2013 Travel Highlights: Vegas Edition

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‘Tis the season for many of us to look back on the year that was and look forward to the year coming up. 2013 was a unique year for me, in that I was able to travel to Las Vegas twice, allowing me twice as many experiences in my favorite city. Below is a list of my personal highlights from my July and October trips. (I’m trying to keep the word count down, so follow the links to my full reviews where applicable.)

Best Overheard Quote:

“The best adventures start with the phrase ‘Don’t tell Mom.’”

Best Sunrise:

I’m not a morning person, so I’m rarely ever awake for sunrise on vacation. But I woke up early on my first morning at Planet Hollywood and happened to look out the window and see this:



Sunrise from Planet Hollywood


It was worth it.

Best Breakfast:

I’ve got to give props to runners-up Bouchon Bistro (if I were judging by atmosphere alone, this place would have won), Morels (terrace dining for breakfast rocks!), and Ri Ra Irish Pub in Mandalay Place (listening to Irish music during breakfast = fun!). But the winner is: Pyramid Cafe, Luxor. I’m sure you’re as shocked as I was. I was blown away by the multitude of creative items on their breakfast menu. My favorite was the Strawberry Shortcake French Toast, made with lemon poppyseed cake dipped in custard and cooked French Toast style, then topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream with strawberry syrup on the side. YUM!


The Strawberry Shortcake French Toast

The Strawberry Shortcake French Toast at the Pyramid Cafe


Best Lunch:

El Sombrero Cafe. The food here is fine, but it wins mostly for the company, the atmosphere, and the fact that it’s the oldest Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas.

Best Brunch:

Border Grill. This place is now the barometer by which I will measure all Las Vegas brunches. Well done, people.

Best Dinner:

Fleur. I had a wonderful dinner in the bar area here before my show at the Mandalay Bay. Service was noteworthy and the food was the kind that you have to repress a groan over for fear of embarrassing yourself in public. Full review coming soon.

Best Bartop Dining:

Julian Serrano. My first experience here a couple of years ago left me a little disappointed (in the food, not the company), but this time more than made up for it. Everything I ordered was delicious, and the bartender was friendly and nice, too. More on this in a future blog post. Teaser photo:


Beef and Cheese

The Beef and Cheese at Julian Serrano


Best Buffet:

Bacchanal Buffet, Caesars. I went here for lunch one day with my friend Brian. I have to rank this one right up there with Wicked Spoon as my favorite buffet in town. Read Brian’s review of Bacchanal.

Best Drink:

Smoked Whiskey at Rx Boiler Room. Runners-up: The Fleurtini at Fleur, the Asian Pear Mojito at PF Changs, The White Sangria at Postrio, and hand-crafted cocktails at both the Chandelier Bar and Julian Serrano. Yes, I drank a lot on these trips.

Best Casino Experience:

Aria. I more than doubled my money one night on The Joker’s Heist slot machine (featuring Heath Ledger’s Joker from the Batman movies) and enjoyed good movie clips at the same time.



The Bellagio Conservatory’s fall display featured an Ent


Best Free Attraction:

For once, it wasn’t the Bellagio fountain show. This year, it was the Bellagio’s Fall Conservatory display. I loved the fantasy elements of it.

Best Not Free Attraction:

The 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic Exhibit at the Venetian. (Note: The exhibit ends its run January 13, 2014.)

Best Off-Strip Attraction:

This fall, I visited Springs Preserve for the first time and loved the desert setting, walking trails, and views of the Strip.


Springs Preserve

Springs Preserve


Best Photo Opps:

My friend Brian showed me some outstanding “secret” photo opp locations on the Strip this year, and I thank him for it. Don’t bother asking me where they are, because I’d never be able to find them again on my own. I also loved the photo opportunities at Bonnie Springs Old Nevada, the Neon Boneyard, the Bellagio Conservatory, and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I could go on and on. When it comes to photo opps, this year was an embarrassment of riches. I just can’t pick only one.

Best Show: It’s a Tie

Michael Jackson ONE, the Cirque du Soleil show at Mandalay Bay, is a wonderful tribute to the life and musical contributions of Michael Jackson. This multimedia show uses the music, voice, image, fashion and dance moves made famous by Jackson, and the visuals and choreography are a great backdrop to his best music. It’s a winner. I saw Rock ofAges aboard Norwegian Breakaway earlier in the year and liked it so much, I saw it again in Vegas. It features all the great ’80s hair band rock music I grew up listening to and still love. It’s a live-version Easter Egg of all things ’80s, with some very funny humor thrown in for good measure.


Palazzo Suite

The bedroom portion of my suite at the Palazzo.


Best Hotel:

The Palazzo. As a solo traveler, I don’t need a lot of space in a hotel room, but it’s nice to be able to spread out once in awhile–and in such luxurious style. Their suites make me feel richer than I am, which is a great way to feel on vacation.

Best Surprise:

Having heard lots and lots of negative reviews about the Luxor over the past several years, I braced myself for it to be a dump. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I loved my Tower room and the hotel overall. Even the far South Strip location didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. And I loved being so close to all the great restaurants at Mandalay Place and Mandalay Bay. (Full review of the Luxor to come soon!)

Best Shopping:

Unlike most women, I don’t enjoy shopping. But I love the Miracle Mile Shops because they’re more affordable than other Vegas resort malls. My favorite store is Crazy Shirts, which sells the Hawaiian brand clothing. I fell in love with their clothing on my 2012 trip to Honolulu and can’t pass by one of their stores without stopping to see what’s new.


