiting for us at baggage claim. He had a cold bottle of champagne waiting for us in the limo. (The ride was so short we almost didn’t have time to finish it, but we soldiered on through and emptied it. ) We arrived at Mandalay Bay and found very short check in lines.

We were told, however, that our reservations had been moved to THEhotel at Mandalay Bay. THEhotel is connected to Mandalay Bay and doesn’t have its own casino or pool, so there was a bit of a walk to get to either place, but boy, was it worth the walk. THEhotel is like Mandalay Bay’s quieter, sophisticated sister. Our friends and my husband and I were placed in suites, with warm earthy tones, rich wood architecture and a modern cosmopolitan feel. The suites consisted of a separate living area with floor to ceiling windows, a 42” plasma TV, a desk area with wireless and hi-speed internet connection, a mini-bar, and dual phone lines. There was also a separate bathroom off the living area.

The bedroom area also had floor to ceiling windows, another 42” plasma TV, and his and hers closets, complete with robes and slippers.

Off the bedroom area was the bathroom. This in and of itself was a reason for me to never leave this suite. There were marble and granite floors and surfaces in bathroom, a 15" LCD TV, a separate glass enclosed shower and bathtub, and twin vanities with a make-up mirror and hair dryer.

But, as gorgeous as the room was, there was a whole hotel (and city) out there for us to explore.

Our first night we ate at Lupo by Wolfgang Puck, which was absolutely wonderful. With dishes inspired by Rome and its neighboring regions, the daily changing menu features a contemporary blend of tastes from the old country. The restaurant boasts exhibition pizza, antipasto and dessert stations, a glass-enclosed area where fresh pasta is made daily and a wine room that is surrounded by a spacious bar in the center of the restaurant. The open and airy dining room provides the perfect setting for people watching without leaving the hotel.

My favorite restaurant, hands down, was Stripsteak by Michael Mina. With its classic menu, inviting bar scene and sophisticated atmosphere, Stripsteak plays host to guests looking for the perfect filet in a modern alternative to the traditional steakhouse setting. And the duck fat fries – I could have made a dinner out of them alone!

We had some other good meals at Mandalay Bay – the House of Blues for standard HoB fare with burgers and ribs, and we had a couple of great breakfasts at Red, White, and Blue. There were a couple of “misses” for us too – Raffles Café and Bayside Buffet were disappointing in both food and service.

One great discovery I came across was Before leaving home, we searched Vegas restaurants and found that many of the restaurants in Mandalay Bay participated, including Stripsteak and House of Blues. I had a code that got me $25 gift certificates for $4. There are certain restrictions, so be sure to read the fine print, but we were able to use all of ours with no problems and saved some cash, which is always welcome. We saw lots of other patrons using these too.

There really is so much to do at Mandalay Bay that you never have to leave. There’s the Shark Reef Aquarium, Spa Mandalay (which I didn’t get to experience but is on my list for next time!), shows such as The Lion King, and Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour, Mandalay Bay Beach, which offers a wave pool, lazy river, three swimming pools, jogging track and 2,700 tons of real sand,

and The Shoppes at Mandalay Place. (The pool did get very crowded by mid-morning, so if you’re planning on spending the day relaxing by the pool, it pays to get there early to secure a spot.) Oh yeah, there’s a casino at Mandalay too, a 135,00 square foot gaming environment. I think I played (and subsequently lost) about $40 in the slots. My husband and our friends were a little bit more adventurous (and a little bit luckier!), and managed to get some of their charges comped.

Even though it might sound like we never ventured off the property, we did get out and about. We walked the strip our first night and checked out other hotel casinos along the way. Another night we paid $7 per person for a 24 hour pass on The Deuce, which is a city bus that travels from the Downtown - Fremont Street area to the south end on the Strip and back again. There are stops along the way near most of the major casinos, and at the Town Square Mall and Las Vegas Discount Mall. The good thing is that it’s air conditioned (or heated, depending on when you go), and you can give your feet a much-needed break after walking all night. The bad part - it is slow, sometimes painfully so, because it travels down congested Las Vegas Boulevard. Seriously, we were passed by an elderly gentleman on an electric scooter who made us look like we were going backwards.

It is also very hard to board mid-Strip, so try to board at either side of the strip near the North or South ends; you can get on quicker. Otherwise it often passes you by because it is already full. If going downtown, count on a trip of up to an hour.

One of my favorite parts of the week was our trip to Hoover Dam and Valley of Fire State Park. We grabbed a cab for the short ride from the hotel to the airport to rent a car (there is a car rental desk at Mandalay Bay, but they were all out of cars. Note to self: arrange for car rental before leaving home). We drove about a half hour to Hoover Dam.

I have seen many pictures, but seeing it in person really puts into perspective how massive it is! We then drove to Valley of Fire State Park. I saw some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen, although the day we went it was so hot I felt like I was on fire.

We also hit an In-N-Out Burger for lunch – New Jersey NEEDS one of these. Coming back we passed the pawn shop made famous by the History channel TV show “Pawn Stars.” It’s tiny! See, TV really does add size.

The guys played golf one day while my friend and I lounged by the pool. All of the courses they had wanted to play had no available tee times, so they took what they could get and played at Rhodes Ranch Golf Course. They said it was a nice course for $99, which included lunch and a beer. My friend and I were by the pool by 9 AM that day and had our first cocktail by 10:30 AM. I don’t golf, so I would venture to say that we had the better time.

A few observations overall:

-- We traveled the week before Easter, flying home on Good Friday. When we arrived, crowds were relatively light, but as the week wore on there were people everywhere. We talked to quite a few people while we were hanging by the pool, and it seems that a lot of locals go for a long weekend over Easter, in addition to the guests that fly in. I was ready to get outta Dodge by the time we left.

-- Always, always, check before leaving home. We managed to save quite a bit eating out this way. In fact, there was one restaurant that accepted gift certificates, but I had overlooked it on the website at home. Before dinner one night I went down to the lobby, where there are computers to use for a small fee, and bought and printed out a gift certificate for that restaurant. We saved well over what it cost me to use the computer to print it out.

-- We really didn’t make a whole bunch of plans before we left home – we really just wanted to “wing it” this trip (which was hard for me, who plans for a living)! It made for a very relaxing time, but it also prevented us from seeing a couple of the shows we would have liked to see, as tickets were sold out. It also backfired with the rental car and golf. Nothing major, but minor inconveniences. A little planning isn’t a bad idea.

We had crammed a lot into our six days, and we were heading home before we knew it. It was a great trip, made extra nice by the gorgeous weather and complimentary upgrade to our suites. My biggest disappointment? There was not one Elvis to be seen anywhere, and I had my eyes open all week. I guess it just gives me a reason to return!

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