Category Archives: Travel

A Bucket List Trip to Las Vegas

A busy evening on Las Vegas Blvd.

When it comes to Las Vegas, I am definitely no stranger. Despite the distance from Ottawa, I have been there enough times over the years that I seem to have lost count.

It’s not that I consider myself a big gambler. It’s quite the contrary. There are so many things to see and do, whether you like entertainment, food, shopping, sightseeing or just the dry warm weather, Las Vegas can appeal on so many levels.

Back in the early 2000’s I wrote a “Vegas Top 10” email that I kept in my drafts folder for whenever friends and colleagues asked what they should see on their visit. I guess you could consider that my first travel blog entry, before blogs became popular.

The challenge now is that after a decade’s absence, I suspected that my list was getting out of date and not worthy of posting, given the pace at which Las Vegas seems to reinvent itself and to update its attractions.

The opportunity to visit Las Vegas, and to potentially validate my Top 10 list, presented itself last fall as my partner and I decided to treat ourselves and to celebrate our birthdays with tickets to see Cher and Céline Dion in their residency shows.

We were fortunate that our late November travel dates are not considered high tourist season. We believe that this played in our favour as we got pretty good deals on the points required to fly, as well as for our “once-in-a-lifetime” bucket list stay at the Bellagio Hotel.

My new discovery when comparison shopping for hotels in Vegas, was something that I don’t recall from my last visits, an item called “Resort Fees”. Even though they offer a range of additional services to the hotel stay, they vary from one property to another, making an exact comparison a bit more challenging. By paying attention to the fine print of the resort fees in our shortlist of hotel options, I am convinced that we made a well-informed decision.

After a long travel day and a refreshing night’s sleep, we were greeted with open arms at our first breakfast at Café Bellagio by an outgoing server named Heidi. She made us laugh, she made us feel at home, and she made me feel like my gluten intolerance was no problem whatsoever for the serving staff nor for the kitchen staff. The service she provided was worthy of the name Bellagio. In my feedback to the hotel, I made the point that Heidi was the reason we ended up returning each morning.

A colourful fall display at the Conservatory in the Bellagio Hotel.

With our tummies very full from the hearty breakfast, our first day of sightseeing consisted of walking around the hotels south of the Bellagio, an area that had developed considerably in my ten year absence. We enjoyed a browse through the Cosmopolitan Hotel and we did some window shopping through The Shops at Crystals. We ran into some cheery fellow Canadians at the CVS pharmacy, who told us they loved Céline’s show despite her feeling a little under the weather.

We continued our stroll through the Monte Carlo to locate the venue for Cher’s concert later in the week, then stopped for refreshments at the Shake Shack as it was starting to get warm. We continued on to New York New York then zipped across the street to check out the MGM Grand and the Hard Rock, picking up some snacks to tide us over until dinner.

It was an incredible stroke of luck that we happened to be there in the middle of a heat wave. Where the average temperatures would have been typically in the low 60s (Fahrenheit), the afternoon highs reached the 80s each day, which made hanging out by the Bellagio pool so inviting, offering us one last taste of summery weather before heading into a cold and snowy Canadian winter.

We returned to Café Bellagio to check out their dinner offerings. While I am not usually one to pull out my phone at the table, when I finished my meal I did take a quick glance at my email. Maybe it was the Canadians we met at CVS that sparked my intuition, combined with a recent run of bad luck of concert cancellations due to illness. Then the bad news came: Céline had cancelled her show that night due to back issues… the day of John’s birthday. He was crushed! I was crushed because I had never seen Céline in concert yet (another bucket list item!)

The beautiful fountains in front of the Mirage Hotel.

Given that we have both dealt with back issues, we understood… reluctantly… but we understood. So we paid the bill, dusted ourselves off and dashed to a ticket booth to see what other shows were available as a last minute substitute to try to salvage the spirit of this milestone birthday.

He chose Cirque Du Soleil’s “O”. What a great choice! As my first Cirque du Soleil show, what an amazing introduction. “O” opened my eyes to the idea that Cirque du Soleil is not like the circuses that came to town when I was a kid. It’s theatre, it’s great music, it’s art, it’s dance, it’s acrobatics, it’s comedy and it’s mind blowing. I even admit to shedding a couple of tears from the sheer beauty of the entire experience. I was instantly transformed from someone with an aversion to circuses to a Cirque du Soleil goodwill ambassador.

Following another generous breakfast at Café Bellagio, our second day focused on Centre strip, as we explored the sights around Caesar’s Palace, Mirage, Treasure Island and the Venetian at a leisurely pace. In the afternoon we took another dip in the pool to cool off.

What we hadn’t anticipated was that because it was Thanksgiving, several of the sights on our list, like the Neon museum, were closed. When does Vegas ever close? But we made the best of it.

