Canada and USA 2016: Las Vegas

Vegas was our last stop of the trip, and to be honest a bit of a blur! We definitely found it true that time passes more quickly inside the hotels and casinos. Here is a list of our highlights:

Hotels

Our first two nights were at the Westin, a couple of minutes walk off the strip. We booked this to be on the same hotel as my sister who by coincidence overlapped our stay for a night. We weren’t sure how it would be staying in a “normal” hotel with a relatively small casino – would we miss out on the full vegas experience? Actually we really liked it, it was nice and quiet by the pool and we could be in amongst it within 5 minutes but escape the crazy when we needed to. If you’ve stayed at a Westin you’ll hopefully be familiar with their very comfortable bedding (you can even buy it to take home!) and I’m happy to report that the Westin Las Vegas is no different.

We booked the Palazzo for the last night. I’m glad we got to see what it was like and the room was undeniably awesome. To be honest though we spent so little time there and everything seemed to be extra – no tea or coffee in the room, you could use the gym not the spa, a bit mean with late check out and so on. It’s a great place if you’ve got a big budget and don’t mind fighting for a place by the pool, for us it was probably unnecessary on this trip.

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Food (mostly buffets)

Our first buffet was breakfast at the Wynn. It was pretty great. We had to queue for about 45 minutes (we arrived at 8.30) but it was all very efficiently managed. The hotel and the restaurant were beautiful and, as we were to later realise, it was reasonably priced at $24.99 plus tax. My favorite things were the breakfast pizzas, pierogi and scrambled egg but we also tried the sushi, pancakes, sausage, thai breakfast options and probably much more that I don’t remember! After plate 3 or 4 we went back for desserts which to be honest looked pretty but weren’t that great. It didn’t matter though, the existence overall was brilliant and we didn’t need to eat again until evening.

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Following on from that we decided our best food option for the next day was to check out another buffet. On reading reviews the Bellagio lunch buffet cane out pretty high. Had we gone here first I think our minds would have been blown, however after the wynn it felt much more canteen like. We also got stung by a $13 increase in price (to $37.99 plus tax) because of easter weekend which increased our expectations. No sign, just scribbled down on a little piece of note paper next to the cashier after we’d already queued (about 5 minutes at 11.30am so no biggy to be fair). To justify the amount paid we really went to town on this one with 5 plates each and felt terrible afterwards because of the volume of food. We ate a snack at 11pm that but but only because we thought we should not because we were really hungry. I would probably go again for lunch on a normal day as it was definitively with the normal price.

Show

We only saw one, Raiding the Rock Vault. It was enough, and awesome! The idea is that members of rock bands from the past come and sing an anthology of songs from rock history. The voices and instrumentals on display were of incredibly high quality and the songs had excellent singalong potential. The theatre itself was small so you can even see the fingers moving on the guitars and appreciate the skill of the player. We got tickets from the both opposite the Bellagio for $40 each which I consider good value.

Other activities

We shopped at the Fashion Show mall which was nice and quiet and well air conditioned. A good place for a morning away from the hustle and bustle.

The fountains outside the Bellagio were fun and free. The sequencing with the music is seriously impressive. They go off every half hour in the afternoon then I think every 15 minutes after 8.

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The volcano outside the Mirage is also free and an impressive spectacle. It goes off at 8 and 9 on weekdays, I think also at 10 on weekends. You can’t see much in the picture below but you can imagine the scale!

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The mall at Caeser’s palace is pretty cool and the first place we saw a ceiling painted like the sky. It also has an automated show based on the Joseph and the technicouloured dream coat story which is located at the back by the cheesecake factory. We couldn’t make out what it was saying but the visuals and music were fun anyway.

Following the canal inside the Venetian took up a whole morning, partly because we got lost and couldn’t get out! Well worth a visit, as with all the hotels the attention to detail in the design is amazing.

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The Eiffel tower at the Parisian is another amazing replica. Getting up close the amount of effort that must have gone into it is astounding.

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And finally, just walking down the strip blew my mind a little bit. Going away from the airport you’ll walk past New York New York and many others that will amaze you. We spent so much time just taking it all in.

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And finally

To get from the airport to the hotel we used the Belltrans shuttle which cost $7 each plus a couple of dollars tip for the driver. It was good, very prompt and our hotel was the send drop.

For the journey back to airport we’d clocked into Uber and got one fir $15 fit both of us. The Palazzo has a special pick up point for uber and similar so the whole thing was very straightforward.

A couple of tips:
-Starbucks is more expensive in the hotels. The one at the bottom of the Fashion Show mall has normal prices.
-There is wifi everywhere, including on the street. You won’t want for it.

Oh yes, I forgot the gambling!

I’m not a natural gambler as I can’t stand the feeling of losing money! I therefore was a far from ideal companion for Ben who gambled a bit but was limited by my lack of enthusiasm. The bit we did – a couple of shot machines and roulette was fun and the scale is huge so if you are a gambler I’m sure you will love it.

I really wanted to do a free lesson in craps or poker (offered by a few hotels including the Venetian in the morning) but we missed them in the flurry of activity that is checking in and out if hotels. I think they would be really fun.

So that’s it for this trip. I can’t wait for more adventures in the near future!

Canada and USA 2016: Whistler skiing

Our trip started when we landed in Vancouver late Friday evening. Getting out of the airport was an up and down experience. Immigration was super fast but baggage took ages and we waited 45 minutes in the rain for our airport hotel shuttle and another 15 in line for hotel check inn. We stayed at the Days Inn and while our room was very comfortable and service friendly, the long wait made it pretty stressful after a 10 hour flight. Next time we would take the sky train which has a station right outside the airport and another a 5 minute walk from the hotel. It costs about $2 each, much cheaper than the $20 we were quoted for a taxi!

Next morning we had our first success of the trip. After a 30 minute journey into town we hopped on the Epic Rides shuttle to Whistler. At $35 per person for a return trip this is around a quarter of the price of the airport shuttle and from what I’ve read doesn’t take much longer as it goes directly to Whistler without the airport pick ups made by the bus that goes direct from the airport. Service was friendly and we were in Whistler on time in around 1 hour 30 mins. Definitely recommended!

In Whistler we stayed at the Alpenglow. This was pretty much the only thing left when I booked but we were really pleased with it. For around £70 a night (for 2) we had a decent sized studio with kitchenette and an awesome view of the mountains. Not to mention it’s a 10 minute walk from the main transit up the mountain, has a built in yoga studio and is right next to several of the top rated restaurants in Whistler!

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Our first afternoon was spent picking up vouchers for our prebooked skiing lessons and getting fitted for rental gear. If you go I would definitely recommend doing this the night before as you get served really fast and can check your skis and poles into the the storage room by the gondola free of charge if you rent from a resort store.

We went for the 3 for 2 max4 lesson deal which gave us 3 days of lessons, lift pass and rental for around £250 each. Never having skied before we initially shuddered at this but having looked at other resorts since and based on our experience I can confidently say this was great value. Our instructors were really friendly and we made so much progress over the 3 days, heading straight out onto the slopes in our fourth day. We found the food and drink available on the mountain surprisingly affordable with a hot meal (decent portion) coming in between $10-$15 Canadian. Water is provided for free so no need to buy expensive bottles.

We chose to ski solo on our fourth day. If you do decide to add on a day lay minute, you can buy a ski pass online by automatically topping up your rfid card (given to you at the start of your trip and worn in a left hand pocket to automatically open lift gates) for $109 compared to $129 at the window. You can also secure online discounted prices for rentals up to the night before by calling the reservation line. You’re probably in for a slightly painful time on hold but it’s worth it given you have to book online 3 days before the get the discount.

We also went for the $20 add on for the Fresh Tracks breakfast which let’s you board the gondola from 7.15 and includes a breakfast buffet. This was so worth it. For only £10 each we got a substantial breakfast and the chance to enjoy the hoards. A piece of advice – we arrived at 7 thinking we’d have plenty of time and there were already I’d say about 400 people in front. Enough anyway that we didn’t board a gondola until 7.45! The deal is limited to the first 650 so make sure not to leave it too late.

In terms of weather we’re told we were lucky to avoid rain but we had a lovely mix of snow and sunshine. We never got cold fingers and toes (helped by the little hand and toe warmers you can buy for a couple of dollars in many stores) and were often a little too warm with our multiple layers. We feel like we were truly spoiled for our first ski holiday!

We obviously aren’t experts on the runs but from what we saw the variety and scenery would make Whistler well worth the trip for any level of skier. We repeatedly skied Pony Trail then decided to venture up to the peak. We’re glad we did as even the lift itself is quite an experience. We didn’t expect to accidentally end up on not one but two blues while doing so which was a great adrenaline rush but kind of terrifying for our novice skills!