Neon Boneyard

Binion’s Horseshoe sign at the Neon Boneyard


Best Tour:

Neon Boneyard. I thought I knew a lot about Las Vegas and its history, but I learned even more while learning about its old neon signs. I’ll be writing a full blog post on this in the coming months.

Best “Small World” Moment:

I was having breakfast at the bar at Ri Ra Irish Pub in Mandalay Place one morning. I mentioned to my bartender that there’s a Ri Ra where I live in Burlington, Vermont, too. He went out back and got his manager, Scott, who used to work at the Burlington Ri Ra. We had a good time reminiscing about Church Street and downtown Burlington.

Best Social Experience:

There are so many good ones from this year!

  • I spent a great night at the Mob Bar with a group of other Las Vegas bloggers sampling foods from the new Downtown Grand. I got to catch up with old friends and make new ones that night.
  • I was thrilled that my friends Tim and Michelle happened to be in town when I was in July and we got to catch up for a little while one morning.
  • My friend Brian spent hours playing tour guide on both trips, driving me around to off-Strip, out-of-the way locales I wouldn’t otherwise have had easy access to. (Thanks, Brian! You’re the best!)
  • During my October trip, I ate almost as many meals with my local (and visiting) Las Vegas friends as I did alone.

But naturally, the highlight of my Vegas social experiences this year was having such a wonderful group of Vegas fans show up for the Third Annual Vegas Solo Meetup in October. I heard a lot of great stories during those two hours. My face hurt afterwards from laughing so much. Thanks to Brian, Bryan, Delma, Pete, Scott, Tracey, and Troy for coming! You guys rock!


Vegas Solo Meetup

3rd Annual Vegas Solo Meetup (l-r) Troy, Brian, Pete, Gray, Bryan, Delma, Tracey. (Photo by Scott Roeben, not pictured)


Most Relaxing Experience:

My half-day at Canyon Ranch Spa reminded me why it’s so important to take the time to relax and pamper myself once in awhile. If I had died while in their Salt Grotto, I’d have died a happy person.

Most Fun Had:

The Las Vegas Richard Petty Ride Along Experience. I know, I know, I owe you guys a blog post about this, and I promise, I’m writing one soon. (If you absolutely can’t wait, you can read the short version I wrote for Viator; the one I post here will be much longer). I’m not an adrenaline junky, but I loved the adrenaline rush of zipping around a racetrack at 160mph. It was hands down the coolest, most adventurous thing I’ve ever done. (Disclaimer: Viator picked up the tab for my ride.)


Richard Petty Experience

Riding with Don at the Richard Petty Experience


Best Solo Travel Moment:

My best solo travel moment came out of what could have been my worst: When I realized at the Goretorium that guests were taken through the “haunted” hotel by party, I almost lost my nerve to go in. I did not want to go in alone, being both night blind and knowing there would be scary characters jumping out at me periodically. I shared my anxiety with the nice family in front of me (a mom and her four teens) and they “adopted” me to go through the attraction with them. Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers when I’m traveling solo. This was one of those times.



6 thoughts on “2013 Travel Highlights: Vegas Edition

  1. Hardware

    I’ll have to remember Springs Preserve next time I am in Vegas. I try to hit up an off-strip area each trip now that I rent a car during most of my trips. For Halloween our destination was Mt. Charleston. Fun drive. Past trips have included Valley of Fire, Red Rock Canyon and Rhyolite. That’s 2 hours of driving one way, but worth seeing once.

    My small world moment from a few years ago: This was before I made it a habit to rent a car. I was on a solo trip, staying at the Orleans. No rental car meant I took the shuttle bus to the strip. While waiting outside Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall for the shuttle back to Orleans I see a guy cutting across the street from the Bally’s area. He’s wearing a maroon shirt that appears to have a gold M on the chest, so I’m certain he’s a Minnesota visitor wearing a University of Minnesota shirt. As the guy got closer it turned out to be Judd, a former city council member in a city where I had covered the council for the community newspaper. He was no longer a council member, and no longer lived in that city, but I had run into him at the Minnesota State Fair once or twice in recent years, and I knew that he traveled to Vegas occasionally. So there we were, on a Tuesday night, both traveling solo, staying in different places yet crossing paths on a sidewalk because I was waiting for a shuttle bus. We talked for about 30 minutes before he made his way to dinner.

    That was a genuine small world moment.

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      That is a GREAT “small world” moment, Mike! I’d like to head up to Mt. Charleston sometime. It sounds like a beautiful area. I’ve never heard of Rhyolite! Will have to check it out.

  2. Nathan Davis

    I was glad to see you mentioned the Pyramid Café! I’ve never had a bad experience there, and have stayed at Luxor quite a few times. I’m looking forward to your review. I’ve really never had a bad experience there, and have stayed in both the tower and the pyramid. Oh, and your sunrise photo was absolutely beautiful!

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      Thanks, Nathan! That makes 2 of us who are fans of the Pyramid Cafe. My only complaint was that they don’t serve dinner, which really surprised me.

  3. Larry

    I challenge your “Best Free Attraction.” Though mine happens only once a year and is for those with rather narrow interests, I say it’s the Nellis air show. Doesn’t cost a penny, lasts two full days, and it’s a world-class event. I build my annual Vegas “big visit” around it, and it’s worth it.

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