For John’s special birthday dinner, we enjoyed a delicious meal at the Gordon Ramsay Pub and Grill in Caesar’s Palace. We followed it up by taking back to our room some scrumptious selections from the Cheesecake Factory, also conveniently located in Caesar’s Palace.

Our third day started with another huge breakfast at Café Bellagio and the indecision as to whether a visit to the Fashion Show Mall on Black Friday was a good idea. We decided to check it out anyway with the agreement to a “safe word” which meant it was time to leave. Strategically, it worked out nicely to be there soon after it opened and to not spend more than a couple of hours as it did indeed get quite busy. Nonetheless, we each found a few items to challenge our packing skills for the return trip home.

Cher making a big entrance at her concert.

It was a bittersweet moment to take our last dip in the pool that afternoon, knowing that this was the last warm weather we’d see for six months. We savoured every last moment, to the point of almost needing a crowbar to pry me away from the railing around the pool area, but I knew what awaited later.

We enjoyed a most delightful prix-fixe dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s Cucina in The Shops at Crystals. We agreed that the serving staff was top notch, striking a perfect balance between professional and perfectly choreographed, while still allowing a relaxed vibe to prevail. We would recommend Cucina in a heartbeat!

For our last evening, we were back at the Monte Carlo to see Cher’s show. Even though we had both seen Cher in concert before, we just can’t get enough. A Cher concert is the real deal offering wonderful music spanning 6 decades, beautiful costumes, great dancers, a stunning set that’s ever changing, and a bona fide living legend in the centre of it all. We loved every second. We will be seeing her again, I’m certain of it, whether in Vegas or on her next farewell tour.

In a few short days, it seemed that we crammed in a lot of activity, yet we were still able to enjoy it at a fairly leisurely pace and see so many different things.

In previous visits, I have seen hilarious comedy shows, amazing live music, the best lounge acts, and beloved Broadway shows. I’ve been in a parade float, I’ve been to the top of the Stratosphere, I’ve gone up the Eiffel Tower and I’ve shopped ‘til I dropped.

And that’s the beauty of Las Vegas. You can visit several times and still come up with different itineraries each and every time.

I’ll be back!

A winning combination at the slot machines!

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Sincere thanks for reading!
Have a great day,
André

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You Know It Was a Good Vacation When…

Isn’t it wonderful when you have enjoyed your vacation time to its fullest and completely immersed yourself in activities that were so far removed from your day-to-day routine… to the point of forgetting the details of your day-to-day routine?

That being the case, you know it was a good vacation when…

Ice Bar, Stockholm, 2005

You have a hard time falling asleep on cue, to wake up in time for the return to your regular morning routine.

You wake up with muscle or joint stiffness but no recollection of what could have caused it.

The prospect of wearing long pants again makes you cringe.

The prospect of preparing a lunch-to-go makes you cringe even more.

You overshoot your morning routine prep time by half an hour.

Even your pets are seemingly sad to see you go back to the regular routine.

You’re not freaked out by the guy who cuts you off in traffic on your first morning commute. Continue reading

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How I Became a Fan of the Eurovision Song Contest

The first time I heard about the Eurovision Song Contest was in the late 1970’s when I read an article about my favourite musical group, ABBA. The article credited ABBA’s meteoric rise to international stardom to the Eurovision Song Contest and their 1974 win with the song “Waterloo”.

For this young Canadian, even though I had no idea what Eurovision was, it sounded like a big event! I knew just enough about world geography to know that if a music competition involved a whole continent, it must have been something special.

In the years that followed, and the many hours spent listening to MuchMusic, Eurovision came up a few times, whether in the “Rock News” reports or when the VJ’s (“Video Jockeys”) were presenting a video and providing some background into the song and the artist. I remained intrigued.

In 2002, I was finding myself a little bored with mainstream radio here in North America and found myself searching for other musical options. At the same time, I had changed cable packages and was introduced to “BPM TV”, a new music video channel focused on dance tunes from around the globe.

Over the course of BPM’s programming, I was introduced to the Swedish pop band Alcazar. With their very catchy pop-dance tunes, bright upbeat tempo, and amazing sense of style, glamour and showmanship, they quickly became my favourite band! They still are today!

In the process of getting to know Alcazar better through online research, the theme of Eurovision popped up again. Alcazar competed in 2003 with a song called “Not a Sinner nor a Saint”, in a competition called Melodifestivalen, Sweden’s national competition to pick a song to represent the country at Eurovision. This was where the journey began! Continue reading

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How I Became a New Fan of Wine

wine-bottlesWhen it comes to wine, you could say I was a late bloomer… a very late bloomer. But better late than never, I guess.

My first few tries of wine involved painfully dry white wines that seemingly stung my taste buds. I don’t know whether it was my taste buds that weren’t used to wine yet and I couldn’t appreciate it, but because I did not have any other points of reference, I thought all wines were like that. As a result, I generally stayed away and explored other libations.