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One more thing to mention about skiing in whistler. … everyone was so friendly, from the rental guys to the lifties, the waiters and the great chats with had while riding chair lifts. It made it an extra special experience from beginning to end.

What I’ve been eating lately

I’ve had a lot going on the last couple of weeks and its been lovely. Lots of catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while and finally sorting out some DIY tasks in my flat. Here’s a post summing up the foodie high points of the last few weeks:

Eating out

Benugo at the BFI

Unlike other Benugo’s which seem to all be sandwich shops, the one at lobby at the British Film Institute on the South Bank is a sit down, fine dining style restaurant. We ended up here during the tube strike a couple of weeks ago as it was halfway between all our stations. It ended up being a perfect place to catch up with friends – nice lighting, unintrusive service, interesting but well priced food and a good (but not overly noisy) atmosphere. I am definitely getting old but its rare in central London to find somewhere you can easily hear what everyone on the table is saying and this was one of those places. The only downside was the super laid back service – we were there for 3 hours which was fine for us as we had a lot to catch up on but would be painful if you’re in a rush.

Arancini Brothers, Old Street

We dropped in here after work as Ben is a big fan of arancini and I’d heard a lot about the branch in Kentish Town. It conspired that we were in the area so we came here for dinner. I had the chicken wrap which was really good, you get a selection of interesting salads plus arancini plus chicken and it is a delicious combination. I think it cost about £6 which was great value. Unfortunately they don’t have a loo (its more of a lunch place) so we had to eat pretty quickly then run to get to somewhere that did. I’m keen to head back at lunch/when we aren’t thinking of our bladders as much!

Talay Thai

We checked out this place on Streatham Hill for dinner last week and it was great. I had Pad Thai and Ben had Thai red curry, both of which compared well to the food we’ve had in Thailand. Service was friendly and very efficient, we were in and out within an hour! Definitely recommended if you’re in the area.

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The Bull

We love the Bull and have visited twice in the last couple of weeks. The first time was for a Sunday roast when my mum and Aunt visited, the second on Bank Holiday Monday with Ben’s family. On the first visit I had the delicious vegetarian wellington which was bursting with mushrooms, vegetables and goats cheese. The second visit I had a halloumi “salad” with friend potatoes and roasted red peppers. The food has been consistently good since the Bull opened and the service is great, we’ll keep going back for some time to come.

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Other things we’ve eaten

Green and black’s cheesecake brownie

We baked this in aid of Ben’s family coming round for afternoon tea. Its the first things I’ve baked in a while and it turned out really well. We’ve frozen a couple to break out next time we need a chocolate fix.

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Choux buns from POP Brixton

I visited Brixton’s new box park with a friend and on a whim picked up two beautiful choux buns to take home for me and Ben. They were the best things I’ve bought in ages and I’m going to try to recreate them soon! At £3 each or £5.50 for two I initially thought they were a little expensive but trust me they were worth it. The orange one is mango and passion fruit which was full of flavour without the passion fruit’s sharpness overpowering it. The other is pistachio and cherry which was my second favourite but still very nice. Unfortunately I didn’t get the name of the place I bought them and can’t find it on google! I will try to go back and write a favourite places in Brixton post in the near future.

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Toronto day 1: I love it here!

My hostel is Planet Traveller which is in the Kensington Market area of Toronto. I chose it based purely on its good reviews and inclusive breakfast, fully expecting it to be in a mangy area. Happily, it must definitely is not! To give a feeling for the area, it’s like they picked up all the most beautiful shops and the coolest restaurants in London, placed them next to each other in a roughly 30 minute walk maximum radius circle around the hostel, and cut about 40% off the price. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many things I wanted to eat and buy in such a small area. Here’s a taste of where I’ve been today.

Kensington market

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$10 (about £5.50) for a huge salad including a drink, taxes and tip. $10!!!!!! I can’t believe it!

China town

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General foodie awesomeness

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An all bacon burger! How has this not happened in England yet?!?

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Queen Street West

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So yes, my hostel is 3 times the price I paid in Nicaragua but I can walk everywhere, there’s plenty to do for free, the temperature is barable and the hostel not only includes breakfast until 1pm, the staff are super nice and they have new macs for guests to use!

So now I’m going back to actually enjoying sitting outside for the first time in 2 months and contemplating getting frozen yoghurt. Hasta luego!