It was around age 35 that I had my first sip of a wine that made my eyes light up and brought a smile to my face. It was an epiphany in a stemmed glass!

I wish I could remember the name of the wine to thank the winery, but it turned out to be something a little more middle-of-the-road in terms of sweet-dry balance. It was a nice, light, fruity wine with floral and citrus notes that delicately danced across the taste buds, like a gentle cooling breeze on a warm summer day. It was a pivotal moment that put me back on the path of exploring the wonderful world of wines.

In those first months, I had no idea what I was looking for. Initially, I picked up wines from brands I had heard of through word of mouth. It did not take long for me to alter that strategy upon realizing that I must have been the oddball among a collective of dry wine aficionados.

Then I started reading recommendations from reviewers and picking a few that appealed by their descriptions, suggesting notes of “black cherry” and “chocolate”. If I liked these flavours on their own, why not in my wine? They were quite good, but along the way I discovered that robust red wines made me very sleepy. As Archie Bunker once said in “All in the Family”, they were like “a blanket in a bottle”. It’s hard to become a wine connoisseur when you’re yawning at 30 second intervals and stealing the toothpicks from the cheese cubes to prop your eyelids up. Continue reading

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The Rewards of Vending Machines

vending-machinesOn a recent visit to the mall, I noticed a little girl was carefully perusing the contents of the row of gum ball and toy vending machines, with the same intensity I demonstrated when I was shopping for new appliances. She was contorting herself around the machines, checking out all of the contents and trying to predict which items were to come out next.

I understood that this was a major purchase and she was looking for the best value for her hard earned allowance money. That was me 40+ years ago!

After much scrutiny and analysis, she pointed to a machine, put in her coin, turned the crank, opened the plastic bubble and voilà! Pure joy and a huge smile! I could only assume that she got what she was looking for as she was visibly delighted with her prize.

I was reminded of my own childhood and my borderline addiction to those machines. I remember my sock drawer was proudly filled with little gum-ball-machine toys I had collected from trips to the grocery store or the department store.

I don’t think my experience was all that unusual though. With those machines at eye level for a kid, it was so easy to beg parents and relatives for coins, to get something I “positively need, and promise I won’t ask for anything again”… until the next visit.

But what is it about those machines that ignites our curiosity? If common sense prevails, one would think that being able to hold, feel and inspect a product up close to make an informed decision would the more balanced way to go. However the separation of human and product by a plastic window seems to appeal to our sense of adventure.

Or is it because we have become the product of our own life-long Pavlovian experiment since a very young age: put in a coin, get a treat? Continue reading

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The Burger Race

hamburger-and-french-friesAs a sequel to my post “Ten Years Gluten Free“, as much as it took solid organization skills and a spirit of adventure to continuously try new recipes, I think I adapted pretty well with my gluten intolerance. Through batch cooking and chasing after sales on roast chickens, I have been able to keep my freezer well-stocked with home-made meals that I can enjoy at home and at the office.

Also, over that decade, restaurants have come a long way too, several of which are getting better and better at tasty gluten-free offerings and in ensuring safety in the careful preparation of meals.

I am surprised that with the prevalence of the gluten-free diet, even among people who are not intolerant, fast food outlets have not been in a race to see who can offer gluten-free bread or buns to welcome a new segment of the audience.

For me, fast food restaurants have been regarded as an occasional treat for a fast meal on the run. In the cases where I had an insatiable burger fix but was short on time, I have been known to buy burger and fries at a fast food outlet, come home, throw out the bun, toast a couple of slices of gluten free bread, and meticulously reassemble the ingredients with the same attention to detail as an IKEA furniture assembly project. Continue reading

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Would I Come Back As a Contractor?

Revolving DoorAs the countdown to retirement marches on, surprisingly, the question of whether I would consider coming back as a contract employee comes up at least once per month. The question always makes me smile.

Given that retirement for me is still a few years away, I find the best answer to the contracting question is something along the lines of “Thanks for the vote of confidence! We’ll see when the time comes.”

First and foremost, I take it as an amazing compliment. I know I worked very hard to build a solid career based on quality work, strong ethics, working well with colleagues and maintaining a positive attitude. To me, the contractor question is one that fills me with validation and gratitude.

Over the years I have seen many of my colleagues retire and then come back a few years later for short contracts, sharing their vast corporate knowledge and expertise. It is always a pleasant surprise to see their smiling faces and renewed energy at meetings. Parenthetically, I wish they would stop looking so darn refreshed after a few years away from the office. It makes me very envious!

However, I think it is very natural to dream and fantasize about a time when I can truly reap the rewards of a retirement that I worked a lifetime to build. I look forward to the sense of complete freedom where going to bed promptly, getting up with the alarm, dealing with traffic, and commuting in heavy snow or freezing rain become optional. I look forward to having choices I can make, purely in the moment.

To me, my first priority when I decide it is time to retire is to do just that: enjoy the fruits of my labour: Continue reading